“Finding a Voice”—a version of the familiar feminist call to “Find Your Voice”—makes me wonder whose voice was, at least ideally, to be found. I don’t think it could have ben the voice of this group of young men, whom the exhibit calls “disenchanted middle-class youth.” That class distinction added to the power they would claim as a gender as they grew up makes it seem that “A voice” would probably be, or become, the familiar voice of white male privilege.
This raised, for me, the question of how these groups were funded; in the case of New Buffalo, a small family inheritance was used to buy the land. I wonder to what degree families supported this mission or work in the surrounding communities provided income. It seems unlikely that barter could have covered all the expenses.
At the exhibit yesterday morning, I searched for images of the women involved in setting up and running the communes here—New Buffalo, Hog Farm, The Lama Foundation—and I listened to Lisa Las’s commentary. She was very much a part of those times. Then I looked through her book of photographs, Flashing on the Sixties, which begins, “These photographs are nostalgia, pure and simple, memories of a moment of Divine Funk.” And perhaps that is the way this show, and the communes, should be regarded.
But there is a good deal going on behind these photos of naked men building adobe walls, playing sitars, and posing outside of shacks with women and babies.
First, the question of class. If any of these disenchanted youth had seen—or lived in—the shacks of the dust bowl or Appalachian mining towns, would they have felt the enthusiasm they seem, from these photos, to have felt about returning to those roots?
Is this a fair question? Perhaps not. But it seems certain that if the communes had drawn from less-advantaged groups, the drawbacks of living in poverty might have been figured in their plans.
If any of the women had done the heavy labor of immigrant grandmothers in the big cities, hauling water, emptying chamber pots, cooking on wood stoves, would they have been willing to submit to the same endless toil inside the context of standard gender relationships that gave them little voice in how their communes were run? Of course it is impossible to know at this distance what the construct of relationships was, and it certainly varied from couple to couple. But the photographs show men building adobe walls and women taking café of babies, which is pretty standard. It seems to me that to be counter-culture means questioning the gender roles the culture supports.
There is evidence in the photographs and text of powerful relationships with the elders of the nearby Native American communities. Evidence of links to the nearby Hispanic communities is scarce. As far as I could see, there were no African-American participants. The voices of black women, crucial to the Civil Rights movement of the same period, would not have been easily absorbed into the old stand-behind-your man of conventional white society. Are these questions that in this day when we so badly need idealism cannot be asked?
And that idealism is endearing, especially now, even if it wasn’t articulated beyond the crying need for something new, something to contrast to the smothering and crippling of the fifties.
The photos of women that I found in the show fell into four categories: there was the Angel, a blond beauty with flowing hair and garments; the anonymous Earth Mother, her face hidden by flowing hair; the Naked Pregnant Girl, posing proudly in front of her man; and the Nursing Mother, also nameless, her face invisible behind her long hair.
Perhaps most telling, though, was the portrait of a seated couple with a young man leaning against the woman’s knees while she braces his bare shoulders with both hands. It seems to me almost inevitable that these attempts to live off the grid could never have survived for more than a few days without the labor, and even more important, the emotional and spiritual support of the women, the wives and girlfriends who encouraged, cleaned and cooked and took care of the babies. And there is honor in that.
The exhibit attempts to link the people of the communes with the anti-Vietnam protests, but when it comes to the question of whether these able-bodied young white men served, I saw only a display of a Vietnam War era uniform—which might have been worn by veterans returning from Vietnam to live off the land.
There seems to have been an absence not only of a central moral vision but of the feminine in its specific and inspirational form. The Lama Foundation introduced the idea of the Divine Feminine—represented by an idealized naked woman—as the same time it forbid the taking of drugs. Hard drugs, introduced by the Diggers, had already changed the nature of the commune enterprise. We all live in the aftermath.
Either way, a movement that like all movements depends on the cooperation, labor, and spiritual and emotional support of women, with little acknowledgment of our leadership will create some version of Mike Cernovich’s first book, Gorilla Mindset: Timeless Strategies to Release the Gorilla Within You.
Said Gorilla would surely enjoy the rapturous blond girl, naked behind a big armload of pot plants, who introduces this complex and bewildering collection of photographs.
This girl would be middle-aged now and probably long since gone from this impoverished state. She would hardly feel responsible for the deep division that now separates our three communities, white, Hispanic and Native American.
For the bitterness the communards left behind in little towns like Taos and Placidas has never gone away. Unlike the 1920’s, when Mabel Dodge Luhan forged alliances depending on respect between East Coast artists and Taos Pueblo, the communards were seen by some as lacking in understanding of the local people on whom their survival often depended. Traditional Hispanics, church-goers, believers in tradition, sometimes came to see the communards as long-haired, smelly and ragged newcomers who panhandled, lived off food stamps, and occasionally shoplifted.
Perhaps this was only the age-old resistance to the newcomer, the Other—especially when he wore ragged clothes and long hair.
A dear friend of mine whose grandfather was a construction worker in Taos during this period tells a story of finding his parked truck stripped of all his tools, essential for his work and which he could not afford to replace. He’d stamped the handles with his name, and when the tattered young men brought the haul to the gas station, hoping to sell them, the attendant, who knew who the tools belonged to, called Grandfather before calling the police.
Grandfather arrived and asked the crestfallen young men why they’d robbed him. They told him they desperately needed cash to buy bus tickets out of there.
He took them to the bus station and bought them tickets, which he couldn’t afford. In one graceful move, he exercised forgiveness and foresightedness, ridding Taos of wanderers the inhabitants couldn’t afford.
But this man was exceptional. For most of his neighbors and friends, memory of the communes is sharp and sour. We have yet to sweeten it.
Perhaps nostalgia extracts a price in consciousness. Perhaps we really can’t afford it anymore.
[This piece was revised on May 24, 2017.]