Washington in the 1970s: Art and politics

Sam Smith – In the 1970s, art in Washington was more than just something you used to decorate the walls of big law firms. It was central to the city’s culture and politics. Among its practitioners was Gaston Neal, dubbed “the most important unpublished poet in America,” by Amiri Baraka. Neal was an activist as well as a poet. Once he gathered a score of his friends and stormed the fusty citadel of the Corcoran Art Gallery while it was giving a large, formal fundraising dinner. “Who will feed the people?” they loudly demanded to the distress of the museum’s staff and guests. Walter Hopps, the director and no mean cultural influence himself, figured he could answer at least part of the question by at least feeding Gaston and his friends, so he asked for donations and sent the protesters off with $450 to celebrate what was perhaps the only profitable demonstration in history.

Then there was Topper Carew, later a nationally known filmmaker, who ran an operation known as the New Thing Art & Architecture Center. Annoyed by a Washington Post critic that had compared his work unfavorably to that of “wild Indians,” Carew marched into the city room of the Washington Post — the city was still permitted there in those days — marched to the offending critic’s desk, cleaned it off, placed the trash can on top, mounted the desk, lit the contents of the trash can, and performed a mock tribal dance around the container.

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