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Failed Artist Utopias: "Don't Quit Your Day Job" Moments in History


Failed Artist Utopias: "Don't Quit Your Day Job" Moments in History
Rajneeshee Ceremony via Allthatsinteresting

So, I don’t know if you’ve been reading the news, or talking to other human beings, but in case you haven’t heard, the world kind of... sucks right now. War, structural iniquity, Fascism, objectively ugly Balenciaga sneakers... the center truly cannot hold, folks. Here’s a plot twist, though—depending on who you talk to, the world has always sucked, at least for the most part. There weren’t cell phones or dentists for so long, you guys, and all the institutional bias and on-purpose culottes that plague society to this day have existed at the foundation of collective human experience since time immemorial.

In eras of uncertainty, artists and intellectuals have historically used their practices to affirm themselves, their communities, and their faith in the power of aesthetics to enact change, or at least reflect the felt, lived experience of their respective milieus. In the same way horses aren’t super great astronauts, however, artists don’t always have the most seamless relationship to pragmatics, and when it comes to planning alternatives to the world order at hand, they’re occasionally prone to delusions of grandeur. Plus, it might sound like a bummer, but where people live, utopia necessarily cannot thrive. Not everybody abides by that edict, though.

“Artist societies” built on the hope for a perfect world are doomed to fail, of course, but that doesn’t stop schadenfreude from tasting particularly delicious, even decades or centuries abstracted from its original precedent. None of this is to say that artists shouldn’t make the kind of policy shifts they wish to see in the world, far from it, but perhaps, uh, cults aren’t always the wave, right? In this particular romp through bad, bad choices of yesterday and today, we will do a deep dive on three very different moments in “stop while you’re ahead” art history.  


An aerial view of Fruitlands via Artscope Magazine

If you were a Boston kid, at some point your school likely dragged you and your classmates to idyllic Harvard, Massachusetts on a sweaty tour of the Fruitlands Museum, a beautiful historic landmark dedicated to Native American, Shaker, and Hudson River School artifacts. You might think there’s nothing more quintessentially “New England” than getting lectured about chair-joints in the woods by a series of crunchy, disgruntled college students. I’ll do you one better, though—Fruitlands was actually founded by Louisa May Alcott’s dad (yup, like Little Women) as an alternative agrarian commune based on Emerson’s Transcendentalist ideals and their intersection with Alcott’s own philosophical “Non-Resistance” strategies. With the help of British follower Charles Lane, Amos Bronson Alcott, along with 14 other residents consisting primarily of children, writers, would-be philosophers and you guessed it, artists, undertook a doomed and notoriously ill-advised journey towards... salvation? Starvation? Something like that.


Alcott was a renowned abolitionist, educator and early anti-capitalist; he struck up a deal with Lane to purchase 90 acres in May of 1843 for a sum of about $1,800. Still, Alcott refused to recognize the exchange as property ownership; one of his many philosophical principles involved a communal relationship to land, aligning with the Emersonian conception of God as an omnipresent “world spirit” rather than a Biblical master. Despite the presence of only ten apple trees, he named the plot “Fruitlands,” and instated a variety of rules that, on the surface, seemed like welcome changes from the rapidly industrializing proto-Civil War landscape residents inhabited; abstinence from meat, dairy, sex, and the American trade economy, for instance.

Alcott and Lane also refused hired farm help, instead proposing a model of total self-sufficiency. There was no coffee at Fruitlands, and while the collective’s vegan lifestyle seemed above board, Alcott’s distaste for the “lower nature” of vegetables and fruits that grew downwards, you know, towards Hell, rendered the fruit-and-water diet du jour a little... lacking, for some. Since animals were “unenlightened” and unclean, ploughing the land was expected to take place sans oxes or cows, although Alcott eventually caved and got one of each as winter approached. Still, the majority of farming was expected to be executed by hand, and, well, philosopher-poets don’t love field work, it turns out. The men who founded Fruitlands spent most of their time inside bloviating to each other, and significantly less of their energies growing food for their participants. Ralph Waldo Emerson famously visited the farm a month in, declaring, “I will not prejudge them successful. They look well in July. We will see them in December.”

 Amos Bronson Alcott via Wikipedia 

The project only lasted seven months total. So many self-imposed obstacles were stacked against the Fruitlands team, from their arrival eight weeks behind the farming calendar to the commune’s tendency to hemorrhage members (one woman was kicked out for eating a piece of fish, another left to go start a nudist colony, a third eventually ran away because, well, he was an escapee from an asylum nearby). While much of the Fruitlands reform-based, ascetic lifestyle was modeled after Alcott’s obsession with the Shaker communities bordering their commune, he seemed to miss a key point; while Shakers did own property communally, they sidestepped a close-circuit approach by selling their wares at open markets (they were also allowed to drink tea, but that’s neither here nor there). Eventually, Alcott and Lane had to call it quits, largely because everyone, including Alcott’s own wife and kids, jumped the proverbial ship. Ralph Waldo Emerson stepped in, helped the penniless, distraught Alcott purchase a home in Concord, and effectively put any more dreams of “the consociate family” to bed.



Osho drive-by via Wikipedia 

Shout-out to Netflix for introducing planet earth to the orange-swathed Ranjeeshee cult via binge-worthy documentary Wild, Wild Country in 2018. Many of us were not previously aware that an orgiastic meditative intentional community attempted to take over an entire American town in 1980 at the behest of a bearded Indian leader with two private jets and nine Rolls Royces. Even fewer of us knew that several of his followers were arrested for attempted murder following the United States’ first recorded bio-terror attack deployed to influence the outcome of a local election via injected salmonella at a salad bar. Yes, you read that correctly. Truly, the Rajneeshee tale has more twists and turns than an Oregonian backroad, so here are the broad strokes:

 Rajneeshpuram under construction via 99% invisible 

Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, a professor at Jabalpur University in India, began to promote his free love, pro-capitalist, civil libertarian philosophy in the late '50s to mounting success; by 1964, a group of wealthy followers had bequeathed him a large educational trust to fund his retreats. In 1966, amidst Hinduist pushback, the university forced him to resign, leading him to further develop into his role as a spiritual teacher. By 1972, he had initiated almost four thousand “sannyasins” in India and a growing number world-wide. After securing space for an ashram in Poona two years later, Rajneesh, or Osho, was up and running. By the time he was effectively driven out of his home country, there were an estimated 100,000 sanyasins in his ranks.

In 1981, Osho, who was notorious for wearing flashy watches, diamond-encrusted jewelry, and refering to himself as “the rich man’s journal,” convinced his acolytes to buy a property called Big Muddy Ranch in central Oregon, which transformed into the theocratic city of Rajneeshpuram over the course of three years, complete with an unsanctioned casino, police departments, malls, and the third largest public transport system in the state of Oregon. Unfortunately, the Ranjeeshees struggled to keep their chill, and ended up engaging in some notably questionable behavior after the neighboring townsfolk started asking questions, albeit annoying ones. When the Attorney General issued an opinion in 1983 that the city of Rajneeshpuram violated the constitutional separation of church and state, the Rajneeshees responded by taking control of the county government, which involved recruiting thousands of homeless people to vote on their behalf through a residency law loophole, carrying out the single largest bioterrorist attack in U.S. history via orchestrated salmonella outbreak that poisoned 751 people, and accruing at least a million rounds of AK-47 ammunition. They also might have, uh, burned down a government building? And murdered two people? It got weird. Osho tried to flee the country in a private jet, and after that... well, bankruptcy, happened.


Unlike the folks at Fruitlands, the Rajneeshees suffered no lack of motivation, numbers, or expertise. In fact, the movement thrived on the dollars and elbow grease of skilled, educated participants, counting lawyers, architects, city planners, and mathematicians in its ranks. Artists and critics, for understandable reasons, were especially attracted to the Rajneeshee lifestyle, including noted color painter Mark Rankin and art-based philosopher Pieter Sloterdeijk. Osho’s daughter is also a respected painter, which is... weird? Regardless, the lesson here seems to be that next time a man in a robe starts spilling details about his Oregon compound, we all collectively ask some questions first.


 Inside shot of Satya Yuga Collective via Amplify 

As we speak, the criminal trial of Derick Almena and Max Harris, each of whom is charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter in connection to a 2016 Oakland, California warehouse fire that lead to the death of 36 people, is well underway, despite the untimely death of a key witness and a glaring lack of physical evidence. The warehouse in question, which would become notorious art collective the Ghost Ship, or Satya Yuga, was leased in 2013 by artist and former concert promoter Derick Almena, a handsome, fedora-wearing spiritualist whose dreams of an underground visual and musical artistic family, coupled with his maximalist taste for interior decor, inspired him to sublet cheap studio space to financially displaced artists without providing the requisite zoning safety precautions.

Almena, so obsessed with the collective that he famously missed his brother’s funeral to perform repairs, was also known for his fits of rage; he might rip down a member’s studio walls if he or she refused to conform to his aesthetic, for instance, and his treatment of right-hand man Max Harris, whom he expected to execute endless projects at all hours of night, was severe enough that some members framed their relationship in 'Stockholm Syndrome' terms. In his increasingly draconian group meetings, Almena ruled Satya Yuga with an iron fist to the distraction of everything else; CPS even took away his three children for a time.

When the December night of an underground party-cum-concert at the Ghost Ship turned into the largest civic fire disaster in the United States since 2003, Almena turned into public enemy number one, but the tragedy spoke less to personal negligence or even criminal sociopathy (a search for Molotov cocktail residue turned up nothing of value), than a miserable confluence of faulty structural factors. The Pacific Gas and Electric company was named a defendant in the 2017 lawsuit filed by victim’s families, as was the City of Oakland. Oakland’s housing crisis found itself writ large in the narrative of the incident, as it became increasingly clear to police and litigators that few spaces existed anywhere in the Bay that were both affordable and up-to-code. The live-in, work-in ramshackle environment of the Ghost Ship reflected not only Almena’s hubris, but the failure of the city itself to slow gentrification and invest in its long-time, native residents.

Fire fighters address disaster via LA Times

Harris and Almena were charged together, which is currently working out less than well for Harris, whose seemingly honest, thoughtful contrition pales in memory to Almena’s bizarre, non-conciliatory rants and raves about all he has lost. Victim’s families remain angry that neither the City of Oakland nor the warehouse landlords were cited as defendants in the trial. The Oakland fire department was so strapped for cash that no fire marshal was hired to the team between 2011 and 2015, effectively ensuring that building code regulations were necessarily going to go slack. What was founded as an escape from a modern world unconcerned with the needs of creatives ultimately turned its back on the very people it swore to protect, leaving parents, friends, and loved ones bobbing in the wake of an unsure future.

Photo of Derick Almena via NBC news 

In each of these three, seemingly unrelated lapses in creative judgment, there seems to lie a central lesson. Creatives cannot change a broken world by forging a new one alongside—escapism is not the route to transformation. Instead, we have to take responsibility for the society we have already built, and work within the confines of its flaws to better serve our larger artistic goals. 

(Also, don't listen to men in funny hats.) 



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