Art

The Underground Press and Its Extraordinary Moment in US History

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Cover of ‘RAT’ issue “Strike!” May 8–21 (all images courtesy Printed Matter)

What if the history of an era were stocked away in an attic, waiting for our attention? Stefan Brecht (1924–2009), son of Bertolt Brecht, kept just such an attic. He had a doctorate in philosophy and was an experimental theater performer, champion of radical culture, and avid collector of underground newspapers. Printed Matter is now displaying and selling 400 papers from Brecht’s trove. Realize Your Desires: Underground Press from the Library of Stefan Brecht offers for sale papers that range in price from $20 to $1,500, and in date from the mid-1960s to the early ’70s. Together, they characterize a pivotal and extraordinary moment in US history and the history of the newspaper.

The flourishing of the “underground press” came about largely through a 1966 Supreme Court decision that broadly defended freedom of the press. The Underground Press Syndicate (UPS), the overriding body of the underground press, began in 1966 with a humble assembly of five newspapers: the East Village Other (NYC), the Los Angeles Free Press, the Berkeley Barb, the Fifth Estate (Detroit), and The Paper (Michigan). Only six years later, Tom Forcade, leader of the UPS, claimed 300 papers and 20 million readers.

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Installation view of ‘Realize Your Desires: Underground Press from the Library of Stefan Brecht’ at Printed Matter

The radical newspapers of the late ’60s weren’t entirely new: antecedents abound, from the underground correspondence of the American Revolution to the abolitionist newspapers of the 19th century to the workers’ papers of the 1920s and ’30s. The Village Voice had already been around since 1955, playing a role of alternative media. Even the activism of the underground presses was familiar; whether looking to 19th-century examples like William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator or socialist rags of the early 20th century, like the New York Call. In a tradition of American dissent, the underground press didn’t just report the news, it made the news.

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‘The East Village Other,’ Vol. 4, No. 6, January 10, 1969

But if the underground press was in part an inherited tradition, it was also distinct. The mechanical process of printing a newspaper had become more accessible than ever, allowing for smaller operations that compromised little or nothing of their agendas. And lifestyle, to underground press, was as important as the news itself; the pioneer spirit was here applied to alternative economic and social models. And finally, the underground press was self-conscious; the newspapers of the counter culture were a mockery of mainstream newspapers, as if to say, ‘You want biased, propagandistic news? OK then, that’s what we’re going to give you.’ The Los Angeles Free Press, only slightly less mainstream than the Village Voice, ran such headlines as “Social Security for Vampires” (December 15–22, 1967).

The topics taken up by the papers weren’t all too different from the papers of the day, but they were more lurid, more naked, and with a different perspective on what was crime or gossip. The tighter publications allowed for more local coverage, not just geographically, but categorically: sex, drugs, race, and music. Vietnam, as can be gleaned by the ambit of the exhibition, provided a unifying point of origin, but as the underground press in the early 1970s lost some of its freedoms — re-regulated by federal government — and US forces backed out of Vietnam, the mission of the underground evolved. The underground press increasingly sought specific audiences with specific agendas, be it feminism, black power, sexual revolution, or psychedelia.

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‘The New York Review of Sex’ (click to enlarge)

The underground press, insane and livid in color and opinion, withered as quickly as it flowered. To a contemporary eye, Realize Your Desires is still somehow about potential, about learning from the past, and remaking it, whether through memory and preservation, or action and challenge. To some degree, the underground press subsisted in the zines and underground comix of the ‘70s, much as the pulp magazines, destroyed by government censorship in the mid-50s had persisted in the graphic, salacious, and provocative ravings of the ‘60s underground press. Arguably, Warhol-ish incarnations like Interview magazine would also perpetuate the making of gossip, the making of alternative celebrity. But what we would lose, what was most important, was the balance of lifestyle and activism that questioned, and in a very real way, remade what it was to be an American.

That this history is, if not lost, piecemeal and happenstance, connotes the great failing of historical descendants; we do not even remember enough to know what we’ve forgotten. The digital recovery has been slow, a crowd-sourced scanning operation driven singularly by what people were motivated to preserve. Collectability was a factor, but the engine of history was interest, passion, zealotry. And for the underground press, the election is up to us, and the election is now. Preserve what you will. Drop your twenties on an issue of RAT, or the Black Panther, or The New York Review of Sex, or The East Village Other, and remember what you will.

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‘RAT,’ June 26–July 10

Realize Your Desires: Underground Press from the Library of Stefan Brecht continues at Printed Matter (231 Eleventh Ave, Chelsea, Manhattan) through July 31. 

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