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The Social Life of Artistic Property

The Sullivan Institute: The Fate of Art in the Structured Society

Pablo Helguera


In social environments where the arts have a presence, the idea of building a supportive community is often regarded as a key factor. It is difficult, if not impossible, to conceive of a context where creative or artistic production and thinking would emerge without the social infrastructure that would nurture and support it. Furthermore, art history proves that art making is largely a dialogue amongst practitioners who find themselves in the same time and place, and who support, challenge and help define each other through collective reflection and debate. Artists naturally gravitate toward each other; they move to similar neighborhoods, they frequent similar public spaces. From that verifiable fact (proved by the history of gentrification in New York City for example) emerges the fairly established assumption that fostering an autonomous art community is a positive and laudable goal, as well as a necessary step to attain the qualities that ostensibly are brought by it, such as independent thinking and the collective furthering of the art practice as a whole. Finally, and particularly in response to the pressures of the art market, the creation of a self-sustainable art community becomes particularly attractive, as it may have the ability to withstand the fluctuations of art trends as well as the kinds of art favored by the market at any given time.

In 1957 psychotherapists Saul Newton and Jane Pearce officially founded the Sullivan Institute for Research in Psychoanalysis on New York's Upper West Side. Newton and Pearce had worked at the William Alanson White Institute, founded in part by an influential psychologist named William Stack Sullivan. Some years after Sullivan's death, Newton and Pearce left the Institute and founded their own organization, naming it after Sullivan with the purported idea of following his theories. In reality, the Sullivan Institute would take a very different and distorted approach, with no semblance whatsoever to Sullivan's original research. 

Building the Sullivan Institute in the context of the countercultural revolution of the 1960s, Newton and Pearce sought to create a community whose members would disdain decadent bourgeois conformity and convention and reach superior psychological status (and, by implication, superior moral status) through radical processes of regression, corrective experience and personality restructuring. 

I stumbled on the story of the Sullivan Institute by accident, in 2009, while doing research for another project. The story was of great interest to me in its dystopian dimensions, and because, for all of the public awareness of it in the early 1990s, the Institute’s connection to the New York artistic community seemed to have been forgotten and appeared to remain unexplored. I believed there was something to be learned from this experiment, although I wasn't sure what exactly.

The research began at a moment when I had been asking myself what it means to create a community of interpreters and makers of art, and under which conditions the construction of an intentional community benefits artistic thinking. It is clear that many important moments in art emerge from the result of a supportive community that fosters creativity: The Bauhaus, Black Mountain College, the Residencia de Estudiantes in Madrid (where García Lorca, Dalí and Buñuel first met) and the Sogetsu Art Center in Tokyo in the 1950s are only but a few examples.

Granted, to believe that the anomalous experience of a therapy cult in an Upper West Side building in Manhattan would help inform the debates around art as a community-building mechanism would seem misguided. But at the same time, there is a fine line between the social environment that promotes these kinds of progressive creative experiments and the moment in which this environment suddenly becomes detached from external affairs, rejecting whatever is outside of it as if it didn't matter, and later pretending it didn't exist. This is an important perceptive difference that comes to haunt the art world constantly: Is contemporary art nothing but a solipsistic conversation amongst individuals that has lost any relationship with the real world, or is it a necessary construction that allows us to properly interact and affect it? At what point does art as a language stops becoming a way to understand the world and when does it become instrumentalized to serve as a tool of deception, propaganda or distortion of one's own reality?

While it is possible to point at historical moments during which strong art communities have emerged—turn-of-the-century Vienna, Paris in the 1910s, Mexico City in the 1940s, the West Village in the 1950s—it is remarkably difficult to definitively ascertain what variables made them so, and much less possible to determine whether these could be recreated artificially at a microscopic scale to reproduce their effects. Certainly the long history of temporary models of support—such as artist residencies—attest to tried and true models of temporary communities that allow for artists to do their work; these models, however, by virtue of being provisional transient, will not concern me here. The key question in this regard, when we speak about cities and artists producing work in the span of a lifetime, is how and whether self-sustainable communities are possible and what conditions are necessary for them to exist.

For that reason, to truly scrutinize the idea that creating a self-sustainable community is inherently positive, and that these communities foster independent thinking, it is necessary to place art communities alongside the social list of interest groups in general, not just groups with artistic interests.

An interesting aspect about those who see themselves as part of the "artist class" is that they have a simultaneous self-perception of both outsiderness and exceptionalism. First, artists are accustomed to being seen as misunderstood and breaking the regular patterns of social behavior, thus embracing a social role of outcast or rebel. Secondly, artists see themselves, in some way or another, as exceptional, existing in a privileged social position that mainly is about observing the world and either describing it or acting into it as part of their profession, and this description or acting—usually their art work—will theoretically have repercussions that go beyond the everyday, ideally to something more lasting and even transformative, in their time and in the future.

Seen up close, these differential aspects of an art community are not too dissimilar from the ones that have traditionally defined breakaway religious communities, sects or cults. Usually led by a strong set of beliefs, religious or spiritual groups break with the mainstream with the conviction that they are different, and with the awareness that their beliefs, as damning as they may be for the outside world, are also redeeming from their own perspective.

It is no my intention here to attempt to draw a parallel between spiritual and art communities; while I do believe that much is to be learned about art communities by doing a comparative study of the sense of utopianism common among certain religious groups, my goal here is merely to point out that that very sense of exceptionalism that is engrained in art communities prevents them from seeing themselves with a greater sense of criticality about the downfalls of establishing self-sustainable models of existence.

Part of the reason why it may be difficult for us to think of art communities as groups that may be prone to the same pitfalls of authoritarianism and cult following as some religious groups, is that artists tend to subscribe to progressive philosophies that praise ideals of democratic participation, free expression, and celebration of difference. These beliefs stand in contrast with a fundamentalist, hierarchical or largely homogenous group associated with places like the Bible Belt.

The potential problem with these ideas—namely, that creating a self-sustainable art community is an inherently positive goal, and that such a hypothetical community would eventually foster the kind of independent thinking that normally emerges from artistic thinking—is that they remain largely untested, and while we normally rely on anecdotal evidence, we don't have, at the time, a methodical understanding on how the goal comes to be.

In this context, the case of the Sullivan Institute is of particular interest, and perhaps a cautionary tale. While not a group that originally, nor ever saw itself as an art community, per se, it attracted artists from its inception and throughout its considerable lifespan (1950s-1990s), actively courted artists and other creative types as its ideal membership and toward its later years fully engaged in cultural production in the form of a theater company known as the Fourth Wall Theater Company. The Sullivan Institute, originally conceived as a therapeutic community, became over the years an authoritarian cult sharing many aspects of religious cults such as brainwashing, psychological and sexual abuse and general control of its members and their families. The difference in this case was that the Sullivanians, as they became known, were not a right wing conservative group in the U.S. heartland, but instead a radical leftist, anti-war, activist, and highly educated community living in the Upper West Side of New York City.1

At first the Sullivan Institute resembled other similar research institutes in the United States, but over the years the group evolved into a radical psychotherapeutic community, led by Newton's and Pearce's ideas of interpersonal relationships and social change, which are summarized in their 1963 book The Conditions of Human Growth. The original members of the community were middle to upper class New York intellectuals. Newton and Sullivan were interested in recruiting highly creative and influential individuals, as they believed that they would have both the highest capability of self-transformation under their therapeutic ideals and the greatest power of influencing others. While the institute itself was not well known, many of its original members in its formative stages were extremely prominent and successful artists. They included critic Clement Greenberg, artists Jackson Pollock, Kenneth Noland, Larry Poons, Jules Feiffer and Jules Olitski, and writers Richard Price and Richard Elmann, amongst many others.2 The Institute was widely known in the 1950s for its Saturday night parties and sexually free summer house in Amagansett, Long Island, where many of these artists and writers lived already, making it easy for the Institute to attract them.

Newton was reportedly a compelling individual with whom many would develop strong attachments. Reportedly, his influence on artists was such that he would be able to intimidate artists who were highly regarded in the outside world, and even convince others to leave their artistic career altogether in service to their community. Writer Richard Elman recalls:

I was at a group banquet in Amangansett, L. I., on Water's Edge Road. I was the only non-shrink at the table, a new recruit. Blanche told me that Saul really liked writers, but he seemed wary of me, and I later learned he thought I was out to do a job on the group in the press…. People seemed to be unusually mellow, some were holding hands. The man opposite me had just finished explaining why he'd given up his career as a painter to become one of Saul's therapists.

"I really love Saul," he said.

"You mean you had no talent?"

"I love Saul," he said. "What else matters?"

"Talent, sometimes," I replied.

"I didn't love myself that much, the man said sheepishly."

[...]

...I can remember watching a celebrated modern painter with a big six-figure income and galleries showing his work around the world cower before a withering summary of his character structure and try to appease the old devil [Newton] with a gift of a painting worth thousands of dollars…. "You are a bunch of desperate fakers, liars and scam artists," he would tell the artists, "and you know it, which is why we talk."3

Gradually, according to ex-members, Newton would transform the group into a reclusive community where members were pressed not to create new relationships outside of its confines.

Over the years, the Institute would evolve into an isolated and highly authoritarian community whose mission was the enlightenment of mainstream society. The Sullivanians rejected traditional Western family values, in particular the nuclear concept of family. The group's teachings held that traditional family ties were the root cause of mental illness. As such, members were asked to break ties with their families (their parents and their children) and to be intimate amongst each other in a communal, sexually promiscuous lifestyle. As a result, many of the members lived together. Living arrangements were not random but instructed by Sullivan Institute psychotherapists in consultation with Pearce and Newton.

The custom of "dating" was instituted, in which individuals would schedule times with other members to do particular activities—anything from studying to having sex. Monogamy was considered an outmoded construct and thus members were asked to have multiple partners and not to turn down any solicitation of sex from within the community. Therapists and patients alike would participate in sexual "dates." Gay or lesbian members were asked to participate in heterosexual sex and vice versa.

Both Newton and Pearce were the products of a radical left-wing subculture in the United States. Newton claimed to have been part of the Lincoln Brigade—an American group who fought on the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War. Both were members of the US Communist Party whose hierarchical structure reflected that of the Sullivan Institute.

In the 1970s, Newton divorced Pearce and married filmmaker and playwright Joan Harvey. As New York's Upper West Side became gentrified, the social and political stances of the community hardened. Mainly due to Harvey's own personal interests and artistic aspirations, the leadership shifted the focus of the community to radical activism through the creation of political films and plays.

The Sullivanians founded the Fourth Wall Repertory Theater, located at 79 East 4th Street, now home to the New York Theater Workshop. All productions, made between 1978 and 1985, were based on plays written by Harvey, and the members of the community were required to support the production. The hierarchy of the community started reflecting the hierarchy that the members were having in their roles in the production.4

Harvey's plays addressed social problems revolving around the family nucleus, consistent with the Sullivanian philosophy. A reading of these works reveals a rather amateurish handling of drama, plot and content. Harvey's plays operate mainly at the level of propaganda and didactic message; without much complexity of storytelling or language, characters mainly play out scenarios affirming whatever set of values the community was espousing at that given moment. More than art works, the plays are helpful in understanding the ideas of the leadership of the Sullivan Institute at the time, that is, Newton and Harvey. As Siskind has pointed out, the critique to democratic leadership that many movements in the 1960s aspired to make was regarded negatively by Newton and the other leaders—and ostensibly justified the manipulative and hierarchical character that they gave to their community. That critique receives a strong rebuke through the words of their characters. In one of the plays, Ride a Red Horse, from 1979, a character speaking about one of these revolutionary organizations says:

It's against all centralized decision-making. It stops action by using consensus procedures. You know, a consensus can be blocked by a single goddamn objection. A single objection? Necessary radical actions are delayed, avoided and destroyed by any apparently well-meaning, naïve, or just hateful, good-looking jerk.5

Over the years, Harvey's plays shifted their emphasis from family conflicts to larger political and activist causes—a shift that was also true of the community itself. As Harvey became more influential in directing its agenda, the group was gradually mobilized to attend to radical left causes such as anti-war efforts and environmentalism. This emphasis is also clear in the three films produced by the community—also scripted and directed by Harvey. They addressed issues such as the dangers of nuclear energy, (We are the Guinea Pigs), armament proliferation (from Hitler to M-X) and grassroots activism (A Matter of Struggle). The films, in formal terms, are similarly as crude as Harvey's plays, presenting lines of argument that are not too uncommon of radical activism of the period. Yet in their nature of documentaries it is possible that they may have worked better as a vehicle for their political ideas.

It is interesting to note the shift of the role of art in the community on the first phase of the Sullivan Institute to the era of the foundation of the Fourth Wall Theater Company, and how it is directly related to the receding role of the introspective focus of the community. In the 1950s and ‘60s, creative individuals were attracted to the community but the therapeutic process, instead of nurturing their creativity, subjected their members to a kind of self-examination that would make them hyper-critical of their individuality and their creative selves, up to the extent of altogether abandoning their individual quests for art (as related in the Elman anecdote). During the so-called, as per Siskind, "revolutionary" period of the community (1979-1983), art started to play an even more important role, and yet it was an entirely instrumentalized one, one under which the personal introspection of the artist, as initially treated in therapy, lost precedence over the collective and mandatory participation. Even in the case of Harvey herself, the plays in themselves hardly carry any formal or technical characteristics that would in any meaningful way make them be considered an aesthetic statement by a playwright; instead, they are very literal manifestations, in simply dramatized forms, of the tenets and talking points of the leadership of the group (at the time led by Newton, Harvey and Helen Moses).

In the last decade of existence of the Sullivan Institute, the community changed once again, on the one hand hardening their political stances and their isolationism, partially in rejection of the societal changes in the Upper West Side neighborhood that surrounded them and partially due to a series of apocalyptic and paranoid visions that the leadership had during those years, which included the rise of AIDS, and prompted the community to stop accepting new members. Then in his eighties, Saul Newton's physical and mental health quickly deteriorated during those years, resulting in him becoming increasingly erratic and violent with the members (even though he already had a history of physical violence). In the later years he was gradually removed from the leadership of the community. This fact, joined by the defection of some lead therapists and other prominent members, started to fragment the community, and its membership, which in 1985 was around 225 individuals, started a consistent decline.

The likely mortal blow to the community resulted from an article in the Village Voice in April 22, 1986, entitled "Escape from Utopia"), when an ex-member who had been in a child custody battle with the community hired private detectives and in the end resorted to contact the press about the repressive practices of the group. The media scandal exposed to the members of the dishonest financial practices of the leadership (who handled the vast majority of the finances of the community), stigmatized all members, resulted in investigations into alleged professional misconduct by its therapists and in an organized opposition by disaffected former members who described the group as a manipulative "psychotherapy cult." The formation of "PACT" (Parents Against Cult Therapy) around that time in New York City resulted in no small measure as an organized response to the public exposure of the Sullivanians.

Saul Newton died on December 21, 1991. Shortly after Newton's death, the Sullivan Institute membership dissolved, although some groups of members remained together led by individual members of the leadership. The building where the community lived was foreclosed and now houses a day school. Many of the ex-members of the leadership today are still alive and participate in the art and cultural life of New York. Some have not consciously left the community, while others have tried to reincorporate into mainstream society. To this date, most of them will not speak about their involvement with the Sullivanian experiment.

+++

When I first began my research on the Sullivan Institute in 2009, I contacted Amy Siskind, the author of the seminal Sullivan Institute study, who was most helpful with my research. Yet, with the exception of Siskind—who did have a direct life experience and links to the community—I shied away from contacting actual members of the Sullivan Institute, limiting myself for the time being to the production of a small video that mainly narrated the known story of the community by showing the buildings where it was located.

As fate would have it, it would be the community that would contact me first. One of the sons of Saul Newton had walked into a downtown art space where the video was being shown and left me his email. He was also an artist, adding in our first exchange: "As you may imagine, I have been making art about my connections to the group." Eventually we met for coffee. Mike Newton was born to his father in old age. It was clear from the onset that growing up in this community, and the later effects of this fact, had been a defining life experience for him. We discussed my interest in the Sullivan Institute, and the research that I was making. He expressed discomfort, as an artist, that someone else (me) would be making a work about a subject that directly concerned him, stopping short of questioning its validity. He was working on a video himself about the Sullivanians, of which he later sent me a few stills. I responded to him that a work coming from his perspective would be something that neither I nor anyone else would be able to replicate, that there was no reason to be uneasy about two individuals pursuing a common subject. He was friendly overall, willing to engage, and we talked about the possibility of collaborating on the subject. The encounter, if simple, had a powerful effect on me: from having studied a subject purely through documents, I had now seen it through the eyes of a member directly implicated in the legacy of this experience, someone no other than an artist.

Then again, the way in which Saul Newton and his followers regarded art making can be seen as a cautionary tale in many ways. One of them may be how the artistic process provides answers about oneself and models of life to others; in particular the instrumentalization of theater by the group in its "revolutionary" phase allowed for none of the normal attributes that one may expect from the artistic process, namely, to explore the potential contribution of those who collaboratively partake in making the work, and on the interpretive power of those who experience it. Furthermore, art as a mere vehicle of a political message—or philosophical or any other kind of message, for that matter—becomes nothing more than an empty statement that can rarely carry a life further from the places where it is expressed.

This is not something exclusive of a group such as the Sullivanians: It can be said of many artist communities both inside and outside of the public realm who regard art as a mere codification of their agendas. The second takeaway from the observation of such a strange social experiment is the paradox that communities that are usually formed with a purpose in mind—in this case, to pursue a freer form of life—become instead the opposite of what they once intended to be (in the case of the Sullivanians, a prison of authoritarian domination where members were subjected to imposed financial, sexual and other social rules). In such cases, the sustainability of the community system becomes so important that any other factors become secondary. It may be a disquieting idea to think of the art world as such a social system, one where the survival of its economy and the legacy of its history compels us to act in ways that in the end are not altogether congruous with real life.

In the twenty-first century, one of our collective cultural challenges is to determine the precise role that art will have in society, and the extent to which it will function as a vehicle to create better worlds. If the future of art is not to integrate itself in the collective minds of the larger society, if instead its purpose is to promote the creation of self-enclosed and solipsistic communities that don't desire to concern themselves with external reality, as the Sullivanians did, it will be difficult to defend the art world’s necessity, let alone support its survival.

 

  1. Many of the references in this essay will refer to the only substantial sociological study of the Sullivan Instititute to date: "The Sullivan Institute/ Fourth Wall Community: The Relationship of Radical Individualism and Authoritarianism" by Amy B. Siskind. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003. ^
  2. Siskind, p. 11. ^
  3. Richard Elman, "Newton's Rules", The Society for Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Bulletin, 6, 1991, p. 33. ^
  4. Siskind, p.95. ^
  5. Joan Harvey, Ride a Red Horse, 1979, cited by Siskind, p. 100. ^

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