Avant-Garde Author Discusses Learning at CMC’s Athenaeum

Bernard Cooper is a man of many titles: author, pop artist,
comedian, gay rights activist and promoter of self-acceptance are just a few. 

Putting on the author hat, Cooper
spoke at Claremont McKenna College’s Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum April 13 about his recently published
memoir, My Avant-Garde Education.

A former art critic for Los Angeles Magazine, Cooper is the award-winning author of six books including a collection
of short stories, a novel and four autobiographical works. My Avant-Garde Education, which was
published in February 2015, is Cooper’s written time capsule, offering an
uncensored glimpse into the life of a young gay man growing up in the wildly
progressive art scene of California in the 1960s.

A coming-of-age story entrenched within a historical
depiction of the golden age of conceptual art, My
Avant-Garde Education
speaks to a generation enamored with the concept of
identity. The memoir presents a humorous and emotional recollection of Cooper’s
experiences finding meaning and love through art, and the path he took to carve out
his career.

Cooper explained that writing was not the first medium that
called to him. He was drawn to California
Institute of the Arts to study pop art, which he first encountered as a
middle-schooler in the glossy pages of Life magazine. 

An article titled “You
Bought It, Now Live With It,” which was intended to mock pop art collectors rather than inspire creative wonder, triggered what Cooper considers
“the moment when my sense of the world was turned on a pivot.” It wasn’t until
much later that he found writing as an equally liberating form of expression.

“It takes a while to let everything settle and figure out
what it is you want to do, who you are and what you have to offer,” he said,
describing the overwhelming force with which options and opportunities are
thrown at college students. He emphasized the notion that the pressure to know
exactly how you are going to situate yourself in the professional world as soon
as you graduate is based on an artificial reality. 

“When [Cooper] was at Cal Arts, he was in a position that a
lot of us are in, which is that we feel like we have to constantly be making
the right choice and taking the right next step,” Lin Pan CM ’16 said. “We are told that when we graduate, we have to get this job; we have to fulfill our dreams; we have to change the world.”

Cooper
explained that he experienced this same pressure as a student, but eventually
became content with letting everything happen at its own pace.

The author then recounted his unconventional experience at the California Institute of the Arts,
the most avant-garde institution of its kind during his time as a student. Cal
Arts gave out no grades, enforced no rules and offered no academic structure
whatsoever. 

“In some ways it was absolutely exhilarating,” he said. “The only
person I could look to to learn was myself.” 

It was in sunny Valencia where Cooper
transformed from a terrified and closeted adolescent to a determined
artist. For Cooper, writing can be as much a tool for self-examination as it is
creative expression. 

“The way that you express your personal experiences and
the way that you create that truth and match it up with the external world,
especially when so much of memory is so hazy, is very interesting to me,” Pippa Straus CM ’17 said. 

Straus’ words echoed some of the sentiments that
Cooper described in relation to his own writing. He placed a special emphasis on the connective power of words.

“We all live in the privacy of our inner worlds, but writing
bridges that. When you read a good book, you feel like you are seeing into
someone else’s world,” Cooper said. “I want people to feel like my writing is about
them as much as me.”

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