As the Whitney's new exhibition, "Beat Culture and the New America 1950- 65", makes clear, the US is in the grip of a full-scale Beatnik revival. T-shirts printed with poems by Gregory Corso hang in the window of Agnes b's fashionable SoHo boutique, Francis Ford Coppola is working on the film of On the Road, young writers take part in "poetry slam" readings in raucous bars, and everywhere you look proud twentysomethings sport goatee beards and tattoos. There's even an increase in demand for the books themselves. No wonder the Whitney show is being part-sponsored by MTV.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, "Beat Culture" devotes space to the unholy trinity of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, but the exhibition also finds room for other, lesser-known writers as well as painters, sculptors, photographers and film-makers. Thus we can see Kerouac's original manuscript of On the Road, the single roll of teletype paper on which he banged it all out in a benzedrine rush, tattered and holy as any Dead Sea Scroll and valued at over $1m; but we are also treated to paintings by Pollock, Rauschenberg and Franz Kline. Such art works are perhaps the most problematic part of the exhibition, as few of the artists concerned considered themselves to be Beats (though they were undoubtedly admired by the Beat writers).
It may not be entirely logical, but it makes for a fascinating and entertaining jumble; and, with its mass of historical documentation, the show sparks instant nostalgia for that bohemian era. There are black-and-white snaps of drunken parties in the very first artists' lofts, of poetry readings in sordid nightclubs, and road trips across America in those still-magical finned cars - real people in real places who now, retrospectively, look like a fashion shoot. There are original drink-stained manuscripts, notebooks stamped with caffeine zeros and other scrappy gems of avant-garde ephemera, as well as interactive CD-Rom displays and multimedia presentations, piped bebop and Burroughs' unmistakable voice, like a robot running low with rust. The only thing missing is Kerouac's old raincoat, sold recently to the actor Johnny Depp for $15,000.
A West Coast legend like Wallace Berman, activist, collagist, garage- gallerist and motorbike dude, not to mention cover star of Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, finally gets his due. As does Dennis Hopper, who has played so many big-screen villains recently that one forgets his role as artist, collector, photographer and hero of the Californian underground scene. One of the more desirable items on display is a stiff-edged card: Mr and Mrs Dennis Hopper of LA, requesting the pleasure of your company at a cocktail party for Mr Andy Warhol - an event of inconceivable modishness back in 1963. Hopper was closely allied with many of LA's more radical figures (as was his fellow actor Dean Stockwell, represented here by a fine photo collage) and gave his hero Berman a symbolic role in Easy Rider as a planter of seeds. Berman - "stoned in black corduroy" in his own words - was arrested for pornography with his first show in 1957, and the decade between then and the commercial success of Easy Rider suggests the trajectory of America's transformation.
Of the show's more obscure resurrections, none is more worthy than that of the late Jay DeFeo, a woman artist from San Francisco whose monumental painting The Rose has not been seen since 1969. DeFeo began work on the painting in 1958; over the next eight years she worked and reworked the canvas, incorporating wood, beads, pearls and mica, and adding and paring back layers of paint, until in parts it was eight inches thick. The painting had been walled up at the San Francisco Art Institute since the early Seventies, and was restored using aerospace technology. It now forms part of the Whitney's permanent collection.
The Beats happily mixed everything and anything: they took photographs, made drawings, wrote poems and created films without any self-imposed barriers - and often without much aptitude, as stricter critics might complain. Hence a charming Buddha drawing by Kerouac, or the film Pull My Daisy by painter Alfred Leslie and photographer Robert Frank, considered a ground-breaking work in independent film-making circles, a funky grandpa to the likes of Quentin Tarantino.
But more important than the goatees and the fashionable T-shirts were the social changes activated by the Beats and their followers - changes which are under direct attack today. Indeed, what makes the show so important is that it comes at a time when the conservative Right is trying to turn the clock back in American society. Prominent right-wingers, Newt Gingrich included, denounce President Clinton as a "counter-culture" figure, an archetypal product of Sixties permissiveness, and can locate the exact point at which America went wrong - when Beatnik notions crossed into the mainstream, corrupting the entire body politic. All of which turns this exhibition into something of an act of defiance, an attempt to promote as well as archaeologise those radical values.
But do the Beats really present a threat today? William Burroughs may have summed it up best, when he said: "Jack Kerouac opened a million coffee bars and sold a million pairs of Levi's to both sexes." For while the Beats anticipated, and were in part a catalyst for, some of the great social changes of the Sixties, in recent years they have been remembered chiefly in terms of clothing and pop music - hence the interest of MTV.
If this exhibition manages to expand the definition of Beat from a small group of unconventional writers who met at Columbia University immediately after the war, or at least away from simplistic cliches of bongos, berets and pot puffing, it will have done some good. But the prospects are not hopeful. At the Whitney show's opening, the veteran artist Bruce Conner asked a TV crew incredulously: "You're really going to be talking about art?" Only to be told by the teenage producer: "To be honest, we're concentrating on the youth-culture aspect - the drugs and stuff."
! Whitney Museum, 945 Madison Ave, New York (001 212 570 3633), to 4 Feb.Reuse content