A '60s Idea for the '90s

IT is almost as if decades are able to talk - or at least sling mud. Each seems to look back over the last and pronounce it not only gone forever, but totally lacking in credibility.

"Oh," say the 1970s, "that's the kind of thing they did in the '60s," the tone of disapproval and disbelief obvious and crushing. And ever since the '90s began, this decade has been making withering remarks about the '80s.

Do we really think and act in distinct periods of 10 years? Surely not; but we do, nevertheless, tend to use such a notion to our own ends, as a means of self-renewal, perhaps, or disassociation from our past selves. There is, however, a baby-and-bathwater aspect to this process that is not altogether productive. No decade can be all bad ... except, of course, the '60s!

Yet we like to forget that the "they" of the '60s were, at least partly, the very same people as the "we" of the '70s and so on - with the addition of a rising generation or two, of course. Naturally the newcomers - sons and daughters of the last bunch - criticize the outmoded fashions and tastes of their elders. The aim is to relegate them to the past, while we claim our birthright to the present.

I phoned someone I had long been out of contact with. He knew the Beatles, and I wanted to ask him some questions for an article. "My heavens!" he exclaimed, "a voice from the past!"

"Oh, no," I countered, "I'm in the present. You're in the past!"

The fact is that we are both in the present - and the past. Children of what? The '40s? The '50s? But both, much more consciously, young adults belonging to the '60s. Not that for a single moment would I relish being back again in my 20s in the '60s. But I do think it was a remarkable time, and that wasn't just because it was when young ladies with astonishingly long legs dressed in primary-colored PVC as if they were plastic shopping bags, or when artist Peter Blake did the cover for the Sgt. Pepper alb um, or even when against all the odds, man landed on the moon, thus confounding the short-legged old lady in the Midwest who maintained that if God had intended man to land on the moon he would have built a ladder.

Serious things happened then too - things that have lasting significance. After a dreary postwar time, there was something vital in the air in the '60s that was - at long last - anti-Angst, antigloom, antihelpless, antihopeless. It was as if we could at least shake off some of the past and get on with the present.

Of all the decades in our century to be lambasted and denigrated by those following it, the '60s seem to have had it the worst. Mind you, the '30s were at one time (in the '60s, for example) treated to a similar blend of ridicule and dismissiveness. Architecture of the 1930s, for example, was thought to be the last thing in absurdity. But now for two-and-some decades, the architecture of the '60s has been subjected to onslaught after onslaught of blackening comment. Even folksy suburban housing of a pure ly nostalgic and sentimental sort has seemed preferable in the '70s and '80s to the completely blameworthy architecture of the '60s.

Though the '60s hardly initiated the "high-rise," the decade is blamed endlessly for it, and for brutalist concrete arts centers and city halls and anonymously dreary office blocks. Many such "modernist" atrocities did reach a terribly low point in the energetic building programs of the maligned decade. But too easily overlooked was a simultaneous venturesome idealism that resulted in some buildings of notable originality and Zeitgeist. It would be a mistake to pull these down at the earliest possible op portunity.

How much better can we say the architecture (or art, or fashion, or design) of the '70s and '80s has been? A fairly strong argument could be made to show that the '60s were, in fact, the last decade in which a progressive, inventive, optimistic spirit-of-the-times instilled people with a convinced energy, and that the decades afterwards have been periods of pluralistic confusion, self-doubt, nostalgia, sentimentality, and a backward-looking, pastiche view of the world.

In tarring and feathering the "modernism" of '60s art, some subsequent critics have made it look out of touch with life, either dismissing it as a trivial fad (along with the "Swinging '60s," Carnaby Street, the miniskirt) or a self-regarding system devoted to abstraction and formalism, ignoring social context and disregarding history.

Other critics have dubbed '60s abstract art as a kind of academic credo that did not allow for other views and styles - an orthodoxy of "the modern."

There are some signs now, however, that a more seriously revised analysis of '60s art is possible. An exhibition in London's Barbican Art Gallery and its accompanying book by David Mellor, "The Sixties Art Scene in London," seem able to re-present the abstract painting and sculpture that emerged and developed in the '60s without a smirk and even with some admiration. Things are looking up! Mellor even manages to quote, without mocking, British sculptor Phillip King as one who believed "the period of the early and middle Sixties was a utopian one of `unlimited human possibilities'...."

We don't need nostalgia - even for the '60s. We may, on the other hand, be right not to need "modernism" hook, line, and sinker - an uncritical espousal of the new simply because it is new. We're doubtless not wrong to have suspicions about technology as the answer to everything.

But to regain something of that idea of human potential and possibility, a sense of what another British sculptor, Anthony Caro, calls the "onward of art" might not be a bad idea. The abstract in art is worth pursuing and exploring because it symbolizes investigation of fresh, not-yet-perceived realms of imagination and, indeed, thought. And that might be seen as a legacy from the '60s to pick up and feel again or for the first time.

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