Art & Development

Dreamy utopian radicalism in art

I find the backwards-looking tendency in contemporary art to be a bit nostalgic, so I was really glad to hear a respected art critic rail against the trend of valorizing the sixties…

[Martha] Rosler’s show is simply mediocre. What is points to, however, is far worse and more widespread. Too many younger artists, critics, and curators are fetishizing the sixties, transforming the period into a deformed cult, a fantasy religion, a hip brand, and a crippling disease. A generation is caught in a Freudian death spiral and seems unable to escape the ridiculous idea that in order for art to be political it has to hark back to the talismanic hippie era—that it must create a revolution. It is sophistry to think that everything relates to Europe and America in 1968. The very paradigm of revolution, of right versus wrong, good versus bad, is a relic with no bearing on the present. Yet artists, exhibitions, and curators valorize the sixties [in a generational cycle of critical writing]…. It’s a trap set by a previous generation in order to preserve its legacy a little longer, or at least until its members relinquish their positions in academe, museums, and media. Many things happened in the sixties, but the period is no more significant, better, or more “political” than today. It’s time to turn the page.

Jerry Saltz, “Welcome to the Sixties, Yet Again,” New York Magazine, October 13, 2008.

Last year I wrote about the sixties trend, but never published it. Here are excerpts…

If art by emerging artists is any indication — recurring images include utopias, rainbows, communes, self-help books and God’s eyes — we’re entering a new New Age.

god's eye
God’s eye

Authenticity is IN. Irony is OUT. And many contemporary artists and curators are looking back at the 1960s and 1970s’ youthful idealism and radical social change.

For example, sixties- and seventies-style collectives were celebrated in Whitney Biennials past, museums all over are taking a look at Feminism, and Sixties poster art shows too. Maybe it’s nagging White guilt, or a feel-good riposte to 1990s Identity Art, or Presidential Regret (Blame my administration—not me! We ARE the world!) towards a more humble, human-scale, wishful we-can-change-the-world movement.

I like the idea of an injection of radicalism. I like cooperation and collectivity over competition and materialism. I like authenticity, not irony and distancing oneself from the world. But artists in their 20s and 30s weren’t there, and much of this recent contemporary art idealizes radicalism. Symbols of hippie communes abound, while images of war, the tumultuous end of colonialism, and the beginning of the Cold War are largely ignored. It seems like the 1960s and 1970s is standing in for an age of innocence. And I think that’s a problem. Why? The widespread politicization of hippies (read: white people) in the 1960s stemmed from two things: the groundwork laid by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s (read: people of color–who took real risks: Where to send the kids to school? Go to work or stare down the fire hoses today? and made real, permanent change in groundbreaking Federal-level legislation–and white allies), as well as a real cost to the middle class (read: the draft).

The 1960s and 1970s wasn’t an age of innocence. It was a time of radical social and cultural change, yes, but it wasn’t the idealized, nostalgic era that many artists seem so enamored of.


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