The Vibrant Art and Culture of The 60’s

June 20, 2013 at 10:10 pm

60's ArtAs with many parts of society, art in the 1960s was characterized by a reaction to the popular styles of the previous decade and a radical departure from the status quo. Nowhere is this pattern more evident than in the pop art movement. Claes Oldenburg, Allan Kaprow, Lucas Samaras, and Andy Warhol were some of the influential artists that aspired to blur the lines between art and life. The first three helped popularize “happenings,” which combined the visual arts, performance, and audience participation. Yoko Ono’s “Cut Piece,” for example, involved members of the audience cutting away parts of her clothing with scissors. Andy Warhol, along with Roy Lichtenstein and others, co-opted images from popular culture and society to comment on the disposability of consumerism. Warhol’s famous silk screens of Campbell’s soup cans, Marilyn Monroe, and Jackie Kennedy, and Lichtenstein’s use of cartoon and comic styles are just some examples.

Moreover, pop artists, in contrast to their predecessors, not only understood the power of mass media but also eagerly courted it. The impact was twofold: people who were not normally interested in art were exposed to the works of these artists (thus bypassing New York’s art critics), and the artists became well known in their own right. Andy Warhol was able to branch out into films (“Sleep” consisted of six hours of a person sleeping) and multimedia events, such as his work with Nico and the Velvet Underground, a Greenwich Village art rock band.

On the heels of pop art came minimalism, an additional deconstruction of the concept of what constitutes art. Painters such as Frank Stella, Robert Mangold, and Al Held produced works that were characterized by very simple lines and colors; in some cases, just one color on a canvas. In the area of sculpture, minimalism used works that utilized geometric shapes and repetition of simple themes. Often the emphasis of minimalist art was to challenge the audience’s perception of the work against its surroundings. Donald Judd, for instance, had an installation of hollow concrete boxes placed around and throughout a small town in Texas.

Eccentric abstraction and anti-form continued the deconstruction of the traditional concept of art. The former used flexible materials to form curved shapes and stressed the visceral, sensual reaction to the pieces (Phillips 1999 , 181). Anti-form used lead, rubber, neon, and other components; sometimes the pieces were so large that they could not be housed in galleries. The Earthworks movement was the next logical step in the progression. Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty was a 1,500-foot rock pathway constructed in a lake in Utah. Christo and Jeanne-Claude covered more than 1 million square feet of coastline in Sydney, Australia, with fabric. For obvious reasons, photographs became the only surviving representation of these works. Toward the end of the decade, conceptual art, which often combined text with painting or sculpture, refocused the emphasis on the art itself rather than the spectacle surrounding it.

The government played an important role in the art world during the 1960s by dedicating funds to the cause. JFK instituted a program to commission mosaics, tapestries, and sculpture for new federal buildings. LBJ championed legislation to create the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, both important organizations in the support of artists.

Music

The 1960s was one of the most creative, exciting periods in popular music. The early part of the decade was dominated by the emergence of Berry Gordy’s Motown Records, featuring such acts as Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, and Martha and the Vandellas. These groups appealed to white and black audiences alike and were major influences on the white bands that would follow them up the pop charts. Beyond Motown, Sam Cooke was fusing the sacred and the secular to forge a sound that would be dubbed soul music. After Cooke’s death in 1964, Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin emerged as the major artists in this vein. Redding benefited greatly from exposure to white audiences at the Fillmore West and the Monterey Pop Festival, and Franklin’s version of “Respect” was a massive hit with all audiences. By the end of the decade, soul was giving way to funk music, with James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone leading the way.

For many, the arrival of the Beatles to the United States in 1964 was the event that marked the beginning of modern rock ‘n’ roll. The group became a pop culture phenomenon with the help of television and feature films. Not only was their music revolutionary, but so was their appearance. The mod look, cultivated in London, was imported to America along with the Beatles. Men wore their hair longer, slim tapered pants, multicolored striped jackets, velvet jackets, and ankle boots, and women wore mini-skirts to signify their approval of the new sound and distinguish themselves from their parents’ generation.

Their success paved the way for the bands of the British Invasion, including the Rolling Stones, the Who, and the Kinks. At the same time, the Beach Boys’ songs about surfing, cars, and girls helped introduce the rest of the country to the California aesthetic. To distinguish themselves from the mods and the rockers, the casual, easy-going surfer look focused on board shorts, Hawaiian print shirts, and sandals with tousled blond hair.

By mid-decade, the West Coast, and specifically San Francisco, was percolating with a mix of social, musical, and pharmaceutical elements that helped push the boundaries even further. The psychedelic sound, exemplified by Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, and the Doors, and characterized by drug use (particularly LSD [for lysergic acid diethylamide]) spread across the country and had a great impact on the appearance and attitude of adolescents. The festivals of the late 1960s, most notably the Monterey Pop Festival, Woodstock, and Altamont (and the subsequent movies that chronicled these events), cemented the sound and image of rock music into the public’s consciousness. The eclectic ethnic hippie look deepened the generation gap, sending an immediately identifiable visual message to the establishment. Blue jeans, long hair, beads, and peasant tops that captured the Eastern philosophies were the wardrobe of the counterculture as people “tuned out” of the commercial mass-produced world and “tuned in” to nature.