The Swinging' Sixties: The Beauty, The Destruction and The Myth - Part I
“ Turn on, Tune in, Drop out ”
Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Talitha Getty, Edie Sedgwick – these are only some of the iconic figures who lived fast, rose fast and ran out of time in a blink of an eye; faded yet glorified images of a decade we love to idealize among pop art, hippy festivals, mod looks, psychadelia and mini skirts. Music and liberalization dictated the game, products of a youth revolution like one the world had never seen before.
Sure, it all sounds so fun. That’s what they were all told at the time too: don’t think; true intellect was achieved through opening one’s mind through spirituality, and spirituality was achieved through abuse after abuse of psychedelic drugs. Don’t look back: the past holds back progress like quick sand; look ahead, live the moment, explore the limits of youth.
And these limits were attained fast: the youth revolutions of the mid to late 60’s and its various constructed countercultures unleashed and simultaneously condemned many lives, especially in the realms of music and fashion, where the power of youth ideology was propelled through those few iconic figures who lent the decade it’s infamous reputation in the first place. Timothy Leary’s famous catch phrase “turn on, tune in, drop out “ became the lynchpin for an ideology based on boundless love, drugs, hedonism and the attacking of any and all pre-existing values, morals and establishments – those were the Sixties.
Peggy Moffitt, 60's Icon
Reflecting this new anarchic worldview, fashion went wild – outfits resembled beautiful caricatures, severely departing from anything we had previously seen in a half a decade of glorious rebellion, bringing us the iconic mini skirt, flared pants and pop up prints. Fashion multiplied its possibilities in a single decade of style differentiation and fun - but as much fun as it was, a lot more was going on underneath. A whole new generation embraced the ideals of transgression, and they loved to dress the part, compounding on fashion’s material frivolities to signify a perceived modern moral superiority whilst indulging in mindless play and hedonic excesses, a contradiction and departure from reality that only snowballed into our contemporary society. But hey, the Sixties were ‘swinging’.
Twiggy, Pierre Cardin Iconic reversible asymmetrical sunglasses
It was the decade of social and sexual revolution, where the word ‘future’ was suddenly synonymous with ‘progress,’ in a whirlwind where trend was mistaken for reality – so out with the old, all of it, and in with the new. The past was demonized to the point of eradicating everything, and while some values were by all means questionable, some were the foundation of a sane, logical structure, which found themselves fully replaced – by what exactly? Anything - hence, nothing, leaving an empty space to be filled by the irresponsible excess of a booming middle class with higher post war disposable income and an insatiable urge to consume.
At the crux of what sparked the almost furious excitement with which counterculture ideology prevailed over pretty much anything else was the firm belief that tearing down old establishments would bring about a better world. Well, it’s 2017 and I’d say the illusion has dragged on far enough – nothing comes without a price, and when life’s next level of enlightenment is sold to you on a soup can, you know you’ve been seriously ripped off.
Andy Warhol, Campbell Soup
Instead, hedonism became King: and nothing spells hedonism like mindless, free flowing consumerism, something we are very much acquainted with today. So we have to ask ourselves, what fuels consumption of the impractical and unnecessary? An idea had to flourish that depicted ordinary life, its routines and the multiple pleasures that these afforded as drab and mundane. ‘Upwards’ was the perfect label; buy a new pair of sunglasses, a new home, a new outfit, a new car, that new brand of soda pop, LSD – please yourself - these will bring you excitement, and boy, do you need excitement to spice up your unfulfilling career, social and sexual life.
Right on queue, advertisements were ready to accommodate and fuel that purchasing urge; for the very first time, they were everywhere - and with the advent of the credit card there was no holding back. A time old psychological structure came tumbling down: self delayed gratification based on work and merit known to the previous generation became a pleasure now, pay later mentality, as ‘pleasure’ had somehow entered into the realm of fundamental human rights. Although at first it may not seem like such a big deal, it really isn’t a psychological shift to underestimate as it turned an entire generation into selfish, self-righteous consumers preoccupied only with image – substituting talent as the new universal standard.
Is it so surprising then, that Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham replied with a resounding ‘Yes’ when asked by an interviewer if it was possible to pick up an individual at random from a crowd with no apparent talent and turn them into a super star? Yes, the Sixties had Janis Joplin. But it also saw the arrival and widespread diffusion of pop music and pop stars, democratizing music for the ear of the mass consumer.
Enter Andy Warhol. He understood how to manipulate this new hail to the unsubstantiated, and turned satire into art. Well, if you could call his rows of mundane repetitions devoid of any technique whatsoever, art. Their premise was of course, an intense democratization in art: the blending of high and low culture in such a way that one was prized just as high as the other; a complete obliteration of a rating system based on merit, dropping our collective standards for what should be considered art. And we wonder why it has become commonplace to find a teaspoon fished out of an artists kitchen drawer on a pedestal in modern art galleries, where crowds gather to glorify its perceived depth.
Was it all a big joke on society? Perhaps. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking his creations held any meaning or social critique. Warhol and his atelier of image fabrications, literally termed ‘The Factory,’ arrived just in time to save us from the everyday with escapism in the form of an electric chair. Why, you ask him? Well no reason really; dully replying to a reporter after a few moments of silence that “it could as well have been a shoe.” A disappointing answer from a man whose passing revealed a private home littered with an exquisite collection of antiques – the bed, the cupboard, the chairs – all remnants of centuries past, crafted with unparalleled technique. Not a single lava lamp or soup can in sight.
It doesn’t stop at Warhol - the notion that moral responsibility could and should be substituted by pleasure seeking in line with the new emphasis on freedom invaded practically all of popular culture.
During contemporary fashion’s favorite decade, we see a slow change of direction towards tabloids and gossip on the private, immoral sexual on-goings of the fashionable and political elite as the new acceptable form of daily news. Inevitably, through a perpetuated glorification on magazine headlines and media outlets, the portals to fame, the brash, unapologetic irresponsibility of this very small, very elite circle became the new standard of living everyone should aspire to.
An illusory proposition of course - because if you look back at the Britain of the Sixties, you’ll see that the only place that really swung in line with the image of drop-your-panties fun of Sixties ideology we see on posters and runways today was actually confined to a small circle in the center of London - namely, Carnaby Street. Far out baby.
Don't forget to come back and check out Part II of The Swingin' Sixties - there's a lot more to cover!
BBC Documentary - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bw0Rmt2S0uQ