The title of the newest exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London comes from the Beatles song, Revolution. The exhibition tells the story of social change in the sixties through music, fashion, posters, propaganda, a very grainy video of the Moon landings, a piece of Moon rock, and much more. It includes album covers, clothes, furniture, a Wiccan sword, a goat head mask made by Arnold Crowther, The Lord of the Rings memorabilia, music, design, and architecture. They even have Woody Guthrie’s diary, open at the page where he wrote that he had painted ‘This machine kills fascists’ on his guitar.
The exhibition is on until 26 February 2017. As you enter, you are given a headset with sixties music on it, which adds a musical accompaniment to the different areas of the exhibition.
What struck me about the exhibition, and about the decade as a whole, was just how contemporary it all is, and what a radical transformation it represented. The sixties was a time of resisting authority, protest against the Vietnam war, the sexual revolution, gay and lesbian rights, the Black Panthers, and an end to deference. One of the exhibits was the ten-point list of demands from the Black Panthers, which were entirely reasonable, as they included the right of Black communities to police themselves, to get the reparations they were promised after slavery ended, to have decent housing, and to get jobs.
The exhibition also showed the attempts of authoritarianism to push back against all this revolutionary change: the imprisonment of Angela Davis, the murder of Che Guevara, the suppression of the May 1968 uprising in Paris by the CRS (a special unit of the police with a reputation for brutality).
Perhaps we no longer appreciate just how radical a shift the sixties represented. I remember Doreen Valiente’s speech at the Pagan Federation conference in 1997, when she recalled how repressive the 1950s were:
People today have no conception of how uptight and repressive society was back in the 1950s when Old Gerald first opened up the subject of witchcraft as a surviving old religion. You could not go into a shop then and buy a pack of Tarot cards or a book on the occult without getting curious looks and usually a denial that they stocked any such things. There were no paperback books on the occult, except such things as Old Moore’s Almanac and very popular stuff such as how to read tea leaves. Serious books on the subject were only obtainable second hand at very high prices. The mentality of the period was perfectly illustrated by the by the famous enquiry made by a distinguished lawyer in the course of the trial about the publication of DH Lawrence’s book, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, when he quite seriously asked the jury, “Would you allow your servants to read this book?” There was a built in assumption that ordinary people were not entitled to read what they liked, or to think what they liked, and still less to do what they liked.
Before the 1960s, universities had rules in place where students were not allowed to have a member of the other sex in their rooms, and there was a curfew in place. In 1966, a woman could be refused a bank account if she didn’t have her husband’s permission to open one. Younger people were expected to defer to their ‘elders and betters’.
The sixties changed all that. We thought they had changed it forever, but perhaps each generation has to claim its rights anew. This exhibition is a timely reminder of the freedoms that the sixties revolution won for us, and how they were won through struggle and resistance, not through ‘natural progression’ from the old order. The young were the future, and the revolution had taken place in the minds of the young. Everything was in flux, and subject to change. You can see the excitement and optimism about the future in sixties design and writings.
The sixties was the decade that the Pagan revival really took off. This was reflected in the exhibition in a variety of ways – the Wiccan sword and goat mask, and the general atmosphere of a return to Nature, festival culture, the beginnings of rave culture, and a new-found reverence for the Goddess and for women.
There was a widespread fascination with the occult in the sixties too, and this was emphasised by the displays being interspersed with Tarot cards from the Hexen 2.0 Tarot by Suzanne Treister, which explores ideas ranging from computers, surveillance, the Whole Earth Catalog, Thoreau’s Walden, cybersecurity, ArpaNet, and cryptography:
HEXEN 2.0 looks into histories of scientific research behind government programmes of mass control, investigating parallel histories of countercultural and grass roots movements. HEXEN 2.0 charts, within a framework of post-WWII U.S. governmental and military imperatives, the coming together of diverse scientific and social sciences through the development of cybernetics, the history of the internet, the rise of Web 2.0 and increased intelligence gathering, and the implications for the future of new systems of societal manipulation towards a control society. … The project simultaneously looks at diverse philosophical, literary and political responses to advances in technology including the claims of Anarcho-Primitivism and Post Leftism, Theodore Kaczynski/The Unabomber, Technogaianism and Transhumanism, and traces precursory ideas such as those of Thoreau, Warren, Heidegger and Adorno in relation to visions of utopic and dystopic futures from science-fiction literature and film. … HEXEN 2.0 offers a space where one may use the works as a tool to envision possible alternative futures.
Somewhere along the way, the general optimism of the sixties turned into the ‘business as usual’ of the seventies. Sexism, racism, homophobia, and bigotry still stalked the streets. Much of sixties utopianism was blown away in a puff of marijuana smoke, or so it seemed. We realised that the dark side of the sexual revolution was the notion that women must be sexually available at all times. The counterculture still existed, but it hadn’t completely transformed the over-culture. The seventies were a decade of nostalgia, labour unrest, terrible fashion, and a realisation of the dark side of sixties counterculture. The eighties came in with Thatcherism, and the grim battles between striking miners and the repressive police state. In the USA there was Reagan and Reaganomics, Star Wars, and more neoliberal austerity. The UK Labour Party lost its way and succumbed to free-market economics and the doctrine that public spending is bad.
The You say you want a revolution? exhibition offers an immersive trip into the sixties, both counterculture and mainstream, and asks what we gained and what we lost. It’s like a happening, a sixties event where people would be immersed in mind-blowing imagery and music and ideas. Given the current pushing back of the civil rights of minorities under the paltry excuse of anti-terrorism, this is a very timely retrospective.