You say you want a revolution? (Review)

Review: You say you want a revolution? At the V&A, London.

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).

Ang

USA activist Angela Davis graffiti in the “Abode of Chaos” museum of contemporary art, in Saint-Romain-au-Mont-d’Or, Rhône-Alpes. Photo by thierry ehrmannon Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

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.

The Celts at the British Museum

Last weekend, I saw the Gundestrup Cauldron. It was an amazing, powerful, beautiful experience. Seeing something that I’ve waited so long to see, something so old, and so powerful, of such exquisite craftsmanship. It was awesome. Cernunnos sitting there with his antlers and his snake, all beautiful and serene. And the embossed panels, and the tiny details like the embossed leaves, and the silver of at the bottom of the cauldron. Amazing. So sacred. And containing such a wide range of influences from different cultures.

The Gundestrup Cauldron - By Rosemania - http://www.flickr.com/photos/rosemania/4121249312, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9404289

Gundestrup, Denmark. 150-0 BC This cauldron is made from 13 silver plates. The hammered and gilded plates weigh almost 9 kg. On the outside, large deities are accompanied by small humans, animals and mythical creatures in pairs. Interior shows scenes populated with many figures, both human and animals. One of them shows a parade of warriors carrying a carnyx, a Celtic trumpet. Art of the Celts, Historic Museum of Bern. Photo by Rosemania, CC BY 2.0.

Yes, I know that the name Cernunnos is known only from one inscription, and we don’t know the name of the antlered deity on the Gundestrup Cauldron, but I chose to use his name rather than the more impersonal epithet “horned god”. And technically, it isn’t a cauldron – it was a feasting bowl rather than a cooking pot, but archaeologists refer to these vessels as cauldrons.

The Gundestrup Cauldron has been gracing the British Museum in London recently, as part of an exhibition entitled “The Celts: art and identity“. If you haven’t been able to get to it in London, it will be at the National Museum of Scotland from March 2016.

There were loads of other iconic objects in the exhibition too: the Basse-Yutz flagons, the Battersea Shield, the Wandsworth Shield, hoards of gold and silver torcs, some amazing deity statues. There was a bit of a lack of any attempt to set these items in context alongside everyday objects and how they were used – but the objects in the exhibition were really spectacular, and I would happily have paid £16.50 just to see the Gundestrup Cauldron, and the aim of the exhibition was to show how identity is expressed through art, not to show the everyday life of “Celtic” peoples. The music in the exhibition room was really annoying, but the ceiling hangings (apparently meant to represent the Northern Lights) were quite groovy.

Some people have rightly questioned the use of the word “Celts” in the title of the exhibition. However, the curators took care to problematise the term, to unpack it, and show how its meaning has changed over time – particularly in the context of the 19th century revival and the Celtic Twilight. Here’s an excerpt from the press release:

Today the word ‘Celtic’ is associated with the distinctive cultures, languages, music and traditions of Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany and the Isle of Man. Yet the name Celts was first recorded thousands of years earlier, around 500 BC, when the ancient Greeks used it to refer to peoples living across a broad swathe of Europe north of the Alps. The Greeks saw these outsiders as barbarians, far removed from the civilised world of the Mediterranean. They left no written records of their own, but today archaeology is revealing new insights into how they lived. Modern research suggests that these were disparate groups rather than a single people, linked by their unique stylised art. This set them apart from the classical world, but their technological accomplishments stand on a par with the finest achievements of Greek and Roman artists.

The exhibition very clearly showed how the meaning of “Celt” changed over time – and how there is no single ethnic group that may be referred to as “Celtic”. Being “Celtic” has more to do with language and culture than it does with ethnicity or genetics.