The Left Eats Its Own: N.Y. Times Scorns Sexism, Racism of Sixties Art Exhibit

May 27th, 2007 12:38 PM

There are articles about the hippy-dippy 1960s that seem designed to show how the left can eat its own. In Friday’s Weekend Arts section of the New York Times, the top of the page was dominated by an art review by Holland Cotter titled "Through Rose-Colored Granny Glasses." In between his personal notes on the "weird-sweet burn" of tear gas and displaying a knowing nod toward the effects of taking the "wrong drug at the wrong time," Cotter scorned the new "Summer of Love" exhibit at the Whitney Museum as scarred by racism, sexism, and commercialism. First, he complained that the radical politics of the era was undersold, and the gay and women’s "liberation" movements:

But the net effect is less to reveal a depth and variety of creativity than to demonstrate that the main function of alternative art was advertising, that the counterculture started as a commercial venture, which soon became a new mainstream and ended up an Austin Powers joke.

Possibly this view represents the show’s critical edge, but if so, it is sharpened at the expense of accuracy. To many people who came of age between 1963 to 1972 political intensity was the defining feature of the period and its most interesting art. It never let up.

In 1965 antiwar protests started — 25,000 students marched on Washington that year — and they grew larger and more frequent. By 1967, more than 400,000 troops have been sent to Vietnam. Che Guevara was killed that year; the Black Panthers had formed the year before. In 1968 the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. Racial uprisings spread across the country. The Democratic convention brought the war home to the Chicago streets. In 1969: university takeovers, Altamont. In 1970: Jimi dead. Janis dead. Cambodia. Kent State.

You will learn almost nothing about any of this from the show. Or about the gay liberation movement. Or about the gathering women’s movement, although militant feminism makes total sense given the relentless sexism of psychedelic art, in which all women are young, nude, available "chicks," and very rarely artists.

Then came the complaint that the exhibit was way too focused on whites:

Nor would you have any inkling that, for Americans at least, pop culture during these years meant black culture. Apart from Hendrix’s presence, the show is overwhelmingly white. Aretha Franklin’s first big hits — "Respect," "Chain of Fools" and "Natural Woman" — were all 1967. You won’t find her here. Nor will you find Marvin, or Smokey, or Otis, or Fontella or Ray. Again, take one style for the whole picture, you leave most of the picture out.

Cotter was pleased that the Whitney curators seemed to understand the need for vicious anti-Americanism. a theme the left can always unite around:

Ronald L. Haeberle’s much-reproduced print of the My Lai massacre is here, with its two-phrase overlay of text: "Q: And babies? A: And babies." The outstanding addition, though, is from the Whitney’s permanent collection, a blistering 1967 painting by Peter Saul. Titled "Saigon," it’s a flame-red, half-abstract, bad-trip vision of mass sexual violation.

In short, while Cotter noted young people at the time were typically full of "clammy ego" or "stoned on self-adoration, there were also an extraordinary number of young people during the Vietnam era who engaged in sustained acts of social generosity. And they made art."

How typical of the liberal Times that military service is never included in the defintion of young people "engaged in sustained acts of social generosity."