In 1979 and 1980 Robert Hughes, art critic for Time Magazine, hosted a series of eight, hour-long segments about Modern Art on PBS and BBC Two called “Shock of the New.” One of the segments touched on the 1960s and ‘70s era.(1) In his haste to declare the emerging art movements “a rush toward insignificance” he falls into the very trap he set out to avoid: of prognosticating the future. Now that more time has elapsed we can see that ‘60s and ‘70s art was a reflection of the evolving culture of its time.
During a brisk 2 minutes and 20 seconds clip he glibly dismisses the explosive art movements that were born in the tumultuous ‘60s and ‘70s. “The famous radicalism of ‘60s & ‘70s art turns out to have been ... a charade of toughness, a way of avoiding feeling.” Quite the contrary! Artists were never more public about being personally vulnerable or more demanding of the viewer’s involvement.
Although Robert Hughes pines at the loss of Modern Art, the conclusion of Modernism was inevitable. Its creation was a result of its time: the reaction to the chaos and uncertainty surrounding World War I into the physical transformation of art and architecture into a new world of steel, glass, and clean lines.(2&3) A subsequent reconstructing of this Utopia followed as a result of another upheaval of society after World War II.
Robert Hughes claims “we don’t have an avant-garde anymore.” His conclusion came during a time of flux. He was unable to appreciate what a dramatic turn art was taking during the time of his TV production. The 1960s and ‘70s was a period of tremendous change and uncertainty(4) John F. Kennedy’s and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassinations, Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam War, Kent State shooting, Watergate, and the Feminist Movement. Baby boomers had become teenagers and young adults. There were no sustainable rules to follow, no leaders that endured past their legends, and no cultural directions. Commercialism and media manipulation reigned and were unmasked by Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes(5)
and Donald Judd’s boxes(6&7) Andre Carl’s(8) bricks on floors, and video art (which came into the hands of the individual during the late ‘60s) from Bill Viola(9), Chris Burden(10&11), and Paul McCarthy(12). Social and political concerns were addressed through Pop Art, Minimalism, Conceptualism, Performance, Installation and Video Art. Personal issues of identity were explored through Body Art and Feminist Art. This was the era of Marshall McLuhan’s “The Medium is the Massage”((13&14) and Carol Hanisch’s “The Personal is Political.”(15) The avant-garde” was happening but Hughes could not relate.
Far from being meaningless, ‘60s and ‘70s art provided the needed transition from Modern Art to art movements that followed. What was needed was not the heady idealism during a period of reformation but the questioning of society’s expectations a during a period of free fall. Hughes perceived a toughness or avoidance of feeling. He missed the personal explorations of vulnerability in a period of little clarity and truth. Hughes noted, “The basic project of art is always to make the world whole ... to pass from feeling to meaning.” With all due respect to Hughes, we are obligated to look at the art of the ‘60s and ‘70s and think, “this is the necessary art of our time.” It has fulfilled his own requirements of “What Art Is” with an abundance of feeling and exploration to create meaning.
- Robert Hughes “On What Art Is” www.youtube.com/watch?v=ShV1h85dnkc&feature=BFa&list=WLB20C5033DA05C297&lf=mh_lolz
- Corcoran Gallery of Art. “Modernism-Designing a New World 1914 - 1939.” Exhibition 17 March - 29 July 2007. www.corcoran.org/modernism/index.htm
- Christopher Wilk. “Modernism: Designing a New World” 2006. Victoria & Albert Museum.
- Bonnie K. Goodman. “Ronald Reagan/The Sixties/Timeline” http://ronaldreaganweb.com/thesixties/timeline.htm
- P. Walsh Allen Memorial Art Museum Oberlin College. “Index of Selected Artists In the Collection - Andy Warhol” www.oberlin.edu/amam/Warhol_BrilloBoxes.htm
- Tate Modern. “Press Release 27 January 2004. Donald Judd Retrospective Exhibition: 5 February - 25 April 2004” www.tate.org.uk/about/pressoffice/pressreleases/judd_27-01-04.htm
- Tate Modern. Donald Judd “About the Artist” Exhibition: 5 February - 25 April 2004 www.tate.org.uk/modern/exhibitions/judd/
- Martin Ries. “Carl Andre - Equivalent VIII” 1991. Paper: Release-Time Research Grant from Long Island University, the Brooklyn Campus. www.martinries.com/article1991CA.htm
- Don Shewey. “An Artist Finds Poetry in Videotape.” 8 November 1987. New York Times. www.nytimes.com/1987/11/08/arts/an-artist-finds-poetry-in-videotape.html?ref=billviola
- UbuWeb. “Chris Burden” www.ubu.com/film/burden.html
- Peter Kirby. “Chris Burden” (video) www.ubu.com/film/burden_newport.html . A Twenty-Year Survey, Newport Harbor Art Museum - A Video Portrait (1989)
- PBS Art21 “Art in the Twenty-First Century Season 5, Transformation: Paul McCarthy” 2009 www.pbs.org/art21/artists/paul-mccarthy
- Marshall McLuhan. “The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects” 1967. Bantam Books/Random House.
- Terrence Gordon. “Marshall McLuhan-Biography.” 2002 http://marshallmcluhan.com/biography
- Carol Hanisch. “The Personal Is Political” 1969. www.carolhanisch.org/CHwritings/PIP.html