Deja vu

Sister Mary Corita Kent

Sister Mary Corita Kent

I’ve been pondering a theory for a while now, and the facts seem to support it, so I thought I’d share it: we are reliving the 1960s. Perhaps in some ways we never really left, but only took a pause here and there. Consider:

The US is divided on our military actions overseas. Wars that are never declared, covert actions that reach up into the highest branches of government – isolationism and the peace movement are awkward allies. I’m currently reading The Senate Intelligence Committee Report On Torture, and it is chilling reading. If you haven’t read it, that’s entirely your fault: it’s available in bookstores and libraries, thanks to the folks at Melville House. I imagine that reports from the Vietnam War or the Pentagon Papers must have had a similar effect.

Issues of race have come to the fore again. The police have again lost their luster as protectors, and seem just as likely to be an unwarranted threat. Black churches are burning, and it’s hard to dismiss them as accidents or coincidences. The legacy of the Civil War has risen from the dead again – perhaps we’re reliving the 1860s instead.

Women’s rights – whether it be abortion or equal pay or what-have-you – are drawing renewed attention.

Legalization of medical or recreational marijuana is proceeding beyond the hopes of hippies. Gays and lesbians may now marry legally, which is a great step; if only it freed them from discrimination it would be even better.

Sheperd Fairey

Sheperd Fairey

I cannot say that the art world has risen to the challenge. The 1960s brought a more determined, even aggressive approach to politically-themed art, perhaps buoyed by the irony and mix of populism and fine art inherent in Pop Art. Sister Mary Corita Kent’s work from the 1960s (top) is more potent than the rather effect works of Sheperd Fairey (top). This situation can still change, and many artists are addressing the political world in their art. Jenny Holzer’s Redaction paintings (below) provide another, better example of contemporary political art.

Jenny Holzer

Jenny Holzer

Although the Occupy movement, due to its diffuse and indefinite structure and goals, has not had the potency of 1960s protest movements, it has arguably been more effective. Occupy has broken apart into multiple movements that are working in their own spheres, sometimes just on a local level, other times in subtle, nation- or world-wide ways. Occupy has not given us the leaders that 1960s movements did – in part a deliberate choice on Occupy’s part, and one I disagree with – but effective action can be achieved nonetheless.

Is this return to the 60s a good thing? While it’s sad that, 50 years later, these issues are still tying society in knots, they have to be dealt with, and must be dealt with if we are to have or regain anything like a sane civilization. There’s an old Chinese curse that reads “May you live in interesting times.” Well, here we are, and if things are ever to stop being interesting in that sense, we must grasp the turmoil with both hands and make something better of it.  There’s nothing unpatriotic in it. As Carl Schurz said a long time ago, “My country right or wrong; when right to be kept right, when wrong to be made right.”

Not every artist is cut out to make political art, but to those who feel that inclination: now is the time. Get to it!


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