It is a truth universally acknowledged that the Sixties was a decade that was achingly hip and one of the most innovative in the history of popular culture. You could also make the case that its “anything goes” morality extended into the arts and that, just because something is new, it doesn’t have to be good.
All this is true, as is the fact that somewhere, as Philip Larkin assured us, something happened between the end of the Lady Chatterley trial and the Beatles’ first LP. It’s not entirely an exaggeration to say that the monochrome world of Post War austerity exploded into colour or that the Teenager was invented, albeit the groundwork was visible some years previously.
If you wanted an image that sums up the spirit of the time, the opening scene of Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Blow Up would be it. The scene is London and through largely deserted streets comes a motley crew of Harlequinesque characters who wouldn’t look out of place in that other seminal piece, the TV series The Prisoner. As a coup de théȃtre this is masterful, as it never leaves the viewer’s mind and sets the mood for the rest of the film, which adds a mystery that gives depth to what would otherwise be a superficial confection. It is however, one skilfully woven around the work of a photographer avowedly based on David Bailey, the wunderkind and chronicler of the time. Unsurprisingly, the film gets a whole chapter to itself in this thorough but eminently readable account of a remarkable decade.
The received view of the Sixties is that, if you can remember it, you weren’t there. The atmosphere was heady with the new and – er –substances. If this was you, the book will be a revelation; for the rest of us, a brilliant aide-mémoire.
For me, the Sixties was the time when I became aware of the wider world, which is why I love this so much and am writing about it in such depth. Some of you will agree with me, others will regard later decades as “theirs” and the earlier period as desperately out of date and old hat. To you, I’d say: read this. I’m not asking you to be converted, but at least you’ll understand. The “scene” of the title conveys the idea that the period was remarkably coherent and a lot more than simply a jumble of ideas that poured out, although it was that too.
The structure is chronological and begins with a look at Ken Russell’s 1962 documentary, Pop Goes The Easel, which blew away many cobwebs in the still staid (and still black & white) BBC. 1963 sees the opening of the Kasmin gallery that celebrated many newly-emerging talents, as well as the idea of the gallery as a white cube. The whole thing is a chronicle of the movement that wasn’t a movement – rather, simply an expression of a mood – and tells the stories of the people who didn’t so much drive it as surf the wave that it sometimes seems to have created for itself.
The final chapter is The Art School Revolution and tells the story of Hornsey College of Art and the artists who emerged from the earlier groundwork and carried what we might call the flame forward. A rather useful epilogue, When Attitudes Became Form, hints at the legacy, but doesn’t omit the fact that some things were just mannered. As John Lennon put it, “Nothing happened except that we all got dressed up”.
Were the Sixties really nothing more than the Emperor’s new clothes? You decide. It was a heck of a suit, though, and one of many colours.
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