Michael H. Goldhaber on Tue, 18 May 2010 17:09:22 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> "Critical strategies in art and media" gets it wrong

In the newly published, brief conference book or booklet , “Critical strategies in art and media:Perspectives on New Cultural Practices” at one point Ted Byfield (on the panel)  asks the sensible question: “I’d like to ask a question to some of my elders here.We’ve heard various references to 1968 here, but what did all those ‘68ers have in 1967?”

The transcript continues, “Audience: Drugs!”

Byfield then asks ”Any other suggestions about what they had before the efflorescence that apparently surprised even them?” 

“Jim Fleming [one of the two convenors and moderators]: Sex, drugs and rock’n’roll.” Fleming then added something about the relative affluence (of students?) in the ’60’s, -- itself a highly debatable assertion. 

Fleming’s  answer is glaringly incomplete, at best. The fact that the participants and the audience accepted it indicates why the whole enterprise of the conference was virtually meaningless, I submit. 

I was finishing up my Ph.D. In ’68, therefore older than many if not most of the participants in the events, in which I also had a minor role. Let me try therefore to list in no definite order some of what we had in ’67  or earlier in the ‘60‘s that helped lead to ’68: 
The feelings against racism  and for justice and equality that emerged from reaction to the Nazis after WWII, from the civil rights movement and the anti-colonial movement, all of which were well in evidence before ’68; 
Un-precedented numbers of young people in the universities and colleges, as the baby-boom generation had begun to reach early adulthood;
Television news showing the civil-rights and anti-colonial movements in action along with other demonstrations, offering easy-to-understand and compelling role models of resistance; 
John F. Kennedy’s inaugural and anti-individualist line “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”, along with the founding of the Peace Corps; 
The continued opposition to the activities of groups such as the House un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and, related to that, the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley in ’64;
The Port Huron Statement of ’62 that founded SDS, and called for a variety of democratic socialism; the founding (’66) of the Black Panther Party
The ’62 publication of Michael Harrington’s “The Other America,” and of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”; the ’63 translation of Fanon’s (’61) “Wretched of the Earth;” Malcolm X’s ‘ 65 “Autobiography.”
In the US, at least , the draft, which put all young men in jeopardy of having to go and fight the Vietnam war, which, as it dragged on, along with its repercussions (such as the self-immolation of Buddhist monks) was also seen on TV;
New and relatively cheap jet travel, which enabled many semi-affluent young people to mix with their cohort in other countries, thus adding a sense of a single wide youth movement; 
The relatively recent Cuban Revolution and its aftermath, such as the hunting down of Che, (and the influential pamphlet by Regis Debray “Revolution in the Revolution”) and Mao’s Cultural Revolution, which was understood idealistically as democratizing decision making and opposing the stultifying power of bureaucrats and experts. 
Even LBJ’s ‘ 64 promise of the “Great Society.”

Note that neither anything which would have gone under the rubric of art nor the sort of people’s media discussed in the conference played a very strong role, although certainly sermons in the southern black churches or Mario Savio’s impromptu speech from on top of a captured police car in Berkeley in ’64 did do so. The most prominent artform in moving people to take political stances was probably not rock, but rather folk and folk-like music, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, early Dylan, etc. (In derision, Tom Lehrer wrote [in about ’65] : “We are the Folk Song Army, Everyone of us cares. We all hate poverty war and injustice, Unlike the rest of you squares.” But that just proves that those who listened to folk songs in concert or recordings or more informally heard a distinct and intended political message.) Also movies, such as “Dr. Strangelove” and If  helped increase opposition to established authority, and probably novels such as “Catch 22’ (’61) and even “Lord of the Rings.”
But most of the relevant factors had more to do with the confluence of demographics, new technologies, the lessons of recent history, the examples of other and on-going social movements, etc., and frankly political statements and actions.1968 was to some degree a high tide but also a turning point in all these political movements, in some ways leading directly to a conservative backlash, though also helping  to institutionalize certain gains and demands.  

“Critical strategies” fails to take into account  comparatively wide picture of the current situation, instead focusing on “art” as a source of political inspiration and action all by itself. This is of course a narrow and very peculiar branch of art itself, with some of the main examples, being more like, e.g.,  a kind of people’s science that simply chooses to call itself art for funding purposes. (Incidentally I was one of the founders of “Science for the People” in ’68, and there are more efforts for people’s science  of various kinds that don’t label themselves as art still today. ) There appears to be no effort in the book to consider or be informed by, much less co-ordinate with wider  present-day political or social movements — or even current social theory, except in a very narrow sense. 
To put it cynically,  the book can be described as follows: A group of self-styled, semi-academic, self-appointed, basically uninformed artistic leaders of a very ill-defined  movement with very unclear aims, but its heart possibly in the right place,  solipsistically examines itself for strategic ideas. It does not come up with much. 

I had hoped for something better. 



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