SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 202 October 2016

Something In the air again?

You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970

Victoria & Albert Museum

To 26 February 2017 – £16

Reviewed by Sarah Sachs-Eldridge

A dizzying cornucopia of images, ideas and items conjures up a period when change was in the air. Rewarded for your queuing with a pair of headphones you enter a black space where the psychedelia and shininess of 1960s paraphernalia resonates. So too does the music, which switches from room to room as you pass through.

This is an all-singing all-dancing show. A grass-floored room is strewn with bean bags from where you can watch a huge projection of footage from Woodstock. It feels exciting. More mundanely, Vidal Sassoon is a sponsor and there’s a 1960s salon set up in one corner. There is also a tactile side – a mocked up record shop where you can flick through album covers. John Peel’s record collection adorns the walls. Every sleeve seems to have the word ‘change’, ‘consciousness’, ‘power’ or affirmative messages on it. Clothes, posters, videos, artefacts and images back up the sense of a developing new era of consumerism, the exhibition proclaims.

The first room is dominated by Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues video with his lyric-signs (a very popular trope on YouTube) seeming to fall at your feet. ‘Change’ is the overwhelming theme of this show – because it was a time of rapid, widespread change. This room also contains Lewis Morley’s well-known images of Christine Keeler and references the Profumo affair in 1963, a major scandal exposing Tory hypocrisy and contributing to the erosion of trust in the establishment, though nowhere near the extent it is discredited today.

Each room has quotes on the wall in large white writing. In the first room it’s from the writer and anthropologist Margaret Mead, whose books challenged accepted ideas of gender and racial stereotypes: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world". But the years under scrutiny demonstrate how events are a big factor and the power of the mass movement to take up ideas and change the world.

The show puts a major emphasis on how young people sought to break with the existing ‘norms’ – growing their hair (an ad for weekday wigs to cover long hair while at work adds a humorous note); ‘dropping out’, including draft dodging; experiments in self-sufficiency reflected in the Whole Earth magazine, an instruction manual on ‘alternative living’ rejecting consumerism and going back to the earth.

The understanding that action was needed is borne out by the inclusion of Robert Rauschenberg’s collage in 1970 to celebrate Earth Day, when 20 million marched in the US for environmental sustainability, an impressive movement which won some legal concessions. Unlike today, with capitalism in deep crisis, falling living standards and austerity, there was a material basis to the idea that the next generation could look forward to a bright future. In the 1960s, wages constituted around 60% of GDP – by 2007 they were down to 53% in Britain. World GDP was growing at a rate of 5.4%, almost double today’s sickly rate.

The expansion of the US middle class and of purchasing power is reflected in the section, ‘Revolution in living’. It includes a huge photo of a ‘glamourous’ air stewardess, illustrating the expansion of air travel, deliberating on the growth of consumerism and advertising. The era’s great Expos, festivals of productivity and technology trying to solve the problems of society, express how capitalism was then harnessing the advances of technology. And, of course, there’s a film of the first moon landing.

Big steps forward in the development of personal computers were happening. The exhibition includes an early mouse, for example. It cites Whole Earth editor, Stewart Brand, and Apple’s Steve Jobs claiming that the "feeling of human closeness created by psychedelic drugs" contributed to the development of the internet. Certainly, the confidence-inspired free thinking and sharing of information, of which Whole Earth was a proponent, were important ingredients. Another factor in the growth of Silicon Valley was as a by-product of the cold war space race, with the US government paying out around $2 billion through the Small Business Investment Act (1958).

Not everyone’s life is reflected, however. This was also the era of Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home, which provoked outrage at the levels of homelessness in Britain in 1967. One of the first videos you encounter is of Twiggy talking about being a working-class model and how that shocked people. Nonetheless, visitors to the V&A are spared that shock as the working class is largely absent.

Margaret Mead has another quote, above pictures of the shooting of anti-Vietnam war protesters at Kent State University, Ohio, in 1969: "Thanks to television, for the first time the young are seeing history made before it is censored by their elders". Today that role is played by social media, and television is largely dominated by the defenders of old ideas.

The show does provide evidence of the contradictions and the limits of capitalism. A big photo of a bikini-clad woman with a credit card heralds the first plastic payment methods, introduced by Barclays in 1966. A wry comment points out that she would not have been able to access a card other than via her husband until 1973. The credit card is a hint of the financialisation which would follow economic crisis in the 1970s.

The third of the exhibition’s six main categories is ‘Revolution in the street’. Political posters create a sense of an organising urge – against the Vietnam war, against racism, in solidarity with the oppressed across the world, the civil rights movement in the US. Portraits of Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Marx in Tiananmen Square loom above Mao’s line: "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun". In fact, there is a big emphasis on armed movements in the show.

In the late 1960s, enormous legal changes were won – the Civil Rights Act (1965) in the US, in Britain the Abortion Act (1967), the Equal Pay Act (1970). Theatre censorship was ended. All reflect the battles to challenge the bourgeois establishment’s control and influence over lives and to create a better society. In 1968 there were three million votes at Labour Party conference for an alternative socialist policy.

Almost entirely absent are the enormous workers’ struggles of the period or any recognition that the working class was a force acting on the developments. On average, 3.6 million days were lost in strikes each year in Britain during the 1960s – from 2010-14, the average was 647,000 days. The giant strike in France in 1968 was a revolutionary movement, but the predictable emphasis in the V&A is on the students. There are posters illustrating their humour, a cobblestone from the barricades and a uniform of de Gaulle’s police. The small section on gender and sexuality is dominated by Jane Fonda’s outfit from the 1968 film Barbarella. It does not mention the magnificent strike of women workers at Ford Dagenham that year.

The V&A is not an unbiased producer of information. This exhibition is in the context of the battle against austerity which is played out in the museum as well as in every other institution and aspect of life. Amidst vicious government arts cuts, museums seek blockbuster shows to bring in income and sponsorship – Levi’s has a section of the gallery shop. So it’s significant that they think ideas of revolution will bring in the revenue – though they are not aiming to initiate one! Museums actually play a part, alongside the pro-capitalist establishment media, in defending the status quo. The limits of the media’s influence are shown by its inability to significantly cut across support for anti-austerity ideas and Jeremy Corbyn.

Nonetheless, this exhibition is full of fascinating information and very interesting pieces of evidence of the battles to challenge capitalism and change the world. It includes, for example, an appeal distributed to soldiers fighting in Vietnam not to act on behalf of the US ruling class. But the V&A itself is carrying out ruthless privatisation. The PCS union explains that new staff will not have access to a civil service pension scheme and other terms and conditions are less favourable than those of existing staff, including reduced maternity entitlement. The management will find that revolutionary struggle is not merely a museum piece.

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