Reading Morris Dickstein, Gates of Eden: American Culture in the Sixties, 1977.

The sixties cultural challenge and explosion was just as unexpected as something similar would be today. Currently art is the social arena that seems least likely to cause disruption. It is being advocated on every institutional level; for instance, cities and even small town governments, from Philadelphia to Lancaster, proclaim the “vibrancy of art” as their foremost economic attraction—art tourism and its multiplier effect, the savior of the local economy. Art and the so-called creative person were inaugurated as the esential ingredient for “change we can hope for,” once the threat of the sixties, when a challenging artistic sensibility did disrupt the social order, was finally put to rest in the 80s. It was in the 90s that corporations of the larger economy began to put out the call for creativity as if it could only flow in the direction of profits. Institutional advocacy of art, the incorporation of the historical avantgarde into the canon, the breakdown of the old art-snob elite and the creation of the category of Contemporary Art to house rebellious spirits, is too big a topic for this essay. My contention is that it has never been apolitical, that behind it has been the effort to prevent an upheaval and destabilization from occurring again such as shook the institutions in the sixties and forced massive change. “Never again” is the motto hidden behind the walls of at least our academic and art institutions, with consent of the economic and political as well.

Art is the moving part of modern culture, for it is imagination at work, and the imagination can go absolutely anywhere—Modernism established that as unassailable fact. Art, like religion and politics before it, is the hidden repository of hope, and hope, tied to suffering and despair, always has a political potential. Having defeated politics as an avenue of hopeful change (the Occupy Movement crushed by police repression; the Tea Party disowned by its original promoters), those who seek to maintain social order–and their own skins–must all the more promote an alternative.

This has been going on for decades. The sixties are long dead, and art, which has the best chance to look rebellious, has been heavily promoted as the substitute. If the army could adopt a direct quote from the rebellious sixties,”Be all you can be,” as its advertising slogan, how much more could established art present itself as the sixties’ fulfillment. Even conservatives have seen the advantages of this and dropped their objections. In principle, a modern Freudian-Machiavellian might say, there must be a diversionary door open somewhere, a way to sublimate man’s inherent tendency to look the supposed gift horse of social order in the mouth and find out whether it has teeth or not. Religion, once the main inspiration for rebellion, later became trusted as the opiate of the masses, but for a secularized society it can no longer provide political conformism. That, it is imagined, art might do. Art can give people the feeling of private wildness, do-your-own-thing, and yet has been turned into a safe, middle class road to follow. Art is an outlet for intelligence, sensitivity, reflection. Maybe impractical, risky, but “society needs that too.” The artist today both exemplifies freedom and is responsible enough to make art a career path that, like all careers, looks to economic entrepreneurship for its guide. Would-be Bohemians go to school to be trained and end up living quite conventional lives. From the viewpoint of the institutions that claim to have our interests at heart, art, unlike confrontational politics, can be fully colonized and integrated into a smooth-running social order.

While politics has shown itself as capable of disruptive moments of “outsider” activity—the top-down supported Tea Party movement whose initial benefactors lost control of it, then the Occupy movement—the same is not true of the arts. In the fifties the lines were drawn tightly (I remember quite well!), with institutional support exclusively for high, “serious” music and literature. Aside from visual art, so valuable to Cold War politics, there was no free play allowed, which meant no support for experimentalism: the Beats, the New York School of Poets, the Black Mountain School, were all on their own. Anything truly on its own is a threat to the social order, whether highly repressive or liberal. Today, where is the experiment that cannot find a grant to apply for? One would have to search hard to find anything that meets with critical disapproval (financial discouragement is another thing, more easily justified as bureaucratic). It would appear that today is marked by the flourishing of the arts, that the present establishment has taken the sixties as a lesson and dissolved its earlier function, which was to distinguish true art from the false, and is the one truly open and generous social space. What we get is an orderly system of apparent even-playing-field competition, with every artist merely competing for attention and buyers, like all Americans. Meanwhile audiences are understood as looking at and listening to cultural producers, and not looking for something, as they were in the sixties.

It seems as if the sixties cultural challenge was not at all defeated but fully absorbed, even welcomed, and a new elite waves its flag. The aware and expressive self as well as the body, for Ginsburg and other poets, were unassimilable at the time, but it is hard to imagine anyone judging grant applications today to raise an eyebrow. The “self” itself seems under control, and the body is a common project of performance studies and artistic exploration: no threat from that quarter. And how could art be accused of aloofness from politics, as it was by sixties art radicals, when political content today is such a major vehicle for art? The cry for relevancy, put down by the still-liberal New York Intellectuals in the sixties, would seem to have won the day. The category of Contemporary Art has been created to satisfy the longing for both relevance and politics: education into the Now and the New and the Challenging is brought to us from above as our curriculum. In the sixties “the new” was a threat to established culture; now it is the established culture.

In my opinion there is a hidden time bomb here. When our minders feel most confident that no threat can come from art is when that threat begins to open up. They will be surprised, as will those artists who have thrown their lot in with the career-based institutions. But it will be difficult to adjust, to reverse themselves, to shut the very door they have opened. If they have any historical sense, “Never again” will become “Not this again–I thought we were the good guys!”

If we were to put things in terms of sixties art we would search for what is forbidden. But everything is allowed, and the appearance of the forbidden is merely an advertisement for institutionally supported art. If we turn to early sixties politics as a model we would appeal to the institutions by which we are governed: the so-called art of the possible. The move for ourselves today cannot be that; to any demand we make the institutions will respond: just get in line, we’re designed to take care of you. By now we should be savvy to what this message means. In the sixties, besides the art of the possible a part was played by the strategy of the Great Refusal, the turning away from institutional support, in order to determine what it is we truly need and who we can trust. Look around, not up. What can we do on our own, where we don’t have to go through the legitimation machinery, false hopes, meager handouts and applause of the social order? Then we can start hearing the rumbling of our own true energy and passion, our bodies moving freely in space, our voices untamed by external pressures and promises. Our discipline will be what we have chosen for ourselves out of our private and collective suffering, enriched by the joyful living and playing we have found among our friends.