Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Have we ever really left the sixties?

I've been reading Arthur Marwick's The Sixties: an enormous, fascinating, one volume cultural history. For most of his career, Marwick was Professor of History at the Open University, itself a product of that decade (which, by his generous definition, stretched from 1958 to 1974). His book argues, convincingly, that those years saw a lasting cultural revolution.

There is another story to be told about the significance of that revolution, but what is striking is the sense that we are still living in the sixties. This is a suggestion I've come across in all sorts of places recently. A recent issue of Newsweek, dedicated to 1968: The Year That Changed Everything, claimed that "all of us, young and old, are stuck in the '60s, hostages to a decade we define ourselves as for or against."

Meanwhile, at Radio 3's Free Thinking festival, the film director Mike Figgis argued that our culture is stagnating because modern technologies of film and sound recording have preserved too well the icons of the era, beginning in the late fifties, in which they first reached their zenith. Rock stars, film makers and fashion designers today are all, according to Figgis, too aware of Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and Jimi Hendrix for their own good. (You can listen to his lecture here.)

There's something in this, though again I don't think it's the whole story. But I do keep coming across more examples of the long reach of Marwick's long decade. I knew, for example, that The Smiths' albums which I discovered as a teenager were full of deliberate echoes of the films of the British New Wave. What made me sit up, though, half way through watching Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), was when Arthur Seaton tells himself, "Whatever people say I am, that's what I'm not." I could have told you that the Arctic Monkeys owed their line-up (two guitars, bass and drums) to the sixties, but I hadn't realised it was where they got their album titles.

So, have we ever really left the sixties?


Dan Aktivix said...

I also think there's a law of crowds involved - by which I mean, both culturally and knowledge-wise, the world has becoming increasingly crowded, and increasingly connected.

In terms of learning and knowledge, this has meant that (and I can't remember where I heard this quote, but I paraphrase) it was last possible to be a generalist at the turn of the 20th century. Now you're either a tiny ant helping maintain the academic hive (walking in journal stacks *really* brings this home to me!) or you're accepting the loss of meaning and pissing about with symbology.

Either way, it makes anyone look back to times when it was still possible to be someone! I guess everyone in academia hopes to do this nowadays by being Steven Levitt.

Culturally, the same problem exists. There's a loss of belief in the whole point of creating culture because there's just so much of the stuff: archaeological layers, vast fields stretching as far as the eye can see. One can imagine how the Arctic Monkeys might think picking up titles from old movies and music from old artists was just the way the game's done now. I hate the word, but, um, its all pastiche, and that's maybe OK.

Having said that, in the realm of the acoustic guitar singer-songwriter id never think there'd be anything able to move me much again, but then I saw the channel 4 funded film Once, and now have the music, and by God its wonderful. As long as one isn't already so steeped in montage and detachment coz it's awfully genuinely felt and earnest music!

Anyway, wittering...

Dougald Hine said...

Hi Dan,

Interesting comment! It's provoked another whole post...


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