Shapero Modern presents AMERICA IN REVOLT: THE ART OF PROTEST, an exhibition of original posters and artwork created by students and activists during the landmark ‘Berkeley demonstrations’ in California in the early 1970s.
Drawn from the archive of the late publisher Felix Dennis, and curated by the revered writer and counterculture historian Barry Miles. The exhibition is made up of 50 works from the Felix Dennis collection, which was recently acquired by Shapero Rare Books, each one capturing the incendiary spirit of that time.
I had the chance to speak to Miles about the exhibition and the counterculture of the period.
How would you describe the counterculture of the early 70s?
The peace and love aspect of the sixties counter-culture, centred around mind-expanding drugs, music and inclusive collective activity, and fragmented under political and commercial pressure. The two largest groupings at the turn of the decade were the New Age, back-to-the-country, communal, spiritual, personal-development oriented people, and the anti-war, political, anarchic, radical people from SDS and the radical left. As America sent more and more troops to Vietnam, so the war itself became less popular and large numbers of young people went abroad to avoid the draft or organized demonstrations and anti-war propaganda. Some elements such as the Weathermen, felt that a violent response was necessary to stop the war.
What distinguished the counterculture of the period from the anti-authoritarian movements of previous eras?
Most anti-authoritarian movements were arts based, bohemian in character and relatively small. Even the sixties hippie movement, at its core, was only a few thousand, maybe a few tens of thousands of people, in a population of millions. The murder of innocent students by the National Guard suddenly radicalised the American student population. When America invaded Cambodia, there were massive demonstrations on all the major college campuses in the States, as well as in the cities. The over-reaction of the authorities was spectacular. Armed troops were sent to campuses. On May 4, 1970, a contingent of 28 Ohio National Guardsmen were ordered to open fire on a demonstration by unarmed students, at Kent State University in Ohio, some of whom were simply on their way to classes. The 13-second burst of gunfire left four students dead, one permanently paralysed and eight others injured.
All across the country, students reacted in fury and thousands of colleges, universities and even high schools were occupied or became the centres of sit-ins or demonstrations. Ten days later; two students were killed at Jackson State, Mississippi, one of whom was walking home. A dozen students were injured, some of them hit by bullets when the police fired 460 rounds into the student dorm. It really seemed as if the country had declared war on young people. Anyone with long hair was jeered at, women were assaulted, the police felt free to beat anyone up, knowing that the local authorities would not object. It was an extraordinary period where society seemed to be breaking apart. The counterculture of the period could therefore be seen as a movement for collective safety.
These original posters were made for a specific political purpose; to what extent do they also serve as a record of American graphic design?
The immediate predecessors of these posters are the psychedelic dance-hall posters, produced for the Family Dog and Filmore West by “San Francisco Five”: Rick Griffin, Alton Kelley, Stanley Mouse, Victor Moscoso and Wes Wilson. From these artists we get the rainbow silk-screens and the casual, hand-drawn lettering (previously, concert posters utilised what is known as the Boxing Style, a variety of typefaces, drawn from commercial fonts, that are bent and shaded to give prominence to the most important names.) The biggest difference was, of course, the fact that psychedelic posters were intentionally obscure, intending to reproduce the psychedelic nature of the band and the event, and to be legible therefore only to the cognoscenti, whereas political posters have to be as legible and direct as possible to get their message across.
There are obvious elements drawn from the all-pervasive advertising that is a feature of American life and, in order to reach a mass audience, the designers went along with that, making the posters instantly familiar, despite their obvious genesis in the late sixties San Francisco youth culture. They were very much a product of the time, and the fact that they were printed, for the most part, on scrap computer paper, complete with the tractor paper on the perforated edges, preserves the sense of urgency and tension present at their creation.
What did the Berkeley demonstrations in the early 70s symbolize?
They symbolized the fact that young people were no longer prepared to go to war and kill people for their country unless they agreed with the cause. The World War II “My country right or wrong” attitude was gone. The undeclared Vietnam war was seen as unjust, illegal, and conducted mostly for the benefit of big business. It was the first mass reaction at home to America’s self-proclaimed role as “policeman of the world” and was unpopular from the start.
How important was the role of the arts in relation to the development of new cultural forms and a dynamic subculture during the 60s and 70s?
The sixties and seventies counter-culture was responsible – to a large extent – for the development of the gay liberation movement, the women’s movement, for more racial tolerance (can’t possibly claim the Civil Rights movement, but can claim celebration of multi-culturalism), the ecology movement, the growth of organic food, sexual liberation, a more natural lifestyle and the growing use of psychotropic drugs in preference to alcohol. These were all social movements. It’s greatest contribution in the arts came in music: pop music at the beginning of the sixties was a division of the entertainment business, part of variety shows. By the end of the period, though still marketed through the traditional entertainment channels – it had developed into an art form. Obviously there is still a huge segment of purely commercial rock music, but throughout the sixties and seventies it became the vehicle for social comment – beginning with Dylan but quickly spreading to many other US and UK groups and soloists; the development of high level musicianship, and a produced a side development of truly avant-garde music deriving from rock ‘n’ roll roots, beginning with people like Brian Eno.
The Beat Generation was primarily a literary movement, but was closely associated with the Abstract Expressionist painters. The Sixties and seventies counter-culture was primarily a musical movement, but also heralded the development of creative street fashion and, of course, its own graphic style, manifested primarily through posters but also through album sleeve designs. The ideas, the political and cultural attitudes and philosophy, were transmitted largely through song-lyrics, and through a series of cult books, mostly originating with the Beat Generation, many of whom were seen as mentors. It was through the arts that the ideas reached the counterculture as the mass media, generally speaking, was unsympathetic to these new ideas.
– Harry Dougall
AMERICA IN REVOLT: THE ART OF PROTEST is on view at Shapero Modern, 32 St George St, London W1S 2EA; from February 3rd – February 27th, 2016, Admission: FREE.