While I was in London, I went to the V&A to see the exhibition, You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966 – 1970. I had expected to be confronted with a mass of memorabilia, images and text. What I discovered was one of best executed and clearly articulated exhibitions that I’ve ever seen. In large part this was due to someone’s brilliant idea of utilising the magic of (I presume) Bluetooth headphones which offered a contextual soundtrack that changed as you drew near to a particular display or video.

Waiting to gain entry I thought, so this is what it comes down to – the turbulent times of your youthful past turned into a museum exhibit. But, as the late Jenni Diski wrote in her short book about those times, ‘the Sixties was one of those particular periods that was an idea to many even before it became the past.’

The V&A exhibition looks at the idea that was the Sixties – and in the process can’t escape being a nostalgic trip, allowing participants to wallow in reliving moments like Grosvenor Square or Woodstock and exclaiming over long-forgotten LP covers, books or posters.

But, it is considerably more than an exercise in empty-headed nostalgia, because the curators are also concerned to make us question the things we are looking at, by considering the intentions and legacy of the period. As Diski put it in her book:

The Sixties people are in their sixties. It has been more than forty years since the world was ours for the taking and shaping. We can look back with nostalgia to the simple fact of being young or we can try and tease out what, actually, we were up to and why; whether the influences on us and our own ideas were as new as they seemed, and whether we were as serious as we thought we were about changing the world.

The first words you see on entering the exhibition are from the anthropologist Margaret Mead in 1960s: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.’ One thing that we Sixties people thought we were doing was changing the world, and we had a troubadour whose songs confirmed us in our belief. The next thing you see is Dylan in the promotional video (one of the first?) for his 1965 single, ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ throwing down the cards on which the lyrics are scrawled, with Allen Ginsberg lurking in the background. Some magic makes it seem that the words float out of the screen and fall on the floor at your feet.

The V&A curators set out to explore the concept of Revolution through six strands which weave their way through the exhibition. One is ‘the Revolution in youth identity’, denoted by sociological facts such as:

  • In 1947, in the UK, one million babies were born. They became teenagers in 1960.
  • By the end of the 1960s in the UK there were 390,000 university students.

It was students who threw themselves most wholeheartedly into ‘the Revolution in the street’, where the fight against the establishment was taking an energetic turn. Scattered through the exhibition are exhibits that relate the events in May 1968 in Paris, when massive protests and strikes by students and workers threatened to topple the French state. Unrest spread across Europe (though there’s no reference here to the equally inspiring events taking place in Prague and Poland).

In America student protest was fuelled by the war in Vietnam and resistance to the very real threat of being drafted. Behind the protests lay some serious political theorising and an emerging utopianism that rejected ‘straight’ society in favour of something more ideal. Every now and then the curators give us a gentle nudge that none of this was new. So here’s a quotation from Oscar Wilde in The Soul of Man Under Socialism, written in 1891 to remind us of that fact:

A map of the world that does not include utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.

This is neatly juxtaposed with an extract from the Port Huron Statement drawn up in 1962 by Tom Hayden and fellow members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) – the main student activist movement in the United States, and a key element of the New Left:

We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit. […] beneath the stagnation of those who have closed their minds to the future, is the pervading feeling that there simply are no alternatives, that our times have witnessed the exhaustion not only of Utopias, but of any new departures as well. Feeling the press of complexity upon the emptiness of life, people are fearful of the thought that at any moment things might thrust out of control. They fear change itself, since change might smash whatever invisible framework seems to hold back chaos for them now.

Later on, the there are exhibits that remind us of other significant movements that emerged in this period: the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York were a turning point for gay rights’ activists, and women’s liberation groups began to demand equality and resist the sexism and discrimination that women encountered in mainstream society, and also in the alternative culture. Meanwhile, the Black Panther party argued for armed protection of Black Americans ‘by any means necessary’ as the civil rights struggle evolved into new campaigns about inner city poverty and racist violence.

Exhibits also chart ‘the Revolution in the head’ that was taking place: aided by the use of mind-enhancing drugs, and stimulated by creative experimentation in music, art, film and literature. Growing out of the existentialism of the Fifties Beat Generation, and drawing upon exotic eastern religions, the underground culture was celebrated in psychedelic clubs, such as the Roundhouse and UFO in London, which combined music with light shows, avant-garde cinema, and live poetry. out of the underground emerged a new vibrancy in artwork and design.

One exhibit provides a reminder of one of the main ways in which the new ideas of the period were spread. It’s a display of just a few examples from the burgeoning market in paperbacks (many of them Penguins) which were key to this process. Each and every one of these I bought myself; just looking at their covers brought memories of the time flooding back: Tom Wolfe (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test), Herbert Marcuse (One Dimensional Man), Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), Marshall McLuhan (Gutenberg Galaxy), Jack Kerouac (On the Road), Jeremy Sandbrook (Cathy Come Home), Aldous Huxley (The Doors of Perception), Allen Ginsberg (Howl), Richard Hoggart (The Uses of Literacy), Regis Debray (Revolution in the Revolution), Robin Pedley (The Comprehensive School). The latter opens with a sentence from a Times editorial in 1961:

In spite of the virtual abolition of poverty, in spite of the rise there has been in the rewards of labour, in spite of the fact that … the great bulk of the nation now regards itself as middle-class, Britain is still a jealous and divided nation.

Round the corner I encounter once again Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s invocation, ‘Revolution is the Festival of the Oppressed’ (wrongly attributed here to Germain Greer. Participating in the occupation of Liverpool University Senate House in 1970 – a protest that called for the university to divest itself of links with apartheid South Africa – I made a number of exhortative posters, one of which emblazoned Lenin’s words across one wall of the university’s administrative HQ.

'Revolution is the Festival of the Oppressed', Liverpool Senate House anti-apartheid protest, 1970
‘Revolution is the Festival of the Oppressed’, Liverpool Senate House anti-apartheid protest, 1970

As this exhibition reminds us, posters – often hand-made, stencilled or silk-screened – were an enormously important means of communication for both the political and the cultural underground at the time. Moving through the exhibition, you encounter many examples.

Solidarity with the African-American People poster, 18 August, 1965, OSPAAAL
Solidarity with the African-American People poster, 18 August, 1965, OSPAAAL

This poster was one of many that were familiar at the time, produced by OSPAAAL, the Organisation in Solidarity with the People of Africa, Asia and Latin America, based in Havana. Posters like this one were distributed through their magazine Tricontinental, which included a folded poster in nearly every issue. Distributed throughout the world, the posters had messages printed in English, French, Spanish and Arabic, reflecting the organisation’s belief that none are truly free until all are free, and their identification with people suffering injustice throughout the world.

'War is not healthy for children and other living things poster', 1966 by Lorraine Schneider for Another Mother for Peace, a grassroots women's movement
‘War is not healthy for children and other living things poster’, 1966 by Lorraine Schneider for Another Mother for Peace, a grassroots women’s movement

Undoubtedly, the most celebrated posters of this time were those produced by Atelier Populaire, the poster workshop that emerged during the May events in Paris in 1968 to produce the striking images that have become iconic.

 Sorbonne University is occupied by students, May 14 1968
Sorbonne University is occupied by students, May 1968

In May, as workers and students took to the streets in an unprecedented wave of strikes, walkouts and demonstrations, the Atelier Populaire was formed. The faculty and student body of the Ecole des Beaux Arts were on strike, and a number of the students gathered in the lithographic department to produce the first posters of the revolt.  On May 16th, art students, painters from outside the university and striking workers decided to permanently occupy the art school in order to produce posters that would, ‘Give concrete support to the great movement of the workers on strike who are occupying their factories in defiance of the Gaullist government’. The posters of the Atelier Populaire were designed and printed anonymously and were distributed for free. They were seen on the barricades, carried in demonstrations and were plastered on walls all over France. Their bold and provocative messages were extremely influential and still resonate today.

'Debut d'une lutte prolonge', Atelier Populaire, Paris, May 1968
‘Debut d’une lutte prolonge’, Atelier Populaire, Paris, May 1968

Elsewhere, we come across the first issue of Gay magazine, published following the Stonewall Riots in New York in June 1969. Activists started the citywide newspaper within six months of the Stonewall riots; they considered it necessary since the most liberal publication in the city –The Village Voice – refused to print the word ‘gay’ in Gay Liberation Front advertisements seeking new members and volunteers. Illustrating the way in which political activism and cultural iconography overlapped, we find displayed nearby the cover of Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis LP, released at the same time, along with the dress she is depicted wearing.

Cover of Dusty Springfield's Dusty in Memphis LP, 1969
Cover of Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis LP, 1969

‘Everywhere I hear the sound of marching, charging feet.’
– Rolling Stones, Street Fighting Man

On the headphones I’m hearing ‘Street Fighting Man’, Mick Jagger’s call to the barricades lyrics, reinforced by Keith Richards’ mighty guitar chords, which became the anthem of the 1968 protests. Jagger penned it after taking part in the March 1968 anti-Vietnam war march on the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square.

Mick Jagger on the March 1968 Grosvenor Square demonstration
Mick Jagger on the March 1968 Grosvenor Square demonstration

Looking back some twenty years later, Tariq Ali – one of those who organised the Grosvenor Square anti-Vietnam war demonstrations in March and October 1968 – wrote how many of the participants saw themselves as ‘the advance guard of the new order’.

We wished to transform western civilisation because we regarded it as poltically, morally and culturally bankrupt. That was the hallmark of 1968.

Demonstrations against the Vietnam war like those in Grosvenor Square were indeed the hallmark of 1968, with protests taking place in cities across Europe and the United States. outside the American Embassy in London in 1968.

But, 1968 was a year of profound global upheaval. In February, Vietnamese guerrillas launched the Tet Offensive in southern Vietnam, storming the U.S. embassy in Saigon. In May, the French student-worker uprising was marked by the occupation of universities and factories in a mass movement that seemed close to bringing down the government. In Czechoslovakia, the ‘Prague Spring’ urged ‘socialism with a human face’, challenging Stalinist rule until Soviet tanks invaded in August.
In America, the year is marked by widespread campus protests against the war in Vietnam, the assassination of Martin Luther King and subsequent riots in major cities, the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, and massive demonstrations outside the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.

The cover of Black Dwarf, edited by Tariq Ali,1968
The cover of Black Dwarf, edited by Tariq Ali,1968

As Jenny Diski observes in her fine memoir, The Sixties, while we marched in Britain against the war in Vietnam, young people in America had more urgent reasons for protesting since they faced the very real threat of the draft. In America, Vietnam draft resistance was the central focus of rebellion. The exhibition curators have displayed this succinct assessment of the situation from Stokely Carmichael, from a speech made outside UN, 15 April 1967:

The draft is white people sending black people to make war on yellow people in order to defend land stolen from red people.

‘It seemed ‘as if the world was wobbling on its axis,’ writes Jenny Diski about her experience of taking part in the Grosvenor Square protest on 17 March 1968:

It was dangerous, but it was also exciting. It felt as if it was not just our time … but that it was like no time ever before. … It was full of promise, and we developed an increasing sense of responsibility to use our time of being young – to indulge ourselves, golden generation that we were, but also to give warning that when our lot grew to be old enough to take charge, things were going to be radically, radically different.

Police struggle with anti-Vietnam War demonstrators outside the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square, 17 March 1968
Police and demonstrators clash outside the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square, 17 March 1968

Now the exhibition makes a sudden shift in tone and focus as we move into spaces devoted to ‘the Revolution in consuming’. Displays tell how this was a time when young people had no shortage of job opportunities and disposable income with which to buy the latest styles and records, while university students were supported by a generous system of grants. More generally, this was a time of rapidly increasing personal wealth, amplified by the arrival of the credit card (here are adverts for the very first Barclaycard). All of this fed the expansion of consumerism.

As Janis Joplin sings ‘Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz’ on the headphones, in a wall of mirror glass I see myself reflected against an array of advertisements – some of them ads for new products, others selling icons of the counter-culture.

When I’m watchin’ my TV
And a man comes on to tell me
How white my shirts can be
Well he can’t be a man ’cause he doesn’t smoke
The same cigarettes as me
– Rolling Stones, ‘Satisfaction’

It wasn’t only the Stones who were aware of the ironies of a counter-culture simultaneously in thrall to the emerging power of advertising and the reduction of the individual to a mere consumer. Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine’ plays on the headphones:

Do people have a tendency to dump on you?
Does your group have more cavities than theirs?
Do all the hippies seem to get the jump on you?
Do you sleep alone when other sleep in pairs?
Well there’s no need to complain,
We’ll eliminate your pain
We can neutralise your brain
You’ll feel just fine
Buy a big bright green pleasure machine

Do you nervously await the blows of cruel fate?
Do your checks bounce higher than a rubber ball?
Are you worried ’cause your girlfriend’s just a little late?
Are you looking for a way to chuck it all?
We can end your daily strife
At a reasonable price
You’ve seen it advertised in Life
You’ll feel just fine
Buy a big bright green pleasure machine

The Who Sell Out
The Who Sell Out

Pete Townshend was aware of the ironies, too. The Who had already been one of the first to do an advertising campaign for a major company (Coca-Cola). The cover of The Who Sell Out, released in 1967, is displayed here. Divided into  two panels, it featured photographs of Pete Townshend applying Odorono deodorant from an oversized stick, and Roger Daltrey sitting in a bathtub full of Heinz baked beans and holding an oversized can of the same product. On the LP, the songs were interspersed with jingles and pastiche advertisements (the Who’s manager had approached potential advertisers to sell space on the album, but only Coca-Cola were interested).

Townshend’s intervention marked the beginning of the idea that it was acceptable for bands to market their songs to advertising companies. He rejected the accusation that they were selling out, that there was a dichotomy between art and commerce, arguing flatly (like Warhol) that art was commerce.


One space has been kitted out in the style of a Sixties record shop, complete with bins containing vinyl LP sleeves for us to flick through. Here, a couple of days after the announcement of his death, I find Leonard Cohen’s first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, which bears this sleeve note:

Today’s most exciting artists are shaping a revolution which dissolves all fixed forms and pre-established modes of expression.

I have a powerful memory of nights in the Liverpool Senate House occupation when our little cluster of protestors would hunker down around a record player and listen as words like this from the album wafted over still forms in sleeping bags laid out across the carpeted floors:

I know you’ve heard it’s over now and war must surely come,
The cities they are broke in half and the middle men are gone.
But let me ask you one more time, O children of the dusk,
All these hunters who are shrieking now oh do they speak for us?
And where do all these highways go, now that we are free?
Why are the armies marching still that were coming home to me?

Songs of Leonard Cohen album cover
Songs of Leonard Cohen album cover

In April 1966 Time magazine dubbed London ‘The Swinging City’, reflecting its thriving fashion and alternative cultural scene. Displays document the rise of boutiques such as Bazaar on the King’s Road and Biba on Carnaby Street, with their colourful new designs.

Jenny Diski writes cogently about this aspect of the Sixties youth revolution: how we sought to express our individual identity through the clothes we wore, a rejection of the clothes our elders wore which automatically made us look middle-aged. But, observes Diski, we were in retrospect no different from any other youth cohort – ‘we simply readjusted the idea of whose approval we were after’.

Moreover, she adds:

All those ground-breaking cheap and cheerful garments were made in order to fulfil and incite demand by the same old system … The clothes were designed and initially made by the young, but they were sold in shops – renamed boutiques – whose rents had to be paid, where turnover was required, and profits were taken or the shops closed.

It was a speeded-up capitalism of youthful entrepreneurs like Richard Branson, ‘their vision in sync with their generation, their ambition the same as generations before them.’

As ‘Strange Brew’ by Cream plays on the headphones I am transported back to the world of Carnaby Street, celebrity photography, and the underground clubs of the counter-culture. Here is an elaborate dress designed and made for Apple boutique by The Fool, a collective of artists and musicians (who also designed the LP cover for the Incredible String Band’s 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion).

Clothing made by The Fool for Apple boutique
Clothing made by The Fool for Apple boutique

Now it’s Hendrix on the ‘phones, playing ‘Purple Haze’ as I study the Sgt Pepper outfits created for the Beatles, psychedelic posters for U.F.O. at the Roundhouse, and examples of the underground press – OZ, International Times, and the Berkely Barb from California.

Cover of International Times, June 1968
Cover of International Times, June 1968

Poetry – in my recollection an important element of the counter-culture at the time – is represented by memorabilia from the 11 June 1965 International Poetry Incarnation at the Royal Albert Hall organised by Allen Ginsberg, with readings from Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael Horowitz, and Adrian Mitchell who read several of his poems, including ‘Tell Me Lies About Vietnam’:

I remember seeing Adrian Mitchell several times at the Everyman or Students Union in my uni days. I once had a copy of his collection Peace Is Milk. In ‘Loose Leaf Poem’, from Ride the Nightmare, Mitchell wrote:

My brain socialist
My heart anarchist
My eyes pacifist
My blood revolutionary

The Mitchell poem I recall most vividly is ‘To Whom It May Concern’ which he first read at an anti-Vietnam protest in Trafalgar Square in 1964 (I must have first heard him read it in 1967). Here he is reading the poem at the International Poetry Incarnation, Royal Albert Hall in 1965:

Here is the original version, as I would have heard it:

I was run over by the truth one day.
Ever since the accident I’ve walked this way
So stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam.

Heard the alarm clock screaming with pain,
Couldn’t find myself so I went back to sleep again
So fill my ears with silver
Stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam.

Every time I shut my eyes all I see is flames.
Made a marble phone book and I carved out all the names
So coat my eyes with butter
Fill my ears with silver
Stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam.

I smell something burning, hope it’s just my brains.
They’re only dropping peppermints and daisy-chains
So stuff my nose with garlic
Coat my eyes with butter
Fill my ears with silver
Stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam.

Where were you at the time of the crime?
Down by the Cenotaph drinking slime
So chain my tongue with whisky
Stuff my nose with garlic
Coat my eyes with butter
Fill my ears with silver
Stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam.

You put your bombers in, you put your conscience out,
You take the human being and you twist it all about
So scrub my skin with women
Chain my tongue with whisky
Stuff my nose with garlic
Coat my eyes with butter
Fill my ears with silver
Stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam.

Cover of International Times, May 1969

The issue of International Times for May 1969 (it says ‘1960’ on the cover – they were probably too stoned to notice!) contained a full-page ad for the Beatles ‘Get Back’, ads for performances by The Liverpool Scene, an interview with The Nice by Miles, an overview of Scientology, ‘A Flamenco Primer’, an essay entitled ‘The Revolt Against Banality’, a review of Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and ads for gigs by Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Van der Graaf Generator, the Moody Blues, Pentangle, John Martyn and Al Stewart.

At the end of all this, I find this uncompromising statement, reflecting the culture wars of the time. It’s from an editorial in Fifth Estate, February 1969:

We believe that people who are serious in their criticism of this society and their desire to change it must involve themselves in serious revolutionary struggle. We do not believe that music is revolution. We do not believe that dope is revolution. We do not believe that poetry is revolution. We see these as part of a burgeoning revolutionary culture. They cannot replace political struggle as the main means by which the capitalist system will be destroyed. The Man will not allow his social and economic order to be taken from him by Marshall amps and clashing cymbals. Ask the Cubans, the Vietnamese or urban American blacks what lengths the system is willing to go to, to preserve itself.

Leaving this section I almost missed, high up above the doorway to the next display, a large screen projecting the 7-minute tracking shot from Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend. Released in 1967, I don’t think I’ve seen this film ‘about violence, hatred, the end of ideology and the approaching cataclysm that will destroy civilisation’ for over forty years. I don’t know how the rest of the film would stand the test of time, but I stood mesmerised again as Godard’s camera slowly tracks alongside a very long traffic jam in the French countryside. It’s hilarious but also profound and deeply disturbing.

Weekend: civilisation as one long car crash
Weekend: civilisation as one long car crash

In a brilliant travelling shot, the camera tracks parallel to a line of cars, stationary  or slow-moving on a French country lane. The shot continues without interruption revealing all kinds of strange activities taking place in the traffic jam, but also the aggressive, unconcerned action of a rich couple in their open-top Mercedes as they power their way past a bloody, horrific accident that has left mangled bodies and blood smeared on the road. At the end of the shot the rich woman cries in anguish for her lost Hermés purse while mangled bodies spill out of a burning car.

In Weekend, Godard portrayed the absurdity of the life under capitalism. The choice of car crashes and an endless traffic jam as a metaphor seems to be a satirical comment on the idea of life reduced to an assembly line, the individual as simply a cog in mass production. The basic human need for transportation has morphed into a symbol of class struggle and exploitation: the rich couple can afford an expensive convertible, but the line of vehicles they blindly overtake is full of battered 2CVs and old tractors. Only the rich have freedom of movement, and while the bourgeoisie reap the benefits of consumerism, the working class stagnate at the side of the road.

Through the doorway I enter a different world. Here, in the centrepiece of the exhibition, the Woodstock experience has been recreated in a room carpeted with imitation grass littered with bean bags, and dominated by three giant screens showing clips from the Woodstock movie.

This is where the curators explore – in contrast to the consumer culture –   ‘the Revolution in living’, as illustrated by the new phenomenon of the music festival which was in itself driven by a utopian vision of living as part of a community, at one with nature. The Woodstock room is at the heart of a section that explores the permissive, libertarian hippy culture of festivals like Woodstock and of communes that sought to build an alternative way of living based on self-sufficiency, ecology, and alternative education.

The Woodstock room, complete with bean bags
The Woodstock room, complete with bean bags

The curators make the point that the three-day Woodstock Festival ‘of peace and music’ in 1969 was not completely new: there had been jazz and folk festivals for several years at Newport, where, in 1965, Dylan ‘electrified one half of his audience and electrocuted the other’. Nor was it the first pop festival: two years earlier the Monterey Festival had taken place, while a year later Britain would have its first taste of the experience at the Isle of Wight, where Jimi Hendrix performed for the last time.

Our culture, our art, our music, our books, our posters, our clothing … it’s all one message – the message is freedom’
– John Sinclair, White Panther Statement, 1968

But Woodstock remains iconic, with performances that defined the counterculture and political activism of the Sixties. We see Country Joe and the Fish perform their anti-Vietnam War rallying cry, ‘I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixing-To-Die-Rag’ and Jimi Hendrix’s blazing protest as he dismantled ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’, revealing the ugly truth behind the American glory that the song is meant to represent.

It was the most electrifying moment of Woodstock, and it was probably the single greatest moment of the sixties. You finally heard what that song was about, that you can love your country, but hate the government.
– Al Aaronowitz, New York Post, 1969, on ‘Star Spangled Banner’

500,000 halos outshined the mud and history. And for once, and for everyone, the truth was not still a mystery.

I found it hard to hold back tears as I watched his astonishing improvisation on the big screen. Now, I thought, we must face an America led by Donald Trump and an assorted bunch of  right-wing racists. What an irony at that moment to hear Crosby Stills and Nash on the headphones singing Joni Mitchell’s anthem for the Sixties generation:

We are stardust, we are golden
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.

Movingly, the screening finished with a roll call of members of the Woodstock generation who have since died.

Find the cost of freedom, buried in the ground
Mother earth will swallow you
Lay your body down.

In September 1970, the day after Hendrix’s death, an exhibit notes, ‘an unassuming festival opened at Pilton, near Glastonbury’.

I thought that this emotional highpoint must be the culmination of the exhibition. But it wasn’t over….

There was more on the utopian ideals represented by the movement for communal and self-sufficient living. One representation of this strand was the Whole Earth Catalogue, the counterculture catalogue published by Stewart Brand between 1968 and 1972. Its focus was on self-sufficiency, ecology, alternative education, do it yourself, and holism. Its slogan was ‘access to tools’.

An item was listed in the Catalogue if it was deemed to be useful as a tool, relevant to independent education, high quality or low cost, and easily available by mail order. I remember buying a copy when Penguin (I think) published a UK version.

The Whole Earth Catalogue
The Whole Earth Catalogue

The point about the Catalogue is that straddled the individualism of the back-to-the-land movements of the Sixties counterculture – and the nascent global community made possible by the Internet (and beyond that, the commercial possibilities of the Internet exploited by the likes of Google and Amazon). A while back, the Guardian published this piece which argued that the Catalogue was a book which ‘changed the world’.

Its founder Stewart Brand, began his introduction to the 1968 Catalogue: ‘We are as gods and might as well get good at it.’ Years later he observed:

At a time when the New Left was calling for grass-roots political (i.e., referred) power, Whole Earth eschewed politics and pushed grassroots direct power—tools and skills. At a time when New Age hippies were deploring the intellectual world of arid abstractions, Whole Earth pushed science, intellectual endeavor, and new technology as well as old. As a result, when the most empowering tool of the century came along—personal computers (resisted  by the New Left and despised by the New Age)—Whole Earth was in the thick of the development from the beginning.

And he spoke of how the Catalogue’s production represented the cutting edge of what would come to called new technology:

So far as I can tell, the 1968 Whole Earth Catalog was the first example of desktop publishing. The breakthrough tool was the IBM Selectric Composer a fancy electric typewriter with a replaceable “golf ball” instead of individual keys striking the paper. The many type fonts and sizes you see in this replica of the ’68 Catalog are how many “golf balls” we had. Typesetting was instant and cheap. The other revolutionary tool was a Polaroid MP-3 camera, which allowed us to copy line shots directly from books and to make halftones which could be pasted right onto the layout sheets. Handling graphics was instant and cheap.

A spread from the Whole Earth Catalogue
A spread from the Whole Earth Catalogue

Steve Jobs compared The Whole Earth Catalogue to the search engine Google in a speech in June 2005 at Stanford University:

When I was young, there was an amazing publication called The Whole Earth Catalogue, which was one of the bibles of my generation…. It was sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along. It was idealistic and overflowing with neat tools and great notions.

This brings us to the final revolution identified by the curators as having its origins in the Sixties: ‘the Revolution in communicating’. Exhibits document how the west coast of America was the birthplace of a variety of alternative communities grounded in sexual liberation, rejection of institutions and ‘back to the land’ philosophy, and underpinned by the belief that sharing the world’s physical resources and human knowledge more equitably was the basis of a better future.

This ideology also inspired the pioneers of modern personal computing (as well as the realisation that it is the responsibility of humans to protect the planet, giving rise to environmentalism – another strand explored here). Environmentalism and the personal computing and internet revolution are, the curators suggest, among the most important legacies of the hippie ideals of communalism in the Sixties.

That legacy is both positive, but also a negative one, as made clear in a quotation from Marshall McLuhan’s Medium is the Massage, displayed here in the Penguin edition:

The older, traditional ideas of private, isolated thoughts and actions… are very seriously threatened by new methods of instantaneous electric information retrieval, by the electrically computerized dossier – that one big gossip column that is unforgiving, unforgetful and from which there is no redemption, no erasure of early mistakes.

Why was the book called The Medium is the Massage, when McLuhan is more commonly quoted for his catchphrase ‘the medium is the message’? Interestingly, it appears that the title was the result of a typographical error. But McLuhan thought it was very apt (and insisted that it stayed) because, he felt, ‘All media work us over completely’; media technology so changes our personal, political, aesthetic, ethical and social lives that ‘no part of us is untouched, unaffected, unaltered.’

On the headphones, Nina Simone sings ‘I wish I knew how it would feel to be free’. Then while the Doors sing ‘Can you picture what will be… so limitless and free’ we are encouraged to ponder the double-edged legacy of the freedom delivered by computing and the internet:

The counter-culture’s scorn for centralised authority provided the philosophical foundation for not only the leaderless internet, but also the entire personal computer revolution.

– Stewart Brand, Time magazine, 1995

Finally, the exhibition explores the emergence of environmentalism. The starting point of the American environmental movement it sometimes seen as being 16 June 1962, the date when  New Yorker magazine published the first of three excerpts from Rachel Carson’s new book, Silent Spring. Controversy followed: weeks later, before the book was even out, a headline in the New York Times declared, ‘Silent Spring’ Is Now Noisy Summer’. When it was finally published in September, Silent Spring sold hundreds of thousands of copies and stayed on the best seller list for thirty-one months.

Silent Spring: the article in the New York Times on 22 July 1962
Silent Spring: the article in the New York Times on 22 July 1962

A quotation from Silent Spring is displayed:

Only in this, the moment represented by the present century, has one species – man – acquired significant power to alter the nature of the world.

On the headphones, Joni sings, ‘They took all the trees, put ’em in a tree museum’

Since the Sixties, there have been huge advances in environmental awareness, yet at the same time the failure to effectively tackle the crisis facing the planet seems daily more evident. And that’s not the only sense in which a case could be made that things are worse now in a whole host of ways than they were in the Sixties. It’s fitting then that the exhibition closes with a section entitled, ‘Gathering clouds’.

As the sixties drew to a close, there were signs that a prolonged period of optimism and idealism was drawing to a close. Nixon was elected in 1968 and 1972, the oil shock resulted in global economic recession, while on a cultural level, the deaths of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison, and the breakup of the Beatles all seemed to dissipate the optimism of the era.

While ‘Ohio’, Neil Young’s angry lament for the students shot dead in an anti-war protest at Ohio University in 1970 rings in my ears, I read about the Oz trial of 1971, and note this quotation, from prophet of neoliberalism, Milton Friedman, in ‘Why Government is the Problem’, 1973:

The great virtue of a free market economy is that it does not care what colour people are; it does not care what their religion is; it only cares whether they can produce something you want to buy.

– Milton Friedman, ‘Why Government is the Problem’, 1973

Coincidentally, on train home, I read this by George Monbiot in the Guardian:

At a meeting a few months after Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Conservative party, one of her colleagues, or so the story goes, was explaining what he saw as the core beliefs of conservatism. She snapped open her handbag, pulled out a dog-eared book, and slammed it on the table. “This is what we believe,” she said. A political revolution that would sweep the world had begun.

The book was The Constitution of Liberty by Frederick Hayek. Its publication, in 1960, marked the transition from an honest, if extreme, philosophy to an outright racket. The philosophy was called neoliberalism.

The exhibition succeeds in  highlighting the debate about the true nature of the Sixties legacy. On one side there are those who argue that the legacy has been an enduring change in attitudes – a ‘revolution in the head’. People no longer believed that authority knew best, but increasingly trusted their own judgement and believed in the possibility of progress.

What kind of progress, though? Multiculturalism, feminism, gay liberation, environmentalism, and ideals of communality can all be traced back to sixties idealism. Personal computing – the transformative technology of our time – also had its genesis in hippie ideals of sharing knowledge and seeking alternative communities.

But others argue that the legacy of the Sixties is less positive: that it has also led to the ‘dark web’ where pornographers and organised crime operate freely, and to popular acceptance of a surveillance culture. Meanwhile, the planet remains in a precarious state.

Above all, there is the matter of the freedom of the individual, an idea that is now dominant in the West. It’s an ideal that paved the way for the collapse of communism, but which seems also to have led inexorably from a culture of ‘we’ to ‘me’. Displayed are these words from Noam Chomsky, from Profit Over People, 1999:

Instead of citizens, it produces consumers. Instead of communities it produces shopping malls. The net result is an atomised society of disengaged individuals who feel demoralised and socially powerless.

In her book on the Sixties, Jenny Diski quotes the socialist GP and activist David Widgery’s qualified optimism (in words written in 1989) about the long-term effect of the radicalism of the Sixties:

We changed attitudes but not structure. We succeeded in changing attitudes profoundly but did not have the strength to change the economic and therefore political power structure fundamentally.

But she is less sanguine, despite acknowledging historic events such as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Soviet communism, the transition to democracy in South Africa, the gains made by the American civil rights movement, and advances in women’s rights and gay liberation, she writes:

Forty years on there has been no remission in war and civil strife, no lessening of hunger in underdeveloped parts of the world. … It is almost astonishing how little has changed, except in the realm of technology. We have more toys to play with while big business and governments are almost indistinguishable (‘We are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich,’ said Peter Mandelson, speaking for New Labour in 1998). … For a decade so notorious for its politically radical youth, it’s quite remarkable how little effect we had.

There have, of course, been changes, politically and socially, some of them legislative, but I don’t think they have penetrated into the assumptions of the great majority of the human race.

The exhibition curators pose a final question: Have we lost confidence in our power to shape the world? They juxtapose their question with a display of John Lennon’s hand-written lyrics to ‘Imagine’, ironically scribbled on a New York Hilton notepad, and a 1971 quote from Alan Kay, the architect of the graphical user interface of modern computers:

The best way to predict the future is to invent it.

On the way out of the exhibition, told to keep your headphones on, you hear Blake’s Jerusalem – ‘a stunning evocation of the right to imagine, desire and fight for an idealised vision of society’ in their words – as set to music by Hubert Parry:

Bring me my bow of burning gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire.

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

On this note, you exit into the shop for the opportunity to buy badges, vinyl LPs, jeans, posters, t-shirts, books and DVDs.

Jenny Diski, in The Sixties, writes, ‘We really didn’t see it coming, the new world of rabid individualism and the sanctity of profit’:

The argument limps on, between generations now, about the legacy of the permissive Sixties. There are two accusations: that we caused the greed and self-interest of the Eighties by invoking the self, the individual, as the unit of society and setting up individualism for the Right to pick up and run with; or that we caused it by being so permissive, so soppy about matters that needed hard, firm handling.

I think that, like Leonard’s midnight drunk, we just tried in our different ways to be free. Later, though, to steal Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist analogy, we found that, in the long run, we weren’t the crowd storming the Bastille but just a group of isolated individuals waiting at the bus stop to go to work or the shops.

It’s a pessimistic conclusion, but I feel a long way from the optimism of the historical moment explored in this exhibition.

I will stop expressing my belief in the rosy
Future of man, and accept the evidence
Of a couple of wretched wars and innumerable
Abortive revolutions.

I will cease to blame the stupidity of the slaves
Upon their masters and nurture, and will say,
Plainly, that they are enemies to culture,
Advancement and cleanliness. […]

Anyone happy in this age and place
Is daft or corrupt. Better to abdicate
From a material and spiritual terrain
Fit only for barbarians.
– Roy Fuller ‘Translation’ (extract)

Exhibition trailer (it’s on until 27 February)

4 thoughts on “You Say You Want a Revolution? A brilliant V&A exhibition brings the Sixties to life, and questions the decade’s legacy

  1. Gerry that is a dazzling review! I preferred reading it to struggling round the gallery and being told constantly to stop taking photos (and the call it Revolution!)

    1. Thanks, Andy. No, I just don’t understand the ban on photography, least of all in an exhibition like this. But even in an exhibition of paintings, low-resolution photos taken on ordinary cameras or smartphones are not going to threaten anyone’s commercial rights. Often they won’t even let you photograph the captions!

  2. A terrific review, Gerry. We also saw the the exhibition last week and thought it was terrific.
    I would like to get my two sons down to see it. They were born in the ’70’s and I keep banging on about how important the Sixties cultural revolution was. The exhibition really brings out that out in style.

  3. My youth has just flashed before me! This was more London sixties, it took many years to slowly make it’s way north. There was a lot needed changing, the legal male domination of women seems to have slipped them by as has the constant cloud of nuclear winter just one button press away.

    Now all seems a dream, love and peace crushed under the rampant grasping capitalism. Off to play my LPs to reminisce…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.