Counterculture in Society and Art
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times – so begins Dickens his Tale of Two Cities. With the similar duality we can start our account of counterculture movement of the 20th century, which took off in 1960s and marked much of the last half of the previous century in activism, social movements and arts. Counterculture in itself cannot be explained if its antagonist is not described and defined. In order to be counter to something, the other needs to exists, and in this case, it is a mainstream culture of the US and Western and Northern Europe of that time. Another important characteristic for any movement to be considered as countercultural is its critical mass. Countercultural stance may be easily proclaimed, but if the movement does not have enough power or group members to initiate social change, or even to get noticed, we cannot talk about counterculture movement. Another aspect that is mentioned at the beginning – the countercultural duality – pertains to a general uncertainty regarding the positive and negative aspects of such movement. As many may argue that counterculture of the 1960s brought about important changes through feminist, anti-war and similar political movements, others may evoke the well-known bathetic trite – if you remember the 60s you couldn’t have been there – alluding to drug-taking and sexual experimentation of different creatives of that period. Similarly to Dickens, it could be said that counterculture of the 1960s marks for some the best and the worst of times at the same time.
Before turning to a more detailed account of 1960s counterculture, we will first look into the definition of counterculture, and examine some of its historical precursors. Countercultural movement is not solely linked to the 20th century, but similar movements countering dominant cultural mores of the times marked some of the previous epochs as well.
Counterculture – Towards a Definition
A book The Making of a Counter Culture by Theodore Roszak is considered the first theoretical work in english where term counterculture is mentioned. Important, or more precisely, the necessary part in defining counterculture is its opposite, or mainstream culture. This opposition may pertain to all aspects of a culture, or to more specific elements like middle-class values, adult values or different political agendas. Interestingly enough, countercultures are often defined in organic terms. They germinate, grow and eventually die and become appropriated by the mainstream culture, however leaving their lasting imprint on their successors. Even today we still experience and live in the systems which were shaped by Hippies, Romantics or Beats. In general, counterculture is an alternative lifestyle, mode of expression, or social system that, as the term itself suggests, counters the dominant or normative one, and often leads to changes in that system.
Countercultures Through History
Although counterculture is the term immediately linked to 1960s, throughout history existed movements that opposed the dominant systems of social and cultural ordering. Among them is Bohemianism that flourished in Paris in the 19th century up until the First World War. Its members often met in cafes to discuss ideas and to watch bourgeoisie. Through their mingling and sharing of similar worldviews fist Bohemian identity was formed. They were defined by the repulsion towards materialism, strict moral values, and were notorious for their use of drugs and other psychedelic substances. A somewhat more prominent countercultural movement that affected almost all spheres of society form art to science is Romanticism. Its main opponent being Enlightenment thinking, Classicism, and modern rationalism, Romanticism that flourished from 1800 to 1850 put emotional world before the rational one, creating a specific aesthetics affecting many decades after its ending. In the 20th century, besides counterculture of the 1960s to which we will turn soon, other movements existed that opposed the mores of modern society. Many of them are considered 1960s counterculture forerunners.
The 1960s Counterculture
Social and political changes of the late 1940s and 50s directly influenced the development of 1960s counterculture. Beat culture originated in New York in 1950s. It was literary movement that rejected official literature style, materialism and conformism developing from the 1940s in America. Beat literature was later assimilated in literature canon, with its probably most famous author Jack Kerouac, but it nonetheless influenced many social movements of the 1960s. While for some the 1960s movement was linked with youth culture of the times, others see it as a more widespread movement, affecting versatile aspects of society. The changes initiated by this movement influenced not just Western Europe or America, but were also happening in other countries around the world, including Japan, New Zealand, and Soviet Union. However, the focus here will be on American counterculture as its tropes had significant influence on popular culture and arts around the world.
Generally speaking, counterculture of the 1960s is an anti-establishment cultural phenomenon that soon branched into different forms of expression, often surpassing the culture/counterculture divide. American Civil Rights Movement gained momentum and soon tensions in other spheres of social structuring became evident. Free Speech Movement, New Left, Anti-War, Black Panthers, Feminist and Environmentalist Movementsalso developed with their distinctive demands often professed by students and on campuses across America. Disillusioned with the American Dream, organizers and young members of these groups came in throngs from white middle-class families seeking alternatives. Hippies created communities where they experimented with different forms of social organizing, pleaded for peace and ending of Vietnam War, but also experimented with various psychedelic substances. Along with activism, art was also affected by the sweeping changes happening in this period. Psychedelic rock music, Pop Art and spirituality are some of the examples. They include, maybe surprisingly, some Hollywood cinema as well, showing that members of countercultural movement were present even within the corporate movie industry.
Counterculture Within our Society
Since any counterculture moment in history has aimed at changing some well-established part(s) of our society, it comes as no surprise that all such movements affected our lives to some extent. Some of them we were able to only witness, some demanded that we be a part of them, some altered our entire lives from the ground up. Regardless of whether they are ultimately successful or doomed to failure, counterculture movements are a vital and natural part of our existence. By accepting that significant role, it is logical that counterculture developed interesting relations with other aspects of our societies. Every period has had its own variations of how counterculture integrated itself with our everyday life, but modern times did have a few interesting examples of how such movements found their way into people’s homes.
The Power of Media
The second half of the 20th century has demonstrated that media can safely be described as the center of most cultures – especially the current mainstream ones. Advertising, television, video and music have proven to be vital to society, as well as some of the most powerful assets one can possess in their arsenal. By utilizing all the benefits that come by controlling what people are exposed to on a daily basis, one is suddenly able to dictate a whole new set of norms and trends that define what passes as culture during that period of time. Since media was proved to be a weapon of all the people interested in dictating the current standards of culture, this also turned media into a perfect tool for those who desired to use it in different directions then the current ones. Decades after the year of 1960 saw their fair share of culture and counterculture battling it out via different media outlets. Some of the most famous examples from that period are pro-Vietnam war television broadcasts and underground pacifistic radio shows which aimed at stopping the conflict, the media frenzy surrounding The Beatles and the famous counterparts of The Monkees which mocked the first official boy band, the entire situation surrounding the hippy movement, etc. And in more recent times, the entire culture-media-counterculture relationship took on a whole new set of rules, as the world was introduced to a wonder called the Internet. With the emergence of its boundless potential, this gem of technology became a heaven for countering the norms of cultures or challenging what people see as normal. The Internet opened up so many doors that distinguishing exactly what is mainstream culture and what is counterculture became an insurmountable task.
Connection Between Counterculture and LGBT Communities
If we were to examine the time of the 1960s, another important counterculture set its fundamental pillars in that period. Gay liberation, considered to be a precursor of various modern LGBT social movements, was known for its links to the counterculture of the time. These gay liberationists wanted to remodel or even abolish many major institutions and norms of our society by introducing such concepts as nuclear and the gender family. They desired to install new rules into current societies, that as a reaction branded their goals as dubious and insulting. Generally speaking, the counterculture of the Gay liberation had all the radical elements usually associated with such movements, as they were highly anti-racist and anti-capitalist in nature. Eventually, a genuine gay culture began to take root and, although they’ve done this very discreetly at first, they’ve implemented their own styles, attitudes and behaviors until everyone began catering to this growing demographic group. Due to extremely unorthodox opinions, their struggle was a bloody battle with tradition and customs. The prevailing public attitude was that homosexuality was a moral failing that should be punished. Others did not want to go down such a critical road but stated that there were more urgent matters that need more attention than the Gay liberation movement. Regardless of those opinions, the counterculture surrounding the circumstances of the Gay liberation is an excellent example of how certain standards are able to be substituted by alternative ideas which eventually prevailed. LGBT counterculture remains an active aspect of our societies to this day. Gay liberation’s legacy and ultimate victory are evident the fact that there’s massive open-mindedness towards homosexuals, as well as a large number of openly gay celebrities. Depending on the social climate in different countries nowadays, the position of gay individuals vary in quality, but the entire idea of an alternative homosexual culture remains one of the best examples how counterculture is able to impact the roots of our societies, changing them completely.
Dictating the Course of Art
Since art is, especially in more traditional senses of the word, considered to be the most genuine and precise reflection of a society’s culture, it is quite logical that art became a usual battleground for culture and counterculture to settle their differences. This has been one of the most natural and often occurring moments in art history as it is the exact way how new movements and ideas come about. Although new artistic ideas exterminating current concepts is as old as art itself, first excellent examples of culture being faced with counterculture in a more modern sense of the situation can be found in the 19th century. Movements like Romanticism were based not only on radical changes of aesthetics of artworks, but also on thorough alterations to the whole of society. They had their own takes on what culture is and what it should be, and they desired to implement these norms to society. If we analyze such circumstances as far as art is concerned, most countercultures within this field showed a tendency to challenge societies with their content which is meant to outright question the standards within cultures and move towards a more modern way of thought.
If we were to fast-forward a few decades, we’d run into some of the best examples of how counterculture is able to cause serious change within the art world. During the year of 1917, Marcel Duchamp presented his notorious Fountain, a piece that was meant to be what he described as a calculated attack on the most basic conventions of art. This was the iconic piece that is thought to have successfully brought down the traditional pillars of art to its knees and it was able to do so by presenting the viewers with an alternative point of view which proved to be more conceptually advanced than anything that came before it. Similar occurrences from this golden avant-garde period can be traced to the circumstances of Fauvism, Cubism and Surrealism. The youngest of the great art movements was one of the most intriguing combinations of artistic expression, culture and counterculture. We are speaking, of course, about the famous Pop Art – here’s a movement that was based on current culture and was also simultaneously challenging everything established both in the traditional and avant-garde sense.
It is crucial to note that such examples of counterculture within art circles have always been accompanied by a certain degree of controversy, as radical changes of norms within either aesthetics or concepts behind the pieces are always met with resistance from those who still believe in old ways. This has changed little throughout the history of contemporary art, including today’s circumstances, although the lines separating culture from its nemesis is extremely blurred nowadays. Numerous artists based either their visual vocabularies or theories behind their pieces on elements of current cultures of countercultures – this is a pure necessity required in order for art to advance itself. That theory is now widely accepted and modern artists are very well aware of that fact, meaning that countering active standards is now more popular than ever. This makes the contemporary scene extremely dynamic as literally all mediums and fields of art have at least a couple of confronting directions. Viewed from that angle, it becomes rather clear why such a confrontation of different opinions is crucial to art, both modern and old. If artists were to somehow detach themselves from both culture and counterculture, art as we know it would literally cease to exist.
Significance of any Counterculture Movement
So, how crucial are countercultures to our societies? It will most certainly not come as a surprise, but a lot. If we consider that culture is ultimately the best indicator of our societies’ identity and our general place and purpose in history, countercultures automatically take the pivotal role of our existence – they are the ones which inspire change. In order for us to grow and advance, making changes is necessary. When and in which directions those changes should be made – these are the guidelines countercultures are tasked with defining. In a sense, due to their self-conscious nature, countercultures are the aspects of our lives that dictate both where we’ve been and where we’re going. When viewed from that perspective, it becomes immediately clear just how much value countercultures have in our lives – as well as how much responsibilities fall onto any lap of people being a part of them.
As many examples from history have proven, countercultures have a certain way of moving deep below the surface of things, utilizing a unique stealth mode of being all but invisible to the dominant paradigm. Since this was usually the case of how things went down, the countercultural phenomenon has oftentimes been deemed to be one of history’s great blind spots. With goals of remedying this predicament, Ken Goffman wrote his book titled Counterculture Through the Ages: From Abraham to Acid House – this amazing journey will take you down memory lane, introducing you to various crucial moments in past countercultures altered the world. Never before has there been a book so obstinately determined to demonstrate the recurring nature of counterculturalism across all times and societies. This colorful, anecdotal and wide-ranging study covers counterculture moments that occurred between the times of Socratic Athens to modern day life, covering all notable countercultural happenings without focusing on geographic limitations.
- Grunenberg C., Harris J., Summer of Love: Psychedelic Art, Social Crisis and Counterculture in the 1960s, p.10.
- Hebdige D., (1979), Subculture: The Meaning of Style, p.127.
- Anonymous, Bohemianism and Counter-Culture, mtholyoke.edu.
- Dwight D.M., (1996), Romanticism and Counterculture: The Rise of an Alienated Intellectual Subculture, dwightmurphey-collectedwritings.info
- Foster E. H., (1992), Understanding the Beats, p. vii.
- Gair C., (2007), American Counterculture, p.5.
- Ibid, p.2.
- Macfarlane, S., The Hippie Narrative: A Literary Perspective on the Counterculture, Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co, 2007
- Deicke, W., Hodkinson, P., Youth Cultures Scenes, Subcultures and Tribes, New York: Routledge, 2007
- McKay, G., Senseless Acts of Beauty: Cultures of Resistance since the Sixties, London Verso, 1996
- Hebdige, D., Subculture: the Meaning of Style, London & New York: Routledge, 1979
- Gelder, K., Subcultures: Cultural Histories and Social Practice, London: Routledge, 2007
Featured images: Free Speech Movement. Image via emaze.org; Clay Geerdes, The Cockettes go Shopping, 1972. Image via walkerart.org; Jimmi Hendrix. Image via hippiesandbeatniks.webgarden.com; Posters from Blueprint for Counter Education (1970), by Maurice Stein, Larry Miller, and Marshall Henrichs. Photo Greg Beckel. Image via walkerart. All images used for illustrative purposes only.