In the spirit of the July 4th holiday, we look backward and forward simultaneously, with a little help from our friends at the New York Public Library and their exhibition “You Say You Want A Revolution”
Everywhere I hear the sounds of marching, charging feet, boy. – Jagger/Richards
The Rolling Stones’ official 1968 video for “Street Fighting Man”
Nostalgia for the 1960s is an enduring and (of course!) marketable thing. But this time around, it doesn’t feel like nostalgia. It feels like something else, something better, some spirit renewed in the hopes of building a new truly patriotic society (as in, we’re all in this together).
Traces of that could be seen in the Occupy Wall Street protests back in 2011 (“We are the 99 percent!”). But, like a holiday fireworks display, it really kicked off the instant Donald Trump occupied the White House. It began, in fact, the day after the inauguration and then it has continued with ongoing protests outside Trump Tower and all Trump properties worldwide, then the uprising of the #metoo movement, then the Parkland kids, the ones who will inherit this earth…
A new exhibition at the New York Public Library, “You Say You Want A Revolution” feeds directly into this spirit of change through dissent. It could not arrive at a more auspicious time. The impact this exhibition has on visitors is not caused by nostalgia, which is passive. It is more like a shot of oxygen before going back out on the streets to finish the revolutions that were started back then but got sidetracked by yuppies and greed and complacency.
The best thing about “You Say You Want A Revolution” is that it offers a visual and musical experience rather than an exercise in academic tedium. That is, the wall text is kept to a minimum, and though it’s certainly worth reading, you can do so by picking up the handsome guide booklet (free) which reprints the entire thing. The idea is to visually experience the 1960s, not to be bored to death by them. It’s the best way to present an era that was, itself, a spectacle.
And, on that score, the New York Public Library hits all the right notes, well, almost all—one could quibble with some of the music featured, which dribbled over into the 1970s. (All Things Must Pass, Tea for the Tillerman, McCartney solo albums). The exhibit is organized into short, provocative sections with names like “Wang Dang Doodle: Sexuality and Gender,” “Bad Moon on the Rise: War in Vietnam,” “I’m Black and I’m Proud,” and “Back to the Garden: Communal Life.” Each section is driven by pieces taken from the prodigious collections of the library—posters, underground newspapers, chapbooks, magazines, photographs, buttons, stickers, album covers, manuscripts (including Tom Wolfe’s notes for Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (RIP Tom Wolfe) and Jack Kerouac’s typescript for On the Road), and audio/visual (snippets from the original productions of Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar run on a continuous loop). The final touch: A lava-lamp-like light show plays against the back wall of the gallery.
The overriding theme of this engaging exhibition seems to be that the “revolution”, regardless of its disparate strands, had one uniting goal: to usher in a “New Age.” Most of the ink that has been spilled since the 1960s about the tumultuous decade has been aimed at the battles in the streets—antiwar marches, the Chicago police riot, race uprisings, shootouts with Black Panthers, assassinations, etc. but the real revolution(s) occurred elsewhere—in what would today be called lifestyle, as well as in music, art, literature, consciousness, religion, gender identity, education—it touched nearly every aspect of American culture.
The star of the show is the British poster artist Martin Sharp, who was most famous for designing Cream’s Disraeli Gears album cover, but who is represented here by two amazing posters: “Vincent” and “Sunshine Superman.” Also breathtaking are the excerpts from the original San Francisco Oracle. Reproductions from this groundbreaking underground publication can never duplicate the impact of the original artifacts themselves, so it’s a real treat to see the real deal on view here.
If you happen to be in New York City this summer, it will do you a world of good to visit “You Say You Want A Revolution,” which is installed through September 1st in the ground floor gallery at the main branch of New York Public Library (officially the Schwarzman Building) on 42nd Street. You know, “between the lions.”