"May you build a ladder to the stars and climb on every rung, may you stay forever young."--Bob Dylan
The 1960s are now middle aged. Like many of its most abiding icons, the once-flowing locks are now a thinning grey ponytail as the '60s enters its own sixth decade. Blinking in the sun, amazed to be still around, revered, and referenced in 2012. But what about relevance? What exactly has been bequeathed to us from an era so brightly defined by youthful exuberance and revolution, now that its knees creak? Is there an enduring and valuable legacy, or did it all die before it got old?
Transformation, optimism, tragedy, and disenchantment. To some degree, all decades are marked by these historic rites of passage; yet, it seems none as vibrantly, violently, and memorably as the 1960’s.
The 1950’s post-war economic boom in the U.S. ignited hope, patriotism, and national confidence from coast to coast. Everything and anything was possible; the shine of capitalism would gild the future like ticker tape while NASA reached for the moon itself.
In 1961, the White House welcomed the youngest-ever president and John F. Kennedy's broad smile reflected the high hopes and bright dreams of the zeitgeist. America's youth, no longer seen and not heard, carved a contentious cultural divide from their parents to the sound of Elvis, the look of denim, and the art of abstract expressionism. American culture led the world.
On November 22, 1963, those dreams were blasted from a rooftop in Texas, and adolescent America lost its innocence in shock and paranoia. Yet, just three months later, The Beatles arrived in New York, and upon landing, restored a sense of joy, giddy rapture, and fanaticism. Alongside Bob Dylan, the Fab Four were seen as the liberators of teenage America. The cultural rebellion had begun.
By 1965, the young and progressive American collective consciousness was at once raised, altered, and liberated as experimentation with drugs, protest, and sexuality crashed through cultural barriers. In a starkly short time, mop tops were grown out for the serious business of protest and civil rights movements. Student power began to flex its muscles and promote and propagate personal expression through every available cultural channel. The new countercultural language and actions of American youth were echoed and even heightened in other nations, from France to Czechoslovakia.
Embodying emerging philosophies shaped around simplicity and essence, new design principles married aesthetics with ergonomics and consideration for the environment. Everywhere, innovations in design and architecture displayed a new rendering of Modernism into a more streamlined contemporary look. Utilizing new materials, an unprecedented cluster of iconic and sleek classic styles defined the decade and pollinated forward thinking and creative design across the globe.
But by the turn of the decade, the utopian dream had imploded. The peace and nature-loving egalitarian vision of society that emerged on the West Coast would last a mere four years, before descending into disenchantment and violence. The age of The Rolling Stones’ Street Fighting Man had arrived with an unnecessary futile war and conservative retaliation to the social unrest, generated by the youth and progressive elements of the middle class. Faith in leadership was fractured. The economy began to stall, and paranoia about communism and corporations emerged, coldly and persistently pursuing the rest of the decade and beyond. Vietnam continued until the disastrous conclusion in 1975, and governmental helplessness and conservative repression appeared to extinguish the burning optimism that opened the ‘60s.
So what, if anything, has this colorful, political, and moral maelstrom of a decade left for us? After all, the parallels to today’s world have never been more numerous or evident. Were the broken barriers and shattered taboos, once deemed controversial and threatening, mainly aesthetic and idealistic rather than realistic?
The hope of the Obama election is fading fast, eclipsed on a daily basis by the enormity and number of today's challenges. We currently abide alongside the wake and shadow of terrorism on a previously unimaginable scale, two futile wars, critical environmental crises and the greatest economic disaster since the ‘30s. Lack of bipartisan political cooperation, and corporate greed, have placed not just the nation, but most of the world, on the brink of unprecedented disaster.
The optimism of the ‘60s lasted until 1968 before imploding. This time around, we’ve managed to get there in half the time.
Unlike the ‘60s, there is a paucity of artists, icons, and representatives to set our concerns to poetry and instill hope. Where is our Dylan, our Lennon? Other than the street works of Shepard Fairey and Banksy, the art world seems to look on without comment or censure to incite us, and the globalization of fashion has rendered it generic in form. And of course, we're all teenagers now--how can today’s youth rebel against a generation of rebels? Where are anger and schism when son, dad, and granddad all go to see Clapton? But maybe the solace of the arts has become impotent and almost irrelevant versus the scale of today’s challenges.
But does it matter? And do we need them? The age of technology and social networking have enabled millions of individual clamoring voices to be heard, circumventing the need to subscribe to a particular movement or collective. This year, the media of Facebook and Twitter have propagated the fall of four international and long established regimes, with the likelihood of more to follow.
Whether it will make a difference remains to be seen, but the Occupy movement  has evolved and started to rankle authorities. The police are pepper spraying peacefully protesting students in California and arresting media in New York. And like the revolutions in the Arab World, it’s again, powered by social media.
Maybe it's true. We might not have the singers, artists and banners, and the medium may be different, but when it comes to expression and empowerment the ‘60s have shown us how to do it. And in fact, shown us that we CAN do it--that being heard is a basic right.
Though we may reflect on the revolutions and tribulations of the ‘60s and wonder where their resonance lies, many of the lessons and changes that were wrought through the growing pains of the decade are so woven into the fabric of our awareness that they are taken for granted. For example, all around us there is evidence that aesthetic values coined in the ‘60s have translated very well into future decades.
Designs imagined and developed through the ‘60s have outlasted the idiosyncrasies of postmodernism and its demise, such that not everything from that era is anachronistic. Today, the medium for communication may be radically different, but we only have to look at the iconic products coming from Apple to see that the new way to experience artistic endeavor, community, and solidarity are encased in a direct design homage to the '60s.
Simple, yet elegant in form and function, these principles are still truly relevant today in all their complexity:
- Nonconformity and paths of self expression are vital, not merely to be tolerated, but embraced and valued.
- Popular culture, art, music, and design can be both an expression of collective concerns and a call to arms against them.
- The world in which we live needs to be cherished, nurtured, and valued.
- Considered and conscientious design will always be relevant in an ever-changing world.