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South Bank Show on art and 68 revolutionary movements

From:     blp
Category: ArtTVLife
Date:     17 March 2008
Time:     07:46 PM


Riot in Grosvenor Square, Prague Spring, levitation of the Pentagon, Paris barricades. Way too much
for one documentary, at least a TV one.  For a better, less First World centric and more artistic
survey of 68's explosion of revolutionary fervour, try Chris Marker's four-hour 'Le Fond de L'Air
est Rouge' (known in English as 'A Cat Without a Smile'). 

This was a weird sort of history that picked very few instances of revolutionary art from the year
and presented them almost as if they were the sum-total. Alternatively, you could say its handful of
examples were positions in an argument that was never overtly acknowledged: art students making
revolutionary posters in Paris, which were expected not to last, a radical journalist publishing an
open letter to John Lennon to tell him off for the counter-revolutionary tenor of 'Revolution', Mick
Jagger sending the lyrics of 'Street Fighting Man' to the same leftist paper (Black Dwarf), the MC5
playing proto-punk white panther revolutionary rock in America ('Kick out the Jams, motherfuckers')
and the Zappa, Velvet Undergound inspired Plastic People of the Universe being persecuted in Prague,
despite playing music with no political intent. 

The London  revolutionaries took hits on two fronts, Tom Stoppard leading one, calling them
embarrassing and 'narcissistic', Lennon the other. Lennon, expanding on 'Revolution''s condemnation
of 'people with minds that hate', stated in his retort to the Black Dwarf journo, that what mattered
were creative acts, ask anyone who's actually doing anything, ask Dylan, The Stones, Warhol;
apparently believing that a new utopia was being built out of rock records and pop art. This was
similar to the lesson Stoppard apparently felt the apolitical Plastic People, subject of his play
Rock'n'Roll, needed to learn: just by being free and groovy, they were political whether they liked
it or not and that's why the Soviets and true believing apparatchiks who crushed the Prague Spring
didn't like them.  Stoppard thought it was silly that people in one of the freest places in the
world (London) were angry at 'the system', but, understandably, felt people in his own country
should be resisting oppression. Take his and Lennon's positions together and you get a sort of
CIA-backs-Abstract Expressionism version of aesthetic politics where the sheer freedom of western
art is a political statement in itself. Not the view of the MC5, or, apparently, of the Stones,
despite what Lennon assumed. 

The old MC5 guy, interviewed today, said they'd lost; if anything, things had gotten worse; and then
he laughed toothlessly. Was this narcissistic? That's the word in all this I keep coming back to.
Where's the narcissistic component? Was Vanessa Redgrave narcissistic when she said her own career
hardly seemed important in the face of the horrors of Vietnam? I mean, I admit it, the unconscious
is tricky and you can never tell what people mean when they say this kind of thing. But still,
Stoppard, notorious brainbox of the theatre, was pushing a very dumb line here, the one that says we
can't resist what our own government does because it's not as bad as communism/fundamentalist
Islam/insert as appropriate. It doesn't even work as a syllogism. 

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