The Sixties Experiment
The art of the 1960s, like the social and political terrain from which it emerged, is characterized by flux. As Cold War hostilities between the United States and the Soviet Union played out from Berlin to Saigon, and Latin American countries faced wave after wave of violent political unrest, traditional institutions were dismantled and cultural norms overturned. The decade witnessed an upsurge of grassroots social protest and organized dissent that focused on such issues as political oppression, civil rights, nuclear arms, and the war in Vietnam.
Many artists who engaged in these struggles viewed their creative production as a way to contend with the social and political turmoil, and sought to redefine the meaning of artistic labor. They experimented widely with unconventional materials—food, latex, consumer goods, video—and appropriated images and ideas from popular culture and mass media for their source material and subject matter. They also borrowed techniques from industrial production, and used their own bodies as a medium for interactive events. Such practices bypassed traditional art forms and institutions in an effort to erode the boundaries between art and everyday life.
The spirit of rebellion and experimentation that characterized the era led to a proliferation of approaches, styles, and movements, including pop art, Fluxus, minimalism, performance, and conceptual art. Each is distinct, but they are by no means mutually exclusive, as artists freely engaged in dialogue, exchange, and collaboration. While they forced dramatic change in the way art was made and understood, artists of the 1960s were nonetheless deeply engaged with its histories, especially the pre–World War II European avant-gardes. Those living in countries with borders drawn by the Iron Curtain, such as West and East Germany, also mined history to develop distinctly national forms of expression in a time of crisis.
As contemporary art was increasingly commercialized and institutionalized in the 1960s, some artists, taking up the legacy of Marcel Duchamp’s iconoclasm, stopped making objects and began to use language as their primary medium. Others focused on creating new means of displaying and distributing art to expand its circulation and accessibility, and used ephemeral media such as performance to produce works that could not be packaged and sold. Photography, as a way to record such works, became a crucial tool for artists. At the same time, diaristic approaches to documentary camerawork, with an emphasis on the subjectivity of the artist, gained currency.
Related to this enthusiasm for photography, and to a renewed interest in printmaking and cast sculpture, was the production of multiples, identical versions of the same artwork in limited editions. Multiples served as both art objects and vehicles for the distribution of art, with the intention to democratize it, and many were produced as components of performances. The Harvard Art Museums hold a near-comprehensive set of multiples by the impresario of postwar German conceptual art, Joseph Beuys; an extensive collection produced by Fluxus artists based in New York; and a complete set of books made by the Los Angeles pop artist Ed Ruscha. These objects, widely influential during the 1960s, demonstrate the seemingly boundless range of multiples production.
As the decade waned, so did much of the optimism about the potential of radical art practices. Nonetheless, 1960s art reverberated in subsequent years and continues to do so today, as artists grapple with their role in effecting social and political change, the status of art in a world of rapid technological innovation, and voracious commodification.