Never has a decade been so mined for nostalgia as the 1960s. Nor has there been a generation quite so willing to attempt to preserve their youth in amber as the baby-boomers who lived through it. Yet not only are most of their efforts sickeningly self-aggrandizing, but the self-delusion involved
in such a task is also often deeply depressing. A recent billboard advertisement for Fidelity Investments featured pictures of peace signs, tie-dyes and VW camper vans, beneath which read the legend: ‘A generation this special needs an investment portfolio just as special.’ So end all revolutions.
‘Radical Living Papers’ sought to pinpoint the fire amid this self-satisfied smoke of smugness by focusing on the unkempt, low-budget papers that appeared across the world in the late 1960s, spreading the message of free love, legalized pot, gay liberation and a cornucopia of other then-forbidden fruit. The hundreds of papers on display ran the gamut from the familiar (The Realist, Actuel, The East Village Other) – to the obscure (Bijster, Grabuge, Hobo-Quebec). But the similarities in design and content made them all seem to be products of the same freaked-out printing press. Whether in New York or Yorkshire (Styng: Yorkshire’s Alternative Newspaper), the exhibition’s strongest suit was its depiction of the camaraderie that existed between these papers, for despite their never-ending imprecations to legalize marijuana, Fight the Power and fuck the world happy, their most radical belief – seen from today’s litigious times – was found in their production ethos. By becoming a member of the Underground Press Syndicate – a sort of Disassociated Press – any magazine could share articles and cartoons freely with the others, spreading the themes of the decade into the farthest corners of the world.
Drawing together this global brotherhood of similar thinkers was no doubt the intention behind wallpapering reproductions of the papers on the gallery walls. For here you could see the democratization of the printing press taking place before your eyes, alongside the destruction of social taboos. Typical pieces, such as Michael McClure’s Fuck Essay – ‘Fuck, say Fuck, say Cunt, say Shit, say Fuck God as a Holy Prayer’ – seemed to come with an attached editorial sotto voce excitedly hissing ‘You mean we can publish this?’
Nevertheless, at times the words are so excited to be saying what they’re saying that you can’t help but grow a little bored. ‘Yoga Sex: Stay High Forever’ may have been a radical sentiment in 1969, but such formerly radical ideas can now be found in the pages of Cosmopolitan. Ultimately it is the designs that are still most effective at capturing attention. The Robert Rauschenberg-influenced collages, handwritten headlines, typewritten copy and endless superimposition give the impression of avant-garde Soviet graphic design run through a psychedelic kaleidoscope: an anti-Social Realism, if you will. As John Wilcox, the editor of the paper Other Scenes, has said, the primary design creed of the underground press was to see ‘what you can do with offset litho before it becomes illegible’.
What is equally fascinating is how soon these magazines began to turn sour on the whole idea of the ’60s, thus triggering their own end. There had always been an inherent tension between the proletarian left and the pleasure revolution – the Situationists versus The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers – but the realization that certain ‘revolutionary’ images were being exploited led to equal bouts of soul-searching and backbiting.
On the cover of Ink, Che Guevara is shown in eyeliner and lipstick. ‘Gay!’ reads the headline. An OZ cover from 1970 shows a photogenic revolutionary couple holding a gun and a child: ‘He drives a Maserati / She’s a professional model / The boy is the son of the art editor of Time magazine/ Some Revolution!’ It seems to have been small comfort that the commodification of the revolution was not only a sign of its demise but also the clearest sign of its success.
But where there are highs, the lows will surely follow. On the far side of the gallery a film depicting The Living Theatre was shown, which merely went to prove how much more convincing it is in anecdote than in reality. The shrillness of what was once radical is hard to love, and a little of this stridency leaked into the show’s tone. The unavoidable message, as summed up by Thurston Moore (one of the show’s curators), was that these papers are ‘the antithesis of [today’s] dumbed-down youth culture’. But ‘Radical Living Papers’ is not convincing as a riposte to our age, simply because the papers reveal themselves to be the forefathers of an even more democratic, and far more pervasive, political and activist medium: the blog. Why can’t they dig it?