During my visit to the Oakland Museum where I saw Daniel Clowes and the Social Justice Posters, I spent most of my time in the 1968 exhibition. It’s an ambitious project and one which I’m not entirely sure works on its own—too much to cover and too many things to tie into it. At the same time, it’s a great first step and start of discussion which will make a big impression on most visitors. It’s well worth the trip to see it.
The biggest impression it made on me was how much it helped me understand where my parents came from. It’s not like I didn’t know about any of the stuff which was on display. It’s just that the examples and stories reminded me of items I was already personally familiar with and so my parents’ stories fit into the bigger context in a way I had not fully understood previously. As someone who felt reasonably versed in the events of the 1960s, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I learned.
This is definitely an exhibit worth attending as a family with the intent of telling stories, discussing what happened, and relearning the past.
Where it fails is that it never really steps out from the past and into the present. There’s no sense of current-day applicability to the events. No references to how things turned out and no questions about whether the fuss was worth it. This was most apparent to me when I was watching the Chicago Convention footage. I don’t think anyone protesting the Democratic platform wanted Nixon to win the election. But look what happened. Nixon won. The war got worse. It’s still not clear that the Democrats have recovered.
I also can’t watch scenes of the riot in Grant Park without thinking about Obama’s victory speech in 2008. I think it’s important to remind viewers what happened to these places and what they’re like now. The Ambassador Hotel is demolished now but Grant Park still exists as an important gathering point where the world still watches.
The concept of “where are we now?” is also completely relevant to the portions on the Women’s Movement. There are some tremendously good accomplishments which are noted* but other things like the concept of throwing away bras, girdles, heels, etc. tell a different story than they’re meant to. The story is always how throwing those away was empowering. Yet today we have cosmetic surgery which accomplishes the same thing. Is it really an improvement to go from an age where everyone knew what was accomplished by shaping undergarments to one where your body is supposed to be perfect before you put your clothes on?**
*Especially the increase in college attendance.
**This realization came to me while I was in a Vivienne Westwood exhibition. There’s a reason why almost every woman now chooses a wedding dress with a corset in it. It’s not the corset which is the problem.
Which brings me to the other big impression I got in this exhibition. I was very stuck by how simple the issues appeared and the ease of achieving protest action. It was almost quaint. Today, we seem to get sidetracked by the complexity of things. It’s hard to focus on a complex issue yet at the same time, people who focus too much on simple issues are now perceived to be missing the point. Movements today—assuming they get off of Facebook and into the streets—are criticized for either being too narrow-minded or too unfocused.
Other thoughts as I wandered through the displays:
War has changed an awful lot since Vietnam. It’s news now when one soldier dies. It’s also completely okay now to be both anti-war and supportive of the troops. I think those are both positive developments.
It’s nice to see César Chávez, Dolores Huerta, and the United Farm Workers included. All too often the 60s are portrayed as white/black/women issues and the rise of the UFW is hugely important to note.
The treatment of black rights and black power is interesting. The exhibition marks the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the foundering of the Poor People’s Campaign but doesn’t really call out anything else. You have to be alert to see things like Aretha Franklin on the cover of Time or Arthur Ashe winning the US Open woven into the general timeline.
The only other time black issues are explicitly featured is Tommie Smith and John Carlos* at the 1968 Olympics. Which brings up another interesting point. The 1968 games are not just about the black power salute. I saw no mention of Bob Beamon or Dick Fosbury or the phenomenal legacy each of them left on the games and sport in general. Nor was it mentioned that the games arguably shouldn’t even have been held at all—Tlateloco** shows up in the timeline but is never tied to the Olympics.
*I also always feel bad that Peter Norman always seems to get overlooked.
**What is it with museums assuming Americans know about Tlateloco? SFMoMA did the same thing.
There is also a silent majority section. Which is great. We do often get the sense that 1968 is full of conflict and that everyone was involved. Yet there was also a constituency which was powerful enough to elect Nixon.
I would like to see more about the presidential campaigns. The McCarthy to RFK to Humphrey transition is presented as something which just happened (well, besides the assassination thing) rather than an evolution in support. And Nixon’s campaign isn’t covered much at all.
I’d also like to see more about sports. Felt kind of like an afterthought. Sports is a different kind of common-culture which runs orthogonal to the rest of the movements on display. If anything, it’s the closest Americans have to an agreed-upon shared history which cuts across the rest of the divisions.
The comparison of television to movies is shocking. TV in 1968 is horrible and only worth watching today for kitsch sentimentality. The movies meanwhile represent the beginning of New Hollywood and are as important and impressive today as they were then. From what I can tell, the most important show on TV was the news.
The music, clothing, or industrial design displays are all very very familiar. The items are either still cool* or completely in-keeping with the myth of the 60s.
*Especially with the retro-cool trends we’re in the midst of right now where anything 1950s–1970s is cool.
I love the amount of ashtrays that they had scattered around. It’s going to be very weird explaining the omnipresence of cigarette smoke to my son.
And the glass grape sculptures. Total flashback to grandma’s house.
Ending the show with Apollo 8 and Earthrise. It still blows my mind that we hadn’t known the Earth that way until then. And the poignancy of seeing the hope for the moon during that time while we’re shipping the space shuttles to drydock now wasn’t lost on me.