Monday, October 24, 2011

Critical Review of Crow’s The Rise of the Sixties

The mid-nineties was an optimal time to reflect upon the 1960s, a moment crucial to late-twenty-first-century culture and identity.  The Reagan administration (1981-1989) was over and a prominent leftist mentality in the American public allowed for viewing of the 1960s culture not as villainous, but as a period of radical, necessary change.  With the torrid details of Vietnam, the civil rights movement, and other painful events receding, the 1990s American was ready to reminisce about other processes at work in the 1960s and how they have shaped the contemporary individual.  Author Pamela Lee writes in Chronophobia (2004) that “the 1960s are endless. We still live within them.”[1]   It is understandable, then, that in 1996, art historian Thomas Crow undertook an enormous feat in summarizing the art of the 1960s with The Rise of the Sixties: American and European Art in the Age of Dissent.  His text succinctly traces political and social workings of the 1960s and relates them to art movements across an international plane, illustrating how an art historical approach is necessary in analyzing the complex works created during this moment of dissent.
Crow uses a narrative method which begins with works by Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg which he follows back to the beat culture of San Francisco by comparisons to Burgess Collins, Bruce Conner, and others.  He jumps to the East Coast by describing the Happenings of Allan Kaprow in New York and then further east to discuss Situationists in Europe such as Jorn, DeBord, and Rumney.  At this point, Crow returns state-side to look at American Pop art, like that of Warhol and Segal, and executes comparisons to European Pop.  Throughout this exploration of various artists in different regions Crow traverses many art movements: Pop, New Realism, CoBrA, Fluxus, Situationism, Op Art, color-field painting, Minimalism, Conceptualism, Performance, Postminimalism, Arte Povera, and Earth Art.  Despite the breadth and complexities of these concepts, Crow is clear and efficient when approaching them.  For example he easily explains the links between American Pop and New Realism, Capitalism and Socialism, and expressionism and abstractionism by investigating Gerhard Richter, Arman, Polke, and Twombly.  Comparisons such as these demonstrate how ideas navigated countries and concepts manifested in different ways.  Crow’s analysis of Pop and New Realism allows readers to understand how two seemingly separate movements with outward visual disparities recalled a single concept: both commented on mass production and consumer culture.  Aiding in the intelligibility of often confusing concepts and social connections, Crow includes a timeline at the end of the text.  This chart lays out the Politics, Scientific and sports events, Visual Arts, and Other cultural events of each year from 1954 through 1969.  Not all of the points on the timeline are discussed by Crow.  However, the inclusion of such information allows the reader to formulate a general character of the 1960s, a tool which heavily reflects Crow’s socially focused analysis.
 Thomas Crow
Critics and institutions are central to Crow’s narrative, and he shows how they acted to connect artists and movements to a larger social sphere.  He often returns to critics Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried to elucidate how and why an artist or work was received or rejected at the time.  Crow discusses the “recovery” of Barnett Newman by Greenberg as a reacceptance to the emerging canonical framework of the 1960s.  Greenberg “recovered” Newman’s art, which had been part of the initial rise of abstract painting during the 1940s, because Greenberg was faced with an “absence of new expressive discoveries within a formal vocabulary.”[2]   In this sense Crow describes how respected critics of the time influenced the production of art and the directions in which art proceeded.
Lending to the idea of a socially constructed moment of dissidence are the multitude of media used during the time.  Crow’s examination of 1960s visual art includes painting, sculpture, happenings, performance, conceptual, photographs, and many more.  His evidence connects this media maelstrom to the cultivation of dissent.  Crow’s wording in the title of the text, Rise of the Sixties alludes to a continuation forward which cannot be retraced but will eventually decline.  This approach quells the idea that the resistance to traditional norms in the 1960s was not something that internationally erupted spontaneously and disconnectedly.  By using a social art historical method, Crow illuminates the many social and political factors beneath this moment of dissent and, in doing so, demonstrates that in order to fully understand the artwork of the 1960s a social art historical approach is necessary.  His tone is remit with clear philosophical, analytical, literal, and critical notes. Crow’s erudition of the topic is felt by his versatile view points and easily convinces the reader of his thesis.   Although this narrative addresses complex issues, Crow’s prose allows for easy navigation through the material. 
Because Crow’s text does not include every piece of artwork from the 1960s moment, the approach used is problematic in two ways.  Firstly, his process effectively highlights some artists while neglecting others.  This is reasonable, as an all-encompassing analysis is nearly impossible.  However, Crow’s selection of artworks is the product of his own biases and mental processes.  Although a truly impartial analysis is unattainable, Crow’s voice remains objective throughout the text.  It is evident, however, that his choice of artworks for analysis were chosen  for their participation in his theory of dissidence.  Secondly, Crow uses current art historical ideas as a selective process to analyze the artworks of a time three decades past.  Retrospection does not always provide clarity, but often only complicates an analysis.  Transposing contemporary concepts onto the past may not be beneficial, but here Crow succeeds.  Perhaps this is because, as proposed by Pamela Lee, the mentality of today is not so different from that of the 1960s, thus Crow is able to transcend time to give an accurate and contemporary account.  This hindsight is not negative in every respect, though.  Crow effectively shines light on relatively obscure artists, such as Betye Saar, who were not recognized by contemporary critics and joins them to the underlying correlation of dissent.
The advantages of using a social art historical method to understanding the art of the 1960s outweigh the weaknesses.  Crow’s argument that this approach is crucial to a total comprehension of the artwork is evidenced by the political, social and cultural changes taking place in this moment and their connections to the artists and movements of the time.  By relating these artworks to a network of dissent, Crow succeeds in elucidating otherwise perplexing art and allowing for viewers of such art to extract meaning.

Works Cited
Crow, Thomas. The Rise of the Sixties: American and European Art in the Era of DissentNew Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.

Lee, Pamela M. Chronophobia: On Time in the Art of the 1960s. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004. 

[1] Pamela M. Lee, Chronophobia: On Time in the Art of the 1960s (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004), 259.
[2] Thomas Crow, The Rise of the Sixties: American and European Art in the Era of Dissent (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), 60.

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