How We Perceive the Past Has a Great Bearing on How We Live Now: Art Historian James Meyer on Why the 1960s Wont Fade Away – artnet News

Posted: January 18, 2020 at 4:44 pm

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In the opening pages of the curator James Meyers new book, The Art of Return: The Sixties and Contemporary Culture, we find ourselves on Marthas Vineyard in August 1971. It is the Summer of Love, and a mania for nude swimming and sunbathing has overtaken the beaches.

Meyer and a friend, determined to prove our independence, break free from their families and decide to hitchhike across the island. They walk and walk until theyre finally picked up by a man driving a VW bus. He has a beard, long hair, and he shouts,Come on in!

Meyer is only nine years old.

So begins the art historians perceptive study of the long 1960s (which actually covers roughly 1955 through 1975), and why that era continues to animate the imagination of artists, writers, and historianseven if, like Meyer, they mostly missed the period in question.

The books impressive sweep, which looks at 20 international artists, is motivated by a range of probing questions. What purpose do historical reenactments serve? How do events from past eras shade our understanding of the present? What are artists doing when they remember moments from before they were even born?

Artnet News spoke with Meyer, a curator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, about the books genesis, his turn toFriedrich Nietzsche, and how todays right-wing politics grew from reactions against 1960s progressivism.

Anri Sala, still fromIntervista (Finding the Words) (1998). Courtesy of Idale Audience International, Paris; Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris; Galerie Esther Schipper, Berlin; Galerie Rdiger Schttle, Munich; and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris.

What would you describe as the greatest challenge of the book?

Figuring out the topic itself. What I am writing about? What is the 60s return? How do you define it? How do you understand that history is not static, that it impacts later periods or bleeds into them?

My earlier workmy books on Minimalism and my exhibition on the history of the Dwan Gallery in Los Angeles and New Yorkreflected a structuralist understanding of history as a set of discursive, economic, and institutional conditions specific to their time. This book understands the long 60sthe period stretching from the mid-50s to the mid-70sas over and not over, a past that is not past.

Nietzsche, in his essay On the Use and Abuse of History for Life, proposes that history is a dynamic force. It can be a chain that binds us to the past, and a model of emulation. How we perceive the past has a great bearing on how we live now. As he says, we need to strike a balance between remembering and forgetting. It is vitally important to remember, yet not to the degree that we get stuck in the past. I discuss Kerry James Marshalls paintings about Civil Rights-era memory, the Souvenirs, along these lines.

Kerry James Marshall, Memento V (2003). Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City, Missouri. Kerry James Marshall. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

What about inserting yourself into the narrative? You write about your childhood early in the book. Was that difficult?

It was a challenge to write myself into the story. It was counterintuitive to my training to inscribe my voicemy memory and nostalgia for a period I experienced before I could understand what was happening around meinto my work. It turned out to be at the very core of what the book is about.

My generationthe children of the 60s and 70swas deeply impacted by what now appears to us as the last revolutionary period on a global scale. Revolutionary eras produce a surfeit of memory. They last longer because theyre more traumatic and more impactful than more quiescent eras. They return. I was forced to consider how my experiencethe impressions of childhood we each havehad inflected my research, and the work of so many others: why it is that so many artists, writers, scholars, and filmmakers of my generation, give or take 10 years, have felt compelled to revisit that time? The more I looked into it the more I realized the phenomenon is international and quite broad. My book discusses more than 20 figures from the US, UK, Eastern and Western Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America. I considered 90.

Martha Rosler, Election (Lynndie), from the series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home, New Series (2004). Photomontage. Martha Rosler. Courtesy of the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York.

In the book, you make a number of connections between the George W. Bush years, with the Iraq War, and the turmoil of the 60s. What are the connections between the long 60s and the moment were living in now?

The most obvious connection is between Watergate and the growing scandal involving Russia and Ukraine. The adjective Nixonian comes up a lot, and you see Watergate-era veteransJohn Dean, Carl Bernstein, Bob Woodward, and so onon TV regularly. What we have come to understand is this isnt Watergate. Practices of return, as I call them, force us to see the differences between then and now. The misinformation campaign and hacking of the DNC server by Russian state intelligence was a highly successful espionage action by a foreign government, damaging to the Clinton campaign and US democracy. The impact is ongoing. A failed burglary in DC seems almost quaint in comparison.

Martha Rosler, Red Stripe Kitchen, from the series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home (ca. 196772). Martha Rosler. Courtesy of the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York.

The book was written over the course of a number of years. Were you ever concerned that its relevance might expire in the gap between writing and the books ultimate publication?

Just imagine, my first essay on the subject was published in 1998! I was indeed worried that the book would lose its contemporaneity. What I discovered in the course of writing it is the very point the book makes: there is the historical 60s, a period that came to an end, and a 60s that returns, each time differently, depending on whats happening in the current moment. It doesnt go away.

During the Bush era, comparisons were made between the Vietnam and Iraq Wars, and between the anti-war movement and the relative lack of activism on campuses during the 2000s, connections I explore in works by Martha Rosler, Nancy Davenport, and Matthew Buckingham. Watergate is clearly germane right now. But it is important to recognize that the fissures we are experiencing between red and blue electorates came into play then, with the emergence of the New Left, identity politics, and Johnsons Great Society programs, on the one hand, and the rise of Nixons Silent Majority on the other.

One could say that the reactionary turns since the 60santi-busing during the 70s, the election of Reagan in 1980, the rise of the Tea Party in 2010 and Trumpism in 2016are extensions of that division. Right-wing efforts to disenfranchise voters of color, the Supreme Courts 2013 gutting of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the administrations efforts to curtail the Immigration Act of 1965 are other attempts to repeal the progressive gains of the 60s.

Amy Granat and Drew Heitzler, T.S.O.Y.W. (2007). Amy Granat and Drew Heitzler.

What about the other side of the battle? Are there connections between the popular movements of the 60s and the movements of today?

The Civil Rights, anti-war, feminist, and LGBTQ movements emerged then; each had a powerful constituency that developed around a particular issue. One can hope that climate politics and the Black Lives Matter and gun-control movements will be so impactful.

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How We Perceive the Past Has a Great Bearing on How We Live Now: Art Historian James Meyer on Why the 1960s Wont Fade Away - artnet News

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