Art, Music, Protest: The Cultural Legacy of 1968

Saturday 20 October, 13:3014:45, University of Zurich, 71 Rämistrasse, 8006 ZürichBattle of Ideas Europe


This debate is part of Battle of Ideas Zurich

‘Beat is a cultural revolution’, claimed the pamphlets dished out by rebellious youth as The Jimi Hendrix Experience played Zurich in the heady days of May 1968. The riots and standoffs with police that followed the concert were in keeping with the meshing of music, art and revolutionary fervour that was also going on elsewhere in the late Sixties. In Paris, street art and impromptu theatrical performances became part of the political moment. In the UK and US, anti-war protests and demands for civil rights or sexual freedom were accompanied by a burgeoning musical soundtrack. As protests gathered pace, from Rio to Washington and Berlin to Tokyo, conceptual art, films, poetry and plays were used to explore and disseminate new ideas. Film director Jean-Luc Godard, then a Maoist, wanted his films to change the world. Why did culture play such a prominent role in the political turmoil of the late 1960s? And 50 years on, can art and music still forge social and political change?

Recently we’ve seen the mainstream popularity of ‘real time’ political theatre, musician-led campaigns against populist politicians, and endless biennales and arts fairs and artist-led drives claiming to ‘challenge capitalism’. For example, at the renowned Venice Art Biennale, the ‘centrepiece’ was a non-stop reading of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. Elsewhere, the 2018 Turner Prize shortlist was described as the most political to date, tackling human-rights abuses, identity politics, colonialism and stop-and-search policies. Does all this mean the radical cultural legacy of the 1960s is as alive as ever – or has it simply become institutionalised, even neutered? After all, the fiftieth anniversary of Paris 1968 was marked by Christian Dior and Gucci launching celebratory collections and a ’68-themed ad campaign.

For some critics, brands and big-money sponsorship are creating a generation of artists that play it safe rather than challenging conventional political worldviews and making us think. Others, such as writer Sohrab Ahmari, say a growing politicisation in art, especially around identity politics, is detracting from aesthetic concerns and values. At the Cannes Film Festival this year, as actresses protested against gender-based discrimination in the industry, Godard remarked controversially that today ‘filming is boring, actors are too involved in politics’.

Godard’s generation used new techniques and technologies to circumvent traditional cultural custodians and gatekeepers. Is it too easy for artists today to claim the mantle of radicalism while conforming to well-established political and aesthetic expectations? Should we worry more that genuine dissent is increasingly locked out of the arts? Or was political art always a bit of a pose, concealing a lack of aesthetic substance?