The 1960s were a time of powerful social movements, innovative rock ’n’ roll, experimental, “mind-expanding” drugs, and yes, sex. Obviously I did not live in the 1960s, but according to the head art critic of The New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl, the ’60s was a decade when, if you were having a good time, you wouldn’t remember it at all. At his recent talk at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), Schjeldahl gave his own account of the ’60s, the contemporary art movement, and why art is simply useless.
“When the Chicago MCA opened in 1975, New York was exhausted,” Schjeldahl began his account of the last 40 years of art. “In the ’60s New York City carried modern art.”
New York City began one of the great contemporary art movements during the ’60s, capitalizing on the avant-garde movement and contemporary art’s ability to shape culture, and Peter Schjeldahl was there for it all. He recalled the many great gallery openings with Andy Warhol in 1967, but more importantly, he talked about what art meant to him early on in his career, and what it means to him now.
Before the time when a student needed an education to critique art (Schjeldahl himself dropped out of college before moving to Paris for a year), and before art was outshined by the new rock ’n’ roll movement, painting was on a steep decline and art had become a barometer for social issues, Schjeldahl said.
He began his career writing for various art magazines and newspapers, learning art “by asking.” He remembered not really knowing what any of the complicated art terminology meant, but asking whether or not the pile of bricks lying on the ground in front of him was really art or just a construction project.
During his nostalgic tour through the decade, Schjeldahl continually reminded the audience of 1967, a year he felt was one of the greatest times for modern and contemporary art movements. Since the ’60s were filled with social strife and commercialization was on the decline, art flourished. “The greatest art occurs when there is contention between the artists as well as contentions in life,” Schjeldahl told the audience.
With artists clashing while sipping coffee in local cafés in New York City and people clashing all over the world, it was a time when conceptualism and abstract expressionism had the fire to produce engaging new works of art.
According to Schjeldahl’s timeline, the ’60s harbored the perfect environment for a new artistic movement, and an ideal situation for art to feed ’60s culture. However, during this informative account of art culture in New York City, I and some fellow listeners, as well as Schjeldahl himself, began to wonder where the Chicago MCA fit into any of this.
“Art is useless,” Schjeldahl said, jarring our attention away from New York City and into a realm of confusion. “Movements tend to end when they start because the media cannot keep up,” he said. It was perplexing that someone who had worked in art for 40 years could denounce it as useless. But Schjeldahl’s bold claims were not intended to discredit art; rather, they were a way to segue into what he finds to be more pertinent than the past: the present. “Art expresses emotions, and those exist now…. The present is the best time because that is all there ever is,” he said. His journey through one of the most progressive eras in art was important to Schjeldahl, but he has always believed that the present is truly the best time to understand art, and this is where galleries like the MCA can become major players in artistic movements. Though Schjeldahl stated, “I hate museums,” he still believes that the MCA is an important part of the art world because of the socially relevant art it houses.
Like the Chicago MCA, many other contemporary art museums display art that captures the emotions of a society now. Over the Chicago MCA’s 40-year history, there have been many artistic movements, and the museum’s white walls and rooms have been there to capture the world’s joys and sorrows. Museums, as Schjeldahl stated, do have a deep connection with commercialism, but the newest art exhibit at the MCA holds true to the philosophy of “existing in the now” and seems to create something new. The exhibit, Sympathy for the Devil: Art and Rock and Roll since 1967, contains photographs and interpretations of rock ’n’ roll that Schjeldahl believes are as socially relevant as the collections from his favorite year, 1967.
Schjeldahl’s talk may have been more of a nostalgic journey back to New York City, but really, art’s ever-changing figure and its social premise seemed to be the true message.
Art clearly has been changing for 40 years and will continue to change in the next 40 years, but as long as it maintains its ability to be a barometer for social change, important critics of our time, like Schjeldahl, will be happy to revisit the time of free love and rock ’n’ roll—though they may never really want to go back.