“Artistic-Humanistic” Creativity (1960-65)

Lately, in my ongoing exploration of the artistic movements of the American past, I’ve noticed that, in a mere half-decade (1960-65), creative achievements in the performing arts — music, drama, film — were so outstanding as to never to be equaled again (in my opinion).  What are my criteria for such “greatness” in these art-forms?  Basically, powerfully humanistic and vigorously executed creations, works that express — often subtly and with considerable nuance — ultimate human values.  Both rational and emotional, such a work must exhibit coherent, unified structure, as well as an authenticity of insight which transcends stale platitudes and hackneyed sentiments.  The viewer/listener is not only genuinely moved but also energized by the vigor and creative originality of the work.

If my thesis is justified, why did this short period exhibit such a creative-artistic efflorescence?  My impression is that, starting around 1960, a subjective feeling of a gradually expanding “liberation” was occurring.  As someone who still acknowledges the importance of such post-Freudians as Wilhelm Reich, I would insist that improved contraceptives (notably, “the pill”) was a key factor, as well as the gradually liberalizing norms regarding sexual behavior, divorce, and (a few years later) abortion.  But this feeling — a sense of a more humane, livable Zeitgeist emerging — was also mostly dramatically evidenced by the victories of the Civil Rights movement, victories which catalyzed a hopeful, guardedly optimistic vision of a freer-world-to-come.

Another factor was demographic: in 1960, 50% of Americans were under 18.  Such sheer numbers of young people, often disaffected and dissatisfied with the racist and blandly consumeristic status quo, pressed — with youthful vigor and idealistic enthusiasm — against the reactionary stagnation of their elders.  However, I’m more inclined to look to the 30-somethings of 1960-65: people already inclined to a more progressive-humanistic vision because of some first-hand experience of the Depression–or, at least, of its humane, artistic depiction (cf. Steinbeck, Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” etc.).

Who were these creators — to name a few, representative examples — and what did they create?  In drama, I’m thinking of Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun, a powerfully moving, convincing drama of one black family’s pain-and-struggle against segregation (far superior as drama, in my opinion, to the relentlessly over-hyped Death of a Salesman and adapted into a fine 1961 film).  In music: not only the boldly raw, vigorously impassioned hard bop jazz created by inner-city black musicians such as Lee Morgan and Miles Davis, but also the genre-transcending, freshly challenging jazz experiments of Dave Brubeck and others.  A key facilitating factor here was the existence of independent record companies and producers with a genuine interest in artistic innovation (Blue Note records, Columbia Records producer Teo Macero, etc.).  Even book publishers were, at that time, mostly small, independent firms (e.g., Knopf), still more interested in real quality than in maximizing sales (i.e., “the profit-margin”).

The film industry in the early Sixties?  Many talented writers — some newly-emerged from the HUAC blacklist — were unapologetically committed to some form of socialism or “social democracy,” a conviction which embraced human equality and dignity, and condemned exploitation of wage-laborers and racial/ethnic minorities.  I’m thinking in particular of the epic drama Spartacus (1960) — based on a novel by the Communist Howard Fast and scripted by ex-listed Dalton Trumbo — which earnestly and powerfully depicted the Roman Slave Revolt, ca. 71 B.C.  The synergy of talents exhibited in the film — writing, directing, acting, music — is probably unparalleled in the history of American film.  But, most importantly, the film was a powerfully dramatized treatment of an ultimate theme of human consequence: the value of the individual, free and undominated, as against the changing forms of historical tyranny and subjection.

The early Sixties also saw a burgeoning awareness of Freud’s often-disturbing insights into irrational, malignant human motivations.  Thus, for instance, the film adaptation of Melville’s Billy Budd (1962) unflinchingly probed the repressed Claggart’s sadistic intentions toward Billy.  In black-comedy — a subversive genre which came-of-age in this period — we see the paralyzed, impotent Dr. Strangelove rejoicing in a “cosmic orgasm” of global, nuclear armageddon (Stanley Kubrick’s 1963 film).

Nowadays, unfortunately, the enlightening perspectives of both Marxist and Freudian explanations have almost entirely disappeared — as what remains of an intelligent, searching public understanding is submerged ever-further into the confused blind-alley of “identity-politics.”  And, as for the often malignant motivations of many present-day filmmakers, I refer you to an earlier article, “Reviving Radical Populism in Films.”

William Manson is the author of The Psychodynamics of Culture (Greenwood Press). Read other articles by William.