Arts and Crafts Utopia

How we live, and how we might live.

Category: The Sixties

Blake and the End Times

Photo credit: The Block Museum of Art

On Feb. 7th I had the privilege of participating in a public program organized by the Block Museum (Northwestern University) as part of its William Blake in the Age of Aquarius exhibition. My talk considered the way artists and intellectuals in the sixties looked to Blake as a prophet of nuclear apocalypse. In his book Where the Wasteland Ends, Theodore Roszak — who popularized the word “counterculture” in the late 60s — argued that Blake spoke to an “apocalyptic era” threatened by nuclear holocaust. Blake “saw in the steady advance of science and machines,” Roszak wrote, “a terrifying aggression against precious human potentialities—and especially against visionary imagination.” For Roszak, Blake had embodied modern society’s self-destructive hyper-rationality in the figure of Urizen, the

William Blake – Ancient of Days

personification of abstract law, order, and reason – seen measuring the universe with a compass in the iconic Ancient of Days. In a seminar on Blake, poet Allen Ginsberg claimed the “triumph of Urizonic mentality is the “neutron bomb.” As G.K. Chesterton quipped, “A madman isn’t someone who’s lost his reason. He’s someone who has lost everything except his reason.” Urizen, for Roszak and Allen Ginsberg, prefigured the kind of insane “reason” Kubrick satirized in Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) and the Blakean Bruce Conner in his Bombhead (2002).

Review of Counterculture Conference

I had the pleasure of attending an interdisciplinary academic conference in San Francisco, “Revisiting the Summer of Love, rethinking the counterculture,” on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the “Summer of Love.” Co-sponsored by Northwestern University’s Center for Civic Engagement and the California Historical Society, the conference offered a compelling “history-from-below” focused more on grassroots community organizing and coalition-building than the usual suspects (Ken Kesey, Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, et al). The editors of The Sixties: A Journal of History, Politics and Culture  gave me the opportunity to reflect on the conference and offer some summary/synthesis. Here’s the first couple of paragraphs:

The season has passed into myth: San Francisco’s 1967 “Summer of Love,” a sybaritic outpouring of song, sex, dance, poetry, and drugs when tens-of-thousands of young people flooded into the Haight-Ashbury district in search of a hippie utopia. That winter the Human Be-In marked a “gathering of the tribes” in Golden Gate Park: Allen Ginsberg chanted, the Grateful Dead provided the soundtrack, the Diggers distributed free food, and Timothy Leary enjoined the crowd to “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” By then the North Beach beat bohemia had flowered into the Haight-Ashbury’s psychedelic subculture, with musicians, poets, and artists living semi-communally in rundown Victorian houses. The “San Francisco Five” designed iconic acid rock posters for performances by the likes of the Doors, Jefferson Airplane, and Country Joe and the Fish at the Avalon Ballroom and The Fillmore. The Monterey Pop Festival made legends out of then relatively unknown performers, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.

Fifty years later, another “gathering of the tribes” convened in San Francisco – nearly 175 scholars, students, archivists, activists, and counterculture veterans – to make sense of what had happened half-a-century earlier. Northwestern University’s Center for Civic Engagement partnered with the California Historical Society to present “Revisiting the Summer of Love, Rethinking the Counterculture,” an interdisciplinary academic conference with the stated goal of “celebrating and reexamining the Summer of Love and its associated events, contexts, and implications.” Director of the Center, Dan Lewis, outlined some of the ambitions for the conference in his introductory remarks. He hoped that participants would model new methods and approaches to a period too often caricatured in pop culture or dismissed in academic circles. He issued, in effect, an institutional mandate for universities to get serious about the counterculture, to “reset the agenda,” in his words. In his plenary address, historian Michael J. Kramer (Northwestern University) suggested a methodology drawn from the counterculture itself: a “kaleidoscopic” openness to history as multifaceted, open-ended, and variegated, oscillating psychedelically between micro- and macrocosmic perspectives.

Here’s a link to the review.