Cultural icons – Britain’s love-hate relationship with heritage and the establishment. Anthony Wenyon explores what happened in this extraordinary decade
The mini skirt, Pop Art, the Beatles etc… would all seem to be icons of the 1960’s and the counter culture revolution. A closer look at what happened and why within society over the decade suggests there may be more representative symbols. Symbols that go right to the heart of what was actually going on in one of the most important periods of social history.
Understanding these developments, in particular in Britain, sheds light on what may be most culturally significant and symbolic of the period – we see a love hate relationship with heritage and the establishment. This continues to be fascinating theme in Britain today. Indeed, we argue this makes Britain truly Great.
A look at cultural significance
In the art world, the value of an object, be it a work of art, a sculpture or an artefact relates to its cultural significance.
This may be a paintings ability to express the deepest emotions and meanings of the human experience – certain works do this with such extraordinary clarity that they are significant within human history and our collective shared culture.
This may be a work of art that changed what is considered to be art – Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol were among the first to employ aspects of mass culture into art in commenting on the development of society in somewhat ironic terms. Andy Warhol’s Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) sold for $105m at Sotheby’s in 2013
This may also be objects that represent key stages or developments in history – one of Napoleon’s signature hats sold for $2.4m in 2014. We look at the 1960’s and the periods symbols in these terms.
The 1960’s – a decade of change
Essentially the decade was a generational battle with the political establishment at the time. The class system had declined significantly in the post war period and prosperity in the 50’s had provided many with a social voice.
A distrust in authority was emerging as governments handled cold war incidents poorly – deception with the US’ botched Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba as well as the Profumo Affair in the Britain (communist spying, a cabinet minister and 19 yr old model, Christine Keeler at an aristocrat’s country house). The Cuban missile crisis and Vietnam did not help.
And then – in the early 60’s – it happened. Britain’s great history of innovation kicked in again, as has been so typical in times of fundamental change or opportunity…think industrial revolution, naval innovation that sustained an empire from Elizabeth I and Sir Francis Drake’s untoward but gallant ‘new’ approach, international trade and so on…
This time creative innovation. A disenfranchised youth found their voice – the Beatles, the Rolling Stones…a new, exciting and relevant music, that immediately resonated with the nations mood. An international mood – this was the great British Invasion. A global phenomenon. Mary Quant’s innovative mini skirt and hot pants made London’s Kings Road an international fashion centre. A look to match the mood emerged. It provided an identity to many. The swinging 60’s had begun – but the battle with the establishment had also begun.
The sexual revolution had challenged the establishments institution of marriage. Recreational drug use challenged the rule of law and codes of behaviour, as did ongoing protest movements – feminism, gay rights and race.
Disposable income, record distribution, radio and film allowed the mass consumption of this new popular culture. It became commercial, with great rewards for those at its forefront. For the first time young individuals from working class backgrounds became wealthy. Very wealthy.
This was perhaps the greatest challenge to the establishment. Rock stars were driving expensive cars, living in country mansions. The symbols of status and success within the establishment were being taken over by rude, obnoxious young people of very different backgrounds. They did what they wanted, they didn’t care for the old rules. They were also self made. No privilege had won these prizes. This was difficult for an already vulnerable establishment. It was antagonistic. New mass-culture celebrity obsessions and the emergent mass press made this all so overwhelmingly visible. In-your-face was an understatement.
Within this lifestyle we begin to see an interest, an appreciation, for heritage – the country houses, the hand crafted British cars. The Beatles and Rolling stones were culturally aware. They bought art, they enjoyed the finer things in life and appreciated the sophistication of British refinement, the way the aristocracy ‘knew how to live’. The combative relationship with the establishment was distinct from an enjoyment and acknowledgement of Britain’s rich heritage.
Juxtaposition of counter culture and heritage imagery was, and remains, overwhelmingly engaging. The media could not get enough. It was, and is now, the ultimate of cool – something uniquely British. Kate Moss in Hunter boots at Glastonbury. Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow the flamboyant aristocratic fashion editor that discovered McQueen. Daphne Guinness.
The theme continued brilliantly with an Eton educated art dealer. Robert Frasier, son of prominent banker Sir Lionel Frasier and officer in the Kings African Rifles. He represented this contrast perfectly. Frasier had an excellent eye. He understood all that the Pop Art of the 60’s represented, he intuitively knew where this extraordinarily movement was heading and its ultimate cultural significance. He helped launch and brought some of the most important artists of the period to the UK – Peter Blake, Bridget Riley, Andy Warhol, Rene Magritte and Jean Dubuffet.
The bourgeois establishment did not like Robert Frasier. In 1966 he was prosecuted for staging an exhibition of works by Jim Dine (later to be a leading figure of American Pop art) that was described as indecent (although not obscene). Scotland Yard removed the works from Frasier’s Mayfair gallery and he was charged under an obscure 19th century law.
The problem was that whilst Frasier lived like a gentleman – he was chauffeured each day in a Rolls-Royce, Mount Street apartment above Scott’s restaurant in Mayfair, supremely sophisticated, kept a Moroccan manservant, Saville Row suits – he behaved like a rock star.
He was a pivotal figure in the London swinging sixty’s scene. He lived fast, recklessly even, was close to both the Beatles and Rolling Stones, he enjoyed LSD, his manservant was also his lover. His gallery was a hedonistic jet-set salon of pop stars, artists, writers and other celebrities. He embodied the heritage-counter culture contrast.
The turning point came in 1967 – at the home of Keith Richards where Frasier, Mick Jagger and his girlfriend at the time Marianne Faithfull as well as others from the art world and a shady cad David Schneiderman (know as the “Acid King” in the 60’s) partying. The establishment had had enough. A raid by 20 police officers would result in the arrest and later convictions for Jagger, Richards and Frasier on drug related charges. Frasier served 6 months at Wormwood Scrubs.
This moment, perhaps more than any other sums up the 60’s revolution and counter cultures antagonistic battle with the establishment with all the nuances of love-hate with heritage. It was captured perfectly by British Pop Artists Richard Hamilton’s painting ‘Swingeing London 67’ based on a photograph of Jagger and Frasier hand cuffed together during their court case.
The symbol of the decade
A decade of change – defined by creative achievement – driven by a generations dissatisfaction and disenfranchisement with the establishment, but also the emergence of the very British counter culture-heritage juxtaposition. A symbol of the decade must be an an icon representing this all. The antagonism wrought by the hand crafted British luxury motor car suggests a prime candidate. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and others bought Bentley’s, Rolls-Royce and Aston Martin. But which is most emblematic of this extraordinary period? A period that led to a new mainstream as counter culture defined a nations new place leading the world again.
James Bond answers this question. Whilst iconic in popular culture for sheer entertainment value as the world’s most successful movie franchise, the reason for the international spy’s choice of car is subtler but no less significant. It goes to Ian Flemings extraordinary insight in the early 50’s as to where the zeitgeist of social culture would end up in the 60’s.
In defining the character of James Bond after the war, Fleming foresaw tensions with the establishment and the emergence of a modernist view of the world. He defined his agent this way. James Bond was never a tool for the establishment and government. He was hedonistic, free thinking and rebelled against hierarchy. He knew how to live in the best British tradition, appreciating quality, craftsmanship and refinement – Savile row suited and enjoying of the fineries and pleasures of life as he protected Britain on his terms. The love-hate with establishment and heritage was central.
Main image: Gered Mankowitz 2016