The Arts in 1960s America

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13 The Arts in 1960s America

The arts—literature, art, dance, and theater—went through a fascinating period of growth and change during the 1960s. New, experimental art forms like pop art and happenings drew new public attention to artistic expression. Literary artists challenged traditional ideas about fiction and poetry. Increased financial support from government as well as private donors opened new museums and regional theaters and helped art exhibitions and dance and musical performances tour the country. The increased publicity of art, theater, dance, and music brought larger audiences to museums and performances than ever before. Young people were especially encouraged to develop their own artistic talents during the 1960s in the workshops, dance schools, and regional theaters that multiplied throughout the country.

Trends in the arts reflected both the turbulent social and political trends of the time and the influence of artists and writers of an earlier generation. By the 1960s, America had been involved in some sort of military conflict for nearly three decades. World War II (1939–45), the Cold War (1945–91), the Korean War (1950–53), and the Vietnam War (1954–75) all had an impact on the way Americans perceived the world, and American writers especially paid attention to the impact of these wars on people's feelings and thoughts. The civil rights movement and the sexual revolution helped to expand participation in the arts, as growing numbers of African Americans and women contributed to artistic production. These new participants brought fresh insights to the art they practiced. Finally, growing commercialism in American society had a deep impact on the arts. Rising prosperity increased audiences for the arts, and widespread television ownership meant that televised productions could be seen by a national audience. But many artists believed that the heightened concern for consumer goods deadened the soul, and they used their art to question and criticize American consumerism.

Experimenting with style and form

More so than ever, artists in the 1960s experimented with new styles and forms. Some used imagery that commented on America's affluent commercial lifestyles. Others developed art that rejected U.S. commercialization. From these artistic experiments there arose several distinctive art movements during the 1960s. The most important were pop art, minimalism, and conceptual art. Photography also developed as a fine art during this time.

Artists noticed that American culture was filled with commercial images: on television and billboards, and in magazines and newspapers, commercial art was used to sell everything from dish scrubbers to soup cans to cars to movie stars and their movies. Pop artists used commercial art techniques to create new artistic forms. At first pop art was called "new realism," because it depicted real-life objects. The best-known pop artist was Andy Warhol (1928–1987). Warhol became famous when he exhibited a series of stylized paintings of Campbell's soup cans. Later, he produced silk-screen pictures of celebrities' faces, including actress Marilyn Monroe (1926–1962) and rock star Elvis Presley (1935–1977). Roy Lichtenstein (1923–1997) became famous for his huge canvases depicting scenes from comic strips. These paintings emphasized the small dots of color that make color by seeming to blend together in the small print of a newspaper page. The works of both Warhol and Lichtenstein were widely reproduced in the 1960s, and they forced viewers to consider the fine line that exists (or maybe does not exist) between art and commercial design.

Pop art took many other forms as well. Artist Claes Oldenburg (1929–) turned his New York studio into "The Store" in 1961 when he recreated a neighborhood of small shops with familiar objects made out of plaster. Visitors interacted with the shops and "The Store" became a powerful comment on American consumption. "The Store" was an artistic presentation called a "happening" (see sidebar). By the mid-1960s, Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen (1942–) collaborated to create colossal sculptures for several cities; the first was Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks, a twenty-three-foot-tall lipstick mounted on caterpillar tracks (the tracks of a construction vehicle), installed at Yale University in 1969.

Minimalism, another important style of the 1960s, reduced art to simple geometric shapes of uniform color. The style was pioneered by Frank Stella (1936–) with his pin-stripe paintings of 1959 and came to stress form and material. Artists such as Carl Andre (1935–), Donald Judd (1928–), and Robert Morris (1931–) first used the style in sculpture, creating enormous geometric shapes in single, uniform colors. Morris's first minimalist exhibitions, which occurred in 1964 and 1965 in New York City, featured rooms filled with simple wooden boxes. Minimalism was the direct opposite of the abstract expressionism of the 1950s, which celebrated the artist's imagination and feelings with highly abstract images charged with emotional expression. Minimalist sculptures were often industrially fabricated and showed no sign of an artist's hand. Minimalism was not meant to represent anything other than the subject depicted—no emotion, no larger context. The style placed the substance of the art above the artist's skill. Although critics dismissed it as a technique that required no skill, minimalism became very popular during the 1960s.

Photography also developed as a form of fine art during the 1960s. Photographers, such as Diane Arbus (1923–1971) and Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908–), turned photographs of everyday life and portraits of everyday people into high art through their ability to compose their shots and to depict their subjects with compassion. Cartier-Bresson tried to capture what came to be called the "decisive moment" in his snapshots. The term "decisive moment" came from the American translation of his book Images à la sauvette in 1952. Taking pictures of everyday people on the streets of cities all over the world, Cartier-Bresson elevated snapshot photography to fine art. During the 1960s, his pictures graced the pages of Life magazine, among others, and he also produced documentaries for CBS News. Arbus's portraits of children, couples, carnival people, and celebrities revolutionized portrait photography, and she taught her documentary photographic techniques at some of the best art schools in the United States, including Parsons School of Design in New York, from the late 1960s until she ended her life.

By the end of the 1960s, a new trend called conceptual art drew attention not to the artwork itself but to the process by which artists made their work or the ideas behind their work. Conceptual art was one of the most challenging art forms of the period, for it questioned the right of the art establishment—especially wealthy art collectors, gallery owners, and museum curators (people who oversee museum collections)—to define art. Part of the motivation behind conceptual art was political. Inspired by the advances of the civil rights movement and the women's movement, African American and women artists found their work excluded from conventional art museums and galleries. One of the responses of such artists, and the many who sympathized with them, was to take art out of the galleries and into the streets and minds of the people. Conceptual artists displayed unfinished art works, ideas for art works, and live performances that could not be repeated. Critics complained that there were no standards by which to judge such works, but defenders answered that this was the point. From these concerns other intellectual art styles developed. Some examples are Robert Morris's piles of rocks and dirt and Robert Smithson's (1938–1973) Spiral Jetty (1970), a 1,500-foot-long mound of earth spiraling into Utah's Great Salt Lake.

The innovative art movements of the decade forever changed the boundaries between fine art and popular art. No longer was a small group of wealthy art critics and collectors the sole judge of artistic merit. The new art styles enabled fine and popular art forms to merge and judged the work of non-elite groups, such as minorities and women, valuable. The fact that art forms could exist only for a short time or were seen only by small audiences gave popular opinion more authority in the art world, and the role of popular opinion continued to expand throughout the end of the twentieth century and into the early 2000s.

Literature of the 1960s

Literature and poetry went through dramatic changes during the 1960s. Early in the decade some of America's most celebrated and influential writers died, including e.e. cummings, William Faulkner, Robert Frost, and Ernest Hemingway. After the deaths of these established figures, younger writers began experimenting with new styles. The new styles reflected writers' desires to capture the atmosphere of the

Art Happenings

In 1959 New York artist Allan Kaprow (1927–) began a trend for artistic presentations called happenings. Happenings invited visitors into a theatrical set in which they interacted with the art; visitors might encounter sculpture, music, theatrical drama, and other artistic forms. Though happenings seemed spontaneous to visitors and were often unpredictable, they were in fact complicated, tightly coordinated events. Unlike regular exhibitions, at which visitors would just view completed pictures or sculpture, happenings enabled visitors to participate in art. Some of them were described as "living sculptures."

The term "happening" came from Kaprow's first event, called 18 Happenings in 6 Parts, held in 1959 at the Reuben Gallery in New York. For the event, Kaprow set up clear plastic walls to divide the gallery into three rooms. Using strictly choreographed movements, performers offered visitors tickets to the event, directed them to specified seats in particular rooms, and at designated times guided them to another room. In the rooms, visitors viewed a performer squeezing oranges, a person lighting matches, an artist painting, and a group of performers playing toy instruments, among other things. Kaprow's other happenings included Coca Cola, Shirley Cannonball? (1960), in which visitors watched an enormous cardboard boot kicking a ball in a gym to the beat of a fife and drum; Words (1962), an event offering visitors the chance to rearrange words painted on cardboard on the wall of a gallery; and Push and Pull: A Furniture Comedy for Hans Hofmann (1963), which offered visitors the opportunity to rearrange the furniture in two rooms. Other artists who created happenings included Robert Rauschenberg (1925–), Claes Oldenburg (1929–), and Jim Dine (1935–).

Most happenings occurred in art galleries. Some, however, were set out of doors, at artists' studios, in empty lots, or at train stations, among other places. The goal of happenings was to offer visitors the opportunity to question the distinction between types of art and its place in public life. Happenings peaked in popularity in the early 1960s. Although many of the happening artists returned to more traditional forms of artistic expression, their work gave rise to performance art. Performance art came to be a distinctive form of live artistic presentation that could include painting, dance, song, poetry, and other artistic expression. It was distinct from theater, as were happenings, because performance art did not include characters or plot. Both happenings and performance art were considered to be "pure" art because neither could be purchased or traded; they could only be experienced.

changing times. Writers used absurd elements, black comedy, and personal memoirs in their literary experiments. Thomas Pynchon (1937–) experimented with the narrative form of the novel itself. In his novel V (1963), Pynchon presented a nonlinear story in which he used descriptive "snapshots" taken between 1898 and 1944 from the lives of the novel's many characters to create a multidimensional image of society. Authors Joseph Heller (1923–1999) and Kurt Vonnegut (1922–) depicted the horror and dehumanization of World War II through parody or black comedy, which treats with humor subjects that are not really funny. In his novel Catch-22 (1961), Heller used a satiric writing style and the character of Yossarian to criticize medicine, business, religion, government, and the military. In Slaughterhouse-Five (1966), Vonnegut used the absurd, or non-rational, to highlight the randomness of war; his character Billy Pilgrim survives the dangers of World War II only to be captured by aliens and taken away in a flying saucer.

Along with experiments in style, literature opened to a wide range of topics. The variety of topics resulted in part from eased censorship rules and an increase in the number of minority and women writers. Tom Wolfe's (1931–) The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965) shocked some and thrilled others with its use of once-censored language and depictions of the period's psychedelic lifestyles. Two Pulitzer Prize-winning novels of the decade depicted the experiences of ethnic and racial minorities. Shirley Ann Grau's (1929–) The Keepers of the House, which won the Pulitzer in 1965, portrayed the social and political struggles of a southern family with a background of interracial marriage; and N. Scott Momaday's (1934–) House Made of Dawn, which won the Pulitzer in 1969, told the story of a young Native American man as he tries to reconcile the differences between white society and that of his ancestors. Women writers, including Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, wrote powerful poems about the female experience.

In addition, the Black Arts Movement (BAM) of the mid-to late 1960s ushered in a host of works by African Americans; among the most influential were LeRoi Jones (later called Imamu Amiri Baraka), Ed Bullins, Nikki Giovanni, Adrienne Kennedy, and Larry Neal. This movement combined the art of writing with the political purposes of the civil rights movement. Black artists used their literature and art to lift up and inspire other blacks. The works of many involved in the Black Arts Movement were a new foundation upon which blacks could build a society centered on their unique culture and heritage. Although the BAM dissolved by the 1970s, African Americans continued to produce valuable literary and artistic works throughout the twentieth century and into the 2000s.

On the American stage

On Broadway, the center for mainstream American theater, little changed during the 1960s. Broadway is a street in New York City where America's most influential theaters are located and the term "Broadway" refers to theater productions performed in the theaters on this street. Traditional musicals, including Hello Dolly! (1964) and Fiddler on the Roof (1964), attracted large audiences. Satirist and playwright Neil Simon (1927–) began a career that was to make him one of America's most successful playwrights with hits during the decade. His mainstream plays The Odd Couple (1965), Sweet Charity (1966), and Plaza Suite (1968) offered audiences humorous peeks into modern, urban lifestyles. But while traditional theater brought in large profits, experimental theater offered audiences unexpected views of life. These new plays were were referred to as "off Broadway" because they were produced in theaters, cafes, or other locations outside the Broadway district and because of the experimental nature of their content.

Developing rapidly during the 1960s, experimental theater shunned traditional theatrical realism that relied heavily on dialogue. The new theatrical forms used surreal—or distorted—imagery, nonverbal sounds, and choreographed—or planned—movements to shape their stories. Theater became increasingly political during the decade, with plays helping to define or interpret the political agendas of ethnic and sexual minorities and women. The playwright David Rabe (1940–) introduced his Vietnam Trilogy that deals with the brutality of war and racial issues. Other playwrights also used the theater to comment on pressing political situations of the decade, such as civil rights and women's equality. For their new theater, playwrights avoided traditional theaters, and instead staged their first performances in small New York cafes.

One of the decade's best new playwrights was Sam Shepard (1943–), who emerged as a great talent during the 1960s with plays that explored the changes occurring in many of America's traditional ways of life, including changes in the Old West and the infiltration of rock 'n' roll music into American culture. Shepard was especially successful producing plays in small theaters. African Americans joined the wave of new experimental theater. Playwrights such as LeRoi Jones (1934–; later known as Imamu Amiri Baraka) brought the politics of racial discrimination to the stage in such plays as The Toilet (1965), in which high school boys' bigotry is revealed in a fight in the boys' restroom, and The Slave (1966), which features a race riot as a backdrop to a black man's search for personal vengeance against his former white wife who is now married to another man. By the end of the 1960s several theaters featuring the works of African Americans had become established, including the Free Southern Theater, which celebrated the black culture that developed in the South, and the Black Arts Repertory Theatre in Harlem, New York, which concentrated on black experiences.

Musical theater developed during the decade to include a new influential form: the rock musicals Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar were two of the most influential. Hair, which debuted in 1967, presented a view of the lifestyles of hippies, or those who dropped out of mainstream society, and commented on the growing conflicted feelings toward the war in Vietnam in the late 1960s. Hair shocked audiences with its controversial political positions, language, and onstage nudity. The trend started by Hair was continued by Jesus Christ Super-star, which premiered in 1971. Jesus Christ Superstar chronicled the last seven days in the life of Jesus of Nazareth as seen through the eyes of his disillusioned disciple, Judas Iscariot. Believing Jesus to be only a mortal man, Judas grows frustrated as Jesus' followers begin hailing him as a god. Judas determines that Jesus must be stopped and gives authorities information leading to the capture of Jesus. Judas quickly realizes that his actions will make Jesus a martyr and hangs himself. Despite criticism from some religious groups, Jesus Christ Super-star became a huge box-office hit. It ran for 720 performances on Broadway and later was made into a film.

New money for art

Since the early years of the United States, state and federal government officials and others had occasionally proposed legislation to support the arts. In 1913 a federal charter incorporated the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and in 1916 the American Academy of Arts and Letters was incorporated to support artistic endeavors. During the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s, the federal government even employed 40,000 artists.

In the 1960s, major strides were made in arts funding. The National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965 established the National Endowment for the Arts. As a public agency, the National Endowment for the Arts assisted the growth and development of art in America via monetary grants. The president appointed and the Senate approved advisors to the endowment, all of whom were chosen for their expertise in a particular field of the arts or humanities. The endowment's first grant was presented to the American Ballet Theater in 1966. The $100,000 grant brought the Theater back from financial doom. Throughout the decade and afterward, the endowment sought out opportunities to support the arts with federal grants while also encouraging private funding of the arts. Recipients of federal grants during the 1960s include regional dance companies, museums (for the purchase of works by living artists), artists such as Alexander Calder (1898–1976), who erected a sculpture in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1968, and Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988), whose sculpture entitled Black Sun was dedicated in Seattle, Washington, in 1969. In the early 2000s, the endowment continued to enrich the lives of Americans by supporting the development of the arts and humanities.

The increase in public funding of artistic work especially influenced the development of dance in America. Classical, modern, and ethnic dance troupes received money to develop and present their art. With large grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, George Balanchine (1904–1983) created new ballets, developing the classical style at the American Ballet Theater in New York. Choreographer Jerome Robbins (1918–1998) of the New York City Ballet also benefited from public funds. Martha Graham (1894–1991), a pioneer of modern dance, received a grant to tour the country with her group. Through public funding, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater became the first black dance group to represent the United States abroad when it toured the Far East, Southeast Asia, and Australia as part of President John F. Kennedy's "President's Special International Program for Cultural Presentations" in 1962; it also made a ten-country African tour for the State Department in 1967.

The increase of public and private funding for artistic endeavors, the creation of new forms and settings for their art works by visual artists, the inclusion of ethnic and sexual minorities into all of the arts, and many other influences helped open the art world to a much broader audience than ever before. This legacy of the 1960s continued throughout the century and into the 2000s.

For More Information


Archer, Jules. The Incredible Sixties: The Stormy Years that Changed America. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986.

Batchelor, David. Minimalism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Farber, David. The Age of Great Dreams: America in the 1960s. New York: Hill and Wang, 1994.

Goldberg, RoseLee. Performance: Live Art since 1960. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1998.

Holland, Gini. The 1960s. San Diego, CA: Lucent, 1999.

Mason, Paul. Pop Artists. Chicago, IL: Heinemann Library, 2003.

Miller, Denise, et al. Photography's Multiple Roles: Art, Document, Market, Science. New York: Museum of Contemporary Photography, Columbia College, 1998.

Reynolds, Nancy, and Malcolm McCormick. No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003.

Sandler, Irving. Art of the Postmodern Era: From the Late 1960s to the Early 1990s. New York: IconEditions, 1996.

Web sites

Hiltz, Virginia, and Mike Sell. "The Black Arts Movement." University of (accessed on June 26, 2004).

The National Endowment for the (accessed on June 25, 2004).

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The Arts in 1960s America

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The Arts in 1960s America