Why I cried at the new V&A show
Press day at the V&A in London, for its new exhibition, “You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966–1970”. Will we see Martin Roth, celebrating five years as director and now soon to leave? (“Martin intends to devote more time”, said Monday’s press release, “to various international cultural consultancies and plans to spend more time with his wife Harriet and their children, in Berlin and Vancouver”; but the gossip is all about disillusionment with Brexit, and the referendum “war rhetoric”).
If he was there, I missed him. But I did hear two quite slick, carefully prepared speeches from key sponsors Levi’s and Sennheiser. Is this all about selling jeans and “audio technology”? Is this what Woodstock was for (Martin Scorsese’s film screening big above their heads as they speak)? Where are Art not Oil when you need them?
Actually, thankfully, not here. At the end of his talk, CEO Daniel Sennheiser says something that is not in the company press handout. (It has things like this: “With music being the uniting element of the world’s youth at the time, Woodstock was much more than just a music festival – it embodied an alternative way of life. This special concert atmosphere is recreated with a 14.1 AMBEO installation that uses upmixed audio material from the period.”) Sennheiser tells us (in my words) that the 60s were not just about style and music, but about ideals and hope, of visions for change. As we watch “two baby boomers slug it out across the Atlantic” (I think that’s what he said), perhaps we can learn from them, and think about changing things now.
Roth hits a similar note in the catalogue foreword. In 1970, he starts, he was a teenager living in West Germany. Students were questioning their parents’ role in the Nazi era. He wanted to change the world. He still does. “Now I run a national museum and have the opportunity to revisit the utopian vision and revolutions that took place” in the later 60s.
“But which developments from that time”, he concludes, “have perhaps not gone far enough? And what can we learn from those heady days when anything seemed possible?”
That’s not why I cried (I clapped). That happened earlier, as I listened to the music and sound tracks and looked at all the stuff – books, posters, videos and things, so much stuff, not least a continuous thread of album sleeves from John Peel’s record collection. This was the wallpaper of my school days, much of it still around me in my home, and more in my head. It’s what I loved and was inspired by: the songs, the designs, the protests and politics, the visons and the promise of a young generation “taking control”. And look at us now. That is what made me cry.
But back out in the London streets, the sun shines on people eating and laughing around tables on a wide, now pedestrianised but not long ago dangerous fume-thick road. I descend into a functioning and very busy underground train station. I step into a bright, clean train full of people with phones and tablets. A couple of men embrace. Buskers play. Out in Paddington Station, bright and spacious and full of food and shops, the accents and languages are endlessly variable (and that’s just the English). So much is so much better now than it was in the 60s and 70s.
And so it could be again. A very striking thing in the V&A show is the use of graphics, poetry and performance at that time. We cared then about peace and love and community, about a brighter future for a better world. But we did it not with figures and logic, with government reports and peer-reviewed articles. We did it with passion and emotion! We didn’t write press features complaining that people are too stupid to see that global warming is happening, and is terrifying. We sang songs! We didn’t explain in intricate detail how politicians who want the UK to leave the EU are insane. We marched and took our clothes off! We put posters on our walls! “WAR IS GOOD BUSINESS”, reads one, over a photo of Michelangelo’s Pieta: “INVEST YOUR SON.” “ABORTION IS A PERSONAL DECISION”, another: “NOT A LEGAL DEBATE”. With powerful design and colour.
That’s what’s really missing now. We do care. But we need to learn from Trump, and Johnson, and Farage, and all the folk with the good tunes. Look at the 60s. Facts matter, a lot. But you don’t change things only with facts. Bring back the passion. And even with the very sad departure of Martin Roth, the museums and galleries of our capital city are run by able, not so old, ambitious people with global visions from around the world. That feels, perhaps, quite 60s.