Entry from November 21, 2009

When I was in London recently, I had a quick tour round an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery titled “Beatles to Bowie: the ‘60s Exposed.” The British — or at least the British media — are obsessed with the ‘60s, I’m guessing, at least partly because that was the last time that Britain seemed to many, both at home and abroad, as the center of the cultural world. Sandy Nairne of the Gallery was quoted in the press as saying that “This exhibition will show how, in the 1960s, music changed the world — and how Britain was the central axis of new popular culture.” As opposed, perhaps, to the peripheral axis? Anyway, many of the changes to traditional Western culture wrought by the “new popular culture” of axial Britain during that decade still define what remains of that culture today in Europe and America as well. It must be good to be reminded of that now that even Martin Amis appears to be having second thoughts about the sexual revolution.

But what struck me about the exhibition was the extent to which the revolution was a matter of publicity. In the 1960s, art was already becoming indistinguishable from fashion and both from celebrity. Once it became conceptual, I suppose, anything could be art, which is what made art an adjunct of publicity. It wasn’t art unless the buzz machine gave it its imprimatur. “Beatles to Bowie” showed how the much-celebrated pop music of the period appealed only in perfunctory ways to the musical traditions out of which it arose, but it was wedded to the partner art of photography — hence the pun in the exhibition’s title. Much of it consisted of publicity stills, both the familiar and the newly uncovered after years of neglect, like lost old masters. Nearly all of them were originally done for album covers or magazine spreads and not to catch the pop-star heroes unaware or unprotected by their publicists.

The centrality of the advertising and publicity business to post-‘60s culture may also be part of what lies behind the popularity of the television series “Mad Men,” which has recently concluded its third season on AMC. Adam Cohen, writing in The New York Times last month thought the show a perverse form of “escapism.”

For many viewers, “Mad Men” is a window on their parents’ world — an era of three-martini lunches, gas-guzzling domestic cars and boundless optimism about America’s place in the world. John F. Kennedy was in the White House, and women were choosing between rival style icons Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe. To a generation beaten down by skyrocketing unemployment, plunging retirement savings and mounting home foreclosures, “Mad Men” offers the schadenfreude-filled message that their predecessors were equally unhappy — and that the bleakness meter in American life has always been set on high.

I have mentioned before, once or twice the view of Mark Greif that the appeal of the show is, rather, to the “Now We Know Better” impulse. Both things may be true, but in today’s Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan finds a way to link them:

I leave it to others to dilate on why TV now is so good and movies so bad, since both come from the same town, Hollywood, in the same era. But there is a side benefit to televisions’s excellence, and that is the number of people who follow a show so closely, and love it so much, that after it’s aired they come together on long threads on Web sites and talk about what happened and what it means. People use their imaginations and unfocused creativity to add new layers of meaning and interpretation. “You know that was a reference to Chinatown.” “Did anyone notice what it meant when Peggy told Mr. Sterling ‘no’ when he asked for the coffee? A whole revolution captured in one word!”

In other words, as in the ‘60s, the publicity is really for ourselves and our splendid, inward-looking revolution.

“Mad Men” is a problem drama, but of a very particular kind, as suggested by that word “revolution.” The show does as one suspects it was intended to do, which is to reinforce our sense of being, as President Obama calls it, “on the right side of history.” Whether or not he is a socialist, he appears to be, like other progressives at least as far back as Karl Marx, a historicist, convinced that a particular political agenda is, as it were, divinely ordained, since it has the sanction of “history” — history, that is, conceived of as the only measure of right and wrong, just as God was once supposed to be. That’s revolutionary talk, and of a kind that also shows the relationship between revolution and publicity, a.k.a. propaganda. After a revolution with so many baleful consequences, people have to be continually assured that they are, at least, on the right side of history — if nothing else, as a prophylactic against nostalgia. And in the case of “Mad Men,” the nostalgia is harnessed for revolutionary purposes. Brilliant!


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