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Contemporary Art Culture

Chapter two
Chapter two



1950S AND EARLY 1960S


We have discussed the traditions of art and popular music film, along with technological advancements
We have discussed the traditions of art and popular music film, along with technological advancements that made
new forms of music possible in the early twentieth century. In this chapter we explore some of the cultural influences
of youth cultures that were promoted in the mass media in the 1950s.
We begin with the work of the color field painters and their influences from spirituality. These approaches could
be termed introspective, meditative, and religious. For some, color itself was often symbolic, and for others the work
was an object of meditation for the viewer and for the painter.
Next we move to the Beat Generation, a reaction to the commercialization and social conventions following World
War II. Poets, musicians, and artists experimented with new art forms of music, writing, and spirituality, which were
mainstreamed and exploited by commercial mass media later.
The third topic is the commercialization of rock-and-roll. Rockabilly and rock and roll were fusions of the blues
and country genres. Big recording producers bankrolled these new, wild forms of music and promoted them to White
audiences, and they spread rapidly over North America and Europe.
The chapter closes with the British Invasion, which changed the landscape of rock and roll for the rest of the
twentieth century, as American and British artists blended influences from the Beat Generation and rock and roll to
create new and provocative genres of music and dance.


We have observed one of the most important shifts in the twentieth century to a culture of images from a culture of words. These changes influenced the arts, religions, and other cultural production, which also influenced new outlooks on an individual’s identity. Victorian society of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century read about governing the self as a matter of good character, which was related to ideals such as citizenship, duties, democracy, honor, and reputation. As we discussed in our introduction, however, these years were also fraught with anxiety about anarchism and xenophobia toward new immigrants. These phenomena were uneasiness that Warren Susman called “American nervousness.”

New modes of “self” emerged for these new times. Systematically curing social ills and rehabilitating sicknesses of the mind were new perspectives. The causes of evil that were considered evil in Protestant cultures were considered disorders in the new psychologies. New advice manuals by experts and professionals in social sciences stressed self- improvement as part of what was called “mind cure” and self-realization, which became a more

frequent topic than self-sacrifice. The personality was connected to the body, not only the soul, and needed healing when it became disordered.

In the American popular culture, the popularized term “personality” was the quality of “being somebody.” The excitement over motion pictures was enhanced by the visibility of movie stars who were famous for their charisma. In the 1920s the most advanced theories of psychoanalysis were applied to advertising, which was designed to literally stimulate a need in consumers for new products. It is not a far reach to say that motivating consumers in this way was to convince them to accept a sense of inadequacy, which they could satisfy with a new product and improve themselves. Some considered these new scientific approaches to be manipulations to make you feel better.

As if a personality could be reinvented, individuals were advised to develop charm and charisma. These new traits were also generalized as stereotypes, such as the ones in Marden’s Masterful Personality, in which women were urged to rely not only on physical beauty, but to also develop “fascination” to attract and keep friends.

30 Contemporary Art Culture

After World War II, such art schools as Cooper Union screened applicants with psychological testing. These tests were deployed initially to screen returning veterans for “shell shock.” Psychological tests were also used to determine artistic talent. 1 Others perused witch hunts during the McCarthy era, in which Communists, homosexuals, and other “degenerates” were smoked out of hiding and banished from artistic and cultural scenes. In response to such testing, measuring, and analyzing and the anxiety from World War II, groups of artists retreated into themselves, making images as contemplations. The narratives in the rest of this chapter tell about how artists began to explore themselves, particularly after World War II.


The color field painters, also known as post- painterly expressionists, were working alongside the action painters but in a different way. In the last chapter, we talked about contemplation and spiritualities of artists and their intentions to bring these phenomena into their work. Color field painting was less about the motivation behind movement and more about color as a symbol or nothing more than color itself. Some of the artists who were associated with this approach to painting were Yves Klein, Helen Frankenthaler, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman.

Klein, Helen Frankenthaler, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman. Yves Klein The Grove Dictionary of Art states

Yves Klein

The Grove Dictionary of Art states that Yves Klein was the earliest color field painter in art history. More important for this discussion is how each artist approached color differently. Yves Klein’s approach to his work was unusual because he was interested in experimental science and the physics of color, in addition to the spiritual. Klein’s parents were painters who were modernists. Even without formal training he painted his first works and formulated his first theories about color. Like other devout individuals who believe that God or a higher power is more significant than earthly life, Klein was preoccupied with “immaterialism.” The essences that truly mattered were spiritual, and these issues emerged in his art and his other interests.

His source of spirituality was the martial arts and judo philosophy. Judo is a complex martial

art of strict awareness of the body, mind, and character. Judo is accomplished in “levels” that couple movements and skills with “combat.” As the martial artist masters one level at a time, he or she progresses into deeper, more complex relationships of strength, character, and thought. Klein would eventually study in Tokyo and earn his black belt “fourth dan.” He also worked in Madrid and Paris as a judo instructor.

Another form of contemplation for Yves Klein was his preoccupation with monochromaticity or a single color. A painting of the color blue was color in a pure state and free of external impurities. As judo released him from distraction, Klein found a way to visualize this focus into painting. In 1955, Klein entered his painting Expression of the World of the Color Orange Mineral in an exhibition called the Salons des Prealities Nouvelles, in Paris. This painting was rejected on a technicality, that it had no line or form and had not at least two colors.

Klein also studied the physical properties of paint. He tried to formulate paint from ether and petroleum extracts that would make powdered pigment more brilliant. He developed his own blue and called it IKB (International Klein Blue). Klein also believed that the color blue had cosmological and spiritual significances of sky, water, infinity, and as a symbol of the Christian Holy Spirit.

Klein’s preoccupation with the immaterial brought him to do works that were not fixed pieces, but performances. In 1959 he created a performance event where he passed out certificates printed by a gallery that represented what he called “Receipts for the Immaterial.” The certificates were good for a given weight of gold. In these works the activities planned were the “performance art.”

Eventually Klein began to use the figure as part of the media, not just a model from which to work. He discovered this idea from the burnt outlines left on the ground in Hiroshima by the radiation victims. These outlined voids became symbols of the spiritual. Another observation occurred when he noticed the indentation of the body and its imprint of sweat left on a judo mat. He incorporated these ideas in one of his most well- known performance in a gallery. Three models were covered with paint and then pressed against large sheets of paper. In this performance, making this work was as important as the image itself.

Helen FrankenthalerThough Yves Klein’s work is regarded by some as color field painting, his work was

Though Yves Klein’s work is regarded by some as color field painting, his work was done before the term color field painting was coined. Helen Frankenthaler was the first artist to be named a color field painter by notable critics. She was married to Robert Motherwell, whom we discussed in the last chapter. In fact, Frankenthaler knew most of the abstract expressionist community in New York, including the action painters we discussed in the last chapter. She also worked closely with Jackson Pollock. Unlike action painters, however, she did away with the vigorous brushwork and expressive movements that were characteristic of action painting.

Frankenthaler made her works by pouring paint on a canvas that allowed the paint to soak into the surface. This technique became known as “soak stain.” She could adjust the flow and thickness of the paint by thinning it with turpentine or kerosene. As she was interested primarily in color, Frankenthaler switched from oil media to acrylic. Because acrylic media is water soluble and dries quickly, the color usually remains brighter. Frankenthaler’s paintings were about making them as much as seeing the finished work. Because her work depended so much on the spontaneity of the moment, she often went through many paintings, which she threw out, to come up with one that looked as though it came into being all at once.

Mark Rothkoone that looked as though it came into being all at once. Mark Rothko’s work was

Mark Rothko’s work was a mass of soft color without sharp edges or thick layers of paint. Like Frankenthaler, he stained his canvases with thin paint that sank into the surface. Because some paint is translucent and others are opaque, depending on how they were applied, the painting would seem to glow. Consider the example of a custom paint job on an automobile. First, a light color like red is applied. Then that color is covered with a translucent red. The light shining through the translucent layer is reflected off the opaque red underneath and back through the translucent layer. Most translucent paints are suspensions of tiny crystals, like prisms, that refract a richer color of light back to the eye. The light is redder, and it appears brighter. This technique was practiced in earlier times, too. Michelangelo used glazes in his work to increase the color intensity. Rothko would have known

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these principles and used them to enhance an effect that he saw emerging as he worked. Look closely,

and you will see layers of paint on his work, and all colors work together. The first work by Rothko that

I saw in person was at a retrospective of his work

at The Los Angeles County Museum. I remember standing in front of his paintings and looking at the surface, which was elegant in itself. The colors held my interest for some time. Then I realized that the bright light shining on the work reflected its orange color onto me. I had become a part of the color, even part of the art. Rothko and his critics considered his body of work as something that evolved. You can see in his early work that he was interested in the softness of the stained painting surface but the work was arranged in large and small shapes in a spontaneous order on the surface. His later Orange

and Tan is more like the works for which he is famous. A large “plane” of color seems to hover over

the larger field of another color. Looking closely we would see layers of color that appear to blend from

a distance and create a glowing effect.

Likemanyofthecolorfieldpainters,theexperience of painting and watching the color change as he worked was a kind of meditation, concentrating on color and lightly brushing the canvas surface.

on color and lightly brushing the canvas surface. Mark Rothko’s The Rothko Chapel Mark Rothko: paintings,
on color and lightly brushing the canvas surface. Mark Rothko’s The Rothko Chapel Mark Rothko: paintings,

Mark Rothko’s

The Rothko Chapel

Mark Rothko:

paintings, 1965–66, oil on canvas. Photo by: Hickey and Robertson.

The Rothko Chapel, Houston,Texas. Northwest, North, and Northeast

Religious experience was widely associated with

appreciators of


design a meditative space with his paintings made specifically for that space. The Chapel is a circular




1964 John and











are surrounded by

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paintings. His colors were much darker and even close to tones of black and gray. Rothko had collaborated with architects, but he did not work well with them. He and architect Philip Johnson clashed over the project, and it continued with Howard Barnstone and then Eugene Aubry. Rothko did not live to see the Chapel finished. After a long life of depression, he committed suicide in 1970. To this day, the Chapel operates as a spiritual center for people of any religion and is still a venue for special services such as weddings and funerals.

a venue for special services such as weddings and funerals. Barnett Newman Like the painters just

Barnett Newman

Like the painters just discussed, Barnett Newman was a major player in the abstract expressionist movement but not an action painter. Because he emphasized color a great deal, he is considered one of the color field painters. Other people discuss him as a “minimalist,” an idiom of artwork we will cover in a later chapter.

First we should address the social and cultural conditions that Newman saw. At the end of chapter 1 we discussed the ambivalence of the years after World War II, especially the late 1950s and early 1960s. Prosperity had been achieved but only by means of mass destruction, and the technological advancements made for wartime were adapted later to peacetime use. Making beautiful things for peacetime was a way of reconciling the destruction of war. That may sound like a simplistic explanation, but Barnett Newman tended to think in similar ways. He felt that human creativity and beauty were irrelevant in times of terror and war. Gratifying emotions with classical “beautiful” art distracted eyes from war’s tragedies but it did not address the mass destruction and the fear that we had invented a way to end all life. To get to the core of these issues, Newman felt that artistic acts came from an urge that took control over and redeemed the tragic world. Simply put, artists were to look deeper than to make only beautiful things to make us feel better. The creative arts were much more powerful and could actually undo the urges of war and destruction.

This kind of contemplation occurred by moving deep within the self, beyond outside forces to the “pure” forces inside. Individuals can meditate on very simple but profound phenomena over and over again. This concept is revealed in one of his

paintings from the late 1940s. On a large canvas that he painted bright red, he attached a vertical strip of masking tape to the surface and painted another color over the top. When the tape was removed, a strip of the underlying color appeared. Look at the painting for awhile, and you might see a white line that “floats” above a broad, red field of color. Look again, and you might see two large, red planes that float above a field of white and allow only a thin strip of white to show through. These elements could flip every time you looked, and you would see that neither is right nor wrong. Change your mind several times, and you might doubt the certainty of other things you see. It is at this point that you are responsible for what you think of the work, not for knowing “exactly what it means.” Likewise, when we consider actions in the rest of our experiences, we are responsible for those as well. Therefore, meditations of this kind can move us to decide for ourselves about what actions we might take in war, or in anything.

After 1955, Newman did one of his most important series of paintings, the 14 Stations of the Cross. Maybe you are familiar with the Stations of the Cross from Christian traditions, but those are usually 12 stations. Newman’s work had 14. The works were black and white, painted on raw canvas, which also showed through as part of the works. This was a kind of bold and raw approach compared to his other works. This series of works was meant to venerate pain and human suffering. Each work may be viewed as a whole in itself or all of them as one work. Like other color field artists, Newman called for viewers and for himself to turn eyes inside the self. How shall you see the things? You decide.


As painters explored spirituality through movement and surreal automatism and meditation, others in literature, music, and other art forms experimented with new approaches to their media. Important exchanges of ideas occurred in small communities of what was called the “Beat Generation.” Three important locations were San Francisco’s North Beach, Venice West in Los Angeles, and New York City’s Greenwich Village.

Known also as “beatniks” or “bohemians,” they were labeled radical by onlookers. Beat communities were known for spontaneous and “messy” creativity.

Many of them knew the painters we have discussed, sometimes intimately, and they exchanged artistic influences, as well. They sought to bring forth completely new art forms, and they ignored most established conventions or theories. Beat communities drew fire from conservative groups for their drug and alcohol abuse, but beatniks were not unique in this way. Other individuals who were well publicized, such as Billie Holiday, Chuck Berry, and eventually Elvis Presley, experimented with drugs but were not seen as beatniks. Simply put, beatniks were experimenting to make new ideas and art forms but their nonconformity made them scapegoats for conservatives for the liberalism in other sectors of American culture.

We discussed in the last chapter how the arts of famous individuals won the attention of mass media and commercial design. Jackson Pollock’s painting turned up in fashion photography. Classic plays and symphonies were featured on television. In fact, Hollywood films such as American in Paris romanticized the Beat lifestyle in Paris. The United States became a cultural giant with world-famous artists, musicians, actors, and others who added prestige to American culture and mass media.

In contrast, beatniks were interested in bringing the arts down to street level from the high places of famous concert halls, theaters, galleries, and museums. An “off-beat” form of dress and “hip” slang vocabulary emerged among Beat communities, as part of a group identity. Herb Cain of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote that the “beatniks” were far out from mainstream society and were probably “pro- Communist.” He made fun of these “men with berets, goatees, playing bongos while women in black leotards danced.” Cain’s commentary on the group traits of beatniks was amplified by his celebrity and power as a columnist. His naming beatniks unpatriotic and their harboring of ulterior motives helped to galvanize beatnik stereotypes. It is true that Beat communities considered themselves separate from the “square” American conventions, and that their cultural and social traits were similar. However, we must also consider that these communities were made up of individuals with varying approaches to their lives and their art forms, in addition to a group identity.

Many individuals of the Beat movement had attended well-known colleges and universities. Jack Kerouac was one author who is recognized as the

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first of the Beat writers. Kerouac was a student at ColumbiaUniversity,thoughhewasneverconsidered a typical Ivy League student. Administrators loathed his anarchistic activities. Kerouac also had a difficult time with his schizoid personality, which brought on alcohol and drug abuse. Nonetheless, his On the Road, which referred to these difficulties, was an important work.

Kerouac met another Beat writer, Allan Ginsberg, at Columbia. Ginsberg became one of the most controversial influences among the Beat writers. His poem “Howl” was probably the most important work for its influence across American culture. “Howl” was about the force of ordinary society to destroy the best minds and about homosexuality, drug addiction, and influences of Buddhism. Public frenzy and legal maneuvers rose over Ginsberg’s poem but in the long run, these issues helped loosen obscenity laws and moral boundaries on artistic works.

Ginsberg’s life is also an example of the twentieth- century preoccupation with personality that we discussed previously. Ginsberg was in trouble with the law on occasion. He was known to have kept stolen goods in his car and apartment. When prosecuted, attention was drawn to his personality and related psychological problems. He pleaded insanity and was committed to New York City’s Bellevue Hospital. It is unclear if he was mentally ill when he was admitted to Bellevue, but there was little doubt about his state of mind after his insulin shock treatments there. They brought on psychotic episodes, and he was committed again to Bellevue. These are experiences that he referenced in his poem, “Howl.”

Extreme social behaviors were regarded by the psychological community as abnormal and were institutionalized to “normalize” them. Many of the Beat poets were treated with insulin shock and electro- shock therapies. Beyond what men experienced, the profiling of women in the Beat movement was more intensive because of their assertiveness to live as a beatnik. Even more so, lesbian and gay members of Beat communities were also identified as abnormal. When they were exposed as homosexuals, they were usually institutionalized for what were termed “homosexual tendencies.” These were forms of social control of the personality with techniques of psychology, which are uncommon today, though it

34 Contemporary Art Culture

is still common to hear someone refer to an “arty personality.”

Many of the controversial influences of the Beat movement were eventually settled in as household words; they were picked up by marketers and used to style commercialized music, literature, and visual media. The hip, spontaneous babble associated with beatniks was sometimes called “rapping.” This term also showed up in the forms of “jive” and “rap.” later on. 2 Zen Buddhism was also popularized, and it became the subject matter of commercial recordings in mainstream popular culture in the middle to late 1960s.

Kerouac and Ginsberg were but a few individuals who were associated with intellectual communities at Columbia and in New York City. In fact, the Beat movement was most popular among college and university students. Brad Gooch’s biography of the poet Frank O’Hara 3 is filled with these scenarios. O’Hara and his peers at Harvard University frequented bookstores in Cambridge, where conversation and debates over literature would carry on for hours over a bottle of whiskey. Coffeehouses were another phenomenon. These students were generally connected off campus with experimental artists and intellectuals. O’Hara became part of a community of artists and musicians in Greenwich Village and SoHo in Lower Manhattan. O’Hara knew Kerouac and Ginsberg and also knew the artist Larry Rivers as his lover.

Word of mouth spread among young artists and intellectuals, and the young communities of students in colleges and universities became closely associated with these new artistic trends. Many of these students met at coffeehouses, and one such establishment was the Hungarian Pastry Shop, near Columbia University, at 110th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. The shop opened in the late 1960s and was frequented by students, artists, and patrons of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, which remains a place of artistic and intellectual liberalism today. 4

Some of the other important Beat writers were Gregory Corso, William Burroughs, John Clellon Holmes, Peter Orlovsky, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Joan Volmer, and Elsa Gidlow. The Beat artists were a

tightly close-knit group who held frequent readings at the home of Volmer and Gidlow. The Beat Generation was but one group among many who would always push the boundaries of acceptable art forms. Eventually the notion of “radicality” would grip the attention of big recording companies, who would begin to market this to young people.


to market this to young people. BUILDERS OF ROCK CULTURE DJs As popular music of recording


As popular music of recording corporations was broadcast over mass media, a new type of celebrity influenced the sales and popularity of one recording over another. This spokesperson, who was backed by the power of mass media, was the disc jockey (or DJ). DJs could make or break the popularity of a recording by their willingness to play it. They were also regarded as confidants by young listeners, who would call in requests that were sometimes dedicated to a friend or a new romance. Together, audience members and DJs became enigmas in the unfolding youth cultures after World War II.

Alan Freed was one of the most important DJs. He began his career at WJW radio in Cleveland, Ohio. Eventually he moved to WINS-AM radio in New York City and was largely responsible for developing WINS into a rock station. Some argue that Freed originated the term “rock and roll,” but there is debate about exactly who coined the term. Many histories credit the early twentieth-century ragtime song writer Tony Smith as the originator of the phrase. In ragtime, the sexual overtones in the lyrics were coded. “Rocking your baby” was a common euphemism in ragtime music for lovemaking. These innuendos were heard by many listeners in this way. Since the early twentieth century, this general wisdom about the term rock was parlance among jazz and blues musicians as well. As for Freed’s role in the popularization of the terms rock or rock and roll, it is highly possible that he popularized the term and made it a household word, though he probably didn’t come up with the idea.

2. The dictionary defines rapping as “to talk or discuss, esp. freely, openly, or volubly; chat” and also a term for “rapping” in rhythm, as in rap music. (Dictionary.com. ac- cessed August 28, 2006 at [dictionary.com] ).

3. Brad Gooch. City Poet: the Life and Times of Frank O’Hara. New York: Random House, 1995.

Freed was very well known, and he booked appearances at other stations. As his film appearances were hits in Europe, he booked appearances on Radio Luxembourg, which reached across the continent. They also played his syndicated, prerecorded shows and spread the influence of rock and roll across Europe. Despite his popularity, Freed’s career fell apart when his role in a payola scandal 5 revealed that he had profited from kickbacks in exchange for promoting particular recordings.

kickbacks in exchange for promoting particular recordings. Wolfman Jack One of the DJs whom Freed met

Wolfman Jack

One of the DJs whom Freed met at WINS and for whom he helped launch a career was Bob Smith, from Brooklyn, New York. After a strong start in New York, Smith did stints in Virginia and Louisiana, where he would have been exposed to blues musicians. Smith became know as Wolfman Jack, and his most well-known broadcasts came from XERF-AM in Cuidad Acuna, Mexico. This 250,000- watt station was one of the most powerful in the Western Hemisphere. Listeners would happen across Wolfman Jack’s unconventional programs as they scanned their radio dials. Jack’s deep, howling, and guttural voice seemed to come out of nowhere and was heard in automobiles and handheld transistor radios. Wolfman Jack also gave listeners a taste of the risqué blues that could never play on U.S. stations. What made Wolfman Jack’s persona more mysterious was that, except for a few cameo appearances in films and photographs, Wolfman was usually known by his voice more than his appearance. Without a major media blitz or much advertising, Wolfman Jack was an enigma among youth of the 1950s and 1960s.


Jazz and blues in the early twentieth century and most forms of music by African Americans were grouped under the term race music. Some of this music was written and produced by African Americans, though other works were cleaned up and made “straight” for White audiences. The term race music tends to be less familiar nowadays than years ago, but derivatives of the word are still heard. The

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term racy connotes a risqué meaning when associated with entertainment and sexual behavior. This was also a connotation coupled with race music to imply what were regarded as the lesser morals and sophistication of people of color. As lesser individuals, they were usually blamed unfairly by the press and those in public authority for running speakeasies and their “racy” scenes. These establishments were actually controlled by White profiteers and bootleggers. As a result, the blues, jazz, and rock and roll were perceived as less than other forms of music. Oddly enough, though, rock and roll and blues became immensely popular.

When the first rock-and-roll musicians burst onto the contemporary music scene, the response was similar to the reception of African-American musicians in the 1920s. Their music and dance were very fashionable among “hip” White consumers, but traditional parents in the middle classes cringed as their children began talking, dancing, and even singing like the black rock-and-roll musicians they heard. An additional outcome of the rock-and-roll scene was Alan Freed’s promotion of African-American musicians. Other DJs followed his lead, and together they are credited as positively influencing racial integration. Most of the time their endorsements were all that was necessary to make anyone’s song into a hit.

all that was necessary to make anyone’s song into a hit. Girl Groups When it came

Girl Groups

When it came to women in rock and roll, their instruments were usually their voices. Prior to the 1960s, most recording groups were backed by big bands and combos of male musicians, and exceptions to these gender roles were rare. During World War II, recording studio orchestras often placed women in chairs that were normally held by male musicians who had gone off to the war effort. Usually a singer performed in front of the band, a role that was usually filled by charismatic and attractive women or men. Earlier examples were “sisters groups”—two to four female singers singing swing numbers in close jazz harmonies. The Andrews Sisters were one of the most popular and were usually backed by a big band.

36 Contemporary Art Culture

When rock and roll picked up speed in the 1950s, there were also notable women on the scene. Like their predecessors, these vocalists did not play in a band but sang at a microphone. An important female singer was Delores Williams, who became known to her audiences as Laverne Baker. From 1955 to 1965, Baker recorded on Atlantic Records. Early on, her career slowed when White musicians recorded imitations of songs. But in 1958 she recorded her first hit, “Tweedle Dee.” Baker’s typical hits were well-done, superficial novelty songs. They were not provocative, not “racy,” and they appealed to mainstream audiences. An example of a White female musician who performed one of Baker’s hits was Connie Francis. In 1959, Francis performed “Tweedle Dee” at the Music Awards but with differences. Francis wore a shrug jacket to cover her shoulders, whereas Baker’s elegant sleeveless dress was more revealing. The timing in Francis’s interpretation of the song is more “on-beat” than off, whereas Baker’s timing is more syncopated and off-beat. Other aspects make these performances similar. Both musicians were coached to appear on television. Their body movements fit within the tight frame of the television screen. Baker was shown on The Ed Sullivan Show from the waist up, which was the same presentation for Elvis Presley’s first performance to tone down suggestive body movements. When Francis was televised in 1959, she was shown in full figure. Her movements remained modest and close to the body, with reserved, suggestive winks and glances to the camera.

In 1958, Baker recorded Laverne Baker Sings Bessie Smith, which won her respect for her expression and drama, which indicated her depth and affinity to sing blues as well as most anyone. Baker would tour occasionally and worked with Allan Freed and Ed Sullivan on television. On a tour for military audiences during the Vietnam War, Baker became ill and lived her later years in the Philippines. She returned to New York for the 40th anniversary of Atlantic Records, but did few other appearances.

The “girl groups” of the 1960s were an outgrowth of these traditions. An overall effect is that they feminized rock music with a fusion of gospel, rhythm and blues, doo-wop, and White pop. These groups are good examples of musicianship that was shaped and groomed primarily for television and the largest consumer markets. Phil Spector, Don Kirshner, and Berry Gordy, Jr. were producers who coached mostly

African-American female singers for such appeal.

Phil Spector coached the Crystals and the Ronettes

to produce a “wall of sound” of harmonized singing

backed by strings and brass of an orchestra. Berry Gordy is probably one of the most important of these producers, as he started Motown Records in Detroit, which was a widely recognized recording label of the l960s. The problem with the grooming process of the girl groups was that it masked their cultural identity. African-American female singers were coached in manners of speech and poise that would appeal to White audiences. They were taught to move to their music in understated choreography. It was true that these smaller movements played well on glamorous television shows. Black musicians appeared as White musicians, to sell to mostly White audiences. The lyrics tended to be superficial compared to the blues and earlier rock and roll. Lyrics about teenage romance, sexual etiquette, love, loss, and abandonment made the songs of the girl groups romantic and sentimental but happier.

The Shirelles were the first girl group to have

a recording that rated number one, in 1961.

Nonetheless, most of the girl groups were treated as

if they were fodder for factory production. It wasn’t

unusual for these singers to be contracted in such

a way that producers raked in royalties while the

singers received little or nothing. They were also put out of business when the market for their music leveled off. Later, much attention would narrow to Martha and the Vandellas and the Supremes. These two groups would mature long enough to catch the wave of interest in a new genre that emerged in the 1960s, called Soul. But Berry Gordy would sideline Martha and the Vandellas in favor of the Supremes, who became known as a transition into the late 1960s genres of soul, which we will discuss in the next chapter.

The production of girl groups continues into contemporary times. The girl group sound would carry over into the punk era as the “girl bands,” The Go-Gos, the Bangles, Janet Jackson, and later in the voices of The Spice Girls and Destiny’s Child.

in the voices of The Spice Girls and Destiny’s Child. Little Richard Richard Penniman was from

Little Richard

Richard Penniman was from Macon, Georgia. His

father died when he was in his teens, and to help make ends meet, he took a day job washing dishes

at a bus station. By night, he sang with a group in

local venues. In those days, Penniman’s music was styled after jump-style blues, a forerunner of “swing” that became popular among Whites. Then in 1955, Penniman’s career took off. Backed by a good blues band at J & M Studios, in New Orleans, Penniman rocked the building with “Tutti Frutti.” He stood at the piano and crooned, wailed, and screamed repeated passages of “A wop bop a loo bob, a lop bum boom” and other lyrics tempered with sexual undertones.

As Penniman performed to larger audiences, his appearance changed. He became known as Little Richard and reinvented himself with an androgynous appearance, which also reflected his gay identity. He wore a flamboyant six-inch-high pompadour, eye liner, and pancake makeup.

The image of the gay performer was more common than might be expected of the 1950s. Little Richard and Liberace, whom we discussed in the last chapter, would have made a curious contrast. Both individuals were gay, though this was not disclosed publicly, and both of their performance approaches were outrageously androgynous. Liberace’s pop- classical music and his flamboyant allure appealed to women and men alike. Little Richard’s loud and bluesy performances would have arrested the attention of young people with his raucous, sexy appeal. The contrast was sharp—two different styles of music, by two generations of performers, influenced by different racial and ethnic traditions, which were pitched at two different generations.

In a surprising move, Little Richard soon renounced his music and his gay sexuality. An aircraft on which he was scheduled to fly crashed, which he took as one of several signs from God to renounce rock and roll and his gay life. He quit rock and roll and enrolled in a Bible school. In his new career as a Pentecostal minister, Penniman’s presentation was still flamboyant and charismatic. He remained popular but with a different repertoire and to different audiences. In the late 1960s and the 1970s, he would make some cameo appearances on variety and talk shows, but his rock-and-roll presentation appeared dated, and his musical career had become history.

Chuck Berryappeared dated, and his musical career had become history. Contemporary Art Culture 37 Chuck Berry ©

Contemporary Art Culture


had become history. Chuck Berry Contemporary Art Culture 37 Chuck Berry © Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis and roll

Chuck Berryhad become history. Chuck Berry Contemporary Art Culture 37 © Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis and roll was Charles

© Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis

and roll

was Charles Edward Anderson Berry. He was born in St. Louis in 1926. His family lived in one of the few

neighborhoods where African Americans could own

Little Richard’s early “jump

blues,” Berry’s early music was country blues. Soon after he began his early performing, he joined Sir John’s Trio.

They combined their blues style with Berry’s country

of “rockabilly.” In

1955, Berry met Muddy Waters, who introduced him to Leonard Chess of Chess Records. With this kind of

important exposure,




other important innovator

of rock

In contrast to

and formulated the


his first recording, “Mabeline,”

quickly rose on the charts. When Alan Freed played


song on WINS-AM continuously for two hours,


single quickly

sold 100,000 copies.

Soon Berry

would begin performance tours on which he would

meet Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Berry’s success met with controversy and demise. He was jailed from 1959 to 1964 for violating the Mann Act. On a tour through Texas, he returned home with an underaged Hispanic-American woman, for whom he found a job in one of the clubs where he played. He was tried and jailed for between 1959 and 1964 and missed the height of his career.

38 Contemporary Art Culture

Elvis Presley38 Contemporary Art Culture Elvis Presley © MPTV.net in He lived a typical modest and was

38 Contemporary Art Culture Elvis Presley Elvis Presley © MPTV.net in He lived a typical modest

Elvis Presley38 Contemporary Art Culture Elvis Presley © MPTV.net in He lived a typical modest and was

© MPTV.net


He lived a typical modest and

was a

birthday present from a hardware


“hillbilly music.” Nonetheless, he

his earliest known


public performance at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair

and Dairy Show, microphone.

of forgery, and the



family moved to a poor neighborhood in Memphis,



Southern country musicians. The Presleys attended


Elvis sang gospel music there. His musical excursions took him to listen to blues on Beale Street, where the


edge of

poverty during their time

reach the

sometimes poor rural life.

Mississippi in 1935.


Aaron Presley,



His first

was born


store in Tupelo.





Other children



10 years




he sang

standing on

a stool to





was convicted



and lived on

in Tupelo.











their neighborhood,

neighborhood had a bad reputation for prostitution

on the


high school football team was withdrawn because,

as the


other illegal


His placement



record states,

he refused


long sideburns. It is more likely that he was blamed










his exposure to

the music


in these clubs were formative, as he met the blues

there. Presley

players Furry Lewis and B. B.

always considered blues and gospel to be formative

influences to his musicianship.



Sun Records in

and “That’s When Your



You.” Things were


been in search of a “white man with a Negro sound

[to] make a billion dollars.” He felt

that black musicians would not attract a wide enough audience, and Elvis, who “sang the music of blacks,”



and Negro Feel

hopeful, as

Wouldn’t be


first recordings were


“I’ll Never Stand




1953—”My Happiness” Heartaches Begin.” The



demo was


in Your Way” and

Sam Philips

Same without

Records founder






become controversial among critics. Some would say that Elvis stole black music, and others would argue

for black music on the

that he “opened the door”

national scene. Whatever the take on

it is not hard to prove the strong influence and the


debt to African-American

acknowledged over and over again.

this history,

musicians, which


days after


release, Presley’s “That’s









Memphis radio station WHBQ and quickly became



Tennessee and across the South. His first audiences

farther north and west were venues frequented by African-American audiences in Chicago, Detroit, and




as the


genres of “race” music and

two genres fused in “rockabilly” or rock and


After this


Presley began touring


An appearance at


the less

the Grand Ole



the distance

hillbilly music,

also gained him





Presley’s career reached a turning point when his second single, “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” went on the shelves in September of 1954. At a radio performance


music broadcast Louisiana Hayride,

from Shreveport, Elvis met Colonel Tom Parker, who would be his agent for the rest of his career. Thanks

to Parker,

national attention. Parker was




for shady

soon sweep up



Elvis’s popularity would





his skill as a masterful promoter put Elvis in some of the most important spotlights in television and

film. Elvis’s break into the national scene is a perfect example of a “media blitz,” which was engineered to saturate consumer attention. Parker landed six performances for Elvis on the Dorsey Brothers’ Stage Show on CBS. To pave the way for these appearances, Parker also secured a deal with RCA Records ahead of time. The first single, “Heartbreak Hotel,” sold

a million copies in only 10 days. This single and

others sold 10 million copies throughout the year. Parker had also licensed Elvis’s image and name on everything from guitars to cookware. When it came time for his television appearances, audiences were excited to see this new music star. After his run on Stage Show, Elvis did two performances on The Milton Berle Show on NBC in April 1956. The song “Hound Dog” was a hit, and despite all the objections over Elvis’s gyrating hips, ratings remained huge. In July 1956, Steve Allen booked Elvis for his show on ABC. It was the only time that Steve Allen’s show rated higher than The Ed Sullivan Show. Sullivan, who originally objected to rock and roll, took back his market when he booked Elvis Presley for three shows in September and October of 1956 and January of 1957, which

took 82 percent of the television audience. Elvis’s appearances on Ed Sullivan differed from the other shows. The camera took more shots of the audience of mostly young women, who screamed hysterically in their wide-eyed excitement, and they nearly stole the show.


Elvis Presley was also a screen actor. His increased visibility and sex appeal to young audiences was the bankroll that convinced Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer to put Elvis in the movies. Like the bands created for television by Don Kirshner, Elvis was also given

a fictive life on the movie screen. These movies

were “stock plots,” teen adventure stories that were situated around Elvis’s songs. Elvis was “cleaned up” to appear as family entertainment, not a rebellious rock and roller. His films included Love Me Tender in 1956, Jail House Rock in 1957, and King Creole in 1958. The plots and the music in these films were not usually the best Elvis could have done. In Priscilla Presley’s biography of her husband, she recalled that Elvis would become upset over the low quality of material he was given. The films and the

Contemporary Art Culture


songs in them had begun to slow his popularity, which made things more frustrating.

Presley’s image was still popular enough to be

perceived as a threat by conservatives. Generally, Presley was considered dangerous to young women, the way he had them on the edge of their tempers.

A newsletter from the Catholic Church published

an article, “Beware of Elvis Presley.” For those who considered him ambiguously raced, Presley was a threat to the youth of America. When he returned to the Mississippi-Alabama Fair, where he first performed, 100 National Guardsmen stood between the audience and the stage. In Kentucky, the Louisville chief of police even made a “no-wiggle rule” to stop any contortions that would excite the audiences there. As one journalist put it, Elvis and his rock and roll appealed to the most basic of emotions “below the belt.”

Unfortunately, Elvis disappeared from public performances for a time when his popularity dropped. However, in 1968 he sang a comeback concert on NBC television. He had returned to the rock music he did best, tempered with some gospel. The result was another energetic stream of popularity. He toured nationally and performed over 1,000 performances in Las Vegas to sold-out crowds. Yet this comeback was short-lived. In 1971, he and Priscilla divorced, and Elvis removed himself to seclusion from the public. He gained weight and began taking several medications. In 1977, he was found dead in Graceland from what doctors announced was a heart attack from a drug overdose.

The rest of the story is familiar. It is no secret that Elvis was a martyr for his fans. Every phenomenon


preserve Presley’s persona, from “Elvis sightings,”


impersonators, remains popular today.

Pat Boone

Pat Boone

The exits of Little Richard and Chuck Berry from the rock-and-roll scene explains partly why these two originators of rock and roll were marginalized and why White musicians like Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, received more mass media coverage on television and in stored video archives. A well- known entertainment columnist for New York Newsday was contracted to host his own variety show. Like the DJs before him, an endorsement from Ed Sullivan usually led to wide popularity for any musicians he would handpick for an appearance on

40 Contemporary Art Culture

his The Ed Sullivan Show. Elvis Presley is known in most histories as the groundbreaking appearance on the show. Sullivan did not approve of Presley’s suggestive and raucous performances. Sullivan gave Elvis Presley an appearance only after he had become

popular and could not be ignored. Little Richard and Chuck Berry had disappeared from public visibility and would have missed most of these television opportunities. What is interesting about Ed Sullivan

is the authority of his endorsement. He neither sang

nor danced. He didn’t even appear in movies, but his opinion carried a significant amount of weight, which illustrates the power of such a gatekeeper in the politics of the mass media. If you were not on TV, you were invisible.


Television and film extended the images of stars to the mass public. Not only would they become popular for the songs they sang but also for the way they dressed and lived. In fact, film and television created fictitious lives for these celebrities. One of the first was Ricky Nelson, in the television program The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Taken almost directly from the image of the post–World War II White suburban family, Ricky appeared as a high school student who formed a rock band with his friends. The television family experienced none of the generational conflicts that would have worried parent viewers who were concerned about the moral life of their children, who were swept up in the craze of the rock-and-roll scene. The recordings they played were actual songs that Ricky Nelson recorded with his band. Nelson was known as a rock musician with a persona, which was a form of genre fiction for American viewers.

Since the early days of recording, Italian musicians and actors were stereotyped as “Romeos” and “brown-eyed brunettes.” One of the early and widely known individuals was Rudolph Valentino, nicknamed “the great lover,” who was famous as a

movie sex symbol in the first quarter of the twentieth century. He died prematurely, and a throng of 100,000 people showed up at the Campbell Funeral Home in New York City. Valentino’s funeral was

a raucous scene as his admirers broke windows of

the funeral home to see and hear what they could. Italian actors were cast as cowboy characters in “Spaghetti Westerns.” The image of the cowboy was blended with the image of the dark and handsome

movie star, who lived in the West and carried a rifle everywhere, but the problem was that they spoke with a pronounced “Brooklyn accent.” Many of the first film and television productions were done in New York, which explains this coincidence, but it perpetuated again the stereotype of the photogenic, “Italian actor.”

Star popularity could be literally invented by corporate producers and delivered through commercial mass media. Musicians would still climb to fame from the typical lives of recording in small venues, though others would be groomed by producers as if they were creating living comic strip characters. Two of these influential producers were Dick Clark and Don Kirshner.

American Bandstand and Dick Clarkinfluential producers were Dick Clark and Don Kirshner. Dick Clark © Bettmann/Corbis Philadelphia 7, Horn. In

Clark and Don Kirshner. American Bandstand and Dick Clark Dick Clark © Bettmann/Corbis Philadelphia 7, Horn.

Dick ClarkClark and Don Kirshner. American Bandstand and Dick Clark © Bettmann/Corbis Philadelphia 7, Horn. In July

© Bettmann/Corbis



Horn. In

July of 1956,

and left Bandstand.

who handpicked local Italian youths to appear on the show. The show began broadcasting on ABC television in 1957. American Bandstand was not really a concert

or variety

watched other ordinary young people, like themselves, dance to new recordings. Dick Clark handpicked local Italian young people to fill the set with dancers having


His replacement was Dick Clark,

of drunk driving






television station

(now WPVI)

show was


on October


1952. The first host of the

Horn was

show like

The Ed Sullivan


the time of their lives. This show was widely popular, and it promoted recordings and the dances to go with

take dancing

lessons to learn the twist, for example. They watched and learned what others did in television and movies,


Young people did

not usually

which would have created a huge word-of-mouth marketing network for Bandstand.

In 1963 the show moved to Los Angeles, was soon televised in color in 1967, and moved to syndication in 1987. In April 1989, American Bandstand moved to the USA Cable Network, and Dick Clark was replaced with the comedian David Hirsch to attract a younger audience. In October of the same year American Bandstand ended. Changes in mass media and competition from music videos and Music Television (MTV) began attracting significant attention.

Television (MTV) began attracting significant attention. Don Kirshner Don Kirshner was another important figure in

Don Kirshner

Don Kirshner was another important figure in the transmission of American youth cultures across the mass media. Instead of a television host, like Sullivan or Clark, Kirshner was a producer, a relatively invisible but influential figure in the popular music industry. Kirshner is unique among the figures we discuss here because he literally invented rock groups. Two of them were The Monkees and The Archies. Kirchner groomed and coached actors. He had them taught to sing and to play guitar. The Monkees performed simple music that was harmonized with four or five cords. Most student guitar players can learn these techniques in a matter of months. And the guitar playing they were taught was not significant when compared to more skilled players like Muddy Waters and B. B. King. With guitar, organ, and drum parts learned and practiced, the Monkees recorded a few records that sounded good and starred in their own television show, The Monkees. These television episodes were “stock comedies” that were filled with farcical stunts and typical happy endings.

Another group was an animated Saturday morning cartoon program, The Archies. This show was adapted from the comic strip Archie, and it had a fictive life and even distributed recordings, all pitched to younger children, who had been onlookers into the rock-and- roll culture that was popular among teens. The Archie characters were fictional—Archie Andrews, Reggie Mantle, Jughead Jones, Betty Cooper, and Veronica Lodge. Partnered with breakfast cereal manufacturers, The Archies’ recordings were embossed in plastic on the backs of cereal boxes. The records could be cut out and played on a standard phonograph at 45 rpms. The “real” Archies were musicians who played and sang parts at various times—Ron Dante, Toni Wine, Phil Cody, Jeff Barr, Susan Morris, Joey Levine,

Contemporary Art Culture


Maeretha Stewart, Ellie Greenich, Bobby Bloom, and Leslie Miller.

Both The Monkees and The Archies fulfilled the fantasies of younger viewers, with “grown-up” narratives of teen rock musicians enjoying life after school and enjoying the limelight of performing in front of their peers.


limelight of performing in front of their peers. THE BEACH Beatnik Culture Civilized For all the

Beatnik Culture Civilized

For all the controversy over beatniks and rock and rollers, television had capitalized on bringing rock musicians “alive” for young people. This idea also caught the attention of the film industry in Hollywood. Such dramas as Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire had been made into a film in 1951, with Marlon Brando playing the troubled rebel Stanley Kowalski. The Catholic League of Decency demanded changes in the film from Williams’s original script. References to homosexuality were omitted, and the ending of the play was changed. Williams’s script ends with the hopelessly distraught Stella being raped defenselessly, whereas in the film, Stella renounces Stanley’s raping her. Outside the movies, James Dean was actually a tragic figure who took his own life early in his career. These tragic and angst-ridden characters symbolized the rebellion of youth who followed new countercultures.

The setting for the youth scene of California could not be more different. It was a carefree scene of romance and sexuality in swimsuits and suntans. Elvis Presley made the musical film Harum Scarum in 1965, which softened the image of the rebel and rock-and-roll star. Harum Scarum was set in the Middle East with Elvis in a stock hero role. The film opens with damsel in distress tied to a stake in front of a leopard. Elvis (Johnny) appears and takes out the guards with his kung fu. Then, with one chop, he does away with the leopard. The film ends while he serenades the girl as he unties her from the stake. At other times in the film, he finds himself surrounded with a harem of women, romanticizing his virility and male superiority.

Most of the settings for these films were the beaches of Southern California, typically near Los Angeles. The beach became a softened, upbeat revision of the Beat movement, which was located next to the former Beat community of West Venice.

42 Contemporary Art Culture

The combination of hot rod cars, surfboards, and bikinis brought together the ingredients of narratives about carefree summers on the beach. Two film actors who were groomed for these films were Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. As elsewhere in the mass media, Frankie and Annette were Italian. They became teen idols in fictive, on- screen romances.

Two important films in this genre were Beach Blanket Bingo and Muscle Beach Party. Beach Blanket Bingo is and good example of a stock plot and the kinds of imagery of the popular 1960s beach scene. Linda Evans played the singer, Sugar Kane, in a melodramatic role that included her being kidnapped by villainlike characters. Frankie takes up skydiving and is joined eventually by Dee Dee (Funicello). Trouble arises when the Malibu Rat Pack Bikers arrive. One of the bikers, Von Zipper, takes a fancy to Sugar Kane, and another young man falls in love with a mermaid. Sugar ends up in peril, tied to a buzz saw, but she is soon rescued. The plot is situated around several musical numbers by Frankie and Dee Dee.

Muscle Beach Party is a similar narrative. Frankie

and Dee Dee and their friends run into problems with

a gang of bodybuilders who move in next to their

hangout. Frankie becomes swept up by the charm of an Italian countess, but he comes to his senses and goes back to Dee Dee. The film is a parody about life on the actual location, Muscle Beach, which is located in Venice, California, and is still known as a center for bodybuilding. The first weight lifting gym of the now famous Gold’s Gym chain opened in 1965. This new craze about shaping the male body was a likely fit within the swimsuit-clad scene of the California beach and rounded out the stereotyped dimensions of teen sexuality and social life.

stereotyped dimensions of teen sexuality and social life. Beach Boys “Endless Summer” was a fitting title

Beach Boys

“Endless Summer” was a fitting title of a very

popular song by the Beach Boys, a band that sang

a softer genre of rock and roll, which caught on

with listeners of the already-popular girl groups. Even more so, the prosperous 1950s and 1960s were about leisure times for the mostly white middle-classes. For young and old, alike, the upbeat songs of the Beach Boys were symbolic of the good life and prosperity as it was represented in mass media of these decades. Everything

seemed complacent, with young people spending summers at the beach with little if any reference to school or earning money.

with little if any reference to school or earning money. The Beach Boys © MichaelOchsArchives.com BRITISH
with little if any reference to school or earning money. The Beach Boys © MichaelOchsArchives.com BRITISH

The Beach Boys

© MichaelOchsArchives.com


The pop genre of beach music and films, along


made rock overly commercialized and formulaic. You might say the music began “to sound alike.”

1960s brought another kind of

rock music from



saw in the beatniks with the quick excitement of

rock and roll.






Freed and


those in North America. Thanks to radio and word- of-mouth marketing, American rock and roll spread

across Europe.

shows. European young


Atlantic when he


pop groups like



However, the

Great Britain.

These groups

the unconventional traits








booked appearances on

the broad

in Belgium. Like


in Mexico

that carried







across Europe, with


as alluring as


Freed’s persona

The largest audience for the new rock and roll was the British working classes. Bands were organized and began performing rock and roll in small venues. Some promoted themselves across Great Britain and in European. What emerged were new countercultures of musicians and fans that tended to fall into at least two groups, “the rockers” and “the mods.”

Rockers were a counterculture that lived a gritty scene as motorcycle riding rebels. The wore an ornery dress of tight, “pegged” Levis 501 or 505 jeans or leather pants, pointed ankle boots, and leather jackets. Motorcycles were more than fashion for rockers. They were a serious mode of transportation that came out of the post–World War II rationing, and they developed a cult following. Rockers hung out at transport (roadside) cafes, as they were not welcome at most pubs and dance halls. Though onlookers projected a cowboy or renegade persona on the rocker scene, most rockers modeled themselves after racing heroes. Their typical pomp, or pompadour, hairstyle was styled after musicians like Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly. They were also associated with rock and rollers Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, and Chuck Berry. The rocker scene dismantled by the 1970s and splintered off as American hippie groups and Hell’s Angels, discussed in the next chapter.

The mods were different. They were associated with fashion and music that developed in London. The movement began among a few men whose families were in the garment trade. Their musical preferences tended to include modern jazz, R & B, and soul. Musical groups like The Who and Small Faces were also associated with the mods. In contrast to the muscle of the biker image, mods were known for their choice of Vespa motor scooters. When a law was passed that required mirrors on their bikes, mods attached anywhere from 4, to 10, or even 32 mirrors on one scooter.

For all their expensive Italian suits, the mods were not always proper. They clashed with rockers in street fights, and this violence drew fire from the rest of British society. In the middle 1960s, mods also drifted away to the hippie movements and their passive outlook on life. The Who eventually abandoned their association with mod culture to avoid unpopularity related to the shrinking

Contemporary Art Culture


mod scene. The rockers and mods did not die out completely. Their group personae were fused in two bands with combined traits from both scenes, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.

The Beatlestraits from both scenes, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. The Beatles © Michael Ochs Archives/Corbis

both scenes, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. The Beatles The Beatles © Michael Ochs Archives/Corbis

The Beatlesboth scenes, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. The Beatles © Michael Ochs Archives/Corbis The Beatles

© Michael Ochs Archives/Corbis

The Beatles were a self-tailored combination of the rowdy and nonconformist rockers combined with

Band members

John Lennon,

and Ringo Starr wore suits like the mods but with the

slender-cut pants and pointed boots of the rockers.

Their hair

their ears. This rowdy kind of dress and hair length

sent shock waves through conservative circles as a sure sign of radicality.

The Beatles began with a fusion of American rock and roll and R & B into a new style of rock and roll. They also performed other kinds of music such as ragtime, Tin Pan Alley, classical, Indian, hard rock, experimental, and psychedelic.

In March of 1957, a group from Liverpool named



Lennon met

Paul McCartney. A year later, a guitar player named

George Harrison joined



and Harrison

musicians would join the

Lennon, McCartney,

Lennon, and at this

the Woolton Parish

Church Fete. The





of the mods.

Paul McCartney, George

was combed over

their foreheads and








festival is where


group. Though other

group and




remained in

the lineup.


trio took

on several


Moon Dogs,

Long John,

The Beatles,

The Silver Beatles, and The Beat Brothers. The group

44 Contemporary Art Culture

settled on The Beatles for its name, which was an indirect reference to the insect-related name of Buddy Holly and the Crickets.

The group began to tour first in Scotland and then for an extended time in Hamburg, Germany. They played in several clubs and on one occasion recorded for Bert Kaempfert. Back in Liverpool, The Beatles were promoted by Sam Leach and performed in several venues 49 times. The next promoter for the group was Brian Epstein, a young record department manager in a furniture store. The first major recording contract for The Beatles came from EMI Recordings, the sibling company to Capitol Records in the United States. George Martin of Abby Road Studios gave the group an audition. The drummer for the group at that time was Pete Best, one of the many drummers they hired. Martin did not like Best’s playing and sacked him in favor of another drummer, Richard Starkey, whose stage name was Ringo Starr.

The first significant hit that The Beatles recorded was “Love Me Do.” Soon after they made their first television appearance in 1962, Capitol Records was approached about distributing “Love Me Do” in the United States. Capitol refused, reasoning that British acts had never been successful in the United States. Epstein located the small record company Vee-Jay, in Chicago. The single was played on powerhouse station WLS. Unfortunately, The Beatles pulled their contract with Vee-Jay when they were behind on royalties. The next label they approached was Philadelphia’s Swan Records. They tested “She Loves You” on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand and met with jeers from the teenagers, mostly over the group’s long haircuts. Even when Murray the K at WINS-AM played the same single, it was mildly received.

Television was becoming a rapidly growing media, and The Beatles were among the first rock-and-roll musicians to perform on the air. In November 1963, the group appeared on the Royal Variety Performance along with the film actor Marlene Dietrich. Brian Epstein had also convinced Ed Sullivan to commit to three appearances of The Beatles in February of the next year. Epstein also rolled the potential of this visibility into a recording contract with Capitol Records. The first Capitol release was on the shelves in December 1963. New York radio stations WMCA, WINS, and WABC played The Beatles’ single “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and Beatlemania surged

ahead. Capitol Records sold a million copies in only 10 days.

The publicity finally caught the wave of fandom,

as the backdrop was set for the Beatles’ first arrival

for The Ed Sullivan Show on February 7, 1964. The images of the reception are familiar. The PanAm Jet, a recent “miracle” of transportation in itself, taxied to its stop. Thousands of mostly women fans stood on the roof of the terminal and behind police barricades. They screamed and shouted as John, Paul, George, and Ringo emerged from the cabin. The enthusiasm was no less on the evening of February 9, when the packed house also burst with the audience response. Seventy-three million viewers, or 40 percent of the U.S. population, watched Ed

Sullivan that night. In the early days of television, those were unprecedented numbers. Over the next year, The Beatles toured the world, including the Philippines. They would return to New York in 1965

to play in Shea Stadium to an audience of 55,600.

The stadium stood next to the recent site of the New York World’s Fair, which added significant prestige to an appearance at Shea Stadium. The Beatles’ biographer, Keith Badman, stated that the stadium crowd was so loud that the Beatles could not hear themselves sing.

Few would contest that the Beatles were one of the most popular groups in the history of rock and roll. From the middle 1960s onward, the group would experiment with new musical styles and become role models to onlookers of the hippie movement. They would remain popular even as popular culture took on the less-optimistic perspectives of the late 1960s.

took on the less-optimistic perspectives of the late 1960s. The Rolling Stones The Rolling Stones shared

The Rolling Stones

The Rolling Stones shared the spotlight with

The Beatles in their part of the British Invasion. If The Beatles were uniformly tailored and upbeat, The Rolling Stones held much more of an edge. Their appearance was unkempt, and they were more bohemian and perceived as rebellious by comparison. The Stones were leaders in the R &

B movement in Great Britain. They spent their

early years playing country blues, country music,

psychedelic, and reggae.

Keith Richards and Mick Jagger were schoolmates when they met Brian Jones and formed a trio. They took their name from the song “Rollin Stone” by Muddy Waters. They were popular in Great Britain

and sang the music of American R & B and rock and roll—“Route 66” from Nat King Cole, “Mona” from Bo Diddley, and “Carol” from Chuck Berry. They set themselves apart from the Beatles with a “bad-boy” image and much edgier provocative music.

Though The Stones took longer than the Beatles to catch on in the United States, by 1965, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger began to write all the band’s music including their first U.S. hit “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” The Stones carried a notorious reputation in Great Britain and in the United States. Notorious episodes were publicized, such as the one at Keith Richards’ home in Sussex, England. The police were tipped by a tabloid’ and they raided Richards home. They found some “pep” pills (amphetamines) and took ash samples from an ash tray. The pills had been legal in Italy where they were purchased, but authorities made it no less an issue. The controversy was sealed when a sexual partner of Jagger’s emerged from a bearskin rug naked.

Despite prosecution, there arose a general feeling that Richards and Jagger had been treated unfairly. A Columnist for The Times, a conservative paper, even expressed his doubts. Even so, drug use would increase among the group members and become an influence in the surreal quality of their music. In parallel with The Beatle’s Yellow Submarine, The Rolling Stones released their own psychedelic album, Their Satanic Majesties Request. This album was not received enthusiastically because it was too similar to Yellow Submarine and even drew criticism from John Lennon himself.

Contemporary Art Culture


From 1968 to 1972, the band returned to is roots in the blues and adopted a fusion of Bob Dylan’s and Jimi Hendrix’s blues. Unfortunately, the group would soon dismantle. Brian Jones was found dead in his swimming pool in 1969, and Keith Richards was consumed by his drug addiction. In contrast, Mick Jagger found his way into other social circles and went his own way.


As with most popular music, these new genres were also accompanied by new genres of dancing. In the 1950s Elvis Presley had arrested audience attention with his hip-swinging performances. The Beatles’ hit “Twist and Shout” characterized the social ritual of a suggestive dance called “The Twist.” Young people performed their provocative hip twisting in sync with their dance partner and all its innuendo. This kind of dancing was unheard of across the middle classes, and it quickly became common among many groups of young people. It pushed the boundaries of eroticism in dating relationships at a time when sexualities were only implicit in television and film. These new expressive and excessive attitudes that were evoked by the British Invasion foreshadowed even more disruption between youth and older generations, which would surface later in the 1960s.

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Interpretations are similar to telling a story about what you see. Now that you have gathered some facts about the artwork you chose for the last assignment, your job is to return to that work and make some interpretations. For instance, if I have written a descriptive passage about my cell phone, I probably wrote about its steel-silvery color, the rounded corners, the small black plastic object that attaches to it and clips to a band of leather that I wear around my waist. That is description. To interpret, I have to take these descriptive details and tell the relationships among these elements and of the object to myself. How does the device function? Is it just for looking at, like a sculpture? Is it a photograph that documents an event, and what is the significance of that event? What does is symbolize for you?

First of all, it is time to name the work. Returning to my cell phone, it is a symbol of a change in my life because I remember when the only phones in cars were owned by wealthy people. I didn’t even grow up with an answering machine. My life has changed because my habits of communication have changed. Here is an example: Say I forget to make an appointment with my mechanic to work on my truck. I drive by a sign with the mechanic’s number and that reminds me that my truck needs a service appointment. I make the call on the road. The appointment is made, and the problem is solved. To many of us who have been familiar with cell phones for most of our lives, you would find another meaning for cell phones because you have not experienced this change to more mobility in communication.

Now, what would happen if an artist became interested in cell phones and the effects on their user’s routines. He or she decides to arrange for a “situationist” event, where the artist organizes cell phone users as his artwork to create a situation. What are ways this artist might show these changes, to draw our attention to the impact of changes in wireless telecommunications? Say the artist might collect the cell numbers of about 1,000 willing participants. One day the artist will make a call to all 1,000 people at once and tell them to gather at a

specific location at 1:00 P.M. As the call is made and

a crowd gathers, you can imagine it would make

quite a scene, and it might even be covered in the press. The visual impact is the crowd itself, and the movements of the participants would not have occurred without this artist’s intentions. Some might say that the change in the social patterns, the usual routines of the participants have been disrupted or recoordinated in some kind of social phenomenon. It emphasizes relationships between people, which would not have occurred otherwise.

As to an interpretation of this kind of “performance,”

it might remind you of “happenings,” which were

counterculture events in the 1960s, where people gathered for a coordinated purpose. Some of these happenings were arranged by artists, but were not embraced by the established art world of galleries and the art academies for a number of years.

More Examples

Compare this thinking to most of the art world that the public knows. They attend museums, collect artworks, and attend music performances. What they know about the artist or musician is the works they produce, which are marks of progress on this long-unfolding process from the artist’s or musician’s experience.

process from the artist’s or musician’s experience. Willem de Kooning’s Woman of Sag Harbor IV Woman
process from the artist’s or musician’s experience. Willem de Kooning’s Woman of Sag Harbor IV Woman

Willem de Kooning’s Woman of Sag Harbor IV

or musician’s experience. Willem de Kooning’s Woman of Sag Harbor IV Woman smiling © 2007 JupiterImages
or musician’s experience. Willem de Kooning’s Woman of Sag Harbor IV Woman smiling © 2007 JupiterImages

Woman smiling

© 2007 JupiterImages Corporation.

The way part of a picture is treated says something about the artist’s interpretation of the subject. Our interpretation remains our own, according to our experience and our identity. Take the example of a smile. We have discussed how subjects for portraits tended to smile, whereas, the tradition previously had been to pose with a neutral expression. The smile in a documentary portrait reminds us that the happy, contented manner of the subject is meant to show the subjects at their best. One would not look sad or stern for a portrait. Personality and charisma are also associated with well-being and success.

So consider the smile this picture, a hint of Hollywood glamour or just a casual picture. Now, look at de Kooning’s painting, and you see another smiling figure. We have discussed how this comparison could be interpreted as a parody or pun, whereas others may think of it as brutal. Either way, it is something to contemplate.


The word contemplation might connote a quiet meditation, peace, and quiet, or even a prayer or religious experience. These connotations may be considered stereotypes of feeling good, and that contemplation is good for you. It is a sign of any intelligent person to think before you speak. Once the words are out, they are in the ears of others, and you expose your thoughts to the critique of others. So it goes with visual imagery and other arts. Once displayed, they become objects of interpretation. One experience that artists, including myself, have experienced is the way people interpret my work. If others base what they say on what they have seen in the work and around it, then I cannot say that they have misinterpreted my work. They have interpreted it as they see it.

You might be disturbed, as well. Because contemplation can be stereotyped as quiet activity, de Kooning’s vigorous brushwork tends not to be considered as something to contemplate. But if we are disturbed by his painting, you have to admit that it makes you think, to reflect on what you value and what you consider meaningful. If you looked at enough of de Kooning’s work, you might even get past what disturbs you and begin to see more, whether it is layers of paint, aspects of the figure, or the work’s overall feeling. Whether you are disturbed or not, you are challenged to reflect on what you see.

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When viewers look at Rothko’s work and other color field painters like him, we do not see literal subjects. We are turned to reflect within ourselves. Even Rothko’s production of the work was gently brushing layer upon layer of color, which was in itself a kind of contemplation.

Another kind of contemplation would be a more direct social statement. What does the phrase “It’s not my fault” in Kienholz’s work have to do with the idealism of the Statue of Liberty? What effect is made when the flame of Liberty’s torch is replaced with a common neon sign? The Statue that towers over 200 feet above New York Harbor is reduced to a room- sized form that plugs into the wall. The power cord and wall outlet are not masked in any way, and they become part of the piece. The Statue of Liberty is reconsidered as if it were a political cartoon—Liberty plugged into the wall like a toaster or beer sign.

Your Turn

Given these examples, it is time for you to make your own interpretation of the object or place that you found in the last assignment. In addition to asking questions, one of the most crucial elements of interpretation is the ability to construct a narrative, based on evidence of what you saw, heard, or sensed otherwise. We require you to base your interpretations on facts that you have described, which were tangible, visual, or audible in front of you. To help understand interpretation, here is a checklist of some basic principles to remember:

• Interpretations will likely differ from person to person.

• There can be different, and even contradictory, interpretations of the same artwork.

• Interpretations are not so much “absolutely right,” but are “reasonable, convincing, enlightening, and informative stories.

• An interpretation is not necessarily discovering what the artist felt about their work.

• No single interpretation is exhaustive of the meaning of an artwork, including the artists’.

Interpretation is one of the most difficult aspects of writing art criticism. When we encounter an unfamiliar artwork or song, how are we supposed to know what the work means without talking to the artist directly? Whether you have a lot or little experience with art it you are still concerned with what visual art or or multimedia means to you. These meanings might be very personal and private, and

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therefore difficult to express. We might be offended by some of the contradictions you find, but this is the nature of critique and to be fair, you may also respond to the ideas others find.

As above, one of the easiest ways to discover the meaning of an artwork is to ask what the relationships are between elements." Why would some one who

makes things choose a particular type of material, lyric, topic, attitude, color, size, title, texture, image, object or combination thereof? What has the work to do with what you know about the time in which it was made, and is that different that its relation to the ways we think now?

do the Assignment

For this assignment, you will return to the work you used in your description and make an interpretation. Include the following points:

• The name of your object or place

• Each answer should be at least one well-developed paragraph with your point clearly stated and including the details of your description or new aspects that you have observed.

• Check and recheck for evidence to support any points that you make.

• Remember that descriptive and interpretive writing is not a debate about the artwork. Your opinion has to be held back until the next assignment.