A Decade of Decadence: Arts of the '70s
IT WOULD HAVE BEEN so much easier to write about the '60s.
Perhaps because so many hitherto unquestioned taboos were lifted-or at least called into question--during that decade, it seems a watershed dividing the mores, tastes and, inevitably, the arts of a previous generation from those of our own. The Beatles revolutionized popular music, lifting rock from an adolescent eccentricity to a viable music from still growing, albeit spasmodically, after 25 years. Hair, despite artistic shortcomings, legitimized nudity on stage, previously only experimented with in partial or shrouded conditions to insure standards of "redeeming artistic value." Television asserted itself, legitimately or not, in our living rooms, raising a generation on a steady diet of situation comedy, game show and soap opera. It was the '60s generation which, at decade's end, gathered its countercultural offshoots at the three-day Woodstock "celebration," a rock festival that has been symbolically praised or blamed for everything right, or wrong, with the 1960s.
The fact that controversy still exists concerning the social changes wrought during that decade should say something; most of us have not hesitated to label the '50s "silent" or "boring," nor are we likely to think twice about "mediocre" and "depressing" as apt terms to sum up the '70s. Certainly the past decade can claim as many lifestyle innovations and instances of artistic creativity as the '60s, probably more, but they seemed less radical, less revolutionary and tradition-shattering than their predecessors. Perhaps they were: painting, for instance, could not move much farther toward abstraction than the abstract expressionists had already taken it, nor could it become more impersonal or starkly realistic than the work of the pop artists a decade earlier.
It is more likely, though, that the arts appeared less experimental because in each case the mainstream adopted and popularized what had previously been the domain of the avant-garde, while the fringe groups, the repertory theaters, independent film studios and artists' colonies where experimentation traditionally takes place, failed to innovate upon the increasing scale of outlandishness to which we had become accustomed. Off-Broadway became almost as conventional as the Great White Way itself, and nearly as expensive, so much so that a new term and class of theater, "Off-Off-Broadway," emerged. Save for disco, popular music spawned nothing as revolutionary as acid rock and electronic music had been; soul, reggae and punk rock were all, at best, footnotes, not the main text. So-called "new wave" has the potential to become a significant trend, but hasn't yet spawned the lifestyle disco has.
Films like A Clockwork Orange and Last Tango in Paris, which the mainstream dismissed early in the decade as the whims of the rebellious young trying to shock the mass audience, were later actively embraced; by the end of the decade both would be screened in colleges and universities as examples of fine filmmaking. Even the pornography of the '60s seemed puerile by '70s standards as magazines and films sought to reveal ever more; nudity, once restricted to Playboy, paraded in full-color on the pages of Time and Newsweek when streaking raged across the country, and thereafter as often as possible without violating some vague notion of "decency." Playboy itself committed the unthinkable, publishing the women of the Ivy League, and a host of competitors still criticized it as tame and conventional.
If the ever-more bizarre trends and countertrends did not accurately characterize the '70s it was not due to a lack of the absurd; the works, visual and performing, were at least as outrageous as their predecessors. But, unlike the trends of the '60s, which some had purported to understand, the '70s remained an ambiguity throughout. No two artists, it seemed, painted or sculpted in the same style; no two composers wanted their music to sound alike or like anything anyone had ever heard before. Since one artist, not even a great one (and the '70s produced precious few great ones), rarely constitutes a genre, the decade became widely perceived as one of artistic fragmentation. The public, not understanding the work it was being presented, quite naturally dismissed most of it as "junk"; the artists, perhaps justifiably but more likely arrogantly or even lazily, began using their work to indulge their whims and fantasies, not caring whether it would arouse a spark of recognition, passion, or even shock in the viewer. The old debate regarding the social utility of art should have been revived, but wasn't, because not many observers considered the work produced worth the effort.
IN THE ARTS, as in politics and economics, there was a growing sense that the old order was dying; for the first time in our lives, we perceived the future as an enemy rather than as a source of unbounded optimism. Whether the decline in standards reflected the national malaise or artists' narcissism, it should have been a greater cause for concern. It was not because so many people actually liked Donna Summer's "Love to Love You Baby" and because art critics were overwhelmed to see the masses flocking to such "blockbuster" exhibitions as Treasures of Tutankhamon and Splendor of Dresden. Few critics concerned themselves with whether these new-found museum visitors were learning anything significant about art history at these shows.
Perhaps it is inevitable that whenever the arts broaden their appeal they will compromise their quality. If enough people tell us that Star Wars is a great movie we begin to question our own standards of taste. One has to shudder when a youngster today lumps Elvis Costello and The Bee Gees together with the Beatles and Beethoven as "great musicians," and wonder how many years until the latter two no longer make the list. Certainly the cultural elite will always recognize Beethoven's immortality, but if the 1970s taught any lesson, it was that economics is always the bottom line; when times get tough, the masses, not the elite, will pull the arts through.
Television, of course, sold out to commercial interests long ago. With the exceptions of All in the Family and some of its spinoffs, an occasional made-for-TV movie or "mini series", some of the news analyses and documentaries, and most of the public television BBC imports, the decade was unmemorable. The networks received more prase for their coverage of the Watergate hearings than for any other programming event. In the '70s the news became entertainment because T.V. offered little else of value. Public and cable TV tried to fill the void: the former by presenting the best of British television paid for (tax deductibly) by the major oil companies; the latter by showing mostly current features and sporting events, paid for by the viewers themselves. If those two forms of television hold forth some hope that the tube might yet be salvageable, the other arts hold few similar signs. Broadway recovered from several sluggish seasons at the outset of the decade to experience its greatest boom period ever, but it was largely the result of massive advertising campaigns and $27.50 top seats at musicals and commensurately priced ones for dramas. The shows that succeeded, like Grease and Annie, did so by widening their audience appeal; consequently, both were enjoyable but neither was exceptionally memorable. A Chorus Line, Equus and Travesties proved that quality productions, even ones which aim at a fairly sophisticated level of intelligence, can still succeed financially, but in the '70s these stood as the all-too-rare exceptions.
In film, also, the decade witnessed some notable contributions--foremost among them The Godfather, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Annie Hall and The Deer Hunter--but they were overwhelmed by a procession of disaster films (The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake), occult films (The Exorcist, The Omen and sequel films (The French Connection, American Graffiti, Rocky, Jaws and most everything else, part II) that provided the standard fare for most of this country's theaters during much of the decade. We tended to stumble into the trap of praising a movie just because it made money when our critical instincts should have told us otherwise. Very little in this decade rivalled Citizen Kane; we should not have felt compelled to compromise our standards because the material did not meet our expectations.
Many of the other arts followed patterns similar to those in film and theater: a few standout contributions in an otherwise unmemorable and/or incomprehensible decade. In literature, for example, the most notable works were written by names from the past: Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Saul Bellow, Isaac Bashevis Singer, a few others. Twenty years from now, though, an historian looking back on the '70s will proably be more impressed--or depressed--by the extraordinary amount of selfhelp/how-to/me-generation literature that dominated the best-seller lists: The Joy of Sex, I'm OK, You're OK, The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet, Looking Out for #1, Aunt Erma's Cope Book, ad nauseum.
Disco was an interesting development, for it encompassed in one phenomenon the fragmentation, lack of quality and mass, crass commercialization that seemed so commonplace in the '70s. Disco blared over too many air waves and became too much a national lifestyle to be considered a passing fad. Hardly anyone enjoyed listening to disco, although everyone enjoyed dancing to it; discos sprung up like weeds, the most exclusive of which, like New York's Studio 54, were able to turn away hundreds of potential customers, even at stiff entrance fees of $15-$20 a head. Here at last was an adolescent fad the older generation could co-opt and enjoy; by decade's end exclusive restaurants and private clubs had opened discos, and annual membership fees at some of the plusher, better-equipped ones started at several hundred dollars. Studio 54, and all it represented, was only the tip of a narcissistic iceberg that ranged the gamut from hot tubs to Plato's Retreat. Those who could no longer afford the Studio and were still a bit too tame for Plato's, it seemed, were all out jogging or roller skating.
HISTORY TEACHES that whenever the masses feel they no longer comprehend, or are not part of the decisions and changes implemented by a select power elite, a reaction challenging the authority of that group is unavoidable. Whether we label it a revolution or a "conservative shift" depends, basically, on our perception of affairs as they were in the past. In the arts, the power elite is the artists themselves, who increasingly appear to be fashioning their works for their own aesthetic. Now an artist who exhibits individuality and originality is to be praised, and one who sets no limits to his scope of experimentation is to be treasured, but there is a thin line separating these qualities from arrogance toward and contempt for the audience, and that line is being crossed far too often these days.
The popular uprising, of course, takes the from of the public's refusal to patronize these arts, a tactic that, given today's tight supply on arts funding from government, foundations and corporations, is virtually certain to eventually succeed. Already progress is visible: architects, for instance, abandoned the traditional steel-and-glass box for more human structures years ago. Some very recent classical composers, in the tradition of Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn, have made greater efforts to have their music evoke emotional responses than has been the case for much of this century. A few months ago, several leading rock artists unselfishly donated their time and talents to what were, for many their first political benefits; New York's MUSE (Musicians United for Safe Energy) Concerts for a Non-Nuclear Future were, in many ways, the '70s answer to Woodstock.
The danger, though it seems remote at this time, is that the pendulum will swing too far in the opposite direction, that artists will become so altruistic in their desire to accommodate popular tastes that they will work exclusively in the styles of former masters. There can be only one Picasso; if, say, a whole new generation of artists were to work in his style, it would hardly guarantee better paintings. Likewise, Pippin and the other "concept musicals" of the '70s proved that the Rodgers and Hammerstein storybook musical is a creature of the past, an observation symbolically confirmed by Richard Rodgers' recent death. Experimentation must proceed, but it must always be with an eye toward quality. Fortunately, the '70s provided us with two prime examples of art forms able to meet this difficult balance. Dance flourished as never before, because groups like Alvin Ailey and Pilobolus, never afraid to innovate, refused to stoop to low artistic levels to reap maximum profits. More established ballet troupes continued to provide, for the most part, first-rate productions, and the audiences responded. Jazz reasserted itself in the clubs, churches and music halls, in part because it had a proud tradition to call upon but also because its artists worked assiduously and unpretentiously. Most jazz musicians set high standards for themselves, and then polished their work to such a degree that it exceeded them.
Americans, more than most other people, have always had an overwhelming desire to know if what they are doing is right; throughout our history we have longed for the clear-cut path, the single "how to", the correct conclusion. If we learn nothing else from the '70s, we should realize that there are no easy answers; to produce something of quality, one has to continually work until it cannot possibly become any better, and then start the process over again. As we enter the 1980s, with near-unanimous predictions of continued economic sluggishness and decreased support for the arts, creativity will be in high demand; artists around the world will have to meet that challenge or face the prospect of achievements even dimmer than those of the decade just past. Americans in the '70s clearly demonstrated that they value the arts and are willing to patronize them; it is our duty to provide the best we are capable of producing. Depending on our response, the artless society George Orwell predicted in 1984 could come to pass, or, with a little luck, the next decade could be the start of the Us Generation. Editor, 1979-1980