BOSTON — I’ve often thought of the 1960s as the last romantically conservative moment in Western Civilization. Despite the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, the politics of the day were rooted in good old Judeo-Christian ethics and the sense that the individual, both alone and collectively, could change the world in significant ways. Art was for the masses, not just elites.
After that, the deluge. Every man for himself. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Marketplace morality (which was the same as amorality). The beginning of the age of irony. Art for the elites, not the masses.
I’ve been rethinking that dichotomy lately. History doesn’t move backward or stay static, as Mitt Romney and Republican senatorial candidates painfully realized last November. And while irony may have gained the upper hand over passion, artists haven’t turned a blind eye to the political world since the ‘60s.
That’s abundantly clear in the Institute for Contemporary Arts show, “This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s.” Despite what curator Helen Molesworth told Radio Boston regarding the difference between the ‘60s and ‘80s, the overwhelming sense I had from the exhibit was that the ‘60s never ended. There are the obvious pop art extensions to the work of the ‘60s, like Jeff Koons’s “Rabbit,” but what’s more striking about the exhibit is how political the art is, particularly concerning gays, women and blacks.
As my colleague, Greg Cook said in his review of the show: “Ultimately this is a show about people demanding rights, pursuing, as Molesworth writes, ‘an expanded idea of freedom’ via the civil rights movement, gay activism and feminism. These demands challenged traditional male American domains (including art) as well as the very notion of masculinity (see: gay men, butch women, straight guys going emo).”
Even the punk and hip-hop music challenges the conservatism of the time, sounding more like the precursor of ‘60s protest music than its antithesis. And the style of much of the art is every bit as polemical as it had been 20 years earlier.
Obviously, one could organize the art of the ‘80s differently, but the recent production of “Betrayal” at the Huntington Theatre Company, also had a sense of moving forward while looking back. This is a play that starts in 1977 and head in reverse chronological order to 1968. The first scene is a postscript to an affair that ended a marriage; the last is a ‘60s party where the affair began.
“Betrayal” is often described as Harold Pinter’s most personal play, as the details are similar to an affair during his first marriage. But Pinter, at his most personal, is always a political writer and there’s more on his mind than simple infidelity, not that betrayal is that simple in Pinter’s world.
What was striking in the Huntington production — partly because of Gretchen Egolf’s acting, partly because of Maria Aitken’s direction – was what a feminist work this is. Egolf’s Emma, it’s evident as the play goes on, is the one who has progressed from the beginning of the play. She’s no longer the minidressed plaything of the two men, but someone who’s in control of her life. The two men, it’s implied, are as emotionally closed down as they were a decade earlier.
For novelist Ian McEwan, even more than for Pinter, betrayal is political as well as personal, which is why his new novel, “Sweet Tooth,” has been compared to the work of John le Carré.
Neither McEwan nor Pinter is a polemicist, unlike many of the artists in the ICA exhibit. In fact, while McEwan is a lefty in good standing in the London literary community, he takes a certain enjoyment in parting company with them on occasion. His protagonist, Serena Frome, works for MI5 in the 1970s, spreading money to young writers who may be of use to them in their Cold War machinations.
Literature is the binding device of “Secret Tooth,” and McEwan makes the case through Serena’s love of Solzhenitsyn that the Soviet Union really was something of an evil empire, reflected in the way it treated its artists. It makes sense, then, that a young, beautiful woman like her would part company with her comrades.
That’s only the jumping off point for the novel, though. McEwan, like le Carré, is concerned about how betrayal in the public sphere pollutes private lives as well, and maybe even vice versa.
But why look back to the ‘70s? I think that McEwan, like Pinter and the ICA exhibit, see the ‘70s and ‘80s as a time that was not just leaving the ‘60s behind, but building on it in important ways. McEwan has a great time here, even more than in “Atonement,” trying to put himself into the mind and body of a young woman coming to terms with the world around her.
Is she, like Emma in “Betrayal,” a feminist by book’s end? I won’t give it away, except to say that she, too, learns to look at the world through her own terms, not those of the government or her lover, which makes the final twist of the book all the more delicious.
In the end, though, looking back to this period in “Sweet Tooth,” “Betrayal” and the ICA’s ‘80s show, turns out to be a liberating way of looking forward.