The way it was: Looking back at the sixties...
Even some of the terribly upper class students wore blue jeans and tried dating lower class lasses who have always been much more handful than most of the toothy upper class dames who had great difficulty in getting their vowels out of themselves. Terry Thomas being the only exception,
but then he was not a dame
Cambridge means different things to different people. It depends on what you want out of it or what you make of it. Among other things Cambridge enabled me to enjoy little things and made me conscious of the enigma of life and the problems of discovering its meaning. Without doubt at that period it was neither fiction nor poetry but the theatre and cinema that captured my imagination. There was hardly a play or a film that could be missed. Almost every other weekend, one rushed to London with a few friends, saw a play, had pancakes with cream and maple syrup and then tried to speed back to Cambridge before midnight. The Cherry Orchard, Uncle Vanya, Antigone, Theban Women, The Wild Duck, The Master Builder, Heart Break House, Six Characters in Search of an Author, The Dumb Waiter, St Joan of the Stockyard, Chairs, Waiting for Godot... the list is long.
I found Chekov, Ibsen and Brecht deeply moving and so truthful in revealing and expressing the inner trials of individuals and their social conflicts — man’s fragile existence and his courage in the face of it all. In a tragic and vicious world, man redeems himself in spite of his failings, through suffering, which leads him to self-awareness. In contrast the so-called Theatre of the Absurd, made little attempt at grappling larger moral or social issues. There is no meaning or sense to life and man’s attempt to discover it is futile and absurd. It mocks conventional religion and prevailing ethical and moral code of society but offers no answers of its own.
Man’s alienation and bewilderment and his lack of love and fulfillment is the theme of much of the great cinema of the fifties and the sixties of which, to mention a few, Bagmen, Feline, Antonioni, Truffaut, and Resnais were the masters. Boredom, a sense of vast emptiness, an existence without warmth or feeling, without a cause or a companion, sickness, madness and perversity are the themes of La Note, 8 ½, The Wild Strawberries and many other films of the period. There were of course others like Victoria de Sica, Renoir, Visconti, Bunuel, and Wajda who presented a more cohesive vision of life and expressed concern for the fate of man.
Beside the rock’n roll and the mini skirts, the sixties were quite fascinating in many other ways. The cinema tried to explore the inner most recesses of human thought and feeling with ruthless temerity as it had never been done before. It challenged human faculties and prevailing precious ideas and beliefs. It employed an idiom, which was baffling, and yet striking and penetrating. It was a period of great awakening for the whole generation, an awakening to the world. Dickens led to Dostoyevsky and him on to Kafka, Camus and Sartre. My appreciation of Marx came later.
This was a time when moral paucity and political avariciousness of most western countries was each day becoming more and more transparent, their support of unjust causes throughout the world was becoming unbearable. Russell’s anti-war and anti-bomb stand and his exposure of the true nature of US policies and its allies helped to enlist the support of liberal sections of industrialised countries in favour of liberation struggles and democratic movements of the third world. Anti-Vietnam War sentiments highlighted this trend, particularly among the students. ‘Make love not war’ was the overriding sentiment of the day. A new popular alternative culture had emerged which tried to laugh official culture out of court, so to say. The Carnegie Street had taken on the Saville Row. The blue shirt and the blue jeans, apparel of the African slaves in The States, had become respectable. Even some of the terribly upper class students wore them and tried dating lower class lasses who have always been much more handful than most of the toothy upper class dames who had great difficulty in getting their vowels out of themselves. Terry Thomas being the only exception, but then he was not a dame.
The British establishment made incessant efforts to convince the world that Lord Russell, who stood taller than most men of his time in the West, was a senile old woman gone round the bend. However, intellectuals like Cambridge economist Joan Robinson and others established beyond a shadow of doubt that the US and its allies fed lies to the public about what they claimed to be a just and victorious war in Indo-China. On one occasion she counted the total number of Vietcong casualties claimed by the US in the daily press which in 1963 added up to be several times more than the entire Vietnamese population. The short yellow man in the black pyjamas had humbled the tall white American with all his war machines.
This lent strength to peoples’ struggle against colonialism, and neo-imperialism and their local stooges all over the third world. This also gave courage to artists and intellectuals to respect their own ideas and creative faculties. In art, Pop Art cracked the supercilious elitist demeanour of Modernism by deriding its philosophy and mocking its mannerisms. The great mystique about highbrow art, carefully nurtured by the art magazines and the galleries, was destroyed. The Art establishment, however, continued to wield power by controlling the media and corporate institutions through which they could make or unmake artists at their will for profit.
Millions were made out of Pop Art later and millions continue to be made out of art movements howsoever radical or anti-establishment. The market ultimately reigns supreme in the West. Well meaning artists have tried to seek alternative to the callousness of the marketing system by dematerialising art through new modes such as conceptual art but have failed. Some have argued that in a capitalist world the artist just cannot escape the market.
In the past artists and the state have worked together to produce the Parthenon, the Taj Mahal, the glorious miniatures for the Mughal Court, and frescoes for the Sistine Chapel. Can the contemporary artist and the forces of market economy work together? Then there is the question of artists like us who are living and working in economies and political systems which escape tidy definitions. In our country there is neither the free market economy forces in existence nor a state which is sympathetic to the development of the arts. But this, in a way, has been a blessing. In today’s world, state patronage can only subvert the arts. On the other hand, for an artist to be on his own is not easy even at the best of times. But it is a journey, which he has to undertake himself, like some of the names I have mentioned did in the sixties. I believe that if an individual believes in himself and the cause he pleads, sooner or later others will also start believing in him.
Prof Ijaz-ul-Hassan is Pakistan’s leading painter. He is a teacher, art critic and political activist. He was awarded the “President’s Pride of Performance” in 1992. He is currently the president of the PPP Punjab’s Policy Planning Committee and Chairman of the party’s Manifesto Committee