Photography: ‘The moment a country lost its sense of self’
On 19 August 1968, Josef Koudelka returned to Czechoslovakia from Romania, where he had been living among and photographing Romany Gypsies. The following day, Soviet tanks appeared on the streets of Prague. For seven days, the 30-year-old Moravian-born photographer roamed the city with his East German Exakta Varex camera loaded with movie film, the only stock he could find at short notice.
The resulting images, some of which were smuggled out of the country, but many of which were not seen until decades later, captured the tumult of a traumatised city. They are recognised as one of the most powerful photojournalistic essays of the 20th century.
Koudelka photographed teenagers blocking the paths of Soviet tanks, old people imploring the young Soviet soldiers to return home, flag-waving youths clambering over army vehicles. He returned to his apartment only to find more film or succumb to exhaustion. His images of defiance have, in the interim, become infused with a romantic, even elegiac quality. Their atmosphere is echoed in photographs of more recent upheavals, most notably the Arab Spring protests.
This image, which he titled Hand and Wristwatch, is of a different order: a singular moment of calm and stillness. Here, there is no movement, no noise, only the almost empty street and that anonymous arm in the foreground, stretching out into the frame. It captures not just the moment the troops entered Prague but also the eerie atmosphere of an entire city and country helplessly losing its sense of itself.
Look closely and you can see a small group of people who have left their work to gather on the pavement. In the background, those blurry vehicles may be tanks. Everything is uncertain here except the hand of a passerby, curled into a fist, and the hands of the watch that signal the moment when everything changed utterly for the citizens of the invaded city. This may be Koudelka’s only conceptual photograph, but it resonates as an iconic image of a tumultuous political moment in which there is no tumult – only an eerie silence in which time itself seems to have come to a halt. Sean O’Hagan
Music: ‘The sound of hippy idealism curdling’
The events of 1968 took some time to percolate through pop: it wasn’t until a year later that Thunderclap Newman would reach No 1 with a song urging the listener to “hand out the arms and ammo … because the revolution’s here”, and that a mood of increasing militancy would really start being reflected by black artists. Of the musicians who did react quickly to 1968’s tumult, the Rolling Stones were audibly re-energised and the Beatles baffled – “you can count me out … in,” sang John Lennon on Revolution. The most incendiary music made in immediate response to the year’s events, a recording of Nina Simone performing at the Westbury Music Fair three days after Martin Luther King’s assassination, was bowdlerised before being released, not least to remove the sound of Simone urging the audience to avenge King’s death by any means: “I ain’t about to be non-violent, honey.”
Meanwhile, released in September 1968 – in the aftermath of the Miami riots and the Democratic National Convention protests in Chicago – Jefferson Airplane’s The House at Pooneil Corners offers the sound of hippy idealism curdling into something infinitely darker. It opens with scraping guitar noise, before an ominous, lumbering two-chord riff strikes up. The lyrics bemoan both “all the bullshit around us” and the counterculture’s desire to “get balled and high”: “You say it’s healing, but nobody’s feeling it … you say you don’t see and you don’t”. After two minutes, in lieu of the usual guitar solo, there’s a lengthy electronic wail that sounds like a siren, and the tone is increasingly apocalyptic: “There will be no survivors, my friend”.
By the song’s conclusion, the lyrics are positing that a post-human world where “all the idiots have left” will be a kind of naive pastoral utopia replete with cows and turtle doves, but the music tells a different story: it just grinds relentlessly on and on, with more siren-like feedback, more keening guitars. It’s effective because it feels like an honest reaction to the events of 1968: not a strident call for revolution, nor a glib attempt to assure listeners that it’s going to be all right, but the sound of people clearly shaken and confused: peering, terrified, into the void. Alexis Petridis
TV: ‘One second that represented decades of progress’
On 22 November 1968, Star Trek boldly went where no primetime programme had gone before when it aired the first scripted interracial kiss on American TV, in an episode entitled Plato’s Stepchildren. It was not, it should be said, the most romantic of embraces; Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and Lieutenant Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) are forced into it by evil aliens with telekinetic powers. Thanks to some artful camera angles you don’t actually see their lips touch and the moment is very brief.
But while the kiss may only have lasted a second, it represented decades of progress in regard to race relations in the States. It aired towards the end of the civil rights movement, after several hard-won legal milestones made African Americans slightly more equal under the law. In 1954, segregation was made illegal in public schools. In 1965 the Voting Rights Act prohibited racial discrimination in voting. In 1967, Loving v Virginia made anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional and rendered interracial marriage legal across the US. In April 1968, days after Martin Luther King was assassinated, the Fair Housing Act was passed, preventing housing discrimination based on race, sex, national origin and religion.
It would be nice to say that Kirk and Uhura’s kiss represented a turning point in the US. That the revolution had, indeed, been televised and centuries of racial injustice were over, sealed with a kiss. However, 50 years later, depressingly little has changed. US public schools are more segregated now than they were during the civil rights movement, according to a 2013 report. And, that same year, a Cheerios ad featuring an interracial family generated so much racist abuse it made headlines.
“Where I come from, size, shape, or colour makes no difference,” Kirk told one of the evil aliens in Plato’s Stepchildren. That’s certainly not true now. Let’s hope things change sometime before the 2360s. Arwa Mahdawi
Theatre: ‘Its choruses ring with jubilation’
Landmark shows don’t have to be masterpieces. Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi is a piece of anarchic juvenilia but its Paris premiere in 1896 is accepted as the starting point of the theatre of the absurd. Similarly there may be better musicals than Hair but its opening at Shaftesbury theatre in London on 27 September 1968 (having been seen earlier that year on Broadway) was a political event for two closely connected reasons. The show not only built a popular musical out of protest. It was also the first production to capitalise on the abolition of theatrical censorship which had constricted the British stage since 1737.
In those far-off days, all works had to be licensed for performance by the Lord Chamberlain, one of whose readers, in proposing a ban, reported of Hair: “It extols dirt, anti-Establishment views, homosexuality, free love, drug-taking and it inveighs against patriotism.” Actually, that’s a pretty accurate description of a show in which Claude, the son of uptight American parents, rejects the world of work and military induction to join a hippie tribe. Ultimately unable to dodge the draft, he ends up uniformed, hair-shorn and dead. The critic and director Charles Marowitz got it right when he wrote of Hair: “It is the most powerful piece of anti-war propaganda yet to come out of America. Without Vietnam and the American repugnance to that war, the show would never have come into being.”
In Britain, there was a good deal of prurient interest in the show’s brief flash of nudity. But that was much less important than its rejection of the death-dealing values of the military-industrial complex and its celebration of life. Hair may have been prompted by anti-war feeling but the book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado and the music by Galt MacDermot are joyous rather than jaded. The opening and closing choruses of Aquarius and Let the Sunshine In ring with jubilation. The best moment comes when Hamlet’s “what a piece of work is a man” is turned into an affirmative song for three voices.
From today’s perspective, the show’s faith in flower power and chemical experiments may seem naive but no piece of theatre better captures the political mood of the late 60s than this “tribal, love-rock musical”. Michael Billington
Dance: ‘The spirit of anarchy on stage’
In 1970 the American choreographer Yvonne Rainer staged an elegant anti-war version of her signature work, Trio A, during which her dancers performed naked with just the United States flag draped ironically around their necks. Rainer’s protest against US involvement in Vietnam would be followed, over the next decade, by a spate of politically conscious dance-making on both sides of the Atlantic. But at the start of 1968, militant acts of choreography tended to focus on the artform itself, re-evaluating the language and conventions of dance.
Many of those militants were former students of Merce Cunningham, who was dedicated to the possibilities of pure movement. Cunningham was, in theory, the least political of choreographers. Yet he was always intensely alive to the world outside his studio, and RainForest, created in the spring of 1968, remains a prime example of how dance can become so porous to the zeitgeist that it becomes expressive, even prophetic of history.
Much about the work is evocative of its title. David Tudor’s semi-improvised score is a dark forest of buzzing, squawking sound; there’s a feral strangeness to many of the dancers’ movements as they crouch, stretch and stalk the stage; and overhead the silver balloons of Andy Warhol’s set design cluster like a canopy of light reflecting leaves. It’s those balloons that take RainForest out of its exotic habitat into the unruly party spirit of the late 60s. Some of them are free-floating, so they bob around the stage whenever the performers happen to nudge or brush against them; some even fly into the audience.
In RainForest there’s a spirit of transformative anarchy at work that not only liberates its dancers from the ordinary rules of human engagement but from the normal constraints of performance. No showing of the work can ever be the same: the sheer chanciness of its construction makes it an embodiment of perpetual possibility and change. Judith Mackrell
Film: ‘Godard denounced it then punched his producer’
If any one movie is saturated with the political spirit of 1968, it has to be Jean-Luc Godard’s bizarre, wayward, instructive documentary about the Rolling Stones, entitled One Plus One and later recut and released in a more commercial version (which Godard angrily disowned) named Sympathy for the Devil, in honour of the famous track from the album Beggars Banquet that the Stones are shown recording. When the London film festival attempted to show this version, Godard denounced it from the stage and stalked out, punching the producer on the way.
The film is a time capsule. Break it open and an overpowering and unwholesome fume of radical chic and 1968-ness rises from it: fascinating, infuriating. Godard himself became the charismatic face of radicalism that year; in March 1968 he led – along with François Truffaut – the anti-Gaullist demonstrations in Paris against the sacking of the Cinémathèque Française director Henri Langlois which ended in scuffles with the police, Godard’s glasses being smashed, and a combustible situation that materially led to the greater disturbances of May.
That summer, he went to London and made his One Plus One: long, unedited real-time sequences of the Stones rehearsing and recording in the studio. No rows or disruptions, though at one stage poor old Charlie Watts gets it in the neck from Mick for his drumming sounding “a bit dead”. But these shots are interspersed and juxtaposed with other sequences: a group of Black Panthers hang out in a junkyard, reading revolutionary texts, passing around weapons and stagily humiliating various submissive women. (The casual misogyny of the era is on display).
Godard’s wife Anne Wiazemsky, named “Eve Democracy”, is shown drifting through woodland, laconically answering yes or no to questions from a camera crew. (“Do you think the lower classes have more sexual vitality than the upper classes?” Answer: yes.) A lone figure is shown spraying graffiti in her room at the Park Lane Hilton and then around the streets of London, shown in all their social-realist bleakness: slogans like CINEMARXISM and SOVIETCONG. A weird voice reads from political, pulp and pornographic novels. In a comic book store people give each other Nazi salutes.
And what of the Stones? Before the last scene, Godard flashes up the famous graffiti slogan: “Beneath the stones, the beach” punningly hinting that the Stones have the real spirit of 68. But his invocation of the Black Panthers is also a coded denunciation of their appropriating black music. The poses that Godard strikes in this film, and the longueurs between them, are exasperating, though like so many Godard films, this one now shows – I believe – his affinity with conceptual art, as much as cinema. It also shows the strange, tense moodiness of the times: the simmering sense of disorder: jittery, euphoric, but with an edge of bleary cynicism, like the voice of Jagger’s Lucifer. Peter Bradshaw