In a fascinating column for the Wall Street Journal, Terry Teachout notes that 1962–not the oft cited annus horribilis of 1968–was when popular culture decisively pivoted into new and uncharted territory:
But it was in 1962, not 1968, that the curtain first started inching up on our age of full-color anxiety. Turn the clock back exactly a half-century and you’ll find yourself in a different America—but one fraught with subtle signs and portents of what was to come….
Yet the caldron of change was already bubbling away. Take a second glance at the guest list for Carson’s “Tonight Show” debut and you’ll note the unexpected presence of Mel Brooks, whose raucously, unabashedly vulgar movies would soon help to undermine Hollywood’s long-established sense of the appropriate. Nor was Mr. Brooks the only portent of things to come. Nineteen sixty-two was also the year when Bob Dylan cut his first album. Andy Warhol’s first solo show, an exhibition of Campbell’s Soup cans, opened in Los Angeles in 1962, and Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” opened on Broadway. As dissimilar as these now-venerable objets d’art may seem to us now, they all had in common the iron determination of their creators to break decisively with the earnest, self-confident tone of postwar culture.
Referring to Albee’s haunting and disturbing play, Teachout notes that its debut marked the first time in American culture that a popular playwright captured the public’s imagination by “declaring that the values by which it lived were false.”
In the second act of the play, George, a bitter college professor, rants drunkenly about the meaninglessness of life:
You endeavor to make communicable sense out of natural order, morality out of the unnatural disorder of man’s mind…you make government and art, and realize that they are, must be, both the same…you bring things to the saddest of all points…to the point where there is something to lose…then all at once, through all the music, through all the sensible sounds of men building, attempting, comes the ‘Dies Irae.’ And what is it? What does the trumpet sound? Up yours.
This monologue just goes to show how far we’ve come since 1962: George’s rant seems almost milquetoast compared to the cultural indiscretions that today entertain the popular public. The question is, are today’s improprieties a direct legacy of 1962, the year our culture abandoned “the long-established sense of the appropriate,” in Teachout’s words–or is their cause found elsewhere?