By Rosemary Gray-Snelgrove
In a friendly argument about two Mexican artists working in the 1940’s and ‘50’s, the question of their mental stability arose. Judging from some of the fantastical elements in their work, were they mentally ill: hallucinogenic? Further, was the female artist unusually narcissistic, judging from how often she is the subject of her paintings?
We were speaking of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. I see their work in quite a different light. I posited that pain-numbing drugs produced many alternate ways of perceiving reality. She painted that vision. As well, she and her husband were living in a time when psychological insights about the subconscious mind had permeated artistic communities. Mythology was rediscovered in academia. Surrealism had found its way into art sales rooms. Dance, music, literature were also moving away from clear narrative.
In the painting The Love Embrace of the Universe (1949) the artist depicts the circle of life, with her husband seen as a babe in her arms and both of them in the embrace of an Aztec goddess of fertility.
The Universal Mother holds all together.
Seeing this jolted me back to a time when similar energy – like that embodied in the painting – embraced my world as I was becoming adult. The 1960’s and ‘70’s took the mid-century explorations and carried them into a massive societal shift, leaving many Victorian values in the dust.
Goodbye Tidy Post-Victorianism, Hello “Authenticity’
By 1967 (Canada’s 100th birthday) colonies of individuals were living in a manner contrary to the orderliness of Western urbanity. We felt like artists, creating new ways of living: perhaps like Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera! Some communities were highly political, some put their energies into creating alternative visual and tactile worlds. Some focused entirely on ways of ‘bending your mind’. A non-violent revolution was occurring.
The forms of dwelling chosen were a sign. Whether in the country or hidden in the cities, homes of those rebelling against the Pepsi Generation bore little resemblance to anything recognized by our families as comfortable. Many applied themselves to learning the skills of settlers, with a sensual aesthetic borrowed from India and Canada’s First Nations. Woodworking, preserving, baking, sewing, beading, mending , took place in rooms furnished with paisley-covered mattresses , multi-patterned pillows, silk scarves for curtains. Walls and ceilings were covered with pictures of multi-limbed goddesses in erotic and pastoral scenes. These fuelled ways of interpreting the complexities of spiritual experience discovered through travel – physical and of the mind. Mind-altering substances were embraced as part of the adventure.
The search was on for what was real, true to our human nature, solid enough to build upon to create a more cooperative and beautiful society.
What was Gained?
Celebrating diversity, valuing simplicity, seeking authenticity in choices, rejecting social conventions based on financial status and belongings, recognizing that authority without ‘buy-in’ by the people won’t work long-term, identification with the varieties of mental states that can be experienced as we move through life, a more gentle approach to establishing social order: these are some positive values of the alternative communities that have found their way into our present lives.
In practical terms, family and class origins matter less, allowing people more freedom to be who they discover themselves to be; women can be financially independent; racial differences draw little attention socially; our children see little to fret about in mixed marriages; a pregnant teenager isn’t forced to marry or abort. In sum, convention does not determine our choices in the degree to which they did before the 1960’s.
It Wasn’t Just the Hippies
These ideas were also percolating in what was thought of as the “straight” non-alternative world. It all worked together to enlarge the freedoms we are now taking for granted.
The Not-Great Consequences
The social fabric was somewhat battered. Divisions within families were hurtful to parents and damaging to young people, some of whom lost a necessary anchor while still needing one. We miss some of the lost conventions, such as being able to expect mannerly behaviour from each other in public. Were too many inhibitions cast aside with more crude and rough interactions entering the public sphere?
Sex has changed. The liberty to choose when and with whom to engage in sexual activity has freed up some people in some good ways. You have to decide what you really want. But over-hyped expectations and confusion about what is ‘normal’ have brought great complexity to what is ideally simple and lovely. Both the gentleness and the power of a good sexual connection can be confused by the over-casual encounter. It will take some time for this one to sort itself.
The widening of a drug culture was a double-edged sword. Permission to explore your mind? An astounding idea, contributing to the development of brain science, and allowing many to grasp the incredible interconnectedness of life. As science identifies how this works at cellular and electrical levels, many can nod and say, “Yep, have seen that”.
But the power of those chemicals to disturb an ungrounded mind or to interact with existing mental disorders brought tragedy to some. There wasn’t enough knowledge to set up safeguards that might have prevented some serious mental breakdowns – however relatively few there were compared to how many were experimenting.
Can We Sum It Up?
In summary, a post-Victorian period shaped those of us born before the middle of the past century (pre 1950). There was correct thinking, proper ways of doing things: don’t mess around with the way it’s done. In 1967 I was discouraged and refused financial support by a Dean of Arts when applying for a Master’s degree because I was married – why would a woman seek academic achievement?
There followed a 20-year period of attempted authenticity when some of us experimented with discarding whole slices of the social structure in favour of authentic living, while others looked on and absorbed some of the best of the cultural ideas being floated. And helped maintain what was already good.
And of course, now we’re in a very different time again because technology has affected us in ways we can hardly fathom. We just know it’s huge and will take some time to understand.
Life continues to be a trip.