Dylan, Warhol, and the Conceptual Revolution of the ‘60s
If any more evidence were needed, the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature appears to provide definitive official recognition that the early 1960s witnessed a conceptual revolution in the arts. The opening shot was Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, which exploded on the film world in 1960 and immediately affected young directors. In 1962, Andy Warhol’s silkscreened portraits of Campbell’s soup cans and Marilyn Monroe jolted the world of advanced art. And in 1965, Bob Dylan initiated a conceptual revolution in popular music. Bruce Springsteen described the moment this began, and neatly captured its differing effect on the generations:
The first time I heard Bob Dylan, I was in the car with my mother listening to WMCA and on came that snare shot that sounded like somebody had kicked open the door to your mind: “Like a Rolling Stone.” My mother – she was no stiff with rock and roll, she liked the music – sat there for a minute, then looked at me, and said, “That guy can’t sing.” But I knew she was wrong. I sat there and I didn’t say nothing but I knew that I was listening to the toughest voice that I had ever heard. It was lean and it sounded somehow simultaneously young and adult.
And it wasn’t long before John Lennon followed Dylan’s lead, and with “In My Life” wrote what he considered “my first real major piece of work…the first time I consciously put my literary part of myself into the lyric.”
Unlike most earlier conceptual innovations, the conceptual revolution of the 1960s was not addressed to a small, sophisticated audience, but effectively attacked the barriers between high and low art. Godard recognized this, explaining in 1968 that the Beatles were “very important because they are popular and intellectual at the same time…That is what I am trying to do in movies.” With both his industrial technique for making paintings and his merciless rhetorical barrage (“Why do people think artists are special? It’s just another job,” “I’ve never been touched by a painting. I don’t want to think;” “Pop art is for everyone. I don’t think art should be only for the select few, I think it should be for the mass of American people.”), Warhol relentlessly hammered away at the hallowed distinctions of fine art. And Dylan and the Beatles created a popular music “of introspective self-absorption, a medium fit for communicating autobiographical intimacies, political discontents, spiritual elation, inviting an audience, not to dance, but to listen – quietly, attentively, thoughtfully.”
Godard’s films of the ‘60s have long since been elevated to the highest critical levels: no less than three of them were listed among the “cent plus beaux films du monde” – the 100 most beautiful films in the world – by the Cahiers du Cinema in 2008. Warhol’s silkscreened works of the early ‘60s have not only passed $100 million at auction, but were the centerpiece of a 1989 retrospective at New York’s august Museum of Modern Art. Now a group of Swedish literary scholars have anointed Dylan as a great writer. This would not have surprised the critic Richard Poirier, who was already aware of the conceptual revolution in popular music during the ‘60s, noting that “People tend to listen to recordings of the Beatles the way families in the last century listened to readings of Dickens, and it might be remembered by literary snobs that the novel then…was considered a popular form of entertainment generally beneath serious criticism, and most certainly beneath academic attention.”
But Poirier recognized that the Beatles, and Dylan, could confidently be placed
within that tiny group who have, aside from everything else they’ve done, infused the imagination of the living with the possibilities of other ways of living, or extraordinary existences, of something beyond “a day in the life.”
In less elevated language, Springsteen agreed:
Dylan was a revolutionary. Bob freed your mind the way Elvis freed your body, He showed us that just because the music was innately physical did not mean that it was anti-intellectual.