In the sixties, as the nation anticipated the conquest of space, the defeat of poverty, and an end to injustice at home and abroad, no goal seemed beyond America’s reach. Then the seventies arrived bringing oil shocks and gas lines, the disgrace and resignation of a president, defeat in Vietnam, terrorism at the 1972 Munich Olympics, urban squalor, bizarre crimes, high prices, and a bad economy. The country fell into a great funk. But when things fall apart, you can take the fragments and make something fresh. Avocado kitchens and Earth Shoes may have been ugly, but they signaled new modes of seeing and being. The first generation to see Earth from space found ways to make life’s everyday routines eating, keeping warm, taking out the trash meaningful, both personally and globally. And many decided to reinvent themselves. In Populuxe, a textbook of consumerism in the Push Button Age” (Alan J. Adler, Los Angeles Times), Thomas Hine scrutinized the looks and life of the 1950s and 1960s, revealing the hopes and fears expressed in that era’s design. In the same way, The Great Funk: Falling Apart and Coming Together (on a Shag Rug) in the Seventies maps a complex era by looking at its ideas, feelings, sex, fashions, textures, gestures, colors, demographic forces, artistic expressions, and other phenomena that shaped our lives. Hine gets into the shoes and heads of those who experienced the seventies exploring their homes, feeling the beat of their music, and scanning the ads that incited their desires. But The Great Funk is more than a lavish catalogue of seventies culture: it’s a smart, informed, lively look at the Me decade” through the eyes of the man House & Garden called America’s sharpest design critic.”
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Thomas Hine writes on history, culture, and design. He is the author of five books, including Populuxe. From 1973 until 1996, he was the architecture and design critic for The Philadelphia Inquirer, where he wrote a weekly column called Surroundings.” He has worked as an adviser for museums across the country and contributes frequently to magazines, including The Atlantic Monthly, Martha Stewart Living, and The Architectural Record. He lives in Philadelphia.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Excerpt If you wanted a world that was orderly, where progress was guaranteed, the seventies were a terrible time to be alive. Cars were running out of gas. The country was running out of promise. A president was run out of office. And American troops were running out of Vietnam.
Only a decade before, as the nation anticipated the conquest of space, the defeat of poverty, an end to racism, and a society where people moved faster and felt better than they ever had before, it seemed that there was nothing America couldn’t do. Even the protestors of the sixties objected that America was using its immense wealth and power to do the wrong things, not that it did things wrong. Yet during the seventies it seemed that the United States couldn’t do anything right. The country had fallen into the Great Funk.
America even fumbled the celebration of its birthday. In 1975, the United States began a multiyear observance of the two-hundredth anniversary of the American Revolution. Fifteen years earlier, such a celebration would have engaged America, but by the mid-seventies, everything seemed to be falling apart. Four years of pageantry, featuring musket-wielding guys in tricorn hats, didn’t feel like a solution for the country’s malaise. At many of the commemorations, Gerald Ford, that unelected, unexpected president, said some little-noted words. Ford presided over bicentennial America like a substitute teacher, trying to calm a chaos he had no hand in making and seemed scarcely to understand.
The bicentennial celebration left few memories, few images or events that have resonated through the decades since. Media Burn,” staged on July 4, 1975, at San Francisco’s Cow Palace, is an exception. It was not an official commemoration but rather a project of Ant Farm, an art and architecture collaborative. President Ford was not in attendance as he was at most of the bicen’s big moments. Instead, the presiding figure was an imitator of the late President John F. Kennedy, who was remembered at the time as the last real president, or at least the last who didn’t leave office in disgrace. Haven’t you ever wanted to put your foot through your television?” the ersatz Kennedy asked. In the climactic mo-ment of the event, a specially modified and apparently driverless 1959 Cadillac Eldorado convertible crashed through a wall of vintage television sets. In fact, there was a driver hidden inside the car. And the crash was documented by a camera housed in an additional tail fin, constructed for the purpose.
Media Burn” was a quintessential event of the seventies bleak, funny, transgressive, and intensely satisfying in a way that was either juvenile or profound. Though it lacked the Betsy Ross impersonators and flag-waving oratory that marked official bicentennial events, it was nevertheless a historical pageant: Kennedy and the Cadillac Eldorado, icons of success in the immediate past, represented an America that was past and seemingly irrecoverable. Only a decade and a half earlier, every part of American culture from its leaders to its cars and even its linoleum seemed to promise expansiveness and progress. Americans had watched those television sets and seen the future, but nothing had turned out as advertised.
By 1975, the future had turned from a promise to a shock. Following the first Arab oil embargo of 1973, the Eldorado and the dream of freedom and luxury it embodied had come to appear grotesque, a true road to ruin. Overnight, Americans went from a world where abundance was assured to one in which scarcity was an ever-looming threat, and they didn’t handle it well. Mysterious rumors of shortages of everything from toilet paper to raisins led to runs on supermarkets and hoarding as the everyday necessities of life seemed no longer to be guaranteed. What was, in essence, only a commodity shortage quickly became, for many, an intimation of apocalypse. In the early sixties, people brainstormed about when all human problems would be solved; in the seventies, the talk was about when and how civilization would end.
Just days before Media Burn,” the Vietnam War had come to an ignominious end, with diplomats escaping by helicopter from the roof of the embassy in Saigon. Earlier, Richard Nixon, too, had left in a helicopter, after resigning the presidency in the wake of a bungled burglary and a cover-up that revealed a personality even more diabolical and self-destructively insecure than even his many enemies had imagined. For nearly two years, Americans had seen the intellectually brilliant, sometimes visionary president they had reelected in a landslide ever so slowly revealed as a foul-mouthed conspirator, condemned by his own words on his own secret tapes. ( NIXON BUGGED HIMSELF” screamed the New York Post headline.) Spiro T. Agnew, Nixon’s vice president, had resigned as well, in the wake of a tax-evasion scandal.
And then there was the economy, producing very little actual growth, while prices were rising at a double-digit pace. This was something that elementary economics textbooks said could not happen, and yet it did. This so-called stagflation so traumatized politicians and policy makers that for the rest of the century, their central goal was to assure that it would not happen again. Things can’t get any worse,” was the expert consensus in 1970, after the booming economy of the sixties started to sputter in 1968 and inflation persisted the following year. The experts, it turned out, had no idea. You could get eight loaves of bread for a dollar at the supermarket in 1970. The next year, that dollar bought five; in 1973, four; and by the end of the decade, one and part of a second. In 1974, following the imposition of wage and price controls that had only made matters worse, President Ford was encouraging Americans to wear little buttons that said WIN Whip Inflation Now,” even as prices rose 13.9 percent in that one year. The seventies began with worries over home mortgage rates approaching 7 percent and ended with them at 13 percent, on the way to a high of 18 percent in 1981.
Many more Americans were feeling like losers as the economy entered unfamiliar territory. Ever since World War II, Americans had come to expect ever higher living standards and greater economic opportunities. During the seventies, income equality decreased, and ladders of advancement disappeared. After dominating the world economy for more than three decades, the United States saw its balance of trade with the rest of the world begin to slip into the red during the early 1970s, and stay there permanently after 1976. Americans had turned from a nation of producers to one of consumers. American workers, who had long been able to ignore the rest of the world, had to worry about competition from overseas.
Nearly all American cities experienced a dramatic increase in crime during the decade, and some truly bizarre crimes made headlines. In 1973 and 1974 in San Francisco, a band of black supremacists known as the Death Angels killed fourteen and injured seven in what became known as the Zebra murders. The first of what became known as the Son of Sam murders took place in New York in the summer of 1976, and twelve more attacks, resulting in five more murders, happened during the next year. The killer claimed that he had been ordered to commit the crimes by his neighbor’s Labrador retriever. In San Francisco in 1978, a member of the city’s board of supervisors shot the city’s mayor and another supervisor, then won clemency because, his lawyers argued, his judgment was impaired by eating too many Twinkies and other sugary foods. Call it the Decade of Poor Excuses.
Perhaps the most horrible revelation was at Love Canal, near Niagara Falls, New York. There, a chemical company had buried barrels of extremely toxic chemicals atop which a public elemen-tary school and more than one hundred houses were built. For more than twenty-five years, these chemicals leaked, causing such grotesqueries as babies born with two rows of teeth on their lower jaw and skulls that failed to fuse together, while adults had extremely high incidences of rare ailments. Its revelation, the result of an activist mother putting all the pieces together and demanding a school transfer for her child, was more than just a horrible litany of human suffering. It was like an outpouring of long-suppressed evil that had been denied during sunnier times but was now inescapable.
Overseas, the revolution in Iran in 1979 led to yet another gasoline crisis in the United States. Following the revolutionary students’ seizure of the embassy in Tehran in October, fifty-two Americans spent 444 days as hostages. An attempt to rescue them in April 1980 proved a disaster and contributed to President Jimmy Carter’s defeat in the 1980 elections.
Even parts of the world that didn’t suffer through America’s traumas of Watergate and Vietnam suffered from the same economic stagnation, fear of scarcity, and trepidation about the future. In Europe, terrorism was becoming a fact of life. Terrorists disrupted the 1972 Olympics, killing eleven athletes and a dream of peaceful competition. In Britain and Ireland, street-corner bombings became routine, and in Italy a prime minister was kidnapped.
In space, an increase in solar radiation doomed Skylab, the first U.S. orbiting space station, which fell out of the sky on June 11, 1979, just about a decade after the first moon landing. The sky was falling, if only on Australia.
The contemporary consensus is clear. The seventies were awful. The important things were awful, and the trivial things were awful. The politicians were awful. The economy was awful. Those insipid harvest gold and avocado kitchen...
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