G-Sync: The counterculture effect and embracing hippie ideals in Grand Rapids

A recent visit to the "Hippie Modernism" exhibition at Cranbrook Art Museum has Rapid Growth's Tommy Allen considering the role of the counterculture on the future of Grand Rapids — and all of society.
It's no secret that whenever anyone uses the word “hippie” I'm usually looking for the exit signs as I advance my departure. 

It's not that hippies physically scare me, say, on the level of our current scary clown craze gripping a nation of suburban folk.

Rather, it is the media's sea of negative pop culture images of hippies, and how I and others have become comfortable with them, that disturbs me. Now in light of a new art exhibition currently on tour in America, I am beginning to rethink my way of seeing them and their role in society. 

In the spring of this year, Andrew Blauvelt, former Walker Art Center senior curator and now Director, Cranbrook Art Museum, was in Grand Rapids to present a lecture on his “Hippie Modernism” exhibition, which had just closed in Minneapolis, Minnesota and was in the process of being transported to Detroit’s Cranbrook Art Museum. 

I had first encountered the exhibition prior to Blauvelt’s lecture at Kendall College of Art and Design via the massive catalog from the show while I was touring for a research project in San Francisco.

'Hippie Modernism'Immediately, I was pulled in by its vivid yellow cover complete with an image of the Buckminster Fuller and Shoji Sadao’s U.S. Pavilion for Expo ’67 completely in flames. I knew from the quick scan of the contents inside that I wanted to know more, and I would finally have that chance when I made the trip to Cranbrook to experience it firsthand this month.
It is no secret that while I might have had a problem with the word “hippie,” I surely did not have a problem with “modernism” — the second part of the provocative title — as I live in a region of the world where the long tail of the modernist movement is still alive today with the many furniture manufacturers situated here.

Seeing Blauvelt, a guest of Design West Michigan, deliver his presentation at KCAD stripped away so many of my preconceived ideas about this period of time that is covered in the “Hippie Modernism” exhibition.  As I let this lecture settle in my mind, I began to rethink about my present time in Grand Rapids and wondered about its lesson of influence for our region.

Within this exhibition, I was drawn to the concept of the hippie and the role of the counterculture to enact new ways of doing or seeing something in society. Much like today, those in the counterculture of this period were asking deeper questions of their surroundings and generating ideas to implement. 

Counterculture, as defined by the dictionary, is "a way of life and set of attitudes opposed to or at variance with the prevailing social norm.”  

This exhibition showcased a variety of artists, designers, and architects’ "conceptual and speculative projects,” according to Blauvelt, covering the period from 1964 to 1974. While most of the media and conservative voices of that time period had already reduced many of the hippies’ experiments as a failed counter-narrative to contemporary society, looking back at their build-it-up-from-zero approach to system reorganization, it is very clear that what happened during that time did in fact has a lasting and inspiring impact on our world. 

Now with the lens of scholarship rooted in history, it is very clear that the goals of this period of time is very much like ours now, when many are seeking in society to prototype the future. 

Suddenly, via “Hippie Modernism,” our ability to look back produced a new narrative of this time period. We were able to see so many of our present movements that we are enjoying had their philosophical roots in this time of experimentation. 

So many movements, from climate change to the rise of the sharing economy to even the advent of certain drugs’ ability to open pathways within the brain, were all as much a part of their journey as ours today. 

Even the seeds of art’s social practice movement is grounded in the theatricality of some of the examples on display, like the“Death of Hippie, Birth of Free” from The Diggers, an anarchist guerilla street theater group whose 1967 funeral for the hippie was an attempt for hippies to distance themselves from the dominant image of the lazy hippie propagated by mainstream media to lessen the counterculture’s power and reach within society.

For any counterculture idea to make an impact and thus bring about change, it will most certainly hit opposition by way of society. And, as we know all too often, the story of our history is told by those who are the winners. The hippie may have lost the image war, but with “Hippie Modernism,” a new rethinking of this time period is finally here.

“Hippie modernism marks the tension between the modern characterized as universal, timeless, rational, and progressive, and its countercultural other, which adopts a more local, timely, emotive and often irreverent, and radical disposition,” writes Blauvelt in the catalogue. “Hippie modernism was a momentary reconciliation of these seemingly opposed values.”

We cannot approach Clayton Christensen’s “The Innovator’s Dilemma” a wildly popular book, published in 1997, featuring Silicon Valley folk and other societal change agents — who like to brag in talking points about the power of disruptive innovation — without talking first about the power of what is being showcased in “Hippie Modernism.” 

Disruptive innovation, a term described by Christensen on his website, is a process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves up market, eventually displacing established competitors.

Christensen’s theories on disruption innovation, too, follow the same build-it-from-zero approach that so many hippie modernist artists, designers, and architects have embodied in their work from this period but without the tools to launch disruption that we have today.

As a result, nearly every aspect of our lives has been impacted by these disruptions that often started outside of a normalized or massively-accepted system, where the idea of toppling by a David used to seem unthinkable to the Goliaths of our world.

Everything from ownership and travel to communication and education, plus a whole lot more, have all been disrupted, thus impacting our present and future.

We also live in a time when it is easy to forget these lessons of the counterculture and what they can offer to a region.

For starters, we cannot be a region committed to advancing an environment friendly for new ideas to spring forth if we are not committed to the power of the counterculture to transform how we see and live in our world.

We see evidence of it beginning at all areas of society, whether it be a local former executive director of the West Michigan Environmental Action Council’s bid to become the most qualified candidate (in my opinion) in recent years to run our Kent County drain commission to the sea of non-traditional venues that enable new forms of music to be birthed before hitting the spotlighted stages around our city.

And we see it with our leaders, who are seeking to approach the long-thought unsolvable problems in our society with movements that aim not to apply a bandage but really dig into the systemic layers of the affliction. We are a region where “hippie” counterculture thinking is actually due for a revival.

Locally, when we embrace bold experimentation at the counterculture level and give it room to germinate, we enable a new energy to be unleashed here, where creative chances will commence and be encouraged. It means that if we are to be a city looking to birth the next or the new, then we have to be comfortable not just with the concept of failure as is the de jour locally, but we must also be OK above all else with those who will push our boundaries of experience, acceptance, and do the hard part of supporting them as vital players attempting to usher in something new.

Too often when I hear in conversations related to city-building and development of regional growth “that this is the way it has always been done,” I cringe a little inside since this argument shuts down all dialogue. I am not suggesting that we don’t have those who can step in to shore up gaps in a project’s scholarship or claim, which happens when we forget our own history.

Rather, as “Hippie Modernism” so clearly reminds me, the seemingly insignificant idea we create in the present can become a building block to give birth to something fresh and new for the future.

In 2011, ArtPrize’s founder Rick DeVos said about his annual art contest held in Grand Rapids each fall since 2009 that, "I just want to see crazy crap all over Grand Rapids, and I think we’ve clearly achieved that." 

DeVos also added, ”You need ideas rubbing up against each other. You need ideas having sex with each other.”

And he’s right. 

In order for this region to be serious about the changes and the benefits that can come from them, we need to be a region that begins to take steps to ensure the powerful voices of our counterculture are not shut down or cut off mid-creation. They need to proliferate locally and at all levels. Experimentation takes many forms, and if we are committed to competing with the rest of the world for talent and all that comes with it, then we have to be open to the shock of the new and what it can unleash in a society.

I have watched many movements pop up in our city over the years,from those that rooted in the arts to the stop-and-start development of our downtown from the 1980s to our rapidly accelerating growth spurt.

In the years ahead, if we are to be a community with a healthy ecosystem, then we will need to be even more committed to providing space for the experimentation of our counterculture to create. We need to be committed to how they can impact our region for the better through what they discover. It is so much more than just about art but about the design of the new from the bottom up.

We have a lot to consider as we move forward locally, but it is my hope that because of art programming like Hippie Modernism (now en route to UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive for a February 2017 opening), we will begin to see more clearly that the hippie movement that we have come to know from media and pop culture is not a stereotype worth embracing as the sole image. 

The image of the hippie as a societal disruptor for good is looking more and more like the definition we should be promoting as we advance in this new era.  

If you cannot make the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive exhibition of Hippie Modernism, then I suggest you consider adding the catalogue for the show for your own library.  You will not be disappointed in what you discover since so much of what we enjoy today is rooted it. 

The Future Needs All of Us.

Tommy Allen
Publisher and Lifestyle Editor 
Rapid Growth Media

For a curated look at the events happening in the city, please visit G-Sync Events: Let's Do This

Photo Credits: Images courtesy of "Hippie Modernism"
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