Woodstock: The First Postmodern Event?


What is Modernism?—
The epoch called “modernism” was driven forward by a fantasy of a perfectly ordered world…a vision of utopia…a grandiose scheme of order. It donned the crest of Truth…with a capital “T”—the very same one that formed the blue print of some master plan of the world…the prototype structure, based on “universal law,” that which would fix us and fix our world…that which would make everything new and improved…as if we could somehow replace our collective DNA, as earthlings.

And if we could…and if we could achieve this utopia… What would it look like?

It would look like uniformity. Its code and credo was form follows function. According to the utopian language of the modern movement, which dominated the first half of the 20th century, the function of anything dictated its form, which is to say…there shall be nothing extra added, beyond that which is needed. So, for example, in the case of a machine, the body would be stripped down to the basics…a motor…a casing…little more…nothing more, if possible. Nothing overtly decorative. Nothing fluffy. Nothing cute. Architecture, the most visual of the art forms, would display this doctrine of simplicity through what became known as the Universal Style, arising out of the Bauhaus school, in Germany, in 1919. And buildings would all look the same. They would be homogenous.


[Bauhaus Architecture]
The modern style championed simplicity of ornamentation.

This function and vision of simplicity was thought to be known through human reason. Reason was the height of human capacity…nay, the very purpose of what is means to be a human. This was an echo of Platonism, to be sure (recall the prisoners in the cave, reaching for their potential—analogized by their ascent to the top, where they finally see the sun…symbolizing the triumph of reason over senses and certainly…over emotion).


[Piet Mondrian]
An artistic representation of how “reason & order” trumps emotion.

The Dark Underbelly—
Though the mission of modernity was progress, the result was great upheaval and destruction. It is the dark underbelly of the modern ideology; in its angst to universalize, to streamline, and to remove all un-needed parts, it would take bold action toward the unequivocal end of washing society clean of its impurities. This scrub down was reflected in all realms of society…from art to economics to the streamlining of culture, itself. Communism and the holocaust are the most dramatic examples—both were moves toward the homogenization of culture…toward sameness, toward cohesion and especially, toward order.

It was a wholesale laundering…a disinfection. The idea was to purify all of society by removing anything extraneous and subversive.

The Upheaval Continues—
In its love of progress and order, modernity was characterized by a general shift away from anything traditional and magical. The new technological approach to nature exacerbated the domination and degradation of our environment through the cultivation of high output production forces. Machinery was the game.

The environment was just one more vague and nameless category of “other.” In the collective mind, man stood apart from nature and could use it up according to its needs.

We were ruining our world in our quest for the perfect world.

What is POSTmodernism?—
The 1960s were upon us. As every tide eventually turns, postmodernism would engender a backlash on such glaring pomposity…the very assumption of what the academics called, “a grand narrative.” After all, who defines the Truth? What is right and what is wrong? Who gets to be the judge? And what about those whose story was conveniently unheard?

In plain language, postmodernism rebuffs the very possibility of universal truth…the very idea that there could be merely one view, one voice, or one standard. Of anything. This reaction permeated academia, the art world and the political realm, in the form of a “fragmented style,” underscored by “deconstruction” techniques…which is to say, a general breakdown of the tyranny of the “universal style”…and its assortment of faceless bureaucracies. It was a needed correction.

The postmodern movement was born, with its desire for plurality, a multiplicity of voices, and inclusion. The philosophy that underpinned the movement embraces the idea of identity through difference. Politically, this meant there was a general effort to restore racial and gender identity to those who were subverted and oppressed by the hands of modernist housecleaning.

Artistically, a stylistic heterogeneity was emphasized, which is to say, a potpourri of styles and elements are included. We were now seeing playful, overtly decorated façades, in architecture and an abundance of styles, all patched and fused together, in all art forms. Anything in Las Vegas is the perfect example in architecture, as is the corner strip mall, with its ironic clocktowers, propped up by enormous, tongue-in-cheek, Greek columns. And the collage is the quintessence of the postmodern style, in art.

IMG-20140730-00268.jpg     xgreggossel_243234234_large.jpg.pagespeed.ic.lcvXlCuW5x.jpg

[Collage 1: Steve Kaufman]
[Collage 2: Greg Gossel]  
“Collage represents the melange and coexistence of many styles at once”

Deviance was also part of the postmodern agenda.

Serving as the bedrock of postmodern concerns, deconstruction questions our ingrained tendency to look at the world through the framework of a hierarchy, in which all categories of reality are divided in two, such as in the division between black and whiteman and womanright and wrong, and man and nature. These false divisions prioritize one part of the equation, leaving the other to the status of supplement.

By “deconstructing,” or uncovering this offense, and exposing the false division, the postmodernists hoped to restore justice to the subverted half. “Let all the voices be heard!” And let’s refrain from judgment because judgment assumes “a judge.” It serves as the natural correction to the multitude of prejudices resulting from a divided world.

Enter Woodstock—
Child of Modernity, albeit the tail end, it would inevitably carry strands of Modernist ideals, such as the wish for utopia. But, as if predestined to herald in POSTmodernity, in its welcome embrace of all things different…it was a hodgepodge of art forms, people, music, cultures, and in sum, a toast to the multifarious voices insisting on being heard. It was a peaceful and colorful demonstration of deviance.   

Woodstock was originally titled “An Aquarian Exposition: Three Days of Peace and Music.” Although it wasn’t the first open air music festival of its kind—that distinction would go to The Monterey Pop Festival, of 1967— the idea behind Woodstock, was, from the get-go, to present the countercultural philosophy, driven by the growing anti-war sentiment, through the medium of music. In a notably different spirit, The Monterey Pop Festival was created with the intention of validating rock music in a location known for its long running Jazz festival. Each had its own agenda. And that is what makes the difference.

Postmodern philosophy provided the seeds of thought that inspired the countercultural movement, of which Woodstock was the crowning glory. And even the modern dream of utopia was carried out in the postmodern way…through deviance and through the celebration of difference.

Therefore, I suggest Woodstock as the first major postmodern event.


[Warhol’s Brillo Boxes]
What makes Warhol’s Brillo Boxes different than the market boxes? Theory

It wasn’t just a multi-name concert. The “Woodstock Music and Art Fair” was an expression of widespread dissatisfaction. It was a statement. It was social activism, in a way that had never been seen before. It was a critique of the status quo. Although the impetus was Vietnam, it was a call for the wholesale readjustment of all social and political elements that were seen as oppressive.

It was postmodern in that it presented an example of the “other” voices being heard, or rather, 500,000 voices…many of whom were attracted to the event, not solely for the show, but to be a part of what was essentially an anti-establishment agenda. The mostly young, left-ish, white, middle class group, craved freedom of expression and wanted to be a part of something that would provide a sense of freedom from traditional cultural norms. Their non-conformist stance was reflected though their appearance, adopting a new clothing style and hairdos that expressed their liberated mindset…handmade and natural, being key. And colorful.

The unorthodox outlook would extend to all aspects of lifestyle, leading to an increase in communal living settlements, an openness toward sexual exploration, and drug use. They became known as “hippies.” They had a goal, which included the promotion of social awareness toward all subverted “others,” most notably, minorities and the environment, in the wake of not only industrial devastation, but also, by the war, itself. “The other” also included those who were portrayed by the mainstream media, as “the enemy.” They advocated for changes in attitudes toward women and their role in society. They had the grit to challenge authority. And music was the ultimate medium.


[Vintage Woodstock Poster]
“Aquarian Exposition”

By way of Timothy Leary, (who I wrote about, below), LSD came to be associated with the countercultural movement and aesthetic, with the hallucinogenic trip manifesting itself through sound. It may even be said that it served as a bridge that would unite the performers with their audience, through a shared sensorial experience, thereby further breaking down barriers of segregation, in the postmodern vein.


[Timothy Leary]
“Turn on, tune in, drop out”.

Eastern Thought—
Part of this all-encompassing desire for social change included the openness to new ideas in spirituality. The interest in Zen Buddhism, Yoga and other religions of the East, arose with postmodernist thought and what came to be known as the “Bohemian lifestyle.” Eastern spirituality was seen as less rigid than the authoritarian western counterpart. The pervasive ideals of peace, acceptance, and nonviolence were seen as welcome alternatives to the atrophied moralistic religious dogmas of the west, which seemed to consider everything a sin. Eastern thought provided the ideals that the countercultural movement espoused….oneness.


Martin Luther King, Jr. modeled his program of nonviolent resistance on Gandhi’s methods, which led to the liberation of India from the grips of British rule.

The eastern methods of attaining enlightenment were embraced as ways of attaining higher states of consciousness. Accordingly, meditation and Yoga were now being used as means toward personal transformation. This was seen openly, at a major event, for the first time, at Woodstock.

It is often forgotten that Woodstock opened with a Kundalini Yoga set, taught byTom Law, a student of Yogi Bhajan, who also led classes on stage, in between acts and during technical difficulties.

Also, commonly left out of accounts of Woodstock, is the fact that another Yogi, Swami Satchidananda, not only appeared at Woodstock, but formally opened the event with this speech:

So, let all our actions, and all our arts, express Yoga. Through that sacred art of music, let us find peace that will pervade all over the globe. Often we hear groups of people shouting, “Fight for Peace.” I still don’t understand how they are going to fight and then find peace. Therefore, let us not fight for peace, but let us find peace within ourselves first…the East has come into the West…But the entire success is in your hands, not in the hands of a few organizers. Naturally, they have come forward to do some job. I have met them. I admire them. But still, in your hands, the success lies. 

Swami-Satchidananda-and-friend-resize.jpg  woodstock-swami-satchidananda-1-e1454532609799.jpg

[Pic 1: Swami Satchidananda & lion]
[Pic 2: Swami Satchidananda at Woodstock, 1969]
Yogic philosophy…All creatures have value

The need for expression is what defined Woodstock as a postmodern event and historical marking point. Yes, there were other concerts before and after Woodstock, for example, The Atlanta International Pop Festival, and The Isle of Wight, both in 1970, but none that carried the weight of meaning and message that Woodstock did. As quoted in the NY Times:

An estimated 600,000 people showed up at both the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970 and at the one-day Summer Jam at Watkins Glen, N.Y., in 1973. But those were merely concerts, not cultural symbols.

Woodstock was different. Woodstock would prove something to the world. What it proved — that for at least one weekend, hippies meant what they said about peace and love



The Space where Ram Dass and Timothy Leary Diverge




LSD & the 1960s—
It is hard to chronicle the era of the late 60s without reference to drugs—or to the Woodstock festival, itself, which was complete with “acid tents.” It was Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, who pioneered their use in therapeutic settings….although it cost them their professorships at Harvard. Although Alpert would take a different path into Hindu spirituality, Leary continued to publicly promote the use of LSD and became a prominent player in the 60s counterculture.

Their work is chronicled in the documentary from 2014, Dying to Know. Narrated by Robert Redford, it patches together conversations between the two iconic figures throughout their friendship, which spanned five-decades. This analysis is more a close up of the most philosophically interesting part, than it is a review of the documentary, itself. It is one of their last conversations, erupting at the very end of the movie, in which, spawned by a discussion of what happens after death, they wrangle over the existence of the soul, which in Hinduism, is called the atman:

Ram Dass: I’m interested in awareness AFTER the brain gets eaten. I think about the dissolution of conceptual structures.

Timothy Leary: There are neurological and anatomical explanations for hallucinations.

RD: (I’m interested in how death) catapults us into non-conceptual space…my sense of continuity of awareness beyond the brain…is it just my wanting to keep something going?

TL: I don’t have that.

RD: You used the word, “soul”…what do you mean by it?

TL: “Superconsciousness.” And it…she…hangs around the brain.

RD: Well, Ramana Maharshi says, it’s right here (touches heart).

TL: (Rolls eyes)…A wonderful organ to pump blood. These Indian gurus…they’re using the heart as a metaphor? A bad metaphor.

RD: It’s in the lower, right hand corner…the size of your thumb…the atman

TL: (Aghast) Are you kidding me!?

RD: It’s in subtle form…not manifestation.

TL: (Un-camouflaged sarcasm) How do you contact it?

RD: You gotta get a better technology.

TL: Atman…better than LSD?

RD: In LSD, you saw all that, but it went by so fast, and you didn’t have a model to save it…it just went through…so much went through…but what we have conceptualized, is just a tiny edge…a trivia of the whole model.

These kinds of disputes, not unfamiliar to them, serve as a demonstration of opposites in harmony. It’s science and religion cutting the rug. It’s the Yin and the Yang in play, where Leary acts as Yang to Dass’ Yin…with his hard-edged, masculine demand for certainty, alongside Dass’ softer way, and willingness to surrender into the realm of the intangible.

As a relevant aside, what is often forgotten, is that science and religion started out asking the same questions… What is reality?… What am I?… Is there a God?… Is there an afterlife? It was all housed under the umbrella term philosophy. Even the category of “scientist” didn’t exist until the 19th century…1833, to be exact, at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Guys like Newton were called Natural Philosophers. The different arenas just embraced different methods of ascertaining Truth.

These two scientists of the mind have been inextricably bound together, since their meeting in 1961. As if hand chosen by cosmic destiny, both lived at a time, a uniquely situated precipice within the timeline of the 20th century – when it was possible to explore these age-old questions in ways that were as yet, unprecedented in the western world.

Impelled, by both deep curiosity and mutual admiration, these academic big wigs journeyed through the inner landscapes of human consciousness. They went from theory and books to personal experimentation. First hand empirical investigation into uncharted territory, aided by psilocybin and eventually, LSD.

Each had just the right amount of ingredients to get the mixture right…just enough personal trauma and general suffering, together with the right amount of natural disobedience and rebelliousness. For Leary, it was profound grief after his first wife’s suicide. Ram Dass (then, Dr. Richard Alpert) was homosexual at a time when it far from acceptable.

Coming to Different Conclusions—
Something deeper was revealed through this exchange in the documentary. Like two trees growing in different environments, in different soil and all around conditions, not knowing the long term results until the trees reach maturity… But eventually, one tree bears fruit that tastes like love and feels like an open heart, and the other bears fruit that tastes like sarcasm and feels like vexation.

Ram Dass had found something that Leary hadn’t, and it has the aroma of divinity….while Leary’s projection carried the unmistakeable flavor of anguish. One of Leary’s five wives offers us some insight, when she explains the disconnect Leary has always had between his mind and his heart… ”the mind was always in charge and the heart got left behind,” she explained.

Roads Diverge—
It was 1967. Ram Dass wasn’t Ram Dass yet. After traveling the Himalayas, with fellow westerner, Bhagawan Dass, he stumbled into his first meeting with a little saintly looking man, wrapped in a blanket …the man who would become his teacher…Neem Karoli Baba (Babaji). Here he describes their first encounter:

The first time I looked at him, I said to myself, “I don’t want to be hustled.” The second time I looked at him, all I wanted to do was touch his feet…I looked up and he was looking at me with unconditional love and I had never been looked at with unconditional love by anybody…I felt loved…I felt loved…and I felt something happening in my heart.

He was forever changed.

Ram Dass would subsequently explore the same philosophical questions through different means…spiritual means. Under the guidance of his Guru, he would eventually discover the biggest Truth of all: I am a soul….that which would forever separate him from Leary.

“You have to be somebody before you’re nobody.” The idea, in eastern teachings, is that the realization of our truest essence—that we are spirit—engenders a natural breakdown of the ego, with all its attachments to identity and roles, in tow. There is a kind of death that occurs through the realization of what we really are.

Ram Dass sat in wonderment at how his friend, given his taste of expanded states of consciousness, could have remained a philosophical materialist…that is, one who holds that all things, including consciousness, are merely material. For Leary, there is a neurological answer for everything…including altered states of consciousness.

Ram Dass wanted more than a taste…he wanted to discover the means of how to integrate and maintain expanded states of consciousness. It was this desire that led Roshi Joan Halifax—featured in the documentary—to dig deeper, as well, as she embarked on her journey through Zen…searching for a means to really train the mind to be stable…in lieu of what she referred to as merely temporary, “decorative states.”

An Interesting Paradox—
They started together… but ended up continuing their lifelong journeys, exploring the inner dimensions of who we are, but on two very different different paths. Leary, exploring the mind with psychedelics, and Dass, with Bhakti Yoga…a devotional path, aimed at union with God through love.

Leary was at once a rebel against everything, but at the same time, not willing to waver from this very milieu….one that wouldn’t support anything less than empirically tested results. It was almost as if he were saying, “here you go…by your very standards, I’ll reveal your fallacies and limitations!” …As if he wanted to stick it to the world, using its own measurement scales.

Meanwhile, Dass traipsed barefoot into a far away, exotic land, steeped in God…and smothered in divinity…showered with deities, goddesses and myriad celestial beings with their fantastic myths and folklore…unconcerned with scientific methodology and framework.

The Final Transition—
Ram Dass counseled Leary’s family, after his friend’s death from prostate cancer in 1996. He reminded them to let their minds soar with his love, as he passed into the beyond, and to regard death just as highly as life…to let the mysteries of the universe, as they unfold, be beautiful. His last words were, “why?…why not?”