Robert Caro and Carnegie Hall: Revisiting the ’60s

“People talk a lot about the ’60s,” Mr. Caro said, “but they don’t really realize what they are.”

This week he talked about the festival, the decade and the homestretch of his biography. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

You’ve spent decades minutely chronicling American politics. How did you get involved with a festival viewing the decade through the lens of art and culture?

Clive Gillinson [Carnegie Hall’s executive and artistic director] and I have lunch, and generally wind up talking about politics and government. One day about two years ago, he said to me, “Do you have an idea for a festival? Go home and think about it.” I said: “I don’t have to think about it. The ’60s.”

Photo

“People talk a lot about the ’60s,” Mr. Caro said. “But they don’t really realize what they are.” He has inspired “The ’60s: The Years That Changed America,” a new cultural festival organized by Carnegie Hall.

Credit
Michael Kirby Smith for The New York Times

This year brings a raft of big 50th anniversaries, like the Tet offensive, the Columbia student demonstrations, the assassinations of King and of Robert Kennedy. It’s become commonplace to say we’re living through a similar, if less bloody, period of tumult. What parallels do you see?

When you read the paper every night, so much of what is under assault right now — women’s rights, gay rights, voting rights, Medicare and Medicaid, a more open immigration policy — got started or reached a new intensity in the 1960s. In my book, I’m writing about Johnson passing all these bills, while on the front pages every day they are trying to dismantle these bills. This is an era where there is so much thought that government is bad. I’m writing about a time when people thought government was a force for good.

This is the first time Carnegie Hall has turned to a figure outside of the musical world to help plan one of its festivals. What are some of the artistic moments from the ’60s that have stuck with you?

To me, it’s the protest music. I’ve written about what to me is the supreme moment showing the power of music to create social change, which was when Johnson took the title of the most important anthem in his 1965 televised address to Congress a week after the Selma march, when he called for passage of a voting rights act. “It’s not just Negroes,” he said, “but really it’s all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.” The president of the United States takes the key line of the anthem, and uses it to help push the bill through. That’s the power of music.

There are events relating to protest music, but also performances of more avant-garde work like George Crumb’s “Black Angels,” a harrowing musical response to the Vietnam War (complete with whispers, shouting and extreme percussion), to be performed by the Friction Quartet at Zankel Hall on March 24. Are there other events that leap out at you?

The Guggenheim is showing the first [comprehensive] American retrospective of Danh Vo, a Danish artist born in Vietnam whose work looks at social change there after the war, which opens Feb. 9. I’m also really impressed by the New York Public Library’s exhibition on the counterculture, which opens Jan. 19. They are showing manuscripts from Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and a typescript of Bob Dylan’s “Changing of the Guards.” They have all these antiwar posters, and material relating to the Black Panthers. They even have Timothy Leary’s notes on his LSD trips.

We associate the ’60s with the counterculture and protests against government. But that was also when the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, so often under attack in recent years, were established.

Johnson was the moving force behind both of those agencies. Obama knows my books, and when he put the National Humanities Medal around my neck in 2010, I thought, “There are two people in this room who know how this got started.”

Kennedy famously invited Robert Frost and Pablo Casals to the White House. Richard Nixon avidly screened movies. What were Johnson’s personal tastes in the arts? Did he have any favorites that might surprise us?

I’m going to ask you to give me a pass on that. I haven’t written that chapter yet!

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