THE LIVING AND THE DEAD: PETTIBON, MANSON, AND THE SIXTIES
Charles Manson died on Sunday 19th of November, he was 83. A state prison in Corcoran, California was the place where he lived-out multiple life sentences. He was the cult leader of the Manson Family, persuading its members to savagely murder. In a bloody rampage, in the summer of 1969 the ‘Family’ killed seven people in two nights. Under the instructions of the leader. Beyond the traumatic experience of such an event, Charles Manson influenced cultural and artistic products for decades after his incarceration.
The art of Raymond Pettibon exists in a self-proclaimed middle ground between comic book art and literature. The chaotic nature of his art, and the often disjointed collection of writing often sitting beside the graphic art captures the uncertain, and often rambling spirit of the sixties. His art was often used by anarchist and punk groups for their posters and flyers, and his constant references to pop culture in an unconventional manner puts him again in between two worlds. It is perhaps no coincidence that the figure of Charles Manson, and his acolytes, appears frequently as a theme; a symbol of the time.
Retrospectively, many place the defining aspects of the sixties as hippies, drug culture, and vague anti-establishment sentiments. This airy definition of the decade avoids somewhat the more grounded chaos of the time. The sixties was a time of severe civil unrest, with racial tension unpicking the illusions of post-war America; the war in Vietnam that the American population were deluded into was prolonged by a President who would be caught in the largest public scandal of modern history. To round the decade off, in 1969 Charles Manson attacked the heart of American society, managing to touch upon each of these conflicts.
The case of Charles Manson is lurid and grotesque in detail, but it is symbolic in the general. Manson was the leader of a cult named ‘the Family’, which was mainly composed of women whom either Manson or one of his male acolytes enticed into joining. The main philosophy behind the cult was expounded by the leader –the god– Charles Manson, summed up in the term, Helter Skelter. The name itself comes from a Beatles song from their White Album, and the philosophy is as strange as its origin.
At its roots, his thinking was a mixture of racism and anti-establishment thinking derived from an interpretation of the White Album, and the Book of Revelations. The primary function of ‘the Family’ was to collect innocent white women to join, and by doing, so deprive the black male population of a release for their ‘frustration’. The next step in this crazed belief was that the enraged black men would commit gruesome murders against wealthy white families, which would in turn provoke a response from the white community. After the escalation of a race war, Helter Skelter, the white population would be eradicated by the black population; meanwhile, the Family’ would hide out in a biblical cave, and upon return they would rule over the black population.
The murders that are associated with Manson, to which he was found guilty of, were an attempt in his words, ‘to show blackie how to do it’. Such depraved ramblings ended with his cult followers killing seven people between two occasions. The violence and depravity of the acts can easily be imagined from the motive.
Interestingly, the figure of Charles Manson is a grotesque embodiment of all the instabilities and fears of the time, pushed to an excess. In professing a warped sense of universal love mixed with drug induced relativism, he distorted the image of the hippy. His anti-establishment animosity took the politics and radicalism, and dragged it to the swamp-like depths of his insanity. Playing on the racial tensions of a decade thrown into conflict and protest, he sought an apocalypse over resolution.
Extremes of thought, like Manson’s, were found elsewhere during this decade. The Nation of Islam was at the same time professing a crazed racial theory based on a twisted view of a biblical character: Yacub, or Jacob. This was backed up by a cult organisation that was ready to use violence, and did so on its most famous ex-member Malcolm X. A decade later, Manson’s apocalyptic vision was presented again in a book by William Pierce called The Turner Diaries. In the book, a vision of racial purity is propounded to be envisioned only by a national race war that sees extermination as its result. Such raved babble, although on the peripheries, has its roots in the uncertainties of a decade like the sixties.
Raymond Pettibon’s art builds on all of these previous extrusions from a core reality of the time. He is often asked in interviews about why Manson appears so much in his art, and his main response is that he is representative. In picking archetypes, symbolic characters or images, he can convey a larger meaning in a limited medium. In the case of Manson, he is an image used to critique American society. As he says:
In this case, the Manson family really struck a nerve. Here was a charismatic, good-looking guy whose followers might be your own daughters. It was like society was collapsing…it’s a bigger case than just any other crime.
Manson was the deranged death of many of the sixties’ themes. His raving lunacy destroyed the sense of an Alan Ginsberg, his racism laid bare the danger of a Louis Farakan, and his violence revealed the ugliness of the nascent, or perhaps dead, American ideal. There is, however, one saving grace. Civil rights won, and its figures live today in the progress that was made; hippies are remembered nostalgically in the most symbolic photography and footage ever captured, and sixties political radicals survive as the gold standard for government opposition. But unlike all these aspects of that time, Charles Manson, in the most pathetic and deserving way possible, is well and truly dead.