William Blake and the Age of Aquarius at Northwestern University’s Block Museum, curated by Stephen F. Eisenman, is a both learned and highly accessible look at the surprisingly broad influence that William Blake exerted on American artists in the 1960s. By focusing on Blake’s impact, Eisenman manages to present the sixties in a critical light, largely free of the tired nostalgia that usually accompanies the turbulent era. As Eisenman notes in the accompanying catalogue, the term “Age of Aquarius” was made popular by the sixties musical Hair, which played an important role in giving visibility to the style of the hippie subculture while also divorcing it from the political and social radicalism that gave it substance.
At its most exciting William Blake and the Age of Aquarius—and Eisenman’s essay in the catalogue—recover the politically potent elements of the 1960s subculture by revealing the Blakean ideas that inspired them while also identifying the politically empty aspects of the era. The timing of the exhibition urges us to consider the relevance of Blake and the sixties to today. The show and catalogue demonstrate, I believe, that we must move beyond Blake and give up on mining the sixties for political inspiration.