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A LOVE-Haight relationship
By Stephen Terence Gould
Feb 14, 2007, 10:30am

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From the Denver Post

One of the most popular and recognizable sculptures in American history is composed of four letters: L-O-V-E. The LO is on top of the VE; the O is leaning, precariously balanced.

If you're old enough to be a baby boomer, or a baby boomer's child, you've seen it in one incarnation or another. Even as a U.S. postage stamp. Its "message" is universal, its sentiment sweet.

But when Robert Indiana unveiled his original aluminum work in 1966, it was during a time of war. The sculptor intended its sentiment as an anti-Vietnam War message.

The popularity of Indiana's image began, I think, in the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco, during The Summer of Love in 1967. I was there. At the First Human Be-In, there was more skin showing than at Denver's Cinco de Mayo and Gay Pride Day combined. Everyone was happy, or high, or both. Hair was everywhere.

Across the Bay, however, in Berkeley, everyone seemed to be angry. The hot rush of their anti-war words was like a blowtorch on dry leaves. That fire would spread across the land.

Back then, America needed both - the liberating "free love" joys and trends of the hippies, and the impassioned rhetoric that would, eventually, end the Vietnam War. Hippies surely pushed the limits of what "normal" society would allow, while anti-war activists struggled to pull America out of Vietnam.

Fast-forward a generation. The influence of the love-driven flower-power attitude can be felt in lots of ways these days, particularly in a more tolerant, wide-open society. That's a big difference. In the late-1960s and early '70s, the long-haired weren't necessarily safe just standing on the side of a country road.

Now, except in the military, length or style of hair is usually not an issue. In hair, as in architecture, form follows function. For hippies, it was the most obvious way to irk the establishment. Now, hair can say anything, from well- kempt to wowed-out.

As for our armed forces, contrary to the 1960s, we have a volunteer military. It would be eerie if not so tragic that now, as then, we're in another unpopular war. Just as they were building up American forces in Vietnam in 1967, President Bush is recycling and "surging" our troops to Iraq today.

And, for this generation and this war, there's another "LOVE" sculpture to let us know we're again in a time of national peril. The piece, by Jason Middlebrook, is titled, "The Beginning of the End." Cast in 2004, it's a visual pun on the original Robert Indiana sculpture, but this time its L-O-V-E letters are crumbling, as one critic wrote, "like an ancient stone ruin, moss-covered and cracked, its sentimentality long forgotten." You can see the Middlebrook piece as part of the very edgy "Radar" exhibit in the new Hamilton building of the Denver Art Museum.

"The Beginning of the End" takes study to comprehend. At first, its familiarity is confusing, like a 70-year-old's face you haven't seen since high school. Upon recognition, though, its meaning deepens; you start to remember the old days, the purpose and permissiveness that youth evoked. And you remember the love.

Thankfully, there's still lots of that going around. These days, love takes many forms: a vaccine for malaria, underwritten by the Gates billions; the outreach worker searching for the homeless on a bitter night; the hard-fought bond between Marine buddies in Anwar province; the special-ed teacher's persistence; a mother protesting her son's death in Iraq.

I think The Summer of Love has had a profound, if subtle, effect on the American consciousness. Given the uncertainties of the war in Iraq, I think we need another one. Schedule it for August 2008, in Denver's Civic Center, during the Democratic National Convention.

I'm not suggesting public nudity, or overgrowths of hair. The Summer of Love was really about peace and harmony and joy. That's all we'd need. Maybe by 2008, something really positive will have happened in Iraq.

That would suffice for a celebration.

Stephen Terence Gould (stgould@ is an independent scholar in Denver.


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