The Wild Angels (1966) is now a cult classic. At the time it cemented director Roger Corman’s place as king of B movies and launched the careers of both screenwriter Peter Bogdanovich and actor Peter Fonda. The film is both a celebration and critique of counterculture values. It is morally ambiguous with a narration that leaves much for the viewer to decide. Dialogue is scarce, general, and succinct. Any moralizing Corman and Bogdanovich leave for scenes when nothing is spoken. The film is shocking, and portrays characters that are often violent, a border between nihilistic and deranged, and possess few redeeming qualities.
In the opening scene of the movie, the ‘T’ is written in such a way that it doubles as a swastika. This is the first full glimpse of counterculture biker aesthetics in the film, and in nearly every scene thereafter nazi paraphernalia is openly displayed. Iron crosses, the lightning bolts insignia of the SS, nazi flags and swastikas are ubiquitous. What is this? Why would young Americans wear these items? What are the multifaceted connections between bikers, surf music, nazi regalia, and swaths of the countercultural left?
It is my thesis that much of the American counterculture since the 1950s can be understood in part as being a successor to the avant-garde, a liberal tradition already embedded in the West since at least the early nineteenth century.
The avant-garde is a fusion of art and politics. The term being first written down by a Sephardic Jew, Benjamin Olinde Rodrigues (1795–1851), from Bordeaux, France. Rodrigues was a mathematician and social reformer and disciple of the early socialist Claude Henri de Rouvroy, comte de Saint-Simon. In a collaboration with Saint-Simon and others, an essay from 1825 called L’artiste, le savant et l’industriel, Rodrigues wrote:
“We, the artists, will serve as the avant-garde: for amongst all the arms at our disposal, the power of the arts is the swiftest and most expeditious. When we wish to spread new ideas amongst men, we use, in turn, the lyre, ode or song, story or novel; we inscribe those ideas on marble or canvas, and we popularize them in poetry and in song. We also make use of the stage, and it is there above all that our influence is most electric and triumphant…[If the arts] support the general movement of the human spirit, if they assist the common cause, and contribute to the growth of general well-being, producing useful sensations for mankind… an immense future of glory and success will immediately open up before them. Their energies will return, and they will be raised up to the highest point they could possibly attain: for when harnessed in the direction of the public good, the force of the imagination is quite simply incalculable.”
Rodrigues here makes explicit a core idea of Saint-Simon’s, that art should be political and politics should reflect artistic expression. This fusion of art and politics is a fundamental aspect of the avant-garde, an aestheticization of politics. Artists would lead societies, art was to be the ideal canvas onto which politics splash. Art, as conceived by Saint-Simon and Rodrigues, was the supreme realm, a sphere capable of supplanting Christianity (what Saint-Simon referred to as “orthodox Christianity”) with its own new religion. Art is the nova religio of the avant-garde, the religion of progress, civilization, and human mastery. Rodrigues and Saint-Simon’s ideas embraced the liberal revolution, but also reflected a profound disillusionment with post-revolutionary liberal society; the avant-garde has always walked the line the tension with the liberal status quo.
The Avant-Garde does not seek a return to a pre-enlightened Europe, but rather seeks movement towards social utopia. It incessantly wriggles and stubbornly insists on motion; on moving away from the terrors of liberalism, of normativization and bureaucratic horror.
The futurists claimed successorship to the avant-garde tradition spawned by Rodrigues and Saint-Simon. Theirs was a movement during the early twentieth century interested in speed, a mechanics of speed as much as an artistic and political ideology of speed.
Embracing the motorcycle as an aesthetics of speed, modernity, and the future, futurists chose it to help deliver the “slap in the face of public taste” they sought. Futurism is a diverse collective, a loosely organized movement of artists, writers, and intellectuals. In Russia many Futurists became Bolsheviks, and in Italy many became Fascists. Whatever the politics of a particular Futurist, which varied, futurism lauded an impatience with the present and sought to break liberal tradition by calling for a rupture with the past.
Futurists were European avant-gardists whose art was entwined with a political gesture; young agitators who looked beyond the confines of their own societies to express motion, machinery, speed, and war. In the Italian poet, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism, a beautifully written text, many of these themes are conflated;
Youth: “The oldest of us is thirty: so we have at least a decade for finishing our work. When we are forty, other younger and stronger men will probably throw us in the wastebasket like useless manuscripts—we want it to happen!”; Motion: “The raging broom of madness swept us out of ourselves and drove us through streets as rough and deep as the beds of torrents.”; Machinery: “And so, faces smeared with good factory muck—plastered with metallic waste, with senseless sweat, with celestial soot—we, bruised, our arms in slings, but unafraid, declared our high intentions to all the living of the earth.”; Speed: “We affirm that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath—a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.”; and War: “We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman.” Marinetti offers the avant-garde a political aesthetics he calls futurism: “It is from Italy that we launch through the world this violently upsetting incendiary manifesto of ours. With it, today, we establish Futurism, because we want to free this land from its smelly gangrene of professors, archaeologists, ciceroni and antiquarians.”
Marinetti’s articulation, while modernist and innovative, is saturated with traditional avant-garde themes. Like Rodrigues and Saint-Simon before him, Marinetti saw art as a means for action: “Up to now literature has exalted a pensive immobility, ecstasy, and sleep. We intend to exalt aggressive action, a feverish insomnia, the racer’s stride, the mortal leap, the punch and the slap.” The futurists offered the avant-garde a modernist aesthetics. Futurism would come to dominate not just futurism but the entire avant-garde movement, and not just in Europe but also in the United States. One of many spheres where this overlap between American and European avant-garde tradition is clear–as well as the contribution of futurism to avant-garde aesthetics–is cinema.
The Wild Angels is an American biker film, a counterculture piece that depicts Blues (Peter Fonda’s character) and the riders in his gang as leather jacket wearing motorists. But this image of the renegade biker, clad in white t-shirts and leather, had already been established. In 1953 Laszlo Benedek made a movie with Marlon Brando that set the precedent for all biker films that came after it, including The Wild Angels: The Wild One. In that film, Brando, leader of a fierce biker gang plays a youth who scoffs at society and refuses submission to all authority. He wears what is now an iconic leather jacket, the Schott Perfecto.
Benedek chose to use this jacket in his film for several important reasons, reasons that point to a genealogical connection between futurists and European avant-gardists of the early twentieth century and American avant-gardists of the countercultural period of the 1950s-1970s.
The Schott Perfecto jacket was created in 1928 by Irving Schott, son of Jewish Russian immigrants to New York City. Schott designed the jacket as outerwear for riding motorcycles, as he correctly gauged there was a niche market to exploit. Schott designed a modernist jacket, one ready to assist man in his destiny to integrate with machines. The jacket is purely utilitarian and is credited with introducing the zipper (a technology invented in World War I) to clothing. The zippers allow the rider to keep items from flying out of pockets while speeding down the road. Now, with a zipper and longer sleeves to accommodate the crouched position of the rider, the jacket was widely embraced by motorcycle enthusiasts and, as the first of its kind, was indelibly associated with the aesthetics of riding. Laszlo Benedek, a Hungarian-Jewish immigrant to the United States, chose this jacket for his film not only because of its already concrete association with riding motorcycles but also because of its resonance with modernism, futurism, and avant-gardism.
Once The Wild One became an international sensation the Schott Perfecto jacket took on an iconic status. After the release of Benedek’s film, the jacket was banned from public schools across America because of its association with rebellion and anti-conformism. (The film was banned entirely from being screened in England for the same reason.)
James Dean, who would replace Marlon Brando as the rebel heartthrob of youth pop culture in America, wore it as his jacket of choice. (Indeed, Dean embraced much of the aesthetics of the avant-garde tradition. In 1955 he would die from injuries sustained while racing automobiles at high speeds). The Schott Perfecto was a jacket that represented speed, modernity, machinery and a brush with death–the very ideals that contemporary Italian and Russian Futurists were trumpeting successfully for over a decade. Little coincidence that the jacket was designed by a Russian immigrant who worked in urban industrial factories. And the jacket carried its symbology through the decades, remaining to this day a powerful countercultural symbol in America. Elvis wore it, the Ramones, Blondie, and the Sex Pistols, too.
The Schott Perfecto was a jacket that represented speed, modernity, machinery and a brush with death–the very ideals that contemporary Italian and Russian Futurists were trumpeting successfully for over a decade. Little coincidence that the jacket was designed by a Russian immigrant who worked in urban industrial factories. And the jacket carried its symbology through the decades, remaining to this day a powerful countercultural symbol in America. Elvis wore it, the Ramones, Blondie, and the Sex Pistols, too.
The release of The Wild One in 1953, thirteen years before The Wild Angels, inaugurated a fascination with organized bike gangs that would last throughout the counterculture. The biker was seen as an outlaw, renegade, independent defender of freedom. But why? is it that outlaws inspire admiration and adoration in the imaginations of law-abiding citizens? Why is criminality so well tolerated in the art of liberal societies? What was it about the character that Marlon Brando played in the Wild One (1953) or James Dean in Rebel without a Cause (1955) or Peter Fonda in the Wild Angels (1966) that captivated popular imagination in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s?
Why is it that outlaws inspire admiration and adoration in the imaginations of law-abiding citizens? Why is criminality so well tolerated in the art of liberal societies? What was it about the character that Marlon Brando played in the Wild One (1953) or James Dean in Rebel without a Cause (1955) or Peter Fonda in the Wild Angels (1966) that captivated popular imagination in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s?
Another genre of films popularized in the 1960s was the outlaw western. Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) is a good example of this new kind of western, one that revels in violence and death, but also Sergio Leone’s films like The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966) and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). Sergio Leone was an Italian son of filmmakers well established in the Italian film industry during a time when that industry was saturated with futurists. In his films (westerns, but also in his masterpiece Once Upon a Time in America–which is a gangster film; the gangster film is another genre of outlaw that grows alongside the biker and western traditions) Leone explores how indirect forces of technology, progress, and modernity clash with active forces of liberalism. If the liberal projects of the nineteenth century were meant to provide an authoritative state, legitimated by the granting of civil rights to its citizens, the outlaw (as presented by Peckinpah, Leone, Benedek, Corman, et al) was the one who rejected both the civil rights of others and the authoritarian state.
The concept of the outlaw is another reaction to the concept of law as redesigned by the liberal revolutions. In a liberal society, crime is defined through a system of laws, and the outlaw is one in a position outside of the liberal consensus. An outlaw is a criminal, one who has not subjugated to the social project and therefore is a target for legal state sanctioned violence.
Liberalism demands the annihilation of the outlaw. Violence is reserved by the state as an exclusive right and a means for upholding law. The promise of the liberal state, by way of its active police force (a supremely liberal invention), is that any illegal violence will be met with the greater violence of law. The liberal state claims a totality over the life of its citizens, a totality that is legally enshrined. As a citizen, the liberal is afforded the freedom to act insofar as that action does not hinder the liberal contract. The liberal contract, in turn, is far reaching and encompasses the economic, political, religious, and cultural spheres. The outlaw, then, at least in the way it has often been celebrated in the art of liberal countries, is one who has successfully, if not ethically, broken free of state-sanctioned violence and bondage.
The outlaw-in-art (whether it is literature or film, poetry or music) is often violent, but the outlaw’s violence is emancipative violence. It is a violence without ends, and it threatens the greater violence of law itself. The outlaw is tolerated, especially in art, because the condition points towards a possible liberation from the humdrum imposition of obedience to the liberal state.
Westerns and biker films of the 1960s (and then gangster films of the ’70s–and some of the more vigilante movie characters of today like Bourne, Reacher, Wolverine) focus on the figure of the outlaw and engage in similar themes. Both genres stage similar critiques, adopt similar aesthetics, and share an adoration for individualism, a mistrust of sedentary society, and roundly condemn state-sponsored authority.
There is a famous scene in Easy Rider (1969), a film that is in many ways Laszlo Benedek’s sequel to The Wild Angels when the characters of Peter Fonda and Dustin Hoffman pull into a traditional ranch and perform upkeep on their motorcycles. The two riders tune up their machines as cowboys place horseshoes on their horses beside them. The juxtaposition of biker and cowboy is conscious and overt here; what is perhaps more subliminal is the way in which both tropes, the biker and the cowboy, coalesce in an outlaw image intimately bound to the history of liberalism.
The American counterculture, whether embodied by bikers, beatniks, hippies, or cowboys, shares with its European predecessors an embrace of an avant-garde tradition, one that stretches back to the liberal revolutions of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and was revitalized and aestheticized anew by futurists in the early twentieth century.
The avant-garde is a product of liberalism since its earliest days. But it is an anti-liberal product of liberalism. Since the days of Rodrigues and Sanit-Simon, the avant-garde has thought through liberalism and worked towards a post-liberal society. Liberal revolutions, inspired by the French and American cases, spread across western Europe throughout the nineteenth century. As the dust settled on a changed political and social landscape, with the
As the dust settled on a changed political and social landscape, with the ancien regime and much of its feudal trappings either abolished or made compliant to the international liberal project, the futurists were able to capitalize on a reaction to international liberalism and articulate a political aesthetic that was able to incorporate the growing nationalist tide against liberalism. If liberalism claimed to offer economic cures to societal ills, nationalism sought to articulate a national cure, and the futurists were able to successfully fuse the avant-garde with nationalism, industrialism, and modernism. Futurists articulated the avant-garde as being anti-internationalist, anti-rationalist, and anti-bourgeois; they expanded the anti-liberal tradition of the avant-garde and provided it with a politicizing aesthetics of art. They affirmed a longstanding avant-garde position that art is a supreme political aesthetic, and in turn supplied that aesthetic with a vocabulary of machinery, speed, motion, nation and war. And it is this aesthetic of futurism, which is a modernist aesthetics of the avant-garde, that comes to dominate the next generation’s countercultural scene in the United States.
If liberalism claimed to offer economic cures to societal ills, nationalism sought to articulate a national cure, and the futurists were able to successfully fuse the avant-garde with nationalism, industrialism, and modernism. Futurists articulated the avant-garde as being anti-internationalist, anti-rationalist, and anti-bourgeois; they expanded the anti-liberal tradition of the avant-garde and provided it with a politicizing aesthetics of art. They affirmed a longstanding avant-garde position that art is a supreme political aesthetic, and in turn supplied that aesthetic with a vocabulary of machinery, speed, motion, nation and war. And it is this aesthetic of futurism, which is a modernist aesthetics of the avant-garde, that comes to dominate the next generation’s countercultural scene in the United States.
Futurists articulated the avant-garde as being anti-internationalist, anti-rationalist, and anti-bourgeois; they expanded the anti-liberal tradition of the avant-garde and provided it with a politicizing aesthetics of art. They affirmed a longstanding avant-garde position that art is a supreme political aesthetic, and in turn supplied that aesthetic with a vocabulary of machinery, speed, motion, nation and war. And it is this aesthetic of futurism, which is a modernist aesthetics of the avant-garde, that comes to dominate the next generation’s countercultural scene in the United States.
The American counterculture transported many of its values and much of its looks from its counterparts in the European avant-garde. Perhaps this thesis is a stretch, but it is a stretch of the imagination and a suspense of the rational that allows an audience to engage with art in the first place. Art exists in a paralleled plane, not subject to law, not bound by rationality, not object or subject, amoral, and phantasmic. And history, in this way, is also art, informing the present, imprinting its own historiography. The avant-gardists, always at the forefront of introspective liberal criticism, consistently make at least two demands on bourgeois society: reject the past and aestheticize politics. This was the case with French followers of Rodrigues and Saint-Simon in 1825, Italian and Russian Futurists in the early 1900s, and American counterculturals of the 1950s on (including, now, Bannon and Mila, et al?)
A return to where we started. The opening of the Wild Angels, which is a scene masterfully filmed by Benedek, has all the trappings of an avant-garde tradition. By bursting through the front yard gate the tricycle riding child breaks free from the conformity of his bourgeois existence. He breaks away from his insular home, frees himself from the confining protection of his mother, and revels in his newfound love for destabilizing speed. The child flies into Blues, who stands in as a matured version of that child, replete with the proper aesthetic of the rebellious avant-garde–leather jacket, motorcycle, and a chain necklace of the Iron Cross. There is a militarism embedded within the aesthetic here, too, a militaristic futurism. The militarism of the counterculture holds the inverse of a futurist nationalist patriotism, for the bikers do not wear nazi paraphernalia to show sympathy with nazi causes but rather to emphasize an American victory over nazism. Wearing the insignia, so the logic goes, is a means both to flaunt a victory in Europe but also a countercultural victory over normative liberal society.
The avant-garde claims a celebration of freedom from liberalism. It is the idea of that same freedom depicted in the child in The Wild Angel’s opening scene as he smiles uncontrollably while he breaks away from his home, gleefully stomps his pedals, almost flying down the sidewalk; the howls of his worried mother fading into the background.
- Benjamin, Walter. Selected Writings. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996.
- A Slap in the Face of Public Taste by David Burliuk, Alexander Kruchenykh, Vladmir Mayakovsky, Victor Khlebnikov (1917)
- The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism by F. T. Marinetti (1909)
- Sorel, Georges. Reflections on Violence. Cambridge, U.K. ;New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
- Payne, Stanley G. A History of Fascism, 1914-1945. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995.
- Poggi, Christine. Futurism : an Anthology. Conn.: Yale University Press, 2009.
- Tisdall, Caroline. Futurism. London: Thames and Hudson, 1977.
 See Image 1.
 In surf culture of the 1950s and 1960s the so called ‘surfer’s cross’ is another example of an aesthetic plucked from nazi Europe. It is a surfer imposed over the Iron Cross of the SS. See Image 2.
 ‘The artist, the scientist and the industrialist’ from Opinions Literary, Philosophical and Industrial(1825). Cited in Harrison, Wood and Gaiger, Art in theory, 1815–1900: an anthology of changing ideas(1998); http://marxist-theory-of-art.blogspot.com/2010/03/key-figures-in-marxist-aesthetics-saint.html#footnote7, March 25, 2015.
 I am speaking here of the liberal revolution in America and France in the late eighteenth century and the liberal revolutions that followed across Europe in the nineteenth century.
 Although some avant garde groups will seek a return to a primordial, or prehistorical epoch, but in these cases the ‘return’ is conceived of as a progress, a progress of return.
 David Burliuk, Alexander Kruchenykh, Vladmir Mayakovsky, Victor Khlebnikov, A Slap in the Face of Public Taste, 1917. “https://www.marxists.org/subject/art/literature/mayakovsky/1917/slap-in-face-public-taste.htm”
 See Image 3.
 I agree with Todd Gitlin that the ‘60s should include three decades.
 These ideas are adapted and worked on from two related sources: Georges Sorel’s Reflections on Violence (1908) and Walter Benjamin’s essay A Critique of Violence (1921). In these two essays the respectively French and German philosophers lay out a theory of violence which holds the liberal state and its system of laws to be rely on violent coercion.
 Marinetti, as a futurist, was smitten with war, encouraged Italy to fight in both world wars and enlisted as a young man during World War I, and again as a 66 year old during World War II–this time as a committed fascist. That 1960s bikers chose to wear military regalia of the radical right from the second world war as part of their aesthetic points to a relationship between militarism and the avant-garde first forged by the futurists in the first half of the twentieth century.