How Punk Rock Infected Every Form of Art
The four-letter word has impressed itself across all of creativity, despite its excess use since the days of the Dolls and the Pistols.
Andy Warhol. Photo by Mario De Biasi/Mondadori Portfolio/Getty Images.
This article is part of an editorial series sponsored by our friends over at HBO celebrating the launch of their new show 'Vinyl,' from Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger, and Terry Winter exploring the crazy and fantastic world of music in the 1970s. Throughout the week, Noisey will analyze this iconic era with articles looking back in time.
Every semester I do an exercise with my students where I have them free-associate with the word "punk"—they call out names of artists (Green Day, The Clash, M.I.A.), subgenres (emo, hardcore), Hot Topic-available accessories (nose rings, leather jackets), and assorted adjectives that spring to mind when they hear that four-letter word. It's a way of showing how genre names are imprecise tools with which to describe music, but it also breaks down the contradictions inherent in the word, and how it's been used to excess since the days of the Dolls and the Pistols.
Being wrung out has hardly resulted in the term falling into disuse, however. Punk has infiltrated culture over the last 40 years enough for it to be paired with nearly any noun out there, from aerobics to parenting. There's even Punk Rock Marketing, a bit of SEO-related chicanery that would likely make Malcolm McLaren beam with fatherly pride.
"Punk art," then, presents its own conundrum. The two main meanings of the descriptor—superficial aesthetic passed between generations vs. guiding principle of messing around with society's base ideologies—seem to contradict each other, and as a result they coexist uneasily in the modern sphere. On the one side, you have a code of behaviors and fashions that includes safety pin piercings, ransom-note typefaces, and corroded voices wailing platitudes that sound revolutionary. On the other, you have an ideology that operates outside the system as much as it possibly can, and plays the games dictated by the world just enough to subsist alongside them—which would, one would think, include fashion and its dictates of what things are supposed to look like.
A good chunk of the art considered "punk rock" hews to the former idea; it either codes as similar to the fashions worn 40 years ago or somehow involves people who were there a la the protagonist of LCD Soundsystem's "Losing My Edge." Sometimes, though, superficialities and essences are both utterly messed with, and that's when the punk becomes sublime, staring at the face of mass-market capitalism with aplomb and wit. The poet Eileen Myles, who co-existed with the CBGB set in the late 70s and early 80s and eventually became worthy of a Times rundown of her Sundays, has an approach to verse that subverts the form stylistically while also throwing down truths that are more potent than John Lydon's sneer. As she put it in "American Poem":
Well I’ll be a poet.
What could be more
foolish and obscure.
I became a lesbian.
Every woman in my
family looks like
a dyke but it’s really
stepping off the flag
when you become one.
"…I am not/ alone tonight because/ we are all Kennedys./ And I am your President," Myles's poem concludes, a proclamation that could be thought of as "punk" for its utter brazenness—although she's too keenly show-don't-tell to add any extra fanfare to it.
Recent work by the Massachussetts-born visual artist Kelsey Henderson has also reached toward this point. A longtime painter of fringe-dwelling subjects, her 2015 painting "Pleasure in Excitement" juxtaposes the cover of a 70s pornographic magazine from Germany with a violent scene that looks to be from a mosh pit; "Aggressive Girls" brings together the coverline from a Los Angeles-based erotic periodical with a weary-looking, nose-ringed-and-winged-eyelinered woman.
"I have been researching old porn magazines for text and covers that aren’t blatantly saying anything about sex to combine with outside imagery," she told Sang Bleu in October. "I’m putting images of subcultures from the 70s and 80s, and maybe 90s, and connecting them to the enticing world of porn font (laughs), playing with the eroticized part of them and slightly fantasized connection that people have with punk and youth and subcultures." Questioning the systems of both pornography and subcultural consumption while trading in their allure—her paintings' arresting nature comes in large part from the way her gentle brushstrokes sympathetically portray youth behaving badly—brings to mind the spirit of "Typical Girls" and "Mind Your Own Business," subverting sexuality while it's being used as a tool to reel in eyeballs.
Perhaps the best futures for "punk rock art"—art that flips scripts while also resisting past structures—will resemble the methods practiced by the artist Fritz Haeg in his Edible Estates project. Haeg tore up the world's suburban lawns so derided by the punks of the 70s and 80s during Edible Estates, which lasted until 2013, but he did so with a purpose. He transformed them into vegetable gardens, allowing the families living on the lots to move toward growing their own food and reinventing the idea of what a lawn "should" look like:
"These simple, low-cost gardens and their stories are meant to inspire others, demonstrating what is possible for anyone with the will to grow food and some unused land between the house and the street. Unlike the unattainable images of perfection seen in design and gardening magazines, anyone should be able to look at these gardens and imagine doing something similar at home."
Haeg's project combines DIY spirit and a way forward with the drive to rip it up and start again—making art not just into a statement that expresses a want for a better world, but a path to a future that's freer from some of the present day's cost-heavy, superficially minded ways of being. Punk's inspirational oomph came (and comes) in large part from the way it offers the idea that something else was out there; while gardening in the suburbs seems to be a long way from agitated, sweaty concerts, both offer pathways to something resisting mainstream culture.
Maura Johnston is a writer based in Boston and she's punk as hell. Follow her on Twitter.