86. Punk – and the opposite of democracy


The Raincoats

You have to call yourself an art writer, among other things (artist, lecturer, musician …) You’ve always side-stepped the identity of ‘art critic’, partly by avoiding any regular role, partly by constantly experimenting with approaches, personae etc. and partly by avoiding the making of judgements and by exploring instead, the idea of judgement in art.

On some weeks your Blog focuses on an exhibition, but that is only if you happen to bump into it or if it dominates your memory of the past week. On other weeks the Blog has focused on politics, yourself, writing itself and always been allowed to wander freely.

Its already a cliché to say this has been ‘another tumultuous week in British politics’. We still don’t really or fully understand or appreciate the ways in which media inform, shape or dominate our society, our democracy, and our politics, but by the end of the week you started to feel like a medieval minion forced by a combined nexus of wealth, power and media to witness the spectacle of the wealthy and the powerful and the mediated, parading their power games before you, somewhat narcissistically.

By the time the new Prime Minister started hiring her far more Right Wing cabinet (after delivering a Left Wing introductory speech) and started firing members of the existing cabinet, you realised you had become so disgusted, disappointed, bored and numbed by the entire political class that you simply wanted to turn away from politics – even though this seems to be the most ‘political’ period of your life.

Fortunately you DID bump into a couple of exhibitions and the one that most engaged you was a small overview of Punk history on display (somewhat incongruously) at The British Library. (Punk 1976-78)

‘Incongruous’ because you think of The British Library as a grand and sedate oasis of cultural calm, a reassuring, exemplary archive, appropriately modeled by architect Sir Colin St John Wilson into a symbol of all that is noble, right, reassuring and good, while Punk was surely the, or one of the most transgressive, confrontational and revolutionary cultural movements of recent times, its core and unrelenting motivation being an urgent need to innovate by means of disruption.

The exhibition locates the history of the phenomenon back in the earlier 1970s with Situationist thoughts and acts shared at art school, and in some early publications by a young Malcolm McLaren and Jamie Reid. There’s also acknowledgement of its parallel source in New York’s very own punk scene and Mclaren’s dabblings there.

The show also comes up to date with a series of recent video interviews with some leading women from the punk movement: Gina Birch (the Raincoats), Helen Reddington (Helen McCookerybook of the Chefs) as well as Jane Woodgate (the Mo-Dettes) and Tessa Pollitt (the Slits) (see here)

There are moments in this exhibition where you just have to laugh out loud at the sheer, unbridled audacity of it all, as well as moments where you can’t help wondering where such a lively, crucial aspect of our democracy has gone?

Yes, we all know the (further) cliché that kids are all consumers now and that all subculture is carefully commodified, and looking back today you could perhaps historicise this and say that the 1980s Thatcherite ‘revolution’ may have just scared the hell out of youth and forced it to its knees, allowing it only to manifest itself as a ‘business-like’ and business-friendly contributor to the ‘creative industries’.

When Thatcher, in the 80s, said “there is no alternative”, and “there is no such thing as society” she might have been inadvertently echoing the great 70s punk slogan ” NO FUTURE!”. For punks, this apparently hopeless slogan concealed within itself the ‘positive nihilism’ of a  whole wasp’s nest of innovative and transgressive activity evidenced here in a rich archive of blistering 7″, 3-minute vinyl records and their DADA-esque cover designs, every one a symbol of a new mode of cultural production capable of shaking the monolithic, decadent, ‘established’ music industry.



So ‘no future’ WAS an alternative, and ‘no future’ WAS society, while the combined forces of Thatcherism, Reagonomics, postmodernism, neoliberal capitalism, globalisation, terrorism and new technologies -that followed the age where punk was possible- seem to have effectively annihilated our present sense of any grass-roots or ‘bottom-up’ cultural and political upheaval.

1976 – 78 are dates of course when many other cultural phenomena erupted. These dates also mark the birth of Disco and of Hip Hop, as well as the international emergence of Bob Marley’s reggae, three more, extremely fertile, hope-inducing creative cultures whose legacies we enjoy while today missing the sense of an alternative cultural ‘space’ from which they emerged.

It seems increasingly clear that the logic of our presiding economic and political system produces ever-increasing wealth, fame, privilege, opportunity, leisure, choice and power for a smaller and smaller number of people (surely the opposite of ‘democracy’), while disallowing, saying ‘NO’ to, and effectively ‘kettling’ any creative space by means of which to respond or nurture our humanity.

Can our least-privileged teenagers even go to art college like Jamie Reid, or become a DJ, or start a band these days,when pushed off the benefits system into exhausting, demeaning, and unpredictable (but business-friendly) Zero Hours Contracts.

Leaving the Punk 1976-78 exhibition at The British Library you feel briefly inspired and rejuvenated by the enduring spirit of those years. It seems to get under your skin just by looking at the amassed record covers, original artwork, newspaper cuttings, old videos and by listening of course to the music and interviews.

Punk didn’t just rock the foundations of the music business (McLaren) it also rocked the media (Reid – but consider also Bill Grundy’s resignation etc.), and fashion (‘SEX’, Vivienne Westwood)

On a day when we have seen the new PM curtsy to the queen, then respectfully fixed our attention on media images of our new rulers going in and out of Downing Street, punk reminds us that we might just still be capable of making our own politics, our own media, our own music and our own fashion.

But the thought lingers only for a frail moment before we remember even here we are merely utilisng the prescribed power of WordPress, Facebook etc. and thus very far from the truly D.I.Y spirit of punk.


2 thoughts on “86. Punk – and the opposite of democracy

  1. i am confident something will emerge. The panorama is disquieting to say the least, especially now when there is a mxture of incompetence and arrogance in the political clases, here in Britain at least. To a New Technomedieval Age, new forms of rebellions.


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