In your face. Why punk can save neither the art world nor anything else

Heiko Schmid

Punk_SchmidtFig. 1

The art world is determined by numerous actors and institutions. In the context of art, there are, of course, also individual positions of power that enable explicit interventions and inscriptions. “Art trends,” however, emerge in the context of permanently fluctuating interrelations. Only persons able to anticipate and adapt developments and positions of power become really influential. Maybe this situation is one of the reasons why “punk,” as a supposedly truly rebellious, subcultural “movement,” is brought forth at times as a remedy for an art and culture world perceived as arbitrary. But adapting punk concepts, as far as one really attempts to understand them, is generally problematic, because punk—as I would like to show in the following—possesses specific references that fundamentally elude adaptations or appropriation. To explain this feature of punk, it is necessary to briefly go into its historical background.

The term “punk” as it is used today was made popular in 1975 by the “Punk Magazine” published in New York. At the time, it used the term punk (and thus its name) to ennoble bands in 1970s New York perceived as hip and trendy with the attribution “punk rock.” It was already known then that the bands lionized by the “Punk Magazine” were heterogeneous in regard to their music; what they had in common was a certain style rather than the artistic references they made. Nevertheless, punk evolved to become a label precisely at the time when it gained broader relevance (through Malcom McLaren’s adaptation) in Europe, as well.
  So the “official” line of tradition of the popular term “punk” can be explained quite simply. But to elucidate what made up and still makes up its fascination and quality, it is necessary to refer to much older backgrounds that one is hardly aware of today. Long before hip big-city musicians were called punks, persons at the absolute bottom of the hierarchy in US-American prisons were branded as punks. Historically, a punk was a person who could be forced to sexual acts at any time by his fellow inmates. A punk was someone who had no control over his own body and was thus subjected to arbitrary assaults from his surroundings. The cool sleight of hand performed by the “Punk Magazine” in this regard was to newly seize a term from prison subculture. It was used to celebrate the pleasure taken in destructive self-abandonment as a new pivotal strategy for pop culture, without, however actually suggesting such gestures. The former meaning of the term punk was thus shifted to the subtext of a New York “style” merely projecting the image of rebellion. But this superficial attribution also totally obscured the characteristics that could actually be attributed to punk music. In the end, it was solely the city of New York that the “Punk Magazine” used as a field of reference, allowing the magazine’s editors to establish punk via such musically divergent positions as The Velvet Underground, The Ramones or Blondie.
  When taking a closer look, the local attribution made by the “Punk Magazine” actually opened up content-related perspectives. 1970s New York was a problematic place. Crime and unemployment rates were high, and even Manhattan was in an alarming condition. Living in the city meant exposing oneself to an, according to middle-class standards, “faltering” community. And the New York art and culture scene began affirming the state of decay or even shaping it as a unique characteristic. The fact that entire neighborhoods lay economically fallow nurtured a development allowing concert situations in  exhibition spaces and clubs to be detached from classical reference systems and newly occupied in confrontational scenes. Based on examples such the proto-punk James Newell Osterberg aka Iggy Pop or the band Suicide, one can even today gain an impression of the quality of these events, which naturally can no longer be reconstructed.
  What distinguished Iggy Pop’s stage appearances in the 1970s were homoerotic gestures of sexual flirtation, on the one hand, and bizarre, almost ludicrous exaggerations and transgressions, on the other. It is said that his early shows were never predictable, they were always an event!

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Stripped to the waist and with his pants open, smeared with glitter, make-up or vaseline, he moved in obscure patterns across the stage and through the audience. Pop repeatedly flipped the bird at the crowd, spat at them and didn’t even stop short of hurting himself on stage. John Sinclair, the poet, anarchistic agitator, and former manager of the rock band MC5, described Iggy Pop’s shows at the time as follows: “Iggy had gone beyond performance—to the point where it really was some kind of psychodrama. It exceeded conventional theater. He might do anything. He didn’t know what he was going to do when he got up there on the stage. I think he got to where he didn’t really have any respect for the audience.” In his anarchic stage appearances, Iggy Pop started aggressively abolishing the distance between himself and the audience. His interventions made the auditorium a venue of open confrontation. Beer bottles were hurled toward the stage and Pop was spat at and abused. In the context of these shows, one must speak of an aggressive redefinition of the relationship between musicians and concert-goers. And with this redefinition, Pop gave decisive impulses to a generation of New York-based artists and musicians socialized in the mid-1970s.
  A telling example of a band clearly inspired by Pop’s stage shows is the avant-garde punk duo Suicide, whose singer, Alan Vega, developed a stage presence that was hard to beat in terms of charming violence. With his outfit and stuttering style of singing, he apparently made reference to Elvis Presley, while permanently disrupting this self-chosen reference with screams, moans and smacking sounds, as well as targeted attacks against the audience. His strategy of violently thwarting his charming appearance is displayed by the fact that during concerts he wore a long steel chain around his shoulders that he would whip toward the audience at unpredictable moments. Since Vega was also known for attacking people he didn’t like during concerts, one can speak of a total dissolution of the separation between stage and auditorium in the context of Suicide concerts. And Vega’s interventions actually prompted members of the audience—as numerous accounts of Suicide concerts relate—to build barricades out of the club’s furniture and barraging the stage with bottles, glasses and other objects. Suicide transformed the auditorium into something like a battlefield. Both their stage performance and their music were thus overlaid by the staging of confrontational settings. They were performatively overwritten, so to speak. Musicians such as Iggy Pop and Alan Vega exaggerated the rebellious gestures of rock ’n’ roll in an extreme way. This resulted in an aggressive conflict situation, in which the tensions raised by the musicians were discharged in no longer controllable outbursts. And precisely in these tense live settings I grasp something that I would indeed call a “punk characteristic.” Against this backdrop, it becomes clear that adaptations of punk’s programs and styles are problematic not only for the art world. In view of its context of origin in New York, it must be said that punk can hardly be mediated. Punk events totally level all systems of value, aiming at their dissolution by means of a conflictual situation characterized by aggression and confrontation. So visitors of exhibitions making reference to punk and its styles and programs must be told the following: The artists (and curators) audaciously positioning themselves against the status quo in such exhibitions and concerts can rarely be described as “punks.” A rudimentary review of the 1970s already reveals that due to its confrontational program punk, by definition, cannot be jazzed up to an a lifeline for the art world and its highly developed economic structures. This would only be possible, if at one point the impulse gained the upper hand that it would be expedient to have decisive components of the art world go under in a cacophony of no longer tamable aggressions.


Fig. 1
Iggy Pop, San Francisco, 1977
Photo: Chester Simpson

Fig. 2
Iggy Pop on stage at Cincinnati, June 1970
Photo: Thomas Copi


Heiko Schmid is art historian and curator. He realised diverse exhibition, research and publication projects on issues like artistic concepts of materiality, media art, contemporary installation art, trash aesthetics, theories of the virtual. He lives and works in Zürich.

Translation: Karl Hoffmann