Derek Jarman. Still from “Jubilee”

The Importance of Punk in Visual Cultures 0

Estere Kajema
11/04/2016 

Punk, as a subculture, emerged in the late 1960s in various different locations around the globe, but it is most often associated with Great Britain due to the importance and popularity of the punk-rock band The Sex Pistols. However, Punk also has roots in the work of such performers and bands as The Velvet Underground and Patty Smith, and, of course, The Ramones.

Literally, the word “punk” stands for “thug” or “bully”. This, indeed, accurately describes the political ideology of Punk – the subculture stands very far to the left, and its practice is highly inspired by anarchism. Punk is driven by a refusal to sell out, a desire to DYI (Do It Yourself), and anti-capitalism; it is a subculture which is itself divided into many different smaller subcultures, for instance, Horror Punk, which is inspired by horror films and science fiction; Queercore, which focuses on questions of gender equality and the right to one's sexuality; and Riot Grrrl, a subculture which looks at gender equality, feminism, and female rights.


Westwood and McLaren. Photo: theredlist.com

Punk, most definitely, is not a subculture that only produces and questions music, politics or lifestyle. It is also reflected in poetry, creative writing, fashion, and, indeed, art. I will begin this essay with a brief glance at the history of Punk, as well as a review of such Punk pioneers as Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, in order to underline their influence of the Punk “look”, or appearance. I will then look at the works of the British artists Jamie Reid, Gilbert and George, and Derek Jarman; as well as the possible relevance of Punk in contemporary art – to support this thought I will look at the performance works of Pyotr Pavlensky. Finally, I will also draw attention to the recent announcement made by the son of Westwood and McLaren – Joseph Corré.

WHERE DOES PUNK COME FROM

As mentioned above, the word “punk” literally translates as “thug”, but, at the time of Shakespeare, it also meant “prostitute”. Shakespeare himself, allegedly, once wrote the phrase “taffety punk”, meaning “a well dressed whore”.

The history of Punk is divided into three waves. The first wave emerged in the United States, in various locations – including New York and Detroit – in the early 1970s. Bands such as The Ramones, Talking Heads, and New York Dolls practiced in their garages, for which they were known as “garage rockers”. At the time of their emergence, the bands were neither popular nor famous; they were considered to be angry teenagers and did not draw too much attention to themselves.

In 1974, the British musician and producer Malcolm McLaren travelled to New York, where he met the New York Dolls, and eventually became their manager. A few years before that, together with his life-partner, Vivienne Westwood, he had opened a shop called “Let It Rock”, which was later re-named as “Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die”, and after that, to “SEX”. They started off with a shop whose aim was to sell clothes and accessories to so-called “Teddy Boys” – young men and teenagers who wore narrow pants, thin ties, and shoes with thick soles. After his trip to New York, and after the New York Dolls had broken up, McLaren decided to change the style of the shop. He altered the approach of the boutique – from Teddy Boys to fetish and BDSM.

At the same time, McLaren became the manager of a new band called Sex Pistols – who used to be called The Strand. This is when the Punk movement developed into the second wave of Punk. The band started off at Central Saint Martin’s with a gig that was so loud and so aggressive that at one point, one of the staff members had to turn the electricity off. The band inspired thousands of young adults to start thinking about a revolution, and to spit on the canonical British rules and rituals. The movement became truly big – their concerts were shown on television, and Punk bands performed in big arenas. This, in essence, meant that the Punk movement was over – since the initial idea of the movement was to stand against “selling-out”.

The third wave of Punk, which is also known as New Wave, emerged in the late 70s. It is difficult to say whether or not this wave created a revolution, or if it was key in transforming some aspects of culture, but it most definitely created a separate branch of music that brought to the world such bands as The Cure and Joy Division. The mood of the music changed dramatically – from anarchic it became mellow, much more professional and romantic.

I mentioned before the tremendous role of Malcolm McLaren. In the next few paragraphs, I will focus on the role that McLaren’s partner, Vivienne Westwood, played in the creation of Punk.


The Westwood and McLaren shop SEX

Westwood

Before Westwood met McLaren, she worked as a primary school teacher. At the same time, she designed and created her own jewelry, but after McLaren opened the boutique, it was the perfect chance for Westwood to start selling her designs. That, unquestionably, does not mean that Westwood only became successful because of her partner. Initially, she did not believe that a girl who came from a working-class family could make a living by doing art. McLaren was someone who gave her the space and inspiration to create, but he certainly did not make her an artist.

As mentioned before, when McLaren came back from New York, his vision for the boutique changed dramatically. He started to sell garments and accessories inspired by prostitutes, bikers, and fans of BDSM. Westwood was hugely inspired by this shift, and momentarily became one of the originators of Punk fashion.

Undoubtedly, Punk fashion has a very distinctive and specific character. It famously includes safety pins, chains, razor blades, collars and spikes, as well as garments made out of leather – including BDSM accessories and bondage items. Those who call themselves Punk also often dye their hair toxic colours, as well as style it high up in the air at an electrifying volume. Westwood was truly a fashion icon for Punks. “Westwood’s designs acted as a trigger for the consumer, rendering them participants of the counter culture.”[1]


Sex Pistols 

Vivienne Westwood worked closely with such bands as the Sex Pistols. The following image portrays her standing next to McLaren, wearing a Sex Pistols t-shirt with an illustration created by Jamie Reid.

Reid

Jamie Reid is arguably the most recognized Punk-rock visual artist; he gave a clear image and style to the message that Punk bands were trying to transmit, especially the Sex Pistols. Reid was born in England in 1947, but unlike the majority of Britons, Reid never believed in, or felt, any particular sentiments for the Monarchy. In contrast, he considered himself an anarchist. His most famous collage artworks are centered on the image of the Queen. In his work with the Sex Pistols, Reid questioned the power of the Monarchy. For instance, the 1977 cover of the album God Save the Queen consists of a British flag with Queen Elizabeth’s portrait circled in the middle. Her eyes and mouth are covered with two texts – “God Save The Queen” and “Sex Pistols”. This collage-like album cover depicts the rebellious and enraged mood of the Punk movement, as well as its frustration with the political regime.


Jamie Reid. God Save The Queen, 1977


“God Save the Queen” is both the national and the royal anthem of the United Kingdom, as well as the royal anthem of Commonwealth realms. It speaks of power of monarchy, and, essentially, the anthem is a prayer for the Queen’s health. A combination of the Queen’s official portrait (as taken by Cecil Beaton), the Union Jack, and the text “God Save the Queen”, in any other case would be seen as a patriotic poster; yet here the image is most literally blindfolded by an antagonistic meaning. By vandalizing the face of the sovereign – the Queen, Reid attacks the monarchy, and the Sex Pistols echo this attack in their song:

God save the queen
She ain’t no human being
There is no future
In England’s dreaming.

 The image and the lyrics are not simply suggesting, but are actually stressing an anarchic and brutal rejection of the sovereign regime; clearly, this characterized the Punk crusade perfectly.


Jamie Reid. God Save The Queen – Swastika Eyes, 1977. (Private collection Houston, TX). Photo: isisgallery.org

Reid altered an image of the Queen as well – in the same year of 1977, which was also the year of the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, the artist created another version of the famous Cecil Beaton photograph. He literally shut the Queen’s mouth with a safety pin – which was an iconic accessory for Punks – as well as covered her eyes with swastikas. This collage highlights Reid’s personal perception of the Monarchy – for him, a sovereign regime is not very different from dictatorial regimes. And this, indeed, does not only reflect Reid’s own political principles, but it also underscores the political viewpoint of Punk.

Jarman

Derek Jarman is a cinema director who created, arguably, the most important Punk film of all times, Jubilee (1978). The title of the film refers to the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II – the 25th anniversary of her accession to the throne. The film narrates a fantasy in which the Queen is dead, Buckingham Palace has been turned into a sound-studio, and London is filled with lust, disorder, violence and a never-ending party. The context of this dystopian film is crucial – Derek Jarman never considered himself a part of the Punk movement, but, ironically, Jubilee was, and still is, treated as a Punk manifest and as the best Punk film ever made. After the film came out, the Punk audience was really displeased. Vivienne Westwood, an iconic Punk fashion designer, was so angry that she even manufactured a so-called “open T-Shirt”, accusing Jarman of misinterpreting Punk culture.

Gilbert and George

Gilbert and George are two iconic British artists who, up to the current day, still continue to carry the Punk art flag. Their most recent exhibition, The Banners, which took place at White Cube gallery in Bermondsey, London, consisted of ten large artworks, all hand-written in black and red ink on white paper. At the top of each artwork it states, “Gilbert & George say:-“, and below this writing there are various phrases, such as “Fuck the Planet”, “fuck HIM”, “Burn that Book”, “Burn Religion”, etc. The two artists call themselves “living sculpture”, and these banners act as a physical aid to their performative art practice. In 2014, during the Serpentine Extinction Marathon, the two artists stood in front of the audience without speaking – just silently holding up two banners, one which read “Burn That Book”, and the other, “Fuck The Planet”. This performance definitely reminds the spectator of a single strike.


Vivienne Westwood. Open T-shirt to Derek Jarman

As mentioned above, Gilbert and George are two iconic British artists. Gilbert Proesch, born in Italy, and George Passmore, born in the United Kingdom, started working together soon after they met at Saint Martin’s School of Art, in London. The two artists claim that they have been married since 2008. Just as the early work of Gilbert and George, their most recent work – including The Banners – has been, and is, a reaction against traditional approaches in art. Whilst studying sculpture, both artists realized that the academic approach is elitist and habitual, and they decided to turn their own artistic practice into a revelation. In 1977 the two artists produced a piece called Cunt Scum, which belongs to a series called “The Dirty Words Pictures”. The artwork consists of sixteen framed images, arranged four by four. The top four frames feature the word “CUNT”, and two central bottom images say “SCUM”. The remaining frames contain photographs taken in East London.


Gilbert and George. The Banners. Exposition view. Photo: White Cube

Gilbert and George moved to East London in the early 1960s. At that time, the Spitafields area was mostly inhabited by immigrants from the Middle East. The artists juxtaposed images of London traffic, policemen, skyscrapers and busy streets, with images of a homeless person and immigrants. The duo also included two images of themselves surrounding the word “Scum”, thereby essentially underlining that the artists consider themselves to be scum, and that they self-identity with the word. By that, Gilbert and George underlined their personal alienation – as a homosexual couple living in one of the least prosperous areas in London, Gilbert and George felt different. In this work, the artists depict an accurate image of the Punk – the superposition of two different sides of the argument, where one side is always, always standing above the other.


Gilbert and George at Serpentine Marathon Extinction. Photo: Yu Yigang

Gilbert and George are strong supporters of the idea “Ars Gratia Artis”:

We believe in the Art, the Beauty, and the
Life of the Artist who is an eccentric
Person with something to say for Himself.
We uphold Traditional Values with out
love of Victory, Kindness and Honesty.
We are fascinated by the richness of
the fabric of Our World and we honour
the High-Mindedness of Man as the
ultimate Form and Meaning of Art.
Beauty is Our Art. [2]

As a matter of fact, “Ars Gratia Artis” is a regime that very much corresponds with the Punk subculture – the idea, too, stands for freedom of expression and the destruction of walls and establishments. If we follow this idea, then it is fair to argue that the Punk regime does not require a specific time-frame or location. In 2011 a new Punk protest group emerged in Moscow – Pussy Riot. Their main political idea was, and still is, opposition to a ruling totalitarian – Vladimir Putin. Pussy Riot respect and sustain the political and ideological motivations of Punk; in fact, the emergence of the group was highly inspired by an earlier-mentioned Punk movement – Riot Grrrl.


Pyotr Pavlensky at Red Square, 2013

Pavlensky

Beginning with 2012, Pussy Riot have been strongly supported by the emerging Russian artist Pyotr Pavlensky. On July 23th, 2012, Pavlensky sewed his mouth shut and, for one-and-a-half-hours, stood alone next to the Kazan Cathedral in Saint Petersburg, holding a poster that read: «The actions of Pussy Riot were a replica of the famous action of Jesus Christ (Matthew 21:12-13)». This performance symbolized the lack of freedom of speech in Russia.

A year later, in November 2013, Pavlensky sat naked in front of Lenin’s Mausoleum in Moscow. The artist hammered a nail through his scrotum, thereby mechanically attaching his body to the pavement. This radical performance signified the complete insensitivity of Russian society and a national apathy.


Shock performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky stands in front of the burning door of Moscow's FSB building, 2015

Pavlensky’s most recent performance took place in November 2015, when the artist doused the front door of Lubyanka, the headquarters of the Russian Federal Security Service, with gasoline and set it on fire. The artist stood in front of the doors for 30 seconds before the police arrested him. This performance, in my mind, is the most visual and powerful one. It clearly depicts the connection between the door of Lubyanka and the burning gates of Hell.

Pyotr Pavlensky’s performances are anarchic, sometimes violent, but always political. This connects his art with the traditional roots of Punk.


No future for you … Joseph Corré’s punk memorabilia

Joseph Corré

But then, when thinking about the traditional consanguinity linking the roots of Punk, how relevant are they today? On March 15th, Joseph Corré, son of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, announced that he is planning to burn his entire collection of Punk memorabilia on November 26th, 2016 – the day marking the 40th anniversary of the release of the Sex Pistols' single “Anarchy in the UK”. As we know, 2016 will see the 40th anniversary of British Punk, and the celebration of this fact is being organized and sponsored by such big institutions and corporations as the British Library, the National Lottery, the Museum of London, and the British Film Institute, as well as by the mayor of London – Boris Johnson. Corré believes that institutionalizing Punk is an unforgivable crime, and he decided that burning his collection – which, by the way, is estimated to be worth around £5 million – is a legitimate way to protest.

Corré’s decision has been strongly criticized within London's left-wing circles. I had a conversation with a fellow student of mine at Goldsmiths’ University  (which is considered to be the most left-wing institution in the country, and where questions of Punk and Post-Punk are often discussed by such iconic professors as Gavin Butt) who suggested that, maybe instead of burning a very expensive and precious collection, Corré could sell it in order to aid, for instance, the refugee camp at Calais. A few days later, the magazine Dazed and Confused issued an interview with Corré in which he actually confesses that many people have contacted him since he made the announcement, asking him to rethink his decision and to donate or sell the collection instead. His answer was very blunt:

“"Bollocks! It’s my stuff, I can burn it if I want to."[3]

This answer really makes me question – is Joseph Corré trying to rejuvenate the work of his parents, i.e. is he trying to “wake up” Punk?; or are his bonfire plans nothing but indifferent sabotage? When I first heard the news, I questioned whether burning the memorabilia is the right thing to do. After watching the Dazed and Confused interview, I became highly suspicious of Corré’s proposed project having a sincere and artistic foundation.

With the previous examples, I wanted to underline the importance of Punk and its actuality and emergence in contemporary art and contemporary politics; as well as the importance of Punk for Punk’s sake. The Punk subculture, including Punk music, emerged as an opposition to the Right regime. It arrived to meet the need for a new underground culture, and as a provocation directed towards social injustice and the large gap between the social classes. Arguably, contemporary social, political and economic situations are standing on much more solid ground, but this does not mean that social injustices do not exist. At the end of the day, Punk strives for a radical change, and as long as there is a need and a desire for a specific revolution – an intermission for a specific regime – there will be an acute urgency for Punk.

“Punk London” events are already happening across the city, but the major events are still to take place at the Richard Young Gallery, the British Library, the Museum of London, the Design Museum, and The Photographers’ Gallery, as well as at many other locations, all of which are indicated on the official website of the celebration - punk.london. If Joseph Corré decides to actually execute the highly controversial bonfire of his memorabilia, it should take place in November.

In the meantime, I highly recommend you purchase the debut print issue of Accent Magazine, which features a collection of famous faces of 80s Punk in London, as well as their stories.



[1] Catherine McDermott, Vivienne Westwood (Design Monograph). London: Carlton Books, 1999. p. 13
[2] Gilbert & George: 1968 to 1980 (Eindhoven, 1980), p. 264
[3]Dazed and Confused facebook page, www.facebook.com/DazedandConfusedMagazine