punk

For anyone out there with several thousand disposable dollars and a place on the mantel for the Sex Pistols’ first press release – announcing the arrival of four teenagers who hate everything – this is your cultural moment. Three decades after punk exploded in a brief but potent fit of abrasion, alienation, and anarchy, the auction house Christie’s is holding the first major US sale of memorabilia from the punk era on Nov. 24.

Timing, needless to say, is everything. A generation has passed, books have been written and movies made, and folks who once wore their anger and their safety pins on their sleeves are now eager to reclaim a piece of their youth, be it a Black Flag concert flier, a hand-written Ramones lyric, or a God Save the Queen T-shirt.

“In 1995, when I first got into this business, all you heard about was the Beatles and Elvis,” says Simeon Lipman, the 34-year-old pop culture curator at Christie’s. “As time went by people were interested in Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. Now nostalgia is kicking in for punk, and there’s a collecting base that’s hungry for pieces from the heroes, or antiheroes, from that time.”

Ephemera from punk’s first-wave heyday, which roughly spanned 1974-1979, is scarce. Given the low-budget nature and no-future ideology of the movement, it’s no surprise that artifacts are relatively few and mostly made of paper.

But punk’s reach extends far beyond that original fistful of fast, loud bands, and its influence goes much deeper than a rebellious musical moment. Punk’s legacy is vast. From the do-it-yourself philosophy that informs indie rock to the anti-elitism that fuels the blogosphere, the spirit of authenticity and embrace of amateurism that were the pillars of punk now permeate modern art and culture.

Of course the sound has endured, too. Almost immediately, punk’s short, sharp song style began to splinter into genres as varied as hardcore, new wave, post-punk, pop-punk, grunge, and the post-millennial tidal wave of angular alternative rock. At the same time, punk became shorthand for a state of mind, and a symbol of self-determination. Kurt Cobain of Nirvana used to tell interviewers that punk is the freedom to say, do, and play what you want.

In that sense the term has evolved into a broad signifier for subversion of the status quo, and this is precisely, says musician and writer Richard Hell, the essence of punk’s durability.

“Artists love to be called punk,” says Hell, who cofounded the seminal group Television and went on to release one of the genre’s classic albums, “Blank Generation,” with his band the Voidoids. “It’s used as a badge or a touchstone in every realm you can think of, from movies to literature to fashion. It’s kind of ironic, because part of the whole spirit of punk comes down to the necessity of failure. Punk is against success, it’s about rejecting the idea of success. That’s what makes it appealing and why it will always exist, because people like to present themselves as being new and young and against the existing order.”

In time-honored fashion, the ’70s punk insurgency has been watered down, its ideologies dimmed and sonic edges softened for mass consumption. What was once a fringe phenomenon now feeds the mainstream. John Varvatos, a rock-influenced fashion designer, sells upscale menswear in the former New York punk club CBGB’s. John Lydon, a.k.a. Sex Pistols singer Johnny Rotten, wild-eyed and spike-haired at 52, is the new television pitchman for Britain’s Country Life butter. Punk’s attitude and aesthetics have become entrenched in everyday life to the point where most people hardly contemplate the inherent contradiction in the studded accessories sold at suburban malls, or the buffed, snotty sound of a corporate band like Good Charlotte.

The prospect of a tony auction house hawking high-priced artifacts from a fundamentally anti-consumer movement is drawing dismay from such observers as New York’s Gothamist website and the UK’s Guardian newspaper. “Back in the day,” wrote the Guardian’s Priya Elan, Christie’s “wouldn’t have let the likes of Joey Ramone and Patti Smith through their door.”

The outcry is nothing new, says pop-culture writer and curator Johan Kugelberg, who wrote the introduction to the Christie’s catalog.

“If you look at how many people responded to the first Dada auctions in the ’50s, it was the same howl,” he explains. “People felt Dada shouldn’t be filtered through the auction houses, that it was a little too ‘punk.’ ”

Kugelberg believes that in the future punk will be taught alongside Dadasim and Surrealism as a pillar of 20th-century art and thought, but notes that its influence already reverberates loudly in mass media. “Today, if you went to a hundred ad agencies and looked at how many had appropriated Jamie Reid’s images [Reid is the British visual artist whose ransom-note lettering style for the Sex Pistols’ “Never Mind the Bollocks” and “Anarchy in the U.K.” defined punk’s look and feel] you’d come up with a large percentage.”.

Appropriation of punk’s sound and imagery is rampant, and it’s done with varying degrees of integrity, but there are fundamental aspects of punk’s cultural legacy that have passed down with the original spirit largely intact. Bill Arning, a former punk musician who is now curator at MIT’S List Visual Arts Center, jokes that if a bomb had fallen on CBGB’s the modern art scene wouldn’t exist.

“Anti-authority is the contemporary zeitgeist. It has informed my career as a curator. My job is to disrupt the status quo,” says Arning. He sees punk’s fundamental ideals and visual vocabulary across the art world map, in the way a young collagist like Meredyth Sparks cuts and pastes wildly diverse elements in her work, and still more explicitly in Matthew Day Jackson’s “Sepulcher (Viking Burial Ship),” whose sails are made of old punk-rock T-shirts.

“Punk was so anarchic,” Arning says. “Now 22-year-olds, who weren’t even born yet, adopt that look and sensibility. I love that this thing we created without even knowing what it was, these things we made on Xerox machines, have had such an interesting afterlife.”

The DIY (do-it-yourself) subculture began in earnest with the punk movement – when bands rejected traditional means of reaching an audience through large record labels and began making their own recordings and merchandise, booking their own shows, connecting with other bands to share the costs and fruits of touring, and creating zines to cover and promote the scene.

With the help of new technology, the DIY ethic is a key driver in popular music, as emerging and established musicians alike, from Colbie Caillat to Radiohead, circumnavigate the troubled corporate structure to cultivate audiences, distribute music, and promote their careers online.

Accessibility was paramount in the punk scene – if you could score a bass guitar, you were the bass player – and with it a high threshold, even an appetite, for amateurism. Passion trumped skill. If you had something to say, no matter your status or experience, you had a right to sing it. That value system has blossomed in the world of bloggers, a phenomenally egalitarian community of online commentators where the rantings and ravings of anonymous diarists are as readily available as the observations of trained journalists. The blogosphere is open territory – rich with ideas, seriously unreliable, willingly and thrillingly immune to the strictures of society.

Richard Hell sums it up: “Punk is about self-respect, as opposed to respecting the established way of doing things, but it’s also about irresponsibility. Punk is both of those things, and somehow it adds up to a really exciting and desirable set of ways to read the world,” Hell says. “People still identify with that.”

Christie’s is banking on it.

Joan Anderman
Boston Globe

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