Friday, 5 October 2007

PUNK ART’S BODY IMAGE

A kind of postscript to the previous blog about the recent Panic Attack exhibtion of punk art, which delves into body and performance art, and into punk's relationship to radical feminism. I apologise if all that sounds a bit mainstream, but I figure this is my shot at the big time.

“The 1970s saw a flowering of artists’ work involving performance and the body – often reflecting the new identity politics that were a feature of the decade which saw the rise of radical feminism, gay liberation and black empowerment.” Indeed, both catalogue and exhibition strongly imply that the body was punk art’s second site of interest after the urban environment. Formally speaking, they’re most likely right. However, what’s all this talk of liberation and empowerment? Isn’t news almost always bad news? Rare to see are newspaper headlines reading such things as “World poised in anticipation of another day of peace and coexistence in Southern Glomobia?” When you focus on something, you normally focus on what you see as the problem. So doesn’t it stand to reason that as soon as you make the body a site of interest, you simultaneously make it a crux of anxieties?

Sheer ignorance keeps me innocent of whether there was such positive, ‘empowering’ performance art as implied by the above quote. But if punk paralleled performance art in its bodily fixations, it certainly wasn’t that side of it. Punk predominantly appealed to screwed-up white outsider kids, and it was the more masochistic – not to say self-destructive – aspects of performance art which appealed. Punk’s roots, after all, lay in Iggy cutting himself up with glass from onstage.

“Such grotesque figures may be best understood as conscious repudiations of the closed body of the Renaissance, in which all protuberances will be smoothed down, all apertures closed… [they] assert what Bakhtin calls the’ ‘unfinished body’. Parading its lumpy extensions, pregnant with liquids.” (Timothy Hyman’s ‘A Carnival Sense of the World’, from Carnivalesque, National Touring Exhibitions, 2000.)

This distinction between the classical and the grotesque is almost exactly paralleled in punk’s rejection of the jiggy song. Traditionally in popular music, the only problem with sex lies in getting hold of it. But with punk that’s just when the problems begin! Check out the Pistol’s Bodies (“Throbbing squirm gurgling bloody mess”) or the Dead Kennedys Too Drunk To Fuck (“In my room/ Wish you were dead/ You bawl like the baby/ In Eraserhead”, climaxing with the immortal line “Now I got diarrhea!”)

It’s doubtless significant that much of this happened during the Second Cold War, when slicing yourself with some glass seemed a perfect microcosm of a world at war with itself, or the Seventies slide when ‘finished’ ‘smooth’ urban environments seemed in short supply. But that really just made for a handy backdrop. Like much in punk, the drive came from much more personal and immediate sources. Unable to beat the jocks back up, the schoolyard weirdos found a way to beat up themselves. Unable to score, they convinced themselves sex was probably horrific anyway. And this drive came from the very source of their identity.

While it would be somewhat absurd to argue white suburban males are the world’s most oppressed group, women, gays and racial minorities can to an extent take a virtual refuge in a common identity. But what separated the outsider kids from the jocks was not skin tone or gender but their status as losers, with the result that loserdom soon became a badge of honour in the punk community. Death (the ultimate in losing) became a way out, but as a more masochistic variant of the sci-fi fan’s desire to become a brain in a jar. “I’m not a body!” Rotten had yelled on Bodies, if somewhat improbably. Instead as in many punk songs he’s a detached outsider, an intelligence released to float free of society and doing nothing but criticise it. The point about “the kid in the back of the room” in the Kennedy’s Insight is that he’s not really in the room at all, he’s already removed from it. (My ”Oi You! Punk and the Slag off Song”, from the prehistoric print version of Lucid Frenzy, delved deeper into this hyper-individualism.)

…except… except punk had a counterweight, which like all good counterweights could often exert an equal pull. Crispin Sartwell has commented “early gigs by Minor Threat, the Faith, or GI, for example, were incredible collective experiences… the closest I've ever come to a complete loss of individuation”, and anybody whose been to at least one good punk gig will know what he means. And, closer to our theme, except that the concept of a body at war with itself has another twist.

“It is often said that hardcore is the essence of suburban disaffection as applied to teenagers; the nihilism sweeping over Orange or Montgomery County… But hardcore was a critique of that nihilism too, a treatment for it.” (Crispinsartwell.com/hc.htm)

All of which is true, except pro-punk commentators like Sartwell are too readily to neatly divide the scene into ‘positive’ bands (like the Dead Kennedys or Fugazi) and ‘nihilistic’ ones (like the Circle Jerks). The Kennedys could write empowering anthems like Let’s Lynch the Landlord or Nazi Punks Fuck Off but also paeans to nihilism such as Forward to Death (“I don’t need this fucking world/ This world brings me down/ I’m looking forward to death.”) Fugazi, often seen as the epitome of punk as a progressive force, wrote Styrofoam (“We are all bigots/ So full of hatred/ We release our poisons/ Like Styrofoam”) and Shut the Door, their own exploration of the forward-to-death notion.

Neither would it be right to assume these bands flirted with nihilism as some rhetorical device. Their continual alternating between hope and despair was quite real, and the fuel which not only drove them as bands but punk as a scene. Punk wasn’t a political party putting forward a programme. Punk was meant ) to be disunified, conflicted and chaotic. The whole draw of punk was that it made a noise which mirrored the noise in your head.

As the catalogue specifically refers to feminist art, it’s worth looking at punk’s contemporary relationship with feminism. Now of course, we’re supposed to imagine they went together like a horse and carriage. It’s certainly true that punk inspired women’s involvement to a then unprecedented degree. But it departed from mainstream feminism precisely because it chose to focus upon the body and render it problematic, to magnify popular images of femininity to the point of distortion. Punk performers like Ari Up or Siouxsie tended to be highly sexualized figures, but they combined familiar images of sexuality (such as fishnets or knickers) with a sense of threat. This didn’t always go down well with the rest of the sisterhood. "A lot of young women, including myself, completely rejected the idea of feminism”, commented Helen Reddington, ex-punk and author of The Lost Women of Rock. “Because feminism at that time came as a set of rules and punk was about anarchy and rejecting rules. I thought, I don't want that. I want freedom. Now though, to me feminism means freedom, but it didn't look like it at the time."
www.guardian.co.uk/women/story/0,,2143793,00.html

However outdated it may now seem, the Prostitution exhibition fits here tighter than a glove. Fanni Tutti has explained how it led to her being simultaneously banned from further work in the porn trade, while being “chased across the gallery” by a Spare Rib editor! http://news.independent.co.uk/uk/this_britain/article2614594.ece

POSTSCRIPT TO POSTSCRIPT! Yes, even I know performance art doesn’t necessarily imply body art!

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