#punk #institutions #historicity #commerce #style
Is the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Punk: Chaos to Couture the death knell of punk as a social and cultural movement? Certainly, the Met’s assertion that the locus of punk’s importance is in its influence on high fashion would indicate that it is no longer relevant to these larger concerns. The A-list attendees at May’s opening gala were decidedly mainstream and largely advocates for materialistic values. Sarah Jessica Parker, whose iconic Sex and the City character relentlessly equated emancipation with consumption, was the event’s poster child. She drew attention from both art and celebrity gossip media with a fauxhawk designed by Philip Treacy, a milliner whose rise to fame has depended on the support of the same royal family that the Sex Pistols skewered with “God Save the Queen” back in 1977.
The exhibition makes the pretense of celebrating punk as a historical moment, but it fails to establish historical context. Like the replicas of CBGB’s men’s room and Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s Chelsea boutique, history itself has been sanitized and aired out. Little mention is made of the crushing poverty and urban blight that nearly destroyed both New York and London in the 1970s, prompting young people with few prospects to take up a nihilistic, antagonistic posture symbolized by a violent, abject aesthetic. No mention at all is made of black cultural influence, from Rude Boys to Sharps, on the punk style and ethic.
The parallels with our own era are all too clear. Then, as now, economic and social elites flaunted their wealth while average people struggled to gain education and employment in the shadow of prolonged and expensive overseas wars. People lost faith in government and institutions, revolutions roiled the Global South, and gas prices soared. People of color found their cultural contributions absorbed and erased by the white mainstream. Yet while Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee in 1977 sparked parody and revolt, last year’s Diamond Jubilee protests were fairly tame and skewed much older. Punk in the 1970s provided an artistic and social outlet for the youth whom society was failing. Today it would seem to be just another fad, notable for its influential style and its innovative materialism but stripped of its conscience.
What is punk’s appeal to couturiers? The Met argues that punk’s use of postindustrial materials and unconventional symmetries inspires fashion designers. However, these elements have their own provenance in Process Art, Dada, Gutai, and Neo-Concretism, all of which are canonical art movements that predate the 1970s. There is a deeper reason why punk has been selected to get the Met’s revisionist treatment, aside from its global appeal as a major movement in rock music and graphic art. Punk’s anti-corporate message and its anarchic ethic have as much pull on the public imagination as ever, and the only bulwark against their power is that public’s collective amnesia. The Met has seized on a perfect narrative, one that defangs punk’s political relevance and frames its influence as limited to specific (Western) geographies and (bygone) eras. By doing so, the museum and the fashion houses it represents here can appeal to the 1% and its appetite for cultural appropriation and regurgitation while rendering an oppositional movement impotent and excising its practitioners from the narrative. It’s no accident that Debbie Harry is the only living punk artist in gala photographs, which feature manufactured celebrities like Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus doing clichéd Sid Vicious impersonations.
Punk was a DIY movement that sprung up in opposition to the hippies but shared many similar values. Among these were communal living in self-organizing “punk house” communes and a post-Marxist quest for connection to the fruits of one’s labor through craft. Making is a critical aspect of the punk ethos, which celebrates individuality and resourcefulness in expressing it. The display of early T-shirts by Vivienne Westwood demonstrates how closely punk was connected to a working-class history of agitprop printmaking. The Met show features dresses made from plastic bags (Maison Martin Margiela, Moschino) or sprayed with paint (Alexander McQueen, Anne Demeulemeester) and adorned with hundreds of safety pins and studs. The look and feel of the clothes is often spot-on, but the sense of acquisitive desire that they invoke in the viewer is antithetical to punk’s call to create rather than consume.
Most importantly, by locating Punk’s significance solely at its origin as a European-American movement of the 1970s, the Met exhibition overlooks punk’s continued value as an egalitarian ethos of the young, opposed to the greed and totalitarianism of the old. Nowhere is punk more relevant today than in the Islamic world. Teens in Indonesia have been subjected to forced head-shaving and re-education for wearing punk fashion in recent years. Inspired by the Riot Grrl stylings of Ukrainian protest group FEMEN, Tunisian feminist activist Amina Sboui created a furor earlier this year for posting images of herself online, topless and sporting a bleached-blond punk haircut à la Wendy O. Williams. Beats for Bangladesh, a compilation featuring US-based Taqwacore and South Asian hip-hop acts, was recently released to benefit survivors of the Rana Plaza fire that brought dismal overseas working conditions in the fashion industry to international attention. These cases make clear that punk is more than a Western cultural export for consumption; it is a wake-up call to youth that they must take their futures into their own hands. Mass protests in Egypt and Turkey are part of the same awakening, prompted by anger at corrupt governments and reactionary beliefs. In the Global South, revolution remains imperative. We may have forgotten why punk was invented, but it’s reinvented every day.
Punk: Chaos to Couture is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through August 14, 2013.
#Hashtags is a series exploring the intersection of art, social issues, and global politics.