Monday, August 19, 2013

A post-mortem on the Metropolitan Museum’s punk fashion exhibit

In its quest to recreate the magical mayhem (read: long lines and big $) that accompanied the 2011 Alexander McQueen exhibit, the folks at the Met conceived of “Punk: From Chaos to Couture,” a truly ridiculous tribute to what was a lively and often ugly “movement” distinguished by its anti-fashion and back-to-basics attitude.

I am reviewing this uncommonly "pretty!" tribute to an intentionally garish way of dressing and accessorizing — that was inextricably linked with an important musical movement — a few days after it has closed. But I’ve noticed that The New York Times frequently “gets around” to reviewing art exhibits just as they’re closing (more fun to make the rabble scamper to something interesting), so if they who are paid can do that, I can most certainly conduct a post-mortem on the punk show for the no-pay that blogging confers upon its participants.

I was underaged when punk hit NYC, but the “fashion,” if it should be called that, was everywhere, and the music was indeed getting airplay on certain fringe radio stations (I vividly remember a show called “Punk-o-rama” on WHBI at the top of the FM dial – “rip up my school books/tear down the dirty looks/this/is punk-a-rama!”). By the time I was attending concerts “new wave” music was in full effect – these shows took place in venues with no liquor license.

In the decades since that galvanizing explosion – which took some time to be heard in other parts of the world (thus the docu title 1991: the Year Punk Broke) – it's become apparent to anyone who listens to the music that there were excellent punk bands and many, many shitty ones. There were people grouped under the punk umbrella who didn't make “punk rock” at all (Blondie, Television, even Patti Smith). It was a musical movement that thrived on the live concert experience, but those concerts are long gone (as are the venues), and so the “summing up” began as early as the late Eighties.

And then there was the fashion. As with hippie fashion, it was basically dressing “down,” wearing shitty clothing that shocked older folk, getting jarring haircuts and affecting whatever was the utter opposite of the hippie/hard rock look (long hair, bell bottoms, sideburns, halter tops, whatever). It was rebellion pure and simple, and it fed off of the rebellion of the past. And like past rebellious movements, it gave birth to a bunch of shit culture in its wake. When a rebellious sense of fashion is codified, it officially is dead (even though wildly colored mohawks were still seen in the Village up until the early Nineties).

What the Met programmers did with their little punk outing was to show how “ugly fashion” was transformed into “pretty!” dresses and ensembles. They wanted to show how the punk movement lived on, but instead they emphasized how its worst poser aspects influenced subsequent generations of posers. They acknowledged the music, but truly rooted the show in the fashion world – all the better to recapture that McQueen vibe (his stuff was present in the very first room of the exhibit, natch and I did like his crazy-ass goth-meets-H.R. Giger exhibit, by the way).

So you entered and saw a recreation of the CBGB men's bathroom – oh, for the sweet cuteness of a disgusting toilet recreated as a museum exhibit (idea for true modern art experience: not only visual input, but *smell* and stickiness on the bottom of the shoes score points for verisimilitude). And not even rendered in its truly, truly graffiti-covered nastiness (the source photo used was from early on in the club's existence – that men's room was fucking disgusting, and therein lay the “mystique” of the place. Life as it lived, no prettifying anything ever, deal with it or go home).

That little intentionally shabby nook was followed by several rooms of punk fashion, progressing from a recreation of Vivienne Westwood's shop “Clothes for Heroes” to several groupings of dresses and outfits that looked weird and spacey (paging Alex Mc), and finally ending with items created for Dolce and Gabbana and Dior in the 2000s that were “inspired” by punk.

Gone was the shocking, disturbing, and abrasive edges of the homemade punk look. As with most haute couture, this stuff could never be worn on the streets of any city anywhere, and if it was you wouldn't wind up bleeding for your troubles (or having the fabric tear).

Surrounding the fashions were some punk sounds (the most famous artists from NYC and London), plus filmed images on video – of which the only one that was truly jarring was a person in a bondage mask (or was it a scuba mask – who the fuck knows, it was jarring and that's all that mattered) in some cityscape standing around being generally weird and impressively disturbing. The walls had graffiti on them: mottos like “Destroy Capitalism,” “Punk is a revolution for countries that don't allow revolution,” and other items like that.

Throughout the five or so rooms of high fashion, one got the distinct feeling that the only way to make the show “legitimate” would be to have the galleries trashed by people who had a true sense of artistic vandalism (a fashion show based on punk is dying for a Magic Christian-like statement in which everyone who enters the gallery gets randomly gobbed on or some such). Graffiti slogans and cleaned-up digital video doesn't quite convey the anarchy and randomness of whatever could be called the punk “ethos.”

I saw Brian Eno speak at MoMA back in the Nineties during a “High and Low” art exhibit, and he lamented that Duchamp's Fountain – the famous toilet with the name “R. Mutt” inscribed on it – couldn't be used for its initial purpose. He mused on the fact that it was under glass (in that show subsequently I'm sure I've seen it out in plain air) and secured from the touch of bystanders.

He fantasized about getting urine in the bowl and thereby cheering up Duchamp, and anyone who had a sense of humor and playfulness (and utilitarianism). The closest the punk exhibit got to any sort of acknowledgment that punk clothing was CHEAP clothing by its very nature were the wall-texts that explained the derivation of punk, including John Rotten's famous quote that “when the arse of your pants falls out, you use safety pins.”

So, what did tourists experience? A quaint look at a long-ago pop-culture movement that rebelled against everything that was mainstream, and was (as per the usual) gobbled up by the mainstream and transformed into something “pretty!” and worthy of aesthetic consideration. It was bullshit, but then again Orson reminded us in F for Fake about the question the Devil himself asked when he saw the first man make the first crude drawing: “it's good... but is it art?”

The last word on this artistic farrago – where one of the more affordable items in the gift shop was a set of pencils with quotes from Sid Vicious on 'em (!) – was provided by a guy who I am *sure* never went to the exhibit and also never was the biggest fan of punk. But he was around at the time, and he respected the rebellion enough to summarize cogently what the Met's exhibit “meant.” Read the words of decoder of popular culture tropes (and one of America's best writers) Nick Tosches writing for A few paragraphs (read the whole article here):
"Have you ever read a definition or description of any kind of music, be it plainsong or punk? Lifeless and untelling compared with hearing even just a few breaths of the music itself.
"Nobody can say where it came from or where it went, and we should beware always of those who would bring sociology or any other ology to rock 'n' roll.

"[...]Thus, we have Punk: Chaos to Couture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Not the Museum of Modern Art, but the big one. The vast Gothic Revival mausoleum of the greatness of the ages. Giotto, Botticelli, Raphael, Rembrandt, mummified Egyptian guys. The big one.
"Museums. "Art appreciation." If you have to be taught to appreciate something, it can't be much good. Who ever heard of sex appreciation, drug appreciation, pork-chop appreciation? I shall not forget being asked to extinguish my cigarette at the Apocalypse exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in 2000. Welcome to the end of the world: No smoking allowed."

Epilogue: Research shows that the theme song to that “punk-a-rama” was the product of a Kim Fowley prefab, post-Runaways teen guy-fronting-girl-band combo, Venus and the Razorblades. My fond memories of this defiant ode, as is always the case, are tarnished (or at least made into quaint kitsch) by the reality involved – kinda like mindset that produced the Met show.

Jeezis, this is a ridiculous ditty, kinda like the “Life is a Rock (but the radio rolled me)” of punk. Enjoy (if ya can):


As I walked through the punk exhibit, I did begin to wonder if there was a fitting “punk anthem,” since the music chosen by the Met was painfully obvious. There are many, many seminal punk tunes, all of which could be declared to present the punk “sound” (right, right, there WAS NO punk sound, it was a conglomeration of influences and rebellions against arena rock and “album-oriented” MOR).

Iggy's “I want to be your dog” is probably the archetypal punk tune (the live versions, without the lovely bells), but there are several other songs that could qualify as anthemic punk tunes.

First and foremost, the Dead Boys' “Sonic Reducer.” The influences are here (Iggy, Yardbirds and the louder Sixties British bands), but everything else is new. And short, man – short songs were the very essence of punk:

The Sex Pistols were either the epitome of a punk band (esp. with the inclusion of the absolutely unable-to-play El Sid) or the ultimate concept in fake entertainment by Mr. McLaren. Whatever the case is, John Lydon's hooks are still catchy, and you can't possibly fault a band that sings the immortal lines “We're so pretty/oh so pretty/vacant.”

When it comes to bands that transcended the label punk, the Clash are the prime example. The tension between Joe Strummer's pure and simple rock 'n' roll and Mick Jones' refined pop songsmithing produced some eternally playable albums. As for their punk anthem?

A key song in any history of punk is the item below from X-Ray Spex. It is incredibly important because it voices the female teen’s point of view, something which was not heard much in punk. The late, great Poly Styrene wrote and sang the song, which is as close to a teenage cri de coeur  as you’re going to get during the punk era (yes, yes, Poly was actually 20 when the single came out, but it distills everything that repulses teens about adult culture).

Poly’s lyric rejects men’s oppression of women and age’s oppression of youth, but she could equally have been talking about the bondage strain in “punk fashion.” Her own outfits were pure thrift-store style — it’s hard to imagine her being chosen by Westwood as a model for her duds.

Those music producers packaging “punky chick” teen pop-tarts (looking at you, Avril Lavigne) might wanna take a listen, just so you know what you’re ignoring:

The Met had certain individuals spotlighted as “poster children” for the punk exhibit. The key figures who wound up on the merchandise they were selling in the gift shop (I'm talking refrigerator magnets in addition to postcards) were Debbie Harry (alluring, a great singer, but punk – ??) and Richard Hell.

Hell is a fascinating subject, in that he did create some great music and has established himself as a fine writer and reviewer in the years since his music career dissipated or was suspended, or whatever went on there. The song has been labeled his ultimate statement by critics is this snappy ode (which McLaren admitted had inspired “Pretty Vacant”), “The Blank Generation”:

What makes it hard to declare the above a true punk anthem is that its melody and concept were swiped from a novelty record (or is the claiming of someone else's work part of the artistic statement?). Bob McFadden and “Dor” (Rod McKuen) had a big novelty hit with “The Mummy” in 1959, and around the same time released a single called “The Beat Generation.” Hell appropriated the tune and the concept and is still listed as sole composer of “Blank Generation.” I love his lyrics for “Blank,” but it's wild to compare the two and realize that one is a direct swipe of the other:

I would also put into contention as an anthem this ditty by the Cramps that in 1979 already acknowledges the poser component of a lot of punk in its opening lines (“You ain't no punk, you punk/you wanna talk about the real junk...”).

I have an endless admiration for Lux Interior and the exquisite and talented Ms. Ivy Rorshach, and there is something timeless about all the great recordings by the Cramps. Their style was more “psycho-billy” than punk musically, but their approach was minimalist, absolutely pure rock 'n' roll – and they wore their influences on their sleeves so wonderfully that it's no doubt that they (and Lenny Kaye – all credit to those who matter) who really spearheaded the “Underground Garage” concept decades before that radio enterprise began. This is garage, and it is punk also (and yeah, the video is the template for a lot of goth):

Patti Smith's music wavered between brilliant hook-driven rock and pure poetry (obviously). The closest she came to providing a punk anthem of sorts is “Rock and Roll Nigger,” a song that never got air play for obvious reasons. It combines her poetry, her concern for all things aesthetic and beautiful (not “pretty!” mind you, but beautiful), it has a hook to kill for, plus it's very minimal and angry. The fact that the song ends with the refrain “outside of society...” sez it all:

The only place to end this is with the band who are identified by most as being the ultimate punk icons. Again, their music was very different from basic punk – they combined surf, bubble gum, garage, and the bliss of sailing right through a set. All the acts above were terrific (I am an addict for them all), but it's hard to pick a more goddamned FUN band than the Ramones.

And, screw fashion, Joey and crew dressed in torn jeans because they were goofy, no-budget guys from Queens. All hail the guys whose records were never played on the radio, but we loved 'em so (fuck that – love 'em, present tense). Now the t-shirt with the emblem designed by the late Arturo Vega is *everywhere* on the streets of every major city, and they are seen as “stylemakers.” Life is funny, fashion pathetic.

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