Punk and Modern Art

“Punk took to the London streets in the long hot summer of 1976, and took modernism much further than the mods had done. This really was the fashion equivalent of modernism in art:

                ‘Like [Marcel] Duchamp’s ‘ready mades’—manufactured objects which qualified as art because he chose to call them such—the most unremarkable and inappropriate items—a pin, a plastic clothes peg, a television component, a razor blade, a tampon—could be brought within the province of punk (un) fashion.’ 

Sid and Nancy; Marcel Duchamp's Urinal

This ‘confrontation dressing’ aimed to shock—but also to ‘make strange’, which is precisely what the modernist artists of the early twentieth century (the Russian formalists, for example) had also tried to do—to look at the everyday world in a new way, and force others to do so:

                ‘Objects borrowed from the most sordid of contexts found a place in the punks’ ensembles: lavatory chains were draped in graceful arcs across chests encased in plastic bin-liners. Safety pins were taken out of their domestic ‘utility’ context and worn as gruesome ornaments through the cheek, ear or lip. ‘Cheap’ trashy fabrics (PVC, plastic, lurex etc) in vulgar designs (eg mock leopard skin) and ‘nasty’ colors…were salvaged by the punks and turned into garments (flyboy drainpipes, ‘common’ miniskirts) which offered self-conscious commentaries on the notions of modernity and taste.’

Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren at their shop SEX; Vivienne Westwood punk design with chicken bones
What was important was that nothing should look natural. In this sense punk was the opposite of mainstream fashion which always attempts to naturalize the strange rather than the other way about. This is the sophistication of punk, its surrealism and its modernism in the true sense: it radically questions its own terms of reference, questions what fashion is, what style is, making mincemeat of received notions of beauty and trashing the very idea of ‘charm’ or ‘taste’.” - Elizabeth Wilson, Adorned in Dreams 

With all of this said I want to talk about the recent MET PUNK: Chaos to Couture exhibition. If you haven't seen this video by The Daily Beast with art critic Blake Gopnik criticizing the show I highly recommend you do as he makes some valid points. I obviously have not been to the show in person since I am located in Miami but I have watched many reviews and read from many sources and I feel this source has been the most valid and thus my reason for re-capping it. Firstly, the rather poor recreation of the CBGB bathroom in the exhibit confronts the problem with the show about how can you capture the spirit of punk when you are trying so carefully to recreate it? Punk was about not being careful, it was about being completely reckless and spitting on people, not giving a shit and maybe even incorporating shit into their life literally. Also the exhibition included a few original looks from the 1970s but overall seemed to celebrate the high fashion copies of punk that overall lack the energy and actual ethos that made punk. Everything was very antiseptic and had absolutely no semblance or energy that was happening in the late 70s. 

These are issues that I think happen when we try to re-create looks from the past as we end up infusing what is happening now so it becomes appealing to the mass culture. Of course this makes sense when you are trying to design a collection or creating an editorial that is taking inspiration from a certain sub-culture; but when you are doing an exhibition that is supposed to be celebrating the essence of a sub-culture and then end up not even including what truly made up that essence (with punk it was self mutilation, damaged and asexual clothing, a violent rejection of prettiness or naturalness and the pain and anguish of lost adolescence) then what do you end up with other then a room full of bull shit and not even the good punk bull shit but sterilized bullshit? A contradiction in itself! Harsh words but someone needs to say it rather than just rave about how awesome Miley Cyrus looked.