Saturday, May 11, 2013

Has 'Punk' been Punked? // "MET Gala Occasions Violence" by Ben Bliumis

Yesterday I noticed above the register of a Park Slope baby shop a "God Save the Queen" poster. "Queen" was swapped out for "Mom," but otherwise remained true to the original.  Baby tees selected for wall hangings donned prints of Jimi Hendrix, Albert Einstein, and Mahatma Ghandi.  These articles were priced the same as adult shirts (regardless of being made from way less fabric) and some of the onesies included directions (a cavalier waste of paper).  This spawned the question: Why do we celebrate people from history who have challenged the establishment and preached love whilst participating in a society overwrought with corporatism and rampant individualism, a society where working and consuming eclipse community building and emotional cultivation, where most conversations revolve around the almighty dollar?  Why have these daring souls from the past, and the punk movement at large made it into museums, history books, t-shirts that supposedly reflect our respect of their ideas yet which we appear to have not adopted in a meaningful way ourselves?   In a timely intersection of events, I received "Met Gala Occasions Violence" to my inbox, a critique authored by my friend Ben Bliumis.

Bliumis promises to become a prominent scholar advocating solutions to flaws inherent in the American education system, which has begun permeating schools on a global scale.  An active rejection of the accepted mode of (mis)guiding youth through a structure modeled on cotton and textile factories of the 19th century is a position that truly embodies the punk spirit.  In the following article, Ben explores the devolution of "punk" from a daring political attitude to a benign fashion trend and examines the interplay between standing out and selling out in an society which finds itself at the knees of corporatism.  


MET Gala 0ccasions Violence 
by Ben Bliumis

0n Monday, the Metropolitan Museum of Art had the ‘Punk Gala’ 0pening Party of an exhibition reflecting the influence of punk rock on "high cultures" of art and fashion. This party--replete with the just barely countable number of high-profile celebrities--caused a massive negative backlash from many who felt that it displayed unbearable hypocrisy. Punk rockress Jayne County, a participant in the exhibition, responded with a violent message on her fbook wall, “I WANT ALL OF YOU WHO STILL INSIST ON POSTING STUPID PETTY NEGATIVE BULLSHIT ABOUT THE MET TO GET THE FUCK OFF MY FRIENDS LIST AND I MEAN NOW!!! You are simply detracting from a great exibit THAT I AM A PART OF AND YOU ARE HARMING ME!! If you keep it up then I WILL START ATTACKING YOU IN PUBLIC AND HONEY BELIEVE ME YOU DONT WANT THAT. SO LEAVE NOW OR ELSE!!!”

Before Jayne’s out-lash yesterday on fbook ‘friends’--many of whom are presumably part of the punk rock community to which she owes her own fame--she posted a pre-emptive and perhaps naively hopeful news-flash:

“THE MET SHOW IS CAUSING GREAT CONTROVERSY !!! It's causing arguments and FIGHTS!!!!! Some people are no longer speaking to each other!!! It's like the ELECTION all over again! Liberal Rock and Rollers and Punks against the "Purists" and "Funtamentalist 'Punks'" Punk is like THE BIBLE! It is open to interpretation! There is no such thing as "REAL Punk anymore. Punk is an attitude whether dressed in expensive clothes or ripped up t. shirts! AND NOW PUNK HAS BECOME ART AND FASHION, insuring its place in our culture and in HISTORY!!! Times have CHANGED! GET OVER IT!!! And the Met show isnt meant to be so called "Punk." it's about how Punk of old has influenced fashion and art of NOW!!! And they pay a respectful TRIBUTE! I am PROUD TO BE A PART OF THIS MET SHOW!!! And proud to be a part of PUNK HISTORY!! Can I get an AMEN?"

The latter post received 191 ‘likes’--if those count as virtual “Amens”--and 71 comments; some of which were indeed a redounded “Amen!” But her more recent post, full of violent threat to members of her own community, makes one wonder whether her reaction signifies a resistance to facing the truth of her own hypocrisy.

Jayne County has become incorporated into the establishment that she once so vehemently rejected as a young history-making punk; but the commodification of icons is an inevitable element of the socio-economic system. And though the objective picture may be full of hypocrisy, it doesn’t make Jayne a hypocrite. So she is right to say that “punk has become... fashion.” But can she mean in stating that “punk has become art”? Did punk rock make history in some mode that wasn’t art before and just became art later--when it had its inevitable influence on the upper classes?

Again, Jayne is right to say that “punk is an attitude”: think about when Kurt Cobain, when asked what “punk” is in an interview, responded by grabbing a lemon off of the table and crushing it in his hands with a funny smile, stating “With a twist of lime...."! Here, with sarcastic words, Cobain described “punk” through the attitude of his general action--taking an extremely ironic stance, and affirming that punk is, indeed, an attitude. So, if punk is an attitude, is this attitude no-longer permissible--or has it become obsolete? If it is not permissible, then it is not permitted by the very establishment against which punk rockers “rocked”--and, as an attitude for those against the oppressiveness, the exploits and the suppressive violence of the system, this attitude is more relevant today than ever. So, when Jayne County says that “there are no REAL punks anymore,” she is wrong--unless, of course, one limits the definition of punk to the very superficial expression that it had when Jayne was “a-rockin,” and which the MET exhibit reflects: brightly dyed hair, and particular looks as precisely pin-pointed as Syd Viscious’s signature hair-style. But her statement already precludes that. 0n the other hand, we might understand Jayne to mean that if this superficial content was punk then, it isn’t punk now; even though, now, it finds its reflection in high art and fashion. This conclusion is even more right than it first appears. Perhaps punk rock will never have another superficial “look” again because today the punk attitude must render itself practically invisible. Even a definitive gesture like Cobain’s no loner finds representation in the media. Not even the expression of extreme irony qua the punk attitude is televised--to invoke the pseudo-invisible revolution of McLuhan.

Ultimately, Jayne County is not so much wrong or right as she is simply a typical punk icon become "high artist.” What is interesting about the Met Punk exhibition is that, from the perspective of a genuinely alienated punk today, it is absurdly fake and hypocritical. As Michael Musto of the Village Voice put it, “It was the antithesis of everything punk represented, watering down the rage of the legendary rebels into something the pampered diva crowd could throw on for a smiley photo op, turning it into just the kind of commodified and depoliticized trendy crap the punks would have hurled at.” Yet, Musto betrays his own hypocritical sense of alienation when, in conclusion, he asks, “Besides, where the f**k was my invite?” If Musto betrays a sense of “entitled” alienation--i.e., he is alienated from the “elite class”’s hypocritical party--then how are we to reconcile his own punk rock attitude a la his critical defense of genuine punk with his hypocritical desire to “join the party.”

0n the surface, Jayne’s critics seem to display as much hypocrisy as they accuse her of. But what if the ostensibly mutual hypocrisy resolves itself in the class struggle that both the over-priviledged party-goers and the alienated majority can embrace--in the true spirit of punk? In other words, if punk is more relevant as an attitude today than ever, then its true representatives ought to embrace class struggle against hypocrisy proper--from whatever side of the tracks one is on. 0r, even more precisely, if the resolution of class struggle lies in a re-distribution of privilege, then the over-privileged and the alienated masses can unite in the recognition thereof; accepting that the overprivileged are hypocritical insofar as they participate in the much hated “establishment,” while the underprivileged are hypocritical in wanting to “join the very party that they hate.” Perhaps the only genuine punk attitude of today is one of forced hypocrisy. In Lacanese, the quilting point is the same; as is the universality of the drive qua "punk attitude."

From the perspective of the over-priviledged punk become ‘elite,’ the MET exhibit is a genuine tribute. But, from the perspective of the alienated masses, it represents the hypocrisy of the very “establishment” that punk "rocks" against: the classist fraud of un-celebrated celebrities foisted upon the public, the banks that fund art as a prole distraction, etc. If both views are correct, then why doesn’t Jayne County embrace this hypocrisy--as Musto implicitly does? Apropos one’s inevitable involvement in the so-called establishment against which punk stands, isn’t the only genuine attitude today to embrace the forced hypocrisy in its full expression? And hasn’t forced hypocrisy been the signature of punk--punk rockers snarling and aping in front of media cameras, etc.--since its inception?

Punk is not merely appreciated by the “elite” as a history, as the popular responses to the MET gala demonstrated. Punk is appreciated by all as a means of liberation. The MET’s exhibit should be a great success in that it will attract all who embrace the reactionary spirit of punk rock. It should be a nexus for punks of all social strata to converge in doubly-reflected repudiation of hypocrisy proper. And Jayne was wrong to violently threaten members of her own community for negatively criticizing the MET exhibition: in denying herself the full momentum of her own necessary hypocrisy, she became the the only real hypocrite. Her statement that "there is no real punk today" should be read, instead, as an admission that only she herself is not driven by the "punk attitude." Why the violent impulse to suppress her critics, if the revelation of her own lose of the punk attitude--her own lack--isn't at stake? Perhaps she has gone a little too far in the embrace her “punk rocker become elite” status; such that her involvement in the MET exhibition heightens the self-consciousness of a complicity that she was not fully able to digest.


The Park Slope Baby store and MET Gala both point to the "ostensible hypocrisy of forced participation in a 'system' that we don't really believe in as valid- combined with our belief in and continued inspiration by artists who subverted that very system," which in according to Ben is the heart of this article. I hope he will be so kind as to share subsequent musings on the subject here on Required Taste.

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