Monday, November 17, 2008


Joan Anderman, Boston Globe - Three decades after punk exploded in a brief but potent fit of abrasion, alienation, and anarchy, the auction house Christie's is holding the first major US sale of memorabilia from the punk era on Nov. 24.

Timing, needless to say, is everything. A generation has passed, books have been written and movies made, and folks who once wore their anger and their safety pins on their sleeves are now eager to reclaim a piece of their youth, be it a Black Flag concert flier, a hand-written Ramones lyric, or a God Save the Queen T-shirt.

"In 1995, when I first got into this business, all you heard about was the Beatles and Elvis," says Simeon Lipman, the 34-year-old pop culture curator at Christie's. "As time went by people were interested in Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. Now nostalgia is kicking in for punk, and there's a collecting base that's hungry for pieces from the heroes, or antiheroes, from that time.". . .

Punk's legacy is vast. From the do-it-yourself philosophy that informs indie rock to the anti-elitism that fuels the blogosphere, the spirit of authenticity and embrace of amateurism that were the pillars of punk now permeate modern art and culture.

Of course the sound has endured, too. Almost immediately, punk's short, sharp song style began to splinter into genres as varied as hardcore, new wave, post-punk, pop-punk, grunge, and the post-millennial tidal wave of angular alternative rock. At the same time, punk became shorthand for a state of mind, and a symbol of self-determination. Kurt Cobain of Nirvana used to tell interviewers that punk is the freedom to say, do, and play what you want.

In that sense the term has evolved into a broad signifier for subversion of the status quo, and this is precisely, says musician and writer Richard Hell, the essence of punk's durability.

"Artists love to be called punk," says Hell, who co-founded the seminal group Television and went on to release one of the genre's classic albums, "Blank Generation," with his band the Voidoids. "It's used as a badge or a touchstone in every realm you can think of, from movies to literature to fashion. It's kind of ironic, because part of the whole spirit of punk comes down to the necessity of failure. Punk is against success, it's about rejecting the idea of success. That's what makes it appealing and why it will always exist, because people like to present themselves as being new and young and against the existing order."

Appropriation of punk's sound and imagery is rampant, and it's done with varying degrees of integrity, but there are fundamental aspects of punk's cultural legacy that have passed down with the original spirit largely intact. Bill Arning, a former punk musician who is now curator at MIT'S List Visual Arts Center, jokes that if a bomb had fallen on CBGB's the modern art scene wouldn't exist.

"Anti-authority is the contemporary zeitgeist. It has informed my career as a curator. My job is to disrupt the status quo," says Arning. . .

Richard Hell sums it up: "Punk is about self-respect, as opposed to respecting the established way of doing things, but it's also about irresponsibility. Punk is both of those things, and somehow it adds up to a really exciting and desirable set of ways to read the world," Hell says. "People still identify with that."


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