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Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2012

Illustrating a Movement

The Art (and Meaning) of Punk

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Punk rock emerged in a white-hot flame; it seemed like a revelation, and became a newborn religion for some adherents. Punk emerged in the U.K. and big U.S. cities during late ‘70s but the idea continued to spread and persists today. Yet, outside the hateful white supremacist subculture and a few isolated incidents (the recent Russian case), punk is now just one bullet point in a long menu of style options for musicians and fans. Punk rock didn’t fuel the Arab Spring or any significant disruption of the status quo anywhere in the world—beyond its DIY impact on the entertainment industry.

But then, many who called themselves punks never bought into the revolutionary messages of the Clash or the Gang of Four. Johnny Ramone, after all, voted for Reagan.

Russ Bestley and Alex Ogg are aware of the pitfalls of trying to define punk, draw its boundaries or even discern its ultimate influence. Accompanying the images they curated for The Art of Punk: The Illustrated History of Punk Rock Design (Voyageur Press), Bestley and Ogg penned a history of the music and subculture that produced all those flyers, posters, picture sleeves and album covers. Wisely, Bestley (professor, University of the Arts London) and Ogg (writer and editor) dismiss the nihilist notion that punk erupted from nothing. The music had a history and so did the imagery that drew from the early Modernisms of the 20th century, especially Bauhaus, Dada and the Constructivists. Many punks saw themselves as making a clean break with the previous hippie counterculture, yet, as the authors demonstrate, there were many overlaps and carry-throughs. Some punks were defiantly anti-intellectual but many intellectualized their anti-intellectualism.

The Art of Punk correctly identifies the inception of what came to be called punk rock as coalescing “around a number of low-key scenes in the mid-‘70s, particularly in London and New York.” But then, even at CBGB, what tied Television to the Ramones aside from their shared status as outsiders to ‘70s mainstream rock? As loyal Brits, Bestley and Ogg point out that the Ramones’ celebrated fertilization of U.K. punk fell on ground already tilled by the pub rock scene, which provided band members and venues for the nascent movement.

The text is engaging but as a coffee table book, the selling point is the graphics, which reveal the visual dimension of punk in all its brilliance and stupidity. Perhaps most fascinating are the illustrations from Iceland, Russia and other places less associated in memory with the birth of the movement.
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