I ended up at the Panic Attack exhibition by chance: I was in the area, and had an hour to spare. Hadn't read any of the reviews (not that they'd have helped much - they were all uniformly uncritical) so I had no preconceptions. "This fascinating exhibition examines artists who represented, in very different and often unexpected ways, the punk zeitgeist of the 1970s and 1980s." Sounds interesting.
The beginning of the exhibition sums it up. The first thing you see is Jamie Reid's iconic cover for the Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen". Just what you'd expect. It's a figleaf though. Apart from Robert Mapplethorpe's photograph of Patti Smith later in the show that's it for Punk as normally understood, ie the graphics, fanzines, fly posters and what have you which acted as the visual counterpart to the music. The exhibition isn't interested in any of that, except as a way of drawing you in. What it is interested in is - well, go past Jamie Reid into the first room and you get the idea. It's devoted to the works of Victor Burgin. No, I hadn't heard of him either, but it sets the tone. His thing was bleak black and white images of contemporary (ie late Seventies) Britain, printed with text. So, for instance, "Still In The Dark" has a picture of a worker bending over a production-line car, with this message superimposed:
In order for workers to see politics and society in a different way to that projected by the dominant ideology, the way fostered and broadcast by the dominant class and institutions of this society, they have to negotiate a way through existing ideological structures. These provide ready-made and well-trodden thoughtways. For example, thanks to them it appears 'natural' that 'militants' will be 'mindless' because 'moderate' trade unionism is inherently 'rational' and militancy inherently 'irrational'. And this because the 'national interest' ought to stand above that of 'class'. Class, in terms of the dominant ideology often being, for good measure, an 'outdated concept'. It is such clusters of theories and values which characteristically inform the popular media. Although they may not be entirely successful in directing activity towards the maintenance of the existing order. For those who wish to challenge it they represent a conceptual miasma of enervating density.
Enervating density indeed. This dreary leftist boilerplate seems to me to be about as far removed from Punk as you can get: like some balding middle-aged member of the Revolutionary Communist Party - a lecturer at the local Poly maybe - standing outside the gig trying to sell copies of "Socialist Worker" to the sweaty youths pouring out. Earlier in the evening he'd been up and down a few tower blocks in a nearby council estate where he'd been told to fuck off about fifty times, been growled at by a dozen nasty-looking dogs, and sold one paper to an elderly lady who was obviously desperate for some company. Now here he is standing out in the rain being ignored and pushed out of the way by kids who are high on adrenaline (possibly other stuff as well) who've had their ears pounded for a couple of hours and absolutely fucking loved it......and he's telling them how they should live their lives? If any of them bothered with him, they might explain very politely that all this stuff about them living in a state of false consciousness was so much condescending crap: they didn't want to be preached at by some middle-class tosser when they were picking up guitars, getting up on stage, and having a great time making their own music, or listening to other kids like them doing the same thing. Punk was about doing it for yourself, not being told what to do and what to think by some tedious ideologue with personal hygiene problems.
So....this exhibition isn't really about Punk at all: it's the revenge of that Poly lecturer. It's what Punk should have been about if only those stupid kids had listened to him instead of going off and having a great time jumping up and down to very loud music. It's all about addressing "issues of economic injustice as well as sexual and racial discrimination" (I quote here from the exhibition catalogue), where "the metropolis is transformed into a place of hallucinatory desire", "reflecting the new identity politics that were a feature of the decade which saw the rise of radical feminism, gay liberation and the black empowerment movements", using "strategies to challenge social norms and power structures".
Ah yes, here we are again: another art exhibition, another set of strategies to challenge social norms and power structures. You can imagine what it must be like at Art Schools nowadays: "Right, today we're going to look at some strategies to challenge social norms and power structures." "Oh please sir, do we have to sir? We did that yesterday." "And the day before." "We've done nothing else all term, sir." "You said we could learn how to draw. When are we going to do some drawing, sir?"
Not only are social norms challenged: bodily imagery is transgressed. Really. And that means COUM Transmissions (aka Throbbing Gristle), and a recreation of their Prostitution show at the ICA in 1976, which used "transgressive bodily imagery as a vehicle for empowerment and social critique". So we have a room devoted to pages from porn magazines displaying Christine Newby aka Cosey Fanni Tutti in all her gynaecological glory. Plus a box full of used tampons wittily titled "It's That Time of the Month Again". Back in '76 the exhibition called down the fury of the establishment, notably Tory MP Nicholas Fairbairn, who branded COUM "wreckers of civilisation". It must have been leading light Genesis P Orridge's proudest moment: made all those hours sweating over used tampons worthwhile. [If you're interested in GPO, here's what he used to look like, and here he is now. "I've had all my teeth replaced with solid gold replicas of the originals...beauty spots tattooed on my face, silicone injections in my lips, cheek implants, laser hair removal, breast implants ..." Well, give him credit, he's serious about this transgression stuff.]
Who else is there? Well, there's a Gilbert and George video. Gilbert and George as punks? Doesn't quite work, does it? I can't imagine what Sid Vicious would have made of them....nor what they'd have made of him. Yes yes, I know: the exhibition is billed as "Art in the Punk Years", not "Punk Art", so strictly speaking I have no cause for complaint. They could have included Chinese tapestries if they were made in the late Seventies. Still, I won't deny feeling a little short-changed.
There's also Robert Mapplethorpe, as I mentioned earlier. In some ways he's the opposite of Punk: no enthusiastic amateur; rather a highly competent artist using the techniques of fine-art photography - like, say, Edward Weston - to produce some gorgeous images of flowers, some fine portraits, and......a load of beautifully composed shots of gay sado-masochism. It's ridiculous to deal with his work with just the few (maybe seven or eight) pictures on show here. One flower in a vase: portraits of Patti Smith and William Burroughs: a guy with a ring through his dick attached to a weight... But his presence is enough. That's all that matters. Stick him with a transgressive label and he fits right in. Because this isn't about the artists and their art. The real heroes of the exhibition, as with so many exhibitions nowadays, are the curators. They've got a line to push - a wearyingly familiar line - about challenging social norms, and transgressing bodily images, and the artists are just sub-texts: plot devices in a larger story.