First Person Singular: Individualism and Punk Art

Daniel Novak Dept. of History of Art and Architecture For: Prof. Laurie Monahan Winter 2005 to Spring 2006


Harmful to Minors In 1986, the LAPD raided the home of Jello Biafra, lead singer of the Punk band The Dead Kennedys 1. The County of Los Angeles charged the band with distribution of obscene materials to minors. According to the County, the charges stemmed from the inclusion of H.R. Giger's Landscape #20: Where Are We Coming From (Penis Landscape) in the liner notes of the band's 1985 album Frankenchrist. Why did Biafra (who produced and marketed the album) choose such a disturbing image for his album jacket? The answer involves Giger's painting itself. Though not directly related to the Punk movement, Landscape #20 shares certain visual qualities with Punk art. Consider the piece’s ability to upset some viewers with its graphic depictions of sex. The work’s composition requires that the viewer discern each coupled penis and vagina from an endlessly repeating pattern. The painting confronts the viewer with its repetition of sexual imagery. This forces the viewer to somehow reconcile themselves with a painting that might offend them viscerally. This negative, gut reaction on the part of the viewer is, in fact, shock. This desire to shock and offend the viewer has a longstanding tradition in the Punk movement and explains Biafra’s inclusion of the painting in the album art. Biafra asserted that “…shock is a way of ungluing the insides of people’s heads,” 2 and, at this point in American history, Punks felt that everyone’s head needed a bit of ungluing.


Band names (with the exception of individuals such as Elvis and Country Joe) in this essay appear in italics to avoid confusion. 2 Belsito, Peter and Bob Davis. Hardcore California: A History of Punk and New Wave. New York: Last Gasp. 1983. 93.


More Than Shock While shock played a significant role in the ideology and symbolic representation of the Punk movement, it does not explain all of Punk’s appeal. Shock merely served as a method of transmission for Punk’s larger goal: the reassertion of the value of the individual within American society. Punk culture, unlike its contemporary subcultures and countercultures, did not reject core American values. On the contrary, the Punk movement attempted to revitalize the assertive individualism that Americans have historically celebrated. By contesting power, emphasizing individual importance, and fostering individual thought, Punks re-explored individualism as a social value. The Punk movement attempted to redefine the role of the individual in society by actively responding to perceived failings and successes in other cultural movements. These responses are most obvious in the relationships between the visual culture of the Punk movement and the visual culture of three subcultural precursors. Reactions against these movements, both subtle and overt, shaped the direction of Punk music and art. Thus, we will gain a better understanding of Punk’s subcultural values by examining the Punk reaction to the Rock and Roll Establishment, the Hippie movement, and the Yuppies as expressed through their visual arts,. These three cultural entities served as foils for the movement. Each possesses a trait or trajectory that Punks found lacking and attempted to rectify.


First, Punk artists developed a photographic aesthetic that emphasized the close interactions of performer and audience. This came as a response to the parity between the gulfs that separated the government and the governed and rock and roll bands and their fans. Second, as memory of the Hippie movement faded in the late 1970s, Punks began to question the communal attitudes of the movement, finally opting for a more individual-centered culture. This break is evident in the poster art of the respective movements. Third, young Punks found themselves at odds with what they saw as the conformity of the product of postWorld War II capitalism: Yuppies and Jocks. Punks set themselves in opposition to these groups, characterizing them as conformist and brainless. Punks chose to foster individual opinions and thought among the members of the movement. Evidence of this practice appears in the diverse and idiosyncratic graphic representations of bands on their posters. These three qualities, as demonstrated by Punk graphic arts, represent a shift towards a type of individualism that Punks found missing in their own time. Why Individualism? This paper will also use the concept of individualism in a slightly different context. Rather than simply representing the degree of conformity to group mores, the Punk strain of individualism is an existential state. This state of being involves two key components. First, existential individualism provided Punks with a way to declare their personhood. This property appears to arise from his-


torical circumstances. As Walter Capps, a congressman and professor of religious studies at UC Santa Barbara, notes: In the aftermath [of the Vietnam War], with ideological assurances up for grabs what Robert Lifton calls “the crisis in authority and mentorship” became monumental. No one could be quite certain of being able to find the “real America” until a certain segment of the populace, later called the New Right, produced “I have found it” bumper stickers more than a decade later…It was in military terms, and with evangelical zeal, that the rediscovered patriotism was expressed. 3 Most Punks grew up in the extended ideological conflict instigated by the Vietnam War in the 1960s. By the time they came of age in the mid- and late-1970s, the Hippie counterculture had fallen away. This left the many young and unsatisfied Americans with a desire to change their lives and their country, but with no organized method of rebellion. Thus, the Punk strain of individualism arose around a musical style that promoted aggressive self-assertion and selfexpression. Punk individualism thus gave Punks a frame for their rebellion and a way to act it out. Punks created a ‘scene’ (a social sphere) with common mores and acceptable modes of behavior that existed outside of mainstream American culture. This scene, despite outward appearances of uniformity, actually displays Punk individualism’s second quality: the effect of human agency. Individuals, despite their group affiliations, will work to impose their own desires on their world, often in accordance with an ethical code. The Punk belief in social change and the importance of unity within the Punk movement come from this belief in an indi-


Walter H. Capps. The Unfinished War: Vietnam and the American Conscience. Boston: Beacon Press, 1990. 53


vidual’s ability to reshape the world. Thus, Punk represents an individual’s assertion of existence as a rebel and the individual’s concerted desire to change the world. So, what is Punk? – The History and Sociological Definition “I always thought a punk was someone who took it up the ass.” -William S. Burroughs “[Punk is an idea…] And what is this idea? Think for yourself, be yourself, don’t just take what society gives you, create your own rules, live your own life.” 4 – Mark Anderson, Positive Force. What kind of time could have produced such a complicated movement? Different sources use different models to explain Punk as a phenomenon. None, however, have properly analyzed Punk’s ideological reactions to previous social phenomenon. How did the rich and uneasy environment of social protest and crushing conformity in the decade up to 1975 produce this unique movement? Dick Hebdige’s Subcultures: The Meaning of Style grapples with this question by looking at the synthesis of stylistic elements that occurred in London’s Punk scene. The book traces English Punk’s evolution in the diverse streets of London in the mid-1970s. There, Hebdige observed working-class British youths adopting attitudes, clothing, and music from different ethnic groups and creating a new subculture that stood in opposition to the larger British culture. One of the earliest scholarly texts to deal with Punk, the book dissects the symbolic inte-

O’Hara, Craig. The Philosophy of Punk: More Than Noise! San Francisco: AK Press, 1999. Mark Anderson, Positive Force handout, 1985. Quoted on 36.



raction of Punk as it relates to other subcultural movements. It also addresses Punk style, an idea that remains problematic. Hebdige notes that Much of the available space in the book will therefore be taken up with a description of the process whereby objects are made to mean and mean again as ‘style’ in subculture. 5 Hebdige does an excellent job of tracing the origins of the look of London’s Punk subculture, but the look itself does not reveal everything. Though style represents an important part of Punk subculture, it does not necessarily render all of the meaning contained within Punk. Style, as a concept, is at the whim of the market. People buy and sell it, mold it and package it. While the study yields an excellent analysis of the symbolic choices that individuals made within the British Punk subculture, the study of style cannot move beyond a degree of superficiality, as well as time and location specificity. Sociologists such as Curry Malott and Milagros Peña have moved in a different direction. Their book Punk Rockers’ Revolution: A Pedagogy of Race, Class, and Gender posits that Punk reflects a deeper social drive. The study characterizes Punk as an early post-modern counterculture based on dissensus instead of consensus. They sum up their central model for describing Punk as follows: …through dissensus punk rock created and continues to create a space for social discourse excluded by society’s expectations in giving in to consensus and conformity. 6 Malott and Peña then create a matrix for gauging the degree of sexism, homophobia, racism, and class conflict in Punk lyrics. The study’s most intriguing ideas
5 6

Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd. 1979. 3 Malott, Curry and Milagros Peña. Punk Rockers’ Revolution: A Pedagogy of Race, Class, and Gender. New York: Peter Lang Publishing. 2004. 35.


also become its faults. Classifying Punk as a separate space for social discourse removes it from its cultural context. If Punk exists as a ‘social place’ apart from the “consensus and conformity” of the larger culture, then it cannot directly engage the larger culture or even other subcultures. While the idea fits many of Punk’s qualities excellently, it fails to explain the movement for the opposite reason of Hebdige’s study. If Subcultures’s ‘style’ is time- and place- specific, then Punk Rockers’ Revolution’s ‘cultural space’ removes Punk from any cultural context. Craig O’Hara’s The Philosophy of Punk: More Than Noise takes a third approach to Punk. O’Hara, like Malott, spent many years participating in the Punk scene. He wrote the text as response to the changes he observed in the Punk lifestyle in the late 1980s. Like Hebdige, O’Hara treats Punk as a living culture based on opposition to the mainstream culture. Unlike Hebdige, however, O’Hara maintains an interest in a ‘perfect type’ description of the Punk social order. That is, O’Hara recognizes that Punk appeals to many people with varying attitudes and ideals, yet he still attempts to describe the larger cultural ideas and concerns that spawn these attitudes. The result has little nuance, but provides bird’s eye view of Punk that allows the reader to begin to understand the worm’s eye view. This paper relies more on Hebdige and O’Hara’s methods more than those of Malott and Peña. Hebdige’s study of the symbolic meaning of Punk style provides a method for understanding the symbolic meaning of art.


O’Hara’s work allows us to examine the beliefs that drive Punk art. Malott and Peña’s more Marxist text removes the cultural context from their study to such a great degree that it loses its ability to describe the individual’s role in the movement. After all, individuals (not movements) produce art based on their ideas and emotions. In the interest of making this paper’s scope manageable, I have drawn most of the examples from the West Coast part of the Punk movement. Though the individualistic qualities present in these examples appear throughout Punk, West Coast bands tended to produce large bodies of coherent work. The Dead Kennedys and Black Flag, for example, produced five and six major albums and many volumes of spoken word from 1978 to 1985. These albums outline the bands’ political and social philosophy as well as their thoughts on American society. This differs significantly from the histories of East Coast and English Punk, where bands often maintained shorter careers and spoke less seriously about their socio-political leanings. West Coast Punk’s social concern and vocal anger carry over into the photography and graphic arts that accompanied the music. These arts demonstrate a painful rebirth of individualism that did not occur in elsewhere. Through the examination of these arts we will gain a better understanding of the context and the origin of West Coast Punk’s place in America’s subcultural history.


No Authority: The Punk Scene and the American Music Establishment Punk’s history as both a musical, visual, and social phenomenon really begins with the rise of Rock and Roll in the 1950s and 1960s. Two decades before The Ramones appeared on stage, Elvis Presley, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and others helped to establish Rock and Roll as a profitable youth-centered industry. These musicians merged African-American musical styles (such as R&B) with country and folk rock to create new sounds and a new musical identity. Young people across America consumed this music with fervor, despite the stigma attached to it. As historian David Farber points out, “Rock ‘n’ Roll, to a degree, broke down the wall that monitors of conventional morality had raised between what they considered acceptable and unacceptable forms of music.” 7 Farber also describes the emergence of a ‘youth culture’ during the 1960s that had not existed in the previous generation. The baby-boom generation, he asserts, had greater access to money, cars, and entertainment than any generation before. Also, the delay in entering the work force (caused by the completion of high school and increased college attendance) allowed young Americans more leisure time among people their own age. High schools and universities bred a new age cohort that partied together, listened to the same music, watched the same television shows, and saw the same movies. This cohort also did not experience the Great Depression, and so knew only affluence. This affluence, however, had a dark and unfulfilling side that young people began to question.


Farber, David. The Age of Great Dreams: America in the 1960s. (New York: Hill and Wang, 1994.)


The youth culture of the 1960s adopted Rock and Roll as a mode of expressing its concerns about the direction of American culture. The Hippie movement, for example, idolized performers such as Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, and The Doors for their rejection of cultural norms in favor of greater artistic and experiential goals 8. Some of these performers even used their music to confront social issues. For example, The Mothers of Invention, on their album Freak Out!, sang about social inequality in LA during the Watts riots: And it’s the same across the nation Black and white discrimination Yell and you can understand me And all that other crap they hand me In the papers and T.V. And all that mass stupidity That seems to grow more everyday This time of year some asshole say He wants to go and do you in Cause the color of your skin Just don’t appeal to him 9 In addition to decrying the ubiquity of racism in the country, the song’s lyrics show a profound distrust of the media and its perceived falsities. The album also makes itself clear with an urgent (if ironic and comedic) reminder: “This is the voice of your conscience, baby… Suzy Creamcheese, honey, what’s got into you?” Though much of the album relies on irony and humor, it also raises some important questions about the priorities of the young and the old in America.

8 9

One should also note that these performers became millionaires in the process of creating music. Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. Freak Out! Rykodisc. Copyright Frank Zappa, 1966.


Musicians such as Country Joe and the Fish used more aggressive language to demonstrate this divide. According to these bands, the ‘old’ (such as President Lyndon Johnson) had lost touch with America’s core values and promoted only self-interest. A severe cynicism developed in Rock and Roll after years of governmental promises that the United States only sought to protect nations such as South Vietnam from Communist threats. Country Joe and the Fish expressed it best in their I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag. The song, sung at Woodstock in 1969, attributes the War to military ambition (“Well, c’mon generals…”), business interests (“Well, c’mon Wall Street), and jingoism (“Well, c’mon mothers…”). Their lyrics aggressively and directly confront the issue of the Vietnam War’s purpose. Rock and Roll fully adopted the drive for social change that galvanized young people all over the country. Yet, by the late 1970s, many music fans felt the drive towards social revolt that existed within Rock and Roll had disappeared. The perceived spirit of rebellion and the passion of Rock and Roll gave way to excess and commercialization. Rock and Roll icons became saleable commodities, and the LA clubs that once housed concerts gave way to massive stadium shows. At these shows bands stood on stages far from their fans. That physical distance demonstrated the disconnection of the fan and the band. Punk bands in the 1970s challenged this distance. The differences between bands and fans became a subject of debate in the following decade. Mark


Perry, who published an early, influential fanzine called Sniffin’ Glue, expressed distaste for the elite Rock ‘n’ Roll star: …I’d always had this feeling that there was a gap between us, the fans, and them, the bands, that you couldn’t cross. It was like a special club that had The Beatles and the Stones as founders, and the only way to become a member was to sit for years alone in your bedroom learning how to play guitar. People in bands seemed somehow special, in so much as I thought of myself as ordinary. 10 One might think it unusual that a rebel counterculture such as Rock and Roll could come to seem establishmentarian. However, Punks recognized the enormous influence of power and money in the music industry and the divisions caused by these elements. For Punks, all traces of mainstream Rock and Roll’s rebel attitudes had disappeared. The Beatles, much maligned by parents as a bad influence after their debut, became part of a larger cultural establishment that represented a lack of concern for the individual. The broad business interests that controlled the music industry came to represent the same types of interests that controlled the government. In a few short years, powerful Rock bands had transformed into a subject of the same type of scorn that young people heaped on the US government. In the late 1970s, Punks began to see the breaks between fan and band, government and governed, as artificial divides between those with power and those without. Thus, at the same moment that Punks rejected the authority of record labels and bands, they began to reject the authority of the government. In California, Punks began to express their desire to reduce the role of authority
Mark Perry. Sniffin’ Glue: The Essential Punk Accessory. London: Sanctuary Publishing, 2000. 11 The quote refers to a period around 1974.


figures in the political arena. In 1979, Jello Biafra of The Dead Kennedys publicly expressed this disaffection with the American government. In October of that year, Biafra announced his candidacy for mayor of San Francisco. Biafra’s platform involved such issues as requiring that police be elected to office, legalized squatting, and using vagrants to collect money to replace the funds lost through the state’s Proposition 13.11 These promises, although tongue-in-cheek, represent a direct challenge to the same types of artificial authority found in popular Rock and Roll concerts and the government. Biafra collected 6,591 votes during the election, taking enough votes away from the two frontrunners to cause a run-off in November. This impressive turnout (for an independent candidate) proved that many citizens during this period felt removed from the American power structure. This feeling of alienation and suspicion of the powerful (be they musician or politician) permeates the Punk movement’s value system. Punks developed an intense desire to have their voices heard by the government, a force that seemed both remote and unreachable (as with Richard Nixon and Ronald Regan) and oppressively close (as with the police) as well as by their fans. Punk, especially in West Coast cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, demanded a return to the recognition of the power of the individual.

Belsito and Davis, 194. California voters approved Proposition 13 in 1978. The proposition capped and reduced property taxes in the state. This caused an enormous budget shortfall in all cities and counties that relied on the property taxes from land that appreciates in value (such as housing, corporate offices, and shopping centers).



Some members of the movement even subscribed to anarchy as a social doctrine, hoping that such a system would increase the level of equality in the country. Anarchy, as a social system that lacks a central power, challenges the rights of powerful institutions to supersede the will and thought of the individual. Many Punks, like Jello Biafra, sought to reform Rock and Roll, society, and government. In order to realize these reforms within their subculture, Punks promoted the direct access of the individual to the band at their shows as well as in their photography. Guerilla Camera Work: Capturing the Shows Punk photography demonstrates this desire to break down the distances between an elect (of sorts) and the rest of society. Some Punk bands encouraged their audiences to start their own bands so that fans could express themselves and enlarge the scene. This desire also appears prominently in the capturing of band-audience interactions via photography. Photography operates as an ideal medium for understanding the interactions between Punks and Punk bands because the photograph forces the photographer to include only the essential information about those spontaneous interactions. As W.J.T Mitchell points out, “Photographs, similarly, seem necessarily incomplete in their imposition of a frame that can never include everything that was there to be, as we say, ‘taken.’” 12 However, photographers such as Ed Colver utilize photographs to focus the kinds of information transmitted by their photographs. Their photos de12

W.J.T. Mitchell. Picture Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994. 289


scribe a social sphere where the crowd asserts its existence in a bodily manner to the musicians. The change in band-audience interaction serves as a controllable, microcosmic version of the changes that Punks wanted to see in all of American society. Bands experimented with the dissolution of power structures during their shows by allowing their crowds to approach them, touch them, and even fight with them. For example, Henry Rollins, the lead singer of the band Black Flag in the 1980s, became famous for jumping off the stage and fighting with fans during concerts. The other members of the band continued playing the song and Rollins would return to the stage, often covered in blood to continue singing. These kinds of interactions appeared as a result of the lack of proximity to the establishment. Few bands, celebrities, or government officials allowed their crowds to come so close during this period, especially those with mainstream popularity. In this brief survey of rock and roll concert photography, the differences fostered by the decreased power distance in the Punk subculture will become clear. First, consider the qualities of rock and roll photography before Punk. In traditional rock and roll concerts, the relationship between the audience and the performer is simple. The band entertains the crowd, and, in turn, the crowd showers the band with affection and praise (or, conversely, with taunts and boos). While the crowd creates the demand for the show, it maintains a relatively passive role during the performance itself.


This passivity made photographing traditional performers such as The Beatles or Elvis relatively simple: a photographer simply had to show up, take pictures of the performer in action, and select the most exciting ones for publication. The photographer did not have to consider the audience, as audiences were interchangeable and notable only for the amount of noise they produced and their animation. For example, most people recall televised images of girls screaming and reaching out to touch the Beatles during their famous 1964 appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. The show seems less exciting when one examines the still photographs taken by the press photographers during the broadcast. Nearly all of the famous images from the show capture The Beatles frontally or from slightly below. While the television cameras and many of the photographs lead the viewer to believe that the band was addressing an audience that stands somewhere in front of them, this formal quality actually comes from a the physical relationships of the photographers and the musicians. The television studio only allowed press photographers and producers onto the ground floor of the stage. All of the photographers at the Ed Sullivan Show stood in front of the band, unobstructed by crowds. What space, then, did the fans occupy? As Figure 1 demonstrates, the theater’s crowd was situated on a second floor balcony, well out of reach of the band. Television, through its magic, has convinced most viewers that The Beatles actually had some sort of relationship to the crowd at the famous show. The still photographs tell a completely different story about the relationship between the


band and the audience. The connection seems quite staid compared to the highly physical relationships of future bands and crowds. This, of course, does not mean that musicians never interacted with their audiences. In one famous photo, Elvis reaches from the stage to touch the hands of the audience members in the front row (Fig. 2). 13 However, the image shows Elvis reaching down from above, like some sort of benevolent visitor from the heavens. To further emphasize this idea, the photographer burned the edges around Elvis’s dark clothes to increase his contrast with the sky. This creates a halo effect around Elvis. Thus, despite the fact that Elvis actually interacts with his audience, the photographer has separated him from the crowd through a photographic process. Between the roots of Rock and Roll and Punk lies a period now known as “Classic Rock 14.” This era, now remembered for its extravagance and largesse, saw a change in the kinds of venues played by Rock and Roll bands. Megabands such as Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and KISS played primarily stadium shows. The stadium, as a venue, increases the physical distances between bands and their fans to an absurd degree. Stadiums typically hold between 30,000 and 100,000 people, and bands usually play on raised platforms in the center, removed from the audience itself. Thus, the physical arrangement and the size of the audiences precluded any meaningful interaction with or reaction to the band.

Photo taken from the Graceland Archives. “Classic Rock” is primarily a commercial term used by radio stations to identify a period that predates contemporary Pop Rock. Unfortunately, the dates for “Classic Rock” change from station to station. For the purposes of this paper, the term will refer to the period from 1965 to 1975.



The physical separation of band and fan during this period manifests itself clearly in the photos of Classic Rock mega-bands. The Photographers who shot concerts for bands the band Led Zeppelin often took the pictures from the audience’s perspective. Robert Plant and Jimmy Page (the band’s singer and the guitarist) (Figs. 3 and 4) were often photographed from below, removed several feet from the audience. These images portray the musicians as something greater than the norm, elevating them to the level of idol. Here, Jimmy Page appears backlit in blue with his hair covering his eyes and obscuring his face. The photographer has also waited for Page to complete the stroke of his guitar, indicating an ease or mastery of his instrument. In the other image, the photographer shows Robert Plant, frontlit on a red background, in an intense moment of a song. As he belts out the song, Plant makes a gesture of effort and force, demonstrating his passion for the music and a kind of internal power. Though the formal properties of these portraits seem quite different, they come from a similar source. The Classic Rock era shows a distinct interest in the differences between and amongst the characters of the musicians. As David Shumway, a cultural critic point out in his essay Rock and Roll as Cultural Practice: Rock performers are never merely musicians. They are to a greater or lesser extent also actors playing characters they have invented. Rock audiences do not come to appreciate nor merely to listen to the music performed; they come to participate in an event to establish some kind of relationship with those characters.15

DeCurtis, Anthony, ed., David Shumway. Present Tense: Rock & Roll and Culture. Durham: Duke University Press, 1992. 123.



This relationship, however, did not manifest itself physically. Shumway describes a Rock show as a time when audiences “sing along, shout, whistle, stomp, and clap regarding it as much their right to be heard as the performers.” 16 The musicians, though, retained their station, removed physically from the audience and elevated beyond their reach, In the mid-1970s and 1980s, the Punk movement destroyed this hands-off relationship between the audience and the performer. Tricia Henry, a scholar who studies Punk, offers this description of a Punk show: …performers were known to include in their performances behavior such as vomiting on stage, spitting at the audience, and displaying wounds that were the result of self-mutilation…The audience’s role often included throwing ‘permanently’ affixed seating, beer bottles, glasses, and anything else that made itself available at the performers. 17 These complete changes in the relationship between bands and their crowds point to a decreasing power distance. The Dead Kennedys, who would eventually dominate the Punk scene, encouraged the involvement of the audience in their shows. Belsito and Davis recall that “In the early days, Jello [Biafra, the lead singer] would spice up the act by letting the crowd shred his clothing, leaving him naked in their midst.” 18 Biafra regularly put himself in harm’s way to engage the audience and demonstrate their importance, and photographer Ed Colver captured everything on film.

16 17

Ibid. 15. Tricia Henry, Break All Rules! Punk Rock and the Making of a Style. (Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1989.), 4. 18 Belsito and Davis, 89.


Ed Colver (who covered the LA Punk scene) took a great interest in Biafra’s interactions with the audience. Colver’s images have a spontaneous and chaotic composition that come directly from the audience’s desire for closer, less formal interactions with the bands. Unlike photographing government officials or rock-stars, photographing a Dead Kennedy’s show did not require press passes, or any meaningful security clearance. 19 One simply needed a camera and a fanzine that would buy the images. The movement’s reduced power distances created an aesthetic of spontaneity, where photos capturing the energy produced by the interactions of bands and fans signified more, and held greater value, than formal excellence. Two of Colver’s photographs specifically demonstrate the importance of the band-audience interactions in Punk culture. In one photograph, Colver stands on the stage as the crowd returns Biafra after a bout of crowd surfing (Fig. 5). Biafra looks drained by his experiences in the crowd, but the audience seems energized by the singer’s presence. At another show, Colver records Biafra’s reactions as the audience claws at him from the edge of the stage (Fig. 6). Several audience members have jumped onto the stage in an effort to start crowd surfing, and a security guard throws another off the stage. Biafra, either feigning fear or actually scared, crawls away from the audience as they pull at his legs.

A photographer for a Santa Barbara, CA newspaper recently once described the process of photographing Christina Aguilera to a photographic history class at UC Santa Barbara. His contract stipulated that he could take pictures only during even numbered songs, from the third row. Older bands, such as U2, required that he stand further back, so as to obscure the signs of aging. Needless to say, no Punk band in the 1970s or 1980s would enforce such stipulations.



The crowd itself takes on a central role in the photos. The accessibility of the band to the audience changed the whole dynamic of the community. Both of Colver’s photos draw attention to the wildness of the crowd, pictured as a confused sea of people pushing one another around. The audience seems close to riot in both pictures, spurred on by the band’s performance and Jello’s stage diving. This excitement comes from the prospect of connecting to their heroes, a feat impossible with presidents, movie stars, and traditional rock bands. Punk crowds craved this physical and mental connection to the band. It allowed Punks to feel connected to the larger movement through access to the Punks with the most power. By blurring the distinctions between fans and bands, Punks created a society responsive to the general population of Punks. Unlike the US government, the Punk subculture did not keep secrets, or keep officials out of the public sphere. Instead, Punks such as Jello Biafra forged close relationships with other Punks, creating small, tightly knit communities. These relationships filled the void caused by the post-World War II American government’s lack of accessibility and attention. They resembled the lower power distance societies of early, pre-Cold War America: a time, Punks may have perceived, when the government and the primary culture taught the powerful to work for and with the less powerful.


The Mantra is “Disharmony”: The Punk Scene and the Hippie movement
Hey, people now, Smile on your brother. Let me see you get together, Love one another right now. -Jefferson Airplane, Let’s Get Together Gimme, gimme, gimme I need some more Gimme, gimme, gimme Don't ask what for -Black Flag, Gimme, Gimme, Gimme

At the same time that the Punk subculture blurred the distinctions between the fan and the band, Punks began to position themselves in terms of their countercultural predecessors. The Hippie movement, above all, became the Punk foil. Punks did not associate the Hippies with the Days of Rage, the civil rights riots, or the violence associated with the radical anti-war groups. Rather, they thought of Hippies as an agent of societal transformation that turned away from individual importance and towards communal attitudes. As Todd Gitlin remarks, The other utopia that swooped into popular music at the same time was that of the hippie as a communard: the ideal of a social bond that could bring all hurt, yearning souls into sweet collectivity, beyond the realm of scarcity and the resulting pettiness and aggression.20Punks believed that these values gravitated to the communal and the harmonious, the opposite of the aggressive and individual-centric qualities that are often associated with America. The Hippie community emphasized togetherness, cooperation, and nurturing. Punks developed a special hatred for what they perceived as a series of impotent, ineffectual values, and so reacted violently against this sense of communality and the stagnation they associated with it.

Gitlin, 203


For example, in Penelope Spheeris’ famous documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, one young Punk rants about his dislike for Hippies. When asked why he hates them, the young man replied that Hippies only did drugs. They wanted to change the world, but they never accomplished anything at all. This perception, more than any reality, affected the individualistic values of the Punk movement. Punks asserted that the Hippie’s movement’s inability to effect change came from the stagnation caused by conformity and communality. Punks did not hate drugs, world peace, or the ideas associated with the Hippies. Rather they hated what they precieved as the movement’s homogenizing effects. Thus, the individual’s concrete goals, desires, and identity became more important to Punks than any abstract desire for harmony and peace. Thus, Punks considered ego-centrism and ego-fulfillment a type of virtue. Punks valued their selves and self-identity more than the communal values that they believed the Hippies espoused. Punk graphic arts offer visual proof of this emphasis on ego-centric values, especially when compared to Hippie graphic arts. In Punk graphics, the artists used collage to combine different individual elements into a larger whole. These elements, however, never fit together perfectly and always maintain a degree of autonomy within the larger image. This method of combining materials embodies the beliefs and self-perception of the Punk community as a whole. Punk collage, as embodied by posters employed by the Dead Kennedys, demonstrates the movement’s perception of itself as a patchwork of individuals who


coalesce into a meaningful social unit. From this belief in the fundamentally individualistic nature of community, Punk graphic arts emphasize the aggressive, the bold, and the disharmonious. Ill in the Head: The Disharmony of Punk Graphics The taste for disharmonious graphics that differentiates Punk and Hippie art stems from the two movements’ differing views about the nature of community. The Punk movement understood itself as a collection of individuals who sought to assert their individualism despite their involvement in the Punk movement. This contrasts with Hippie culture’s sense of obligation to one another and to the rest of the world, as demonstrated by their desire to end the Vietnam War and promote worldwide peace. In summarizing the Hippie view of America’s future, Country Joe MacDonald once sang, “Gonna tell ya ‘bout some new times a-comin’/’bout all us Americans sittin’ ‘round lovin’/one another, playin’ games, workin’/and singin’ together." 21 In the same song, Country Joe calls on all Americans to aim towards a future of harmony, love, and acceptance. Though he identifies pitfalls and dangers, the song possesses an optimism about the ability of all people to live together. This desire for harmony is thus expressed formally in Hippie art but remains conspicuously absent Punk art. Hippie art, in general, relies on the formal idea of planar contrasts. That is, the visual interest in the movement’s graphic arts comes from the con21

Country Joe and the Fish, Talking Non-Violence. 1967.


trasting elements arranged over a single, continuous frame. For example, the cover of the seventh issue of Oz magazine 22 features a large drawing of Bob Dylan (Fig. 7). Dylan’s face appears in the center of the frame, covered in a splash of yellow. Inside the right circular frame of his glasses appears the phrase “Blowin’ in the Mind.” The artist has filled the left frame of his glasses with repeating black and white circles. Even Dylan’s face, streaked with yellow lines, is covered with dots that continue the larger pattern. Circles echo the circledsquare shape of his glasses, but also repeat across the entire frame. The circles unite the frame into a larger whole, contrasting with one another, but never creating any jarring changes in pattern. Although some appear closer to the foreground than others, the circles never suggest a hierarchy or an inequality. They simply suggest an ample depth and space that all circles equally inhabit. They also hint at a larger pattern that continues off the page and into infinity. The seamlessness of the work (as well as the relationships of the circles in this particular work) reflects the desire for unity and harmony within the Hippie culture. The desire for a unified world, where no individual dominates or disrupts the field, exists both as the organizing principle and underlying message of much of Hippie art. Thus, no individual part of the work disrupts the plane’s harmony. This even visual flow over a single frame often appears as the guiding design principle in psychedelic posters and artworks. Artists such as Wes Wilson,


Found via the internet. The issue apparently dates from October 1967.


who produced posters for The Grateful Dead in the 1960s and 1970s, composed their images to avoid conflict between the textual, figural, and psychedelic elements. In a poster from 1967, Wilson has warped the text to create the frame’s contours. He then composed the figures within the contours so that they would appear to flow together. Some of the figures’ lines, such as the three faces on the bottom right, require lines from the rest of the poster to make sense. The poster‘s overall composition implies a wholeness caused by the summation of the parts. This relates to the idea, as identified by Country Joe, Bob Dylan, and countless others, that human strength comes from unity and an obligation to every other person. Punk art, however, uses a different organizational scheme. Punk graphic arts rely heavily on collage as a means of formal organization, and collage by its nature negates the smooth-lined integration that appears in planar art. The creation of art through the integration of disparate objects implies a completely different method of envisioning the poster. Whereas Wilson’s posters imply an interest in how lines integrate smoothly with one another, posters for Punk bands use collage to show their interest in how uneasy and fractured the picture plane can appear. For example, a poster from a Dead Kennedys/Avengers/Sudden Fun/Young Adults concert uses collaged elements to create a ruthlessly absurd image (Fig. 8). In the image, a skeleton (possibly a reference to fellow San Francisco natives The Grateful Dead) with comically long arms and lungs still intact stands in front of a


dehorned rhinoceros.23 The artist has pieced the band names together from various sources (in different sizes and fonts), referencing the intentional confusion of ransom notes. The textures of the black and white images overlap and imply difference, as in the juxtaposition of the bones and the rhino’s flesh. Every contrast within the image sets the viewer’s teeth on edge, refusing to allow the viewer a moment of comfort. This unsettling conglomeration of images seeks to remind the viewer that the graphic plane is composed of many parts that the artist has joined together. Every individual element within the plane takes on an importance and asserts its difference even as it conforms to a larger whole. The graphic plane itself comes to represent the fractured social fabric, the friction, and the disharmony that Punks embraced in their shows, interactions, and music. Much of this disharmony created by the work comes from the competition of individual elements within the image. The artist has arranged the text, for example, to conflict with the image in several places. The words “Dead” and “Kennedys” (taken from three separate sources) block out the neck portion of the rhinoceros. Unlike the more balanced interactions of the circles in Blowin’ in the Mind, the text and the rhinoceros vie for viewer’s focus. This comes from a deliberate tension created by the artist through the arrangement of the elements. Despite their presence and juxtaposition on the same page, the elements assembled


One should not that The Dead Kennedys


by the artist never appear to belong together. Rather, they act like the Punk experience itself. At first glance, Punks look like a unified group of people, perhaps like the Hippies in their counter-cultural ways. After close examination, however, one recognizes the individual nature of each Punk. As with the elements assembled for the collage, the similarities between each Punk underscore the differences. Thus, major differences in Punk art and Hippie art stem from different understandings of the relationship of the individual to the group. The Hippie creation of harmonious images comes from the movement’s emphasis on the unity of humanity. Conversely, the Punk movement’s obsession with disharmony comes from the movement’s complicated understanding of the individual’s place as a free entity within a group. Each individual retains their own style (within a culture-specific set of parameters), their freedom to associate with different groups within the Punk scene, and their ability to directly engage other groups and individuals within the subculture. This contrasts in degree and importance with the qualities espoused by many leaders, artists, and musicians within the Hippie movement. As such, the formal qualities of the graphic arts of the two movements adhered to two different modes of representation: plane and collage. Though they both fall under the label of “counterculture,” the two cultures attempted to create two different visions of the future. The Hippie movement envisioned a future where all people joined together into a seamless society, whereas the Punk movement saw a future full of individuals bound together


by common purpose and simultaneously embraced the idea of inter- and intracultural conflict. Punks felt that a coalescence of individuals need not lead to harmony, and that individual elements must still emerge from a larger pattern.


Be Who You Are: Jocks and Punk Art Ever since I can remember, the fight to maintain individuality has been the driving force of my existence…High School was a major lesson in social retardation. The only escape from that banality was music and art. - Dez Cadena, original lead singer of Black Flag 24 Jocks verses Punks Make your whole life revolve around sports/Walk tough-don't act too smart Be a mean machine/Then we'll let you get ahead… Pep rally in the holy temple/And you're forced to go Masturbate en masse/With the favored religious cult Cheerleaders yell-"Ra Ra Team"/From the locker room parades the prime beef -Jock-o-Rama, The Dead Kennedys While the Jock culture of the 1970s and 1980s did not leave behind a coherent body of visual art, we can infer its impression on Punk culture from the music and writings from the time. In fact, the idea of this idealized, ‘all-American’ culture as an enemy owes much to the Punk perspective. Whereas Punks regarded themselves as individuals who came together of their own free will to create a new cultural movement, Punk culture portrays Jocks culture in the opposite light. Most accounts of Jocks (usually in song lyrics) portray them as highly conformist, sports-playing dullards. In their song Jock-o-Rama, The Dead Kennedys describe a culture of coerced support for the school and the system of conformity that the school represents. Jocks, they say, represent a dampening of individual spirit and agency. In essence, Jock culture aimed to produce more Jocks who

Brian Ray Turcotte and Christopher T. Miller. Fucked Up + Photocopied: Instant Art of the Punk Rock Movement. Hong Kong: Kill Your Idols, 2002. 90. Cadena sang for Black Flag from 1980 to 1983.



could further support the system in an endless and (to Punks) inane-seeming system. Books such as Fast Times at Ridgemont High 25 by Cameron Crowe also paint Jocks (and would-be Jocks) as completely self-involved and unconcerned with the outside world. For example, this youth-oriented culture based its social hierarchies on employment by fast food restaurants. Brad, a main character, loses his social status when he loses his job at a Carl’s Jr. and becomes a social outcast. Many popular Jock characters spend their hours planning school events, spirit days, and attending Associated Student Body meetings. While all social hierarchies are a bit arbitrary, Punks refused to allow the institution to determine their worth. In a strange irony, LA Punks responded to this not by changing the system but by reacting against it. If Jocks wear immaculate clothes, Punks must then wear torn clothes; if Jocks avoid piercing, Punks must pierce their noses, ears, and eyebrows. This opposition and reaction led Punks to feel ‘otherized’ by Jock culture, and to a degree they were justified in this feeling. Bret Easton Ellis’ book Less Than Zero, for example, tells the story of a disaffected Jock named Clay who returns from the East Coast to LA for winter vacation. Much of the book paints a bleak picture of the drug abuse and the lack of direction that many Jocks, now out of high school, feel without the social structure and hierarchy imposed by the school system.


Crowe, Cameron. Fast Times at Ridgemont High. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981.


The book also depicts the LA Punk subculture of the mid-1980s as a population that existed outside of the rich and pathetic world of the Jock. A minor character, Spit, shows the ‘otherness’ of Punks as perceived by Jocks. Spit, a token Punk invited to all the Jock parties because of his connection to the band Fear, never connects with the Jocks. In one scene, the narrator gives us his first impression of Spit: “…and Spit has really pale skin…and short greasy hair and a skull earring and dark circles under his eyes…” 26 This description of the character shows that the narrator’s first thoughts turn to the Punk’s the obvious differences in appearance. By virtue of his style, Spit consciously places himself outside the Jock world. Though the cycle is self-inflicted, Punks never the less felt otherized by the Jock world. Fig. 9 27 illustrates the Punk view of the Jock culture. According to the poster, Jock men wear iZod shirts and boat shoes, and Jock women wear too much makeup and jewelry. The fact that Punks could identify these elements as a type of uniform indicates that the clothing symbolically represented affluence to other Jocks. This method of communicating with one’s in-group and outgroup through clothing often occurs in collectivist cultures. Punks attempted to distance themselves from what they perceived as a stifling of individual agency. Punks thus attempted to create a subculture that promoted individual expression and individual involvement.

26 27

Ellis, Bret Easton. Less Than Zero. Toronto: Penguin Books, 1985. 79 Apparantly a poster for a band called Justified Hate, produced in 1980.


Of course, most students who played sports during that time were not drug abusers, failures, or mindless conformists as Ellis and The Dead Kennedys suggest. However, this ‘reality’ has little to do with the way Punks perceived Jocks. Whatever the accuracy of the Punk accounts of Jock life, the idea of the Jock (much more than the actuality) influenced Punk culture and art. Many Punks remembered, above all else, the boredom and unhappiness of their high school years clearly, especially as they related to more popular in-groups. Brian Brannon, of the Arizona group JFA, recalls that his high school’s entire football team stood in line to beat him up for wearing a shirt that said ‘JOCKS SUCK.’ “By third period, they had gathered in roving packs which I casually avoided contact with….The ruckus finally subsided when the shirt was ripped completely off my back.” 28 This kind of antagonism and social stratification left its mark on the Punk visual arts. One can trace the intense desire to express the individuality of a band through graphic arts directly to the impact of Jock culture on the young Punks. This section will examine the reactionary individualism that manifested itself in Punk graphic arts. It Feels Good To Say What I Want: Punk and the Creation of Individuals It wasn’t something we did on weekends, we had an agenda. Everyone’s was different, and no one knew quite what it was. We were all trying to ride the same wild horse at once. – Jello Biafra 29 During the 1970s and 1980s, Punks saw the primary American culture as an engine of conformity. Pressed to dress and act a certain way, but compelled
28 29

Turcotte and Miller, 149. Turcotte and Miller, 9.


to adopt their own styles, Punks took their subculture underground. As Nathan Gates, a member of the band The Big Boys, points out, The only time Punk was even mentioned in the media was Mike Wallace commenting sardonically on some footage of pasty, nail headed British Punks sneering, dripping blood from the huge safety pin through their cheek and spitting out teeth. 30 In an era without internet or cellular communications, the Punk scene communicated largely through a highly-stylized graphic medium: the Punk poster. Punk posters obviously contained important information about the show (such as the date, time, location, etc.), but even more, Punks used these posters to communicate the attitude of the band. Each individual poster became a unique expression of the band’s criticism of politics, religion, and society. This ability and desire to express a private opinion comes from a profoundly individualistic streak in Punk culture. A collectivist culture, such as Jock culture, would insist on determining an individual’s opinion for them. Punks refused to allow groupdecisions, opting instead for self-determined expression. Punk posters thus featured many different themes, each designed to attract a different type of audience with different tastes and opinions. Bands such as The Misfits, The Necros, and The Mad had a penchant for featuring skulls and morbid scenes on their posters. The posters reflected the type of lyrical content or image that the band wanted to portray. This attracted a particular segment of the movement that leaned towards more violent, energetic music. Smaller bands such as San Francisco’s Regan Youth and Special Forces contracted a company

Turcotte and Miller, 160.


called D.M.R Productions to create hand-drawn posters that put the bands’ personalities on display. These posters appealed to Punks who liked do-it-yourself bands that played for “a love of the music scene.” 31 For these fans, poorly drawn and photocopied posters symbolized a freedom from the glossy New-Wave and Disco posters that adorned venues. Many Punk bands, however, used their posters to inspire critical thought in their fans. Raymond Pettibon, for example, did much of the graphic work for Black Flag during the late 1970s and early 1980s. His flyers not only communicated the necessary information about the coming show, they also served as the band’s only means of advertisement. In an interview, members of Black Flag recall frantically driving down empty Californian and Midwestern streets, stapling their posters to telephone poles. The band used Pettibon’s distinctive posters to announce the band’s arrival in town and energize the local fans. Every fan knew what a Black Flag poster looked like, and that a new one signified a coming show. This recognizability came from Pettibon’s distinctive visual style. One might place Pettibon’s style within the modern “graphic novel” genre. However, Kristina McKenna, an art critic who specializes in Pettibon’s work, offers another description of Pettibon’s style: “grisly adult cartoons.” 32 Pettibon combined purposely crude, pen-drawn comic book imagery with startling text. On many occasions, Pettibon appropriated the images directly from the comic books of his youth and inserted text that would recontextualize the image. This juxtaposition
31 32

Carol Cross, journalist, quoted in Turcotte and Miller, 45. Claude Bessy, Ed Colver, et al. Forming: The Early Days of LA Punk. New York: Smart Art Press, 1999. 36


forces the viewer to confront the meaning of the work, the viewer’s relationship to the implicit and explicit messages embedded in the work, and the band’s relationship to that meaning. The carefully chosen images require the viewer to personally interpret the meaning of each poster and hold an opinion on the meaning of its content. Each of these provocative comics attempts to challenge the viewer’s understanding of the poster’s subject by creating an ambiguous juxtaposition of text and image. This challenge, and the growth of critical opinion that it inspires, becomes Pettibon’s and Black Flag’s main interest. The act of deciphering one of these posters requires a series of individualized connections and interpretations. Every reader will bring different information to their interpretation, and thus one must digest and understand the posters from a personal stance. In essence, Pettibon causes the viewer to exercise their agency by creating works that force the viewers to generate opinions. Personal opinion, an outgrowth of a sense of self, thus creates a more individual subculture. His posters accomplish this by creating ambiguities that compel the viewer to have their own ideas about the work’s meaning or subject, thus increasing the diversity and complexity of the individual’s own thought. On one poster, for example, Pettibon appears to have drawn an image from a romance comic. The poster features the phrase “One of the best things about war is…LOVE” at the top, and shows a cartoon navy serviceman about to passionately kiss a woman. (Fig. 10). The drawing and text force the viewer to question the image in a num-


ber of ways. Based on the degree of ambiguity between the text and image, a group of viewers might differ entirely on their meanings. First, one viewer might contemplate the relationship between the text and the image. They might ask if there really are “best things” about war, or if love and war are directly related. Another viewer might wonder about the source of the image. Did the image come from a comic, or did Pettibon create the image from his own memory? Did they see the same image in a comic book, or do they simply remember seeing the image? Another viewer can ask whether the poster is actually serious, or whether it makes an ironic statement about the romance of war. Any of these interpretations sufficiently address the visual information. Yet, by keeping the relationship of the poster’s elements purposely confused, no individual can override the opinions of others, and no one can lay claim to the authoritative interpretation that one might find in Jock culture. Pettibon designed the poster to refuse to yield any clues about his intended message, as this would preclude discussion and inhibit the creation of the viewer’s opinion. If one knew how the artist felt about the piece, one might default to their interpretation instead of creating one’s own. The questions raised by this poster allow the individual to exercise their ability to form opinions, a quality that American’s prize as an individual right. The emphasis on selfdetermined opinions in Punk art demonstrate the importance of free expression and individual thought within the movement.


Conclusion The Punk subculture during the 1970s and 1980s was large, diverse, conflicted, and riddled with irony. In a larger sense, though, the movement concerned itself with reestablishing the individual’s relationship to society. In the lull between the end of Nixon’s time as President and the start of Ronald Regan’s second term, the people who participated in this movement asserted themselves as individuals. Their reactions against Rock and Roll mega-bands, Hippies, and Jocks represent the struggle of a group to identify their place in history, or even embrace their lack of location in history. In either case, their subculture and visual culture made history.


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