The Punk Aesthetic

Phil Ford

I’ve been a bit absent for the past week or so — our stuff finally got to Bloomington, and I’ve been unpacking. I’m still not really here. So as a placeholder, I’ll quote something from a book I’ve been reading lately — David Thomson’s New Biographical Dictionary of Film. I picked it up for a few bucks at a used bookstore and have been wolfing down Thomson’s brilliant miniature essays like peanuts. I don’t always agree with him — he is one of those people whose aesthetics are basically dualistic, shaped at bottom by a sense that style and content are at times antagonistic and threaten to part company, and that, at such times, we should prefer the latter over the former. (I have written about this idea before. Suffice it to say, I don’t completely agree.) But his essays describe various persons and personas vividly and with economy; even more, Thomson in is able to use those person(a)s to illustrate basic historical and aesthetic problems of film — which are, mutatis mutandis, problems of art more generally.

An entry on Harmony Korine, for instance, becomes a meditation on what Thomson calls “minimalism,” by which he means a voluntary poverty of image, an abstention from artifice and ornament. Musicians tend to understand minimalism in terms of repetition — for example in Robert Fink’s masterful book, Repeating Ourselves. The idea of an aesthetic “vow of chastity,” explicit in the Dogme 95 movement, is also implicit in punk: there is in both Dogme films and punk records a sense that there is something sinful about artifice, something corrupt in it that mirrors the corruption of society at large. So what Thomson calls minimalism I would rather call the punk aesthetic, but whatever you call it, Thomson’s bit on it strikes me as particularly clear-eyed. For one thing, he understands that while the punk aesthetic is usually associated with some variant or other of anarcho-Marxist leftism, it is fundamentally a reactionary stance.

There’s no wonder at the appeal of minimalism in an age of budgets over $100 million, of astonishing special effects and a widening gap between the harsh realities in which most people exist and the daft fantasies they are supposed to aspire to. But minimalism can grow out of political anger, a critique of capitalism, stylistic austerity, or a kind of numb, pretentious helplessness that sees the irony in a copy of Voguefloating on the toxic surface of a full latrine. A genuine political dismay would be best advised to go into politics, to change things that way. But the aesthetic response—the urge, say, to make Dogme-like films, or simply to record the passing of unending human disaster—can seem cold and exploitative. In the end, what is the point of minimalism if it only works in the dark?That said, minimalism can be a desperate attempt to hold on to real place, real time, and nature in the broadest sense against the infernal electronic possibilities of change. There is a great need for movies, or for film, that simply record real like and asks us to attend.

There are astonishing beauties in distance and duration, as Renoir, Mizoguchi, Dreyer, and so many great masters believed.

This is a lot more sympathy — and therefore much better writing — than I could have managed on the same topic.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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10 Responses to The Punk Aesthetic

  1. Matthew says:

    I think you could also make the case that these sorts of aesthetic movements are attempts to recapture some sense of the excitement and energy of genres, vocabularies, or mediums when they were new—the Dogme crowd trying to rediscover the wonder of pictures that move, even musical minimalists recreating the “newness” of tonality. I always loved punk rock because it sounded like early rock and roll must have sounded to my parents in the 50s. At first I wondered if it was accidental, but The Clash made it pretty explicit, and after all, two of Sid Vicious’s three solo singles were Eddie Cochran covers.

  2. Eric says:

    A specter is haunting rock musicology – the specter of punk adoration. I find it rather remarkable the degree to which punk is hailed by academics (and I mean MUSICLOGISTS not the bozo-pomo-cultural-studies types) as ‘authentic’ and ‘the shit’ when the whole progressive rock movement is all but ignored and deemed irrelevant. Let me be clear, I enjoy or at least understand the aesthetic and cultural motives of VU, Television, Patti Smith, Ramones, Pistols, Clash, etc, but when I compare the QUALITY of their MUSIC to bands like ELP and Rush, there is simply no comparison. Punk is yet another rather pedestrian example of American–and I guess British–anti-intellectualism: kids who think it more ‘real’ to be loud and vulgar than to search for a new kind of musical statement within the rock vocabulary. Why do academics validate this stuff? Why not attempt to share with students and fellow scholars the intricate workings of those rock bands that attempted to take rock music to the outer limits?
    By the way, if you do like Prog, you have to check out the Battles latest release – unbelievable! Just when I thought rock was dead this album came along and proved me wrong.

  3. Phil Ford says:

    Actually, I’ve always thought that musicology and music theory are the only places you’ll find more attention paid to prog than punk. (Cultural studies is another matter.) This summer there was a remarkably protracted AMS-List debate on 1970s popular music (mostly disco), which generally showed a lot more sympathy for prog than for punk, and included sentiments similar to yours. Prog, after all, is/was the kind of rock that places the most emphasis on formal/linear/textural complexity, which is the sort of thing that most readily repays transcription and analysis.
    And I also suspect that a lot of musicologists with a soft spot for prog were classical players in high school and tended to seek out the kind of rock that had the most in common with the music they played. I know that this was true in my case . . . I was very big into King Crimson and Frank Zappa in high school.
    Punk, while self-consciously primitive (“minimalist,” as Thomson would have it) in its musical means, embodies a certain strain of avant-garde aesthetics and social theory that appeals to bookish people. An English major will get excited by the fact that Patti Smith name-checks Rimbaud; a music major will get excited that Frank Zappa name-checks Edgard Varese.

  4. Jonathan says:

    If I’m not mistaken, Prog was an INDUSTRY for almost a decade–stadium shows and the whole business (I well remember the televised ELP-at-Ontario Motor Speedway, a half-hour from my house.) Did Punk sell that many records?
    There will always be that segment of humanity that wants to DO something about music it likes: collect it, explain it, dissect it. That’s most of us, right? People who intellectualize Punk and early Rock and so on probably respond to it viscerally, the energy and rebellion and perhaps even the rage, and immediately set about examining why they do. A kind of inflation of value may be an unavoidable part of the game, here, but who among us isn’t guilty of that?
    Name-checks: people whose tastes lie outside the mainstream rejoice at finding validation (“Hey! Secret message! Sting likes Nabokov too!” “The Left Banke are using Lydian mode in ‘Pretty Ballerina’!”) tucked into mass-market products. Ultimately, though, how far does that get anyone? For intellectuals and the broad consuming public alike, we shouldn’t underestimate the basic: How The Sound Makes You Feel.

  5. Galen says:

    I’m not a student of the history of Punk, so to a certain extent what I’m about to say is a sort of trial balloon, wondering if the people who are students of the movement think I’m heading in the right direction.
    It seems to me that a lot of the “punk sucks, prog rocks” stems from a misunderstanding of the conceptual underpinnings of punk. If you listen to punk through the aesthetic value system of prog rock punk is going to sound bad, but that’s because much of the aesthetic appeal of punk (as with Minimalism) is the concept and ideology behind the sonic elements rather than just the sonic elements themselves.
    Punk Rock is the musical manifestiation of an ideology — that music should be egalitarian, that the implied cultural optimism and decadance of the dominant culture is bad for society, etc. Punk is stripped down in order to symbolize rejection of the decadent status quo and in order to amateurize it. Having a genre of music where the basic musical elements are simple enough that amateurs can form bands is very egalitarian. Having a DIY style and aesthetic divorces fashion and art from the need for wealth, and creates a system where authenticity is defined as non-elitist and working-class and individualistic, in contrast to the percieved dominant culture of elitism, aspirations of class mobility, and conformist. Hearing Punk Rock without this conceptual framework is hearing it wrong.
    Also, I think it’s quite wrong to hear Punk as anti-intellectual. The social environment it came out of was actually highly intellectual, and the stripped down sound of Punk is really about critizing the shallow pseudointellectualism of complexity for its own sake. Whis, whether you agree with it or not, is a fairly subtle intellectual goal. That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t subsequently adopted by anti-intellecutals who misunderstood it, but that’s very different from saying that Punk proper was anti-intellectual.

  6. Matthew says:

    My own experience as a high-school classical player was that prog rock’s musical quality was diminished in comparison—the difference between ELP playing “Fanfare for the Common Man” and ELP playing an ELP song was, for me, the difference between Camembert and Cheez Whiz (apologies to any Cheez Wiz fans out there). A lot of prog rock seemed to equate power with length and instrumental saturation; punk rock got it right, I think—the power of rock is in thematic concision and rhythmic incisiveness. The only prog group I ever really liked was Pink Floyd, and I think it’s because their songwriting sensibility was closer to the 3-minute radio-ready pop song than the interminable 20-minute modal jam.
    And to pick up on something that Galen said: it’s not only that punk came out of an intellectual environment, it’s that the effect of the music was an intellect-neutral tabula rasa: the direct, unadorned nature allowed the listener to bring as much or as little intellect to bear on the listening experience as they liked. Personally, I find the fact that Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious were able to find a common musical discourse a greater testament to music’s universality than the fact that the Moody Blues made an album with the London Symphony Orchestra.

  7. Eric says:

    I think the ideology behind much of the early punk stuff was rather phony or at least somewhat hypocritical. The first Ramones release was on Sire which was part of (or soon became part of) Warner Brothers: Where’s the rebellion in THAT? Also, The Pistols we’re on EMI: How rebellious is THAT? And don’t even get me started with the Clash. Also, Blondie became a POP ACT, Billy Idol became a POP ACT, and I could go on. Don’t get me wrong: (1) I like the music, (2) I don’t care if they sold out—I have a working theory that every band eventually sells out. But I have recently evaluated popular music solely in terms of its MUSCIAL merit (no cultural tie-ins), and in this aspect, much of this punk stuff is banal (not bad, just typical).
    Last point and I’ll shut up. In the Rock Music history course that I teach, I struggled for years to get across to students why Television was such a significant band; and then it hit me one day: The reason I cannot say anything about the band, is because there’s nothing interesting about the group. Musically they’re fine, but very “inside,” and culturally, they’re not crazy or angry enough to be interesting. In short, with punk it’s all about the scene and not about the music, and so with Television there’s nothing to say. By the way, the tune that always hits a home run is “Bodies” by the Sex Pistols; now THAT’S punk!
    To me punk and minimalism have nothing in common: the thoughtful minimalism of Reich and Glass is grounded in discipline and rigor, and is not some angry knee-jerk reaction by some kid who hates his parents and carries a loaded gun to school.
    Hey, at what age should one stop teaching courses in popular music; I’m 40 and I’m starting to feel conspicuous teaching pop (I have a nagging feeling that I should teach something ‘noble’ like jazz or Western classical music)? But, I love this shit!

  8. Matthew says:

    Who cares what label they were on? Did “Einstein on the Beach” become less intellectually valid when it was re-released on CBS Masterworks?

  9. Steve says:

    Given your comment, I don’t think you understand the issue at hand.

  10. ben wolfson says:

    Really, the whole prog/punk dichotomy is vastly oversimplified. (This interview: http://www.elephant-talk.com/wiki/Interview_with_Robert_Fripp_and_Joe_Strummer_in_Musician would be sort of hard to conceive of otherwise.) (Though I also have to admit that it’s always amusing to see someone righteously decry punk and praise to high heavens … ELP and Rush, bands that are really not all that interesting (disclaimer: I say that mostly in ignorance of their work). They were extremely popular in their time and have become the best-known representatives of a highly disunified “style”, to its disadvantage; there are innumerable bands from the 70s onward that get grouped under the banner “progressive” or “prog” that are much more interesting, some of which really couldn’t be imagined without punk’s having intervened.)
    And, really, can you deny that bands like Television or Gang of Four contained skilled players?

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