Friday, August 13, 2010

rock post rock

This post on the Washington City Paper Arts Desk got me thinking about movements in the arts and the ways in which people identify with them.

The article is about a punk band consisting of ten-to-twelve-year-old kids. The title of the article asserts that these kids are "the best new punk band in D.C." The author hedges a bit later on by saying that The Black Sparks "...won over the crowd as well as any legitimate new punk band I’ve seen."

So maybe they're not the best; they're just as good as the rest.

Anyway, hyperbole aside, this leads me to a question: Are there actually any legitimate punk bands that formed after, say, 1983?

Certainly we could posit a number of different timelines and genealogies for a punk era in popular music...but I think most of them would terminate somewhere in the mid-1980s, after the splintering of the movement into various forms: Post-punk; hardcore; indie, industrial, dance, or experimental rock hybrids.

Any band playing buzzsawing bar chords in a stripped-down two-minutes-or-less format from that point on seems to me to be attempting a period style revival, and is not participating in a vernacular form with any forward momentum or vitality connected to the present historical moment.

Saying that a current band of pre-tweens is the "best new punk band" is a bit like asserting that the "best new Impressionist painter" is an American. It's neither here nor there because there are no new Impressionist painters, merely painters who like or emulate the long-since-ended movement of Impressionism.

You can be in a jazz big band in 2010...but you can't be a part of the Swing Era, because that ended sometime in the late 1940s.

People at Renaissance festivals do not actually live in the Renaissance.

Now I can see some objections to this: If the demarcation where punk rock ends is really only 25 or so years ago, it may be possible that there are late adherents still around who, while operating past the moment of real vitality, still have some grasp of/relation to the present moment. Art schools are full of painting professors who produce work as if it were still 1960, or earlier, and as if a kind of hermetically sealed academic abstraction--referring only to the painter's practice, and to a small number of painters living and working a half a century ago--had some bearing on what's happening in contemporary galleries today.

The problem with this thought is that the members of The Black Sparks were not even alive in the 1970s or '80s.

Another thought: When does a tag refer to a practice and not merely an historical period? Conceptual Art, for example, existed as a movement with a definite roster of adherents and champions from the mid-1960s to about 1972. After that period, we encounter Post-Conceptualism, then institutional critique...yet artists working today can still have their practices described as conceptual, and this is accepted. Conceptual, it would seem, can be an historical reference, or it can be a strategy or procedure.

So what about punk? Earlier, I referred to buzzsawing guitars in a two minute format; of course, not all music made during the Punk era fits this formula--see the ten minute duelling guitar solos of Television; see the synthesizer-plus-vocals-and-nothing-else music of Suicide.

So what features can we meaningfully talk about? If one calls a band a punk band, does this merely mean that the band exhibits a DIY aesthetic outside of the mainstream industry? Couldn't that be attached to any countercultural movement in the last fifty years or so?

I think that categories, hierarchies, and genealogies are not only useful but necessary when talking about music or art. But I'm fascinated by how fluid all of these can be at the margins--what artists almost but don't quite make the roster of a given movement? Who made work that seemed to prefigure a later movement, but which was essentially invisible to the standards of critics of that day? And how the heck did I get to all of these questions via a pre-tween rock band that might or might not plausibly be called punk?


Blogger Mark Cameron Boyd said...

Great Friday the Thirteenth post!
While I agree mostly w your epistemic approach, I want to interject that theoretical applications are still valid - in music or art - if things are carried forward. Haven't seen Black Sparks yet & not sure I will (don't relish the looks their 'tween fans will give an oldster amongst 'em) but there are bands who've moved punk forward. For instance the late &lamented Rocket fromthe Crypt added horns to great effect; Los Campesinos! use that buzzsaw guitar as seasoning to their above-average lyrics; I could go on but my cell battery needs charging.
Suffice to paraphrase Kosuth - there's "SCA" (stylistic conceptual art) out there, yes, but there's also Real Deal still.

10:36 AM  
Anonymous R. Bettmann said...

I'm a choreographer, and much of this conversation applies in the dance world. Modern dance emerged in the early 20th century. Can I still be doing modern dance? It's a hundred years later. If they were doing modern then, can my work possibly still be modern today?

The work of nijinska in the 1890's for diaghilev is modern by every definition, but I have never seen her cited as a founder of modern dance.

Marketing may undermine reality, and value, but it need not with appropriate counter-pressures in place. I appreciate your vision in helping us see past our veils.

5:37 PM  

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