When the cultural history of the Twentieth Century comes to be written with more hindsight than our generation can provide, punk rock will surely be perceived as one of its most vital and significant cultural manifestations. Panic Attack! - Art in the Punk Years at London's Barbican tends to bear out this contention.
Patti Smith once said that art +electricity=rock'n'roll. This is partially the case. Punk came about when they added bad attitude, rebel yell, and a fresh visualization of what constituted style to that mix. Punk was outsider music and outsider lifestyle, often lived or created by bona fide outsiders.
If one feels that punk rock is an art form - as opposed to being a branch of showbiz - one must reach the conclusion that all the major punk acts came from the States. The Brits like to put a jingoistic spin on it, wherein they "invented" punk, but most so-called UK punk acts were, at best, second division bar bands. London contributed the mohawk, gobbing, and slam dancing to the cultural brew. The dancing was a great thing which grew up to be moshing and the mohawk was even better.
The Sex Pistols did have a smidgen of cultural consequence but The Clash were an oh-so-typically British assertion. A career littered with hit singles accompanied by lots of huffing and puffing about how right-on and extreme they were which was backed up by music sometimes no more threatening than Haircut 100.
The musical roots of the New York art punk movement, as manifested by people like Richard Hell, The Ramones, and Patti Smith, are nicely reflected in Panic Attack!, one of the most inspirational and poignant collections I've seen in a while.
I was lucky enough to live in an art-orientated city - Dublin - at the time when punk happened, a time during which most of the art in this show was created. I saw early shows by loads of now-iconic punks. I was at Dark Space - 24 Hours, a groundbreaking 24 hour art event at the Project Arts Centre which featured the first performance by Public Image, an early showcase for the Virgin Prunes, and the first mainstream appearance of U2. Dark Space was utterly an art thing - as opposed to being a multi band bill ‚Äìfeaturing films, performance art, and visual art. The Prunes, in particular, were always more successful as a Situationist art experience than they were as a band, punk rock or otherwise.
Punk was an inclusive community. The only reason I was in Dublin was because I was studying history at UCD but, by the middle of 1978 I was getting to know inner city punky junkies, involved in altercations with members of the Black Catholic gang, and participating at punk gigs where kids were being stabbed to death and poetry was being recited over the noise of chainsaws. Still later I saw scuffles between lesbian feminists and supporters of the painter Michael Arbuckle at an event where he was doing an installation. I stumbled into an exciting posse of talented National School of Art and Design-centred people like fashion entrepreneur Frank McQuaid, artists Shane Cullen, Arbuckle, Martin Folan, photographer Eilish McCarrick, and designer Michael Rynne. Swarming around people like these, and similar characters working in music, were a range of wild side fags, women, and junkies who constituted a powerful and influential scene. The potency of that cultural brew in Dublin at that time is shown by that fact that it was from that world, as opposed to the increasingly limp-as-a-Dali clock London scene, that the behemoth which is U2 emerged.
Panic Attack! reflects those times and those attitudes with great intelligence and accuracy. Nan Goldin's photographs (above) remind me of so many weird scenes which I saw with my own eyes. The same can be said of work by Mark Morrisroe, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jenny Holzer and Cindy Sherman. Punk, in all its manifestations, allowed independent women, tough fags, and talented junkies to have their hour in the sun. Panic Attack! reflects that hip new freedom and clarity of purpose.
There are a few minor quibbles. Most of the British work, like the local music scene, is at best plodding. Was Derek Jarman any good? No, he was a very nice man but he was a third rate talent who'd never have been taken seriously if he hadn't been gay. The same is true of the monotonous Gilbert and George. Keith Haring is represented by a pretty humdrum painting. The curators must have searched high and low to find a humdrum Haring. Though room was found for many local middling Brits, no space, dark or otherwise, was put aside for participants in the aforementioned Irish scene.
Lots of the people on show at the Barbican are now dead, many of them because of the ravages which heroin and gay sex brought in their shadow.
The American art world which is predominantly reflected in Panic Attack! was full of emotion, cleverness, impatience, and real bravery. Painting was, in general terms, abandoned in favour of photography, video, collage, performance. If you're in London at any time over the next few months, this is one of the shows you really should go and see.
Panic Attack! - Art in the Punk Years runs until 9 September at the Barbican Art Gallery, London.
Joe Ambrose has written 14 books, including Chelsea Hotel Manhattan and The Fenian Reader. Joe is currently working on his next book, Look at Us Now - The Life and Death of Muammar Ghadaffi, which is an expanded version of a story first published in the anthology CUT UP! Visit Joe's website for all the latest info: JoeAmbrose.co.uk.