oh so pretty: how punk influenced visual culture
To celebrate the release of 'Oh So Pretty: Punk in Print 1976-80' – an unrivalled collection of artifacts and ephemera from Toby Mott’s punk archive – we share an exclusive passage by writer Rick Poynor on the graphic anarchy and DIY spirit that caused...
Improbable as it might once have seemed, forty years after it snarled into public consciousness via the scandalized media, punk has become part of Britain's cultural heritage. It is as inseparable from our national identity as the long-serving Queen it once dared to skewer with a safety pin. That anti-establishment gesture looks almost lovably eccentric now, like a warped kind of affection.
In the story commonly told today, punk gave the UK a vigorous and necessary shaking. Its blast of DIY anarchy flushed out the pipes to allow a whoosh of creativity that spread from music (though punk was never only about the music) into the arts, fashion, and media worlds of the 1980s and beyond.
As I write, a year-long program of events titled Punk London — supported by the Mayor's office — is celebrating the supposedly catalytic influence of punk 'in all its ragged glory.' A house in Denmark Street where the Sex Pistols once lived has been awarded listed-building status on the advice of Historic England. Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren's son, Joe Corré, was in the news for threatening to burn his collection of punk memorabilia in protest against these signs that a movement that despised bloated convention had been stripped of its offensive barbs and repackaged as a cosy landmark moment in national pop culture.
Toby Mott's collection captures the life cycle of early British punk from its turbulent inception to its swift assimilation. A record of British printed material, much of it from London, where Mott lived, its documentary value as cultural and sociological evidence is obvious enough. For those who weren't there at the time, these relics give a vivid impression of punk's abrasive and uncompromising style. For those who were, they are charged with fond memories.
Yet they are also graphic artifacts now deemed worthy of display in exhibitions and published collections like this one. Punk's telltale devices — rough photocopied images, hand-drawn letters, ransom note lettering, crudely cut and torn edges — have become a category in the history of graphic style, where they are seen to represent a deliberate flouting of the rules of professional practice.
For the punks who put together fanzines and flyers, this categorization may be highly questionable. Some of these raucous 'sites of resistance' (as academics have dubbed them) may have looked as they did, not in order to make any particular point, but because that was all that could be achieved using limited reprographic resources. Their makers cared about the subject matter — the bands and the music — rather than the relatively arcane question of the meaning of graphic style.
It was in new wave design that punk's boiling energy would be distilled into subtler kinds of graphic stimulant. From Dada and Surrealism to Pop Art and the 1960s' counterculture, collage, and photomontage were the most potent tools for cutting up reality and constructing revelatory alternatives.
Photomontage by Dawn Ades, art historian and expert on Surrealism, was published as a paperback in 1976, offering punk agitators a crash course in the history and practice of radical image making. Linder Sterling, already cutting up pictures when the book appeared, has spoken about the confidence it gave her to pursue this technique of visual engineering. An early outcome was the naked woman with mouths for nipples and an iron for a head used in 1977 in Malcolm Garrett's design for Buzzcocks' "Orgasm Addict" single and poster, one of punk's most memorable images.
It has become routine to look back wistfully at punk from our increasingly monitored and corporate world and see it as a halcyon interlude when the audience took charge of its own culture. The familiarity of the sentiment doesn't make it any less pressing.
Punk was a moment of social and cultural insubordination when the established ways of forming a band, writing a song, dressing in the street, or laying out a page or a flyer were thrown aside. The crucial thing was to participate, to make your own scene and not meekly accept what the market decided you should consume. Now that the X-Factorized music business is more controlling and deterministic than ever, punk's core message is even more urgent.
An authentic living culture should have DIY entwined in its DNA. Toby Mott's collection is raw, messy, and seething with life. It's both an arresting document of what happened and an incitement to seize the moment, reject the obvious choices, find some like-minded collaborators and construct something challenging and new.
A special exhibition of punk ephemera from the collection of Toby Mott is on display at the John Varvatos Conduit Street store, London until Monday, October 17. Oh So Pretty: Punk in Print 1976-80 is out now.
Text Rick Poynor