Studies in perspective
Ai Weiwei, Study of Perspective - Tiananmen Square (1995-2003) 

September 6, 2012

American Punk's Unheralded Impact
by James Panero

Political art is usually terrible—rotten in message and form—or good but with a beauty that misleads. "The Death of Marat," Jacques-Louis David's 1793 painting of the French revolutionary murdered in his bathtub by Charlotte Corday, may be his masterpiece, but its politics led to the guillotine. Reproduced by the Jacobins, "Marat" became an image used to incite The Terror.

Following David's example, political art has mainly meant the seduction of art by the state. In the 20th century, Communism and Fascism each used art to destroy art. The Italian Futurists, the Mexican Muralists and the Russian Suprematists advanced regimes that sought to oppress the freedoms that had given rise to their artistic champions.

Meanwhile in the free world, with a few notable exceptions, art that has been "politically engaged" has most often been directed against those who defend freedom while either ignoring or praising those who oppose it. The 2011 Venice Biennale offered one recent example. There the artistic duo Allora and Calzadilla instructed an athlete to run on a treadmill atop an overturned allied tank as a parody of U.S. power. This installation, mockingly called "Gloria," was sponsored by our own State Department. Or politics has been used as a selling point, offering art with the illusion of controversy while merely reiterating the assumptions of the buying public. Consider the spray-can polemics of Shepard Fairey, who, through a political publicist, designed the "Hope" and "Progress" posters for candidate Obama in 2007 and 2008.

The latest wave of political art has proved the exception to the rule. With charged political works, the Chinese conceptual artist Ai Weiwei and the Russian performance artists of Pussy Riot are bad for good reasons. By broadcasting the abuses of the authoritarian states in which they live with work that can be aggressive and crude, they have shown that political art can be more than just another form of propaganda. It can act against propaganda to become the conscience of reform. The objects of this art may not be masterpieces, but the freedom of this art can be a leading edge advancing the freedom of others.

What connects these artists and distinguishes them from earlier generations is the underrecognized influence of American punk.

The son of Chinese dissidents, Mr. Ai moved to New York in 1981 and enrolled in Parsons School of Design. He primarily lived near East Seventh Street and Second Avenue, where his basement apartment became a hub for Chinese artists plugging into the burgeoning East Village art scene. Mr. Ai spent more than a decade in New York before returning to Beijing in 1993. While his artistic output during this period was modest, it was a formative moment in his career.

Modern history has often been shaped by foreigners absorbing the intellectual culture of the cities of the West. Mr. Ai was fortunate to find himself not in the Marxist circles of Paris but in the alternative punk scene of New York, where he immersed himself in the neighborhood's culture. Through thousands of photographs he took during his stay, many of which were on exhibit at New York's Asia Society a year ago, he documented and studied the city's punk and alternative spirit: from concerts at CBGB's and the Pyramid Club to the East Village's colorful street life and the social unrest of a gentrifying neighborhood.

Back home, Mr. Ai directed against the Chinese Communist Party the punk tactics that he saw protesters employ in the Tompkins Square Park riots of 1988—where the New York Police Department overreacted while (justifiably) enforcing a curfew on an Occupy Wall Street-like encampment. As he criticized a government ungoverned by the rule of law—"Kafka's castle," he calls today's China—he used the freedom of art to get his message out while also insulating himself from state reprisal. The avant-garde neighborhood that first attracted him was nicknamed Beijing East Village.

Mr. Ai's artful criticism of the Communist Party has employed every medium at his disposal—from sculpture to Twitter to video to his own body. After a Chinese policeman assaulted him in 2009, an attack that left him with a life-threatening brain injury, Mr. Ai turned the images of his convalescence into a symbol of state brutality—a "Marat" of our own day, but one designed to criticize rather than incite.


Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina of Pussy Riot in the cell in a Moscow courtroom. Photo by Maxim Shemetov

This example is now closely followed by the punk-inspired act Pussy Riot, which was modeled on the feminist punk bands that emerged in the Pacific Northwest during the 1990s, such as the Olympia, Wash.-based band Bikini Kill. Performing in unorthodox—or, rather, ultraorthodox—venues, Pussy Riot has used aggressive lyrics, brash presentation and bold-colored balaclavas to broadcast its dissent.

As is by now widely known, in February three of its performers—Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich—briefly performed a "punk prayer" in front of the altar at Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. With a song that appealed to the Virgin Mary to "cast Putin out," the women, documented on video, protested the co-opting of the church by the Russian state. After a show trial this summer, they were each sentenced last month to two years in prison. The images of them imprisoned in a glass cage during their trial, broadcast to the world, have now become icons illuminating the corruption of the Orthodox Church and the thugocracy of Vladimir Putin.

Punk is politically antidoctrinaire. While many who follow punk hew to the left, Johnny Ramone, one of the founders of the seminal punk band The Ramones, called Ronald Reagan the "best President of my lifetime." What they all share is an art of provocation, an antiauthoritarian philosophy and the energy to put their skepticism to the test.

While at times misused within Western culture, the mixture when employed against oppressive regimes can be potent. In 2011, after the Chinese government apprehended Mr. Ai and held him for 81 days in two secret locations, the Communist Party charged him with everything from tax evasion to harboring pornography. "You criticized the government," his jailers told him, "so we are going to let all society know that you're an obscene person, you evaded taxes, you have two wives, we want to shame you."

Yet as Ai Weiwei and Pussy Riot have demonstrated, the art of individuals can also shame entire states. Their work has brought international attention to oppression and become a rallying point for internal dissent. And for that we should all say a prayer for punk.

A version of this article appeared September 6, 2012, on page D6 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: American Punk's Unheralded Impact. This essay is adapted from a longer article in The New Criterion's September issue.

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