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Thu, Sep. 18th, 2008 01:54 pm
Punks and mavericks, fuck off forever!

It's been a week when our own culture -- the decadent, collapsing West -- has been at its ugliest and most insecure. On top of the greed-toppled financial sector, there was Damien Hirst calling himself a "punk" and John McCain calling himself a "maverick" and saying economic fundamentals are "strong", before trying desperately to redefine "economic fundamentals", "strong" and "are".



But it's the claim of very rich and conservative people to be "punks" and "mavericks" which really infuriates me. Here's Damien at his Sotheby's auction, where he raised an unprecedented £95m on work he's made -- parodies of his already-kitschy old stuff -- in the last couple of years.

Looking more like Phil Collins than Johnny Rotten, dressed in tummy-bulging Bono-black, with stubby skull rings dotting his stubby greedy piggy fingers, Hirst justifies his obscene wealth with a reference to the massively more socialist and egalitarian Britain of the 1970s.

"I was a punk, I guess," he explains. "I was a bit young to be a punk, I was 12 in '77, but I quite like it when you do things like this. People say you can't do this, you've got to wait to go into an auction house. But I think at the end of the day I knew it would upset quite a lot of people and I quite like that."

Punk rock, for him, then, is about upsetting people, enjoying it, and making lots of money in the process. We're not talking Wire's Pink Flag here. More like red top, red rag. It's the tabloid end of punk Hirst likes, the "filthy lucre" end, the "malady-not-the-remedy" end. It's obnoxiousness-as-virtue. It's "I've got mine, screw you, but love me while you hate me!"

Hirst really has got his. Your house may be being repossessed, but this is his house, Toddington Manor.



If you're a maverick, you need hundreds of rooms. You need to charge around all that empty space like a stag, headbutting tapestries, snorting and whinnying. You need to store dead animals in the Regency Suite and formaldehyde in the maid's pantry.

Of course, you could just say "I'm very rich and getting much richer, as the super-rich tend to do in today's Britain, and as nobody else does. Oh, and I live in a castle." But no, that would never do. You have to say "I'm a punk". It's the respectable way, these days, of being evil, irresponsible and annoying. It earths all resentment. "Hands off Mr Skull-Fingers Hirst, he's a bit podgy and looks like Phil Collins, but he's a punk!"

In my essay Nasty, British and Short (written just after I moved to New York in 2000), I tried to tackle what "punk" means to Britain. I think essentially it's become shorthand for the beginnings of Thatcherism, and for a preference for local maladies over international remedies. In a way, punk has come to stand, in Britain, for the domestication of evil:

"Lydon's evil cackle at the beginning of 'Holidays In The Sun' reveals him as an innocent who has decided to incarnate a malevolent view of human nature in the classic manner of the Dickensian pantomime villain," I wrote. "In The Sex Pistols, Lydon incarnates the British contempt for human nature. He becomes a parody of the malady, and is an immediate success in Britain. When, later, he and his nemesis McLaren try to embody the remedy to the Brutish disease, making records like 'Metal Box' and 'Duck Rock', the Brutish stay away in droves, fail to buy, and use bargepoles when parlaying. Bow Wow Wow with their sexy Eiffel towers and their odes to Louis Quattorze and home taping stiff too. The Brutish do not want the remedy. They want the malady. The remedy is always foreign, it involves a loss of identity. The malady, however horrible, is forever Brutish."



And this brings us to McCain, and my fear that he will win on November 4th. When I see McCain, pretending -- as in this recent ad -- to be a "maverick" and yet representing more-of-the-same, I see the malady of America. When I see Obama, I see a remedy for America, a chance for it to redeem itself. And I'm afraid, like the Brutish British, the Americans (or a big chunk of them) are going to plump for the malady over the remedy. Because the malady has come to define their sense of self. The malady -- like punk rock -- is national, whereas the remedy -- like reggae-inflected post-punk -- is international.

The claim that more-of-the-same McCain is a maverick is laughable, of course. The idea that McCain and Palin "fought Republicans" while being Republicans is a ludicrous piece of mental gymnastics. But posing as a conservative "maverick" is likely to play as well in America as posing as a rich "punk" does in Britain. It might just work, because this mythology -- no matter how blatantly paradoxical -- is embroidered deep in the culture. Put it this way, when I think of the parallel world in which McCain and Palin win, it doesn't seem far-fetched or alien. In fact, it's a world which shares the values a lot of Americans have right now. It's who they are. It's the malady, the one they know, the one they like.

"Winners and losers are both mavericks," I wrote two years ago, recording my first impressions of America after Japan in a piece entitled Never Blend In. "They resemble each other here in their refusal to play by the rules. Some end up in jail, others running companies. My flight has featured lots of personal announcements from the founder and CEO of Continental, telling us how he started the company, how everyone working for it is exceptional. Mavericks. Give 'em a big tip! Because they're individuals, and so are you. There follows a song with so much virtuoso soul melisma the singer manages to put 12 syllables into the word "I"."



And here's Marvin Gaye -- tragic, alcoholic Marvin, shot by his own father during a row -- embodying the maverick in a poster campaign which Obama could well copy, if he wants to appeal to the malady heartlands rather than the remedy coasts. Never blend in, Obama, it's hell out there!

As for me, I'll be happy if I never hear anyone calling themselves a "punk" or a "maverick" ever again. Give me a world without rich punks and conservative mavericks and it's beautiful inside my head forever.

54CommentReplyFlag

dignam
dignam
The Monologue of a Nodal Point
Thu, Sep. 18th, 2008 12:23 pm (UTC)

I almost never see you get steamingly pissed off. I think you should try it more often, because "...the Americans (or a big chunk of them) are going to plump for the malady over the remedy. Because the malady has come to define their sense of self." is the most succinct shaping of the issue I've ever read.


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hideandseekfest
hideandseekfest
hideandseekfest
Thu, Sep. 18th, 2008 12:31 pm (UTC)

Thanks Momus, this is head-on brilliant. America and Britain, on the couch... Looking at what happened to those punks is instructive. John Lydon, now seen presenting nature programmes on Channel 5 and hurling racist abuse at Kele Okereke - McCain Punk. Joe Strummer - so affected by his years at the top with The Clash that he exiled himself from music (and Britain) for a long stretch, and came back performing sweet music until his death - Remedy Punk. Julien Temple - punk filmmaker turned ambitious Hollywood helmer, now back in the UK, making ambitious, difficult films (including a great documentary biopic of Joe Strummer) - remedy punk. I produced Julien's last film - it's a film opera set in Australia, coming out on Channel 4 at the end of the year - maybe that's a 21st-century punk experience. Phew - all that punking. I'm off to play a game.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Sep. 18th, 2008 12:41 pm (UTC)

It's interesting how the Sex Pistols keep reforming, but mark one PiL never does.


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Sep. 18th, 2008 12:48 pm (UTC)

McCain voted with his party 90% of the time, while Obama voted with his party 97% of the time. So technically McCain is more of a maverick, more willing to "reach across the isle."

As Richard Sennett says, we live in a capitalist society which is obsessed with the user-friendly, convenient, and comfortable. This mindset is incompatible with democracy because we are not willing to make the effort to learn about the world around us.

We have become accustomed to put more stock in the superficial differences in products (their "gold-plating") than in their fundamental function or construction. In this way, even Apple is part of the problem as they continually make minor superficial revisions to the ipod. Fundamentally, the difference between their mp3 player and the ones on offer from other brands is pretty small, but is it any wonder that nobody is interested in the candidates' policy, but only external appearances?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Sep. 18th, 2008 01:10 pm (UTC)

I have to disagree with you about Apple. Products like the iMac and the iPhone, when they first appeared, were radically different from anything else around. If they were political candidates, they would have lost the election (with 10% market share), but as products they were inspirational -- which is why, copied endlessly, they no longer seem so incredibly different. They blend in, now, because they really did change the world.


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Sep. 18th, 2008 01:09 pm (UTC)

Even in the egalitarian socialist seventies, rock stars aspired to the stately home lifestyle. Even John Working Class Hero Lennon had a stately home at one time.

What differentiates Damien Hirst from Jeff Koons for you, Momus? Why do you befriend and write songs about one, and not the other? Isn't Koons the very model of a modern superstar artist, selling a sculpture at Sotheby's last year for $23 million?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Sep. 18th, 2008 01:16 pm (UTC)

Koons and Hirst share some traits, but Koons has inflamed my imagination (and influenced my work) whereas Hirst hasn't. It'd be hard-pressed to explain why. I think it's because I find something Brechtian about him, and also Beuysian; he's become a fully-integrated, fully-fictional character, with a philosophy attached (albeit one less sympathetic to me than Beuys'). Hirst is just greedy and grubby, and his art is just clever enough to be genuinely banal, whereas Koons' is just stupid enough to be banal in a clever way.

I may have bought snake oil, though. Koons can certainly sell it.


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Sep. 18th, 2008 02:05 pm (UTC)

Your attack on Hirst seems rather ad hominem. You mention (twice) that he's a bit podgy (as middle-aged men often are), that he looks like Phil Collins (I don't really see it myself), that you don't like his jewellery. That's about as intelligent criticism as saying Momus looks like Gareth from The Office with less hair and even less dress sense. As for Hirst's fabulous wealth, you undermine your criticism by then telling us how wonderful the megawealthy establishment artist Jeff Koons is. Hirst is around your age, isn't he? He probably knows people you know. Do I detect a whiff of oh-so-British sour grapes?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Sep. 18th, 2008 04:36 pm (UTC)

I offered my opponent, Damien Hirst, a series of town hall debates. If he'd accepted, I wouldn't have had to go negative on him.


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Sep. 18th, 2008 03:24 pm (UTC)

What doesn't bode well for my country is that in this campaign I have seen at least 5x the ads for McCain than I have for Obama and I don't have TV but I imagine it's the same on there. It frightens me because of this thing I recently read by Jung, where he said that individual people operate on a conscious level but masses of people far more on a subconscious level.

Everything said in that ad are logically outright lies but if you asked me to describe what I saw in detail, having just seen it once, I would say you know, the flashes of light, the cool After Effects-y 2.5D style, the waving American flames, the word Alaska, etc. Since television puts people in a semi-conscious state in the first place they aren't thinking logically when they see this anyways.

I wanted to research and see some comparative stats on ad-time between the two campaigners and when I googled "presidential campaign ad-time" the first site that came up was "An Antichrist Obama in McCain Ad? - TIME"

I think we are in trouble.

Adam Bruneau


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Sep. 18th, 2008 03:25 pm (UTC)

American flames = American flags

heh Freudian slip
Adam


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uberdionysus
uberdionysus
Troy Swain: Black Box Miasma
Thu, Sep. 18th, 2008 03:28 pm (UTC)
Good post

It's depressing how punk was co-opted. Punk was a shout of rage and rebellion like Dada before it against all the injustices and insanity that ruled the world. But within a few years, it was, as you say, almost totally co-opted by bullshit. It became a free floating signifier of rage and rebellion without any of the negative signifieds that punk was stand against.

At least Dada had the good sense to simply die after a few years, as its members turned to Surrealism or whatever else caught their fancy.

Not that there wasn't and isn't still people who really know what punk is all about. Just that they've lost the word to people who are wholly against everything their for. (Think about The Ex or Crass who are still following the old school ethos.)


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Sep. 18th, 2008 03:36 pm (UTC)
In Momus-world rebelling is conforming. So what, then, is an “unconservative”?

As a white, Anglo-Scottish protestant who pays his taxes (I assume), doesn't take drugs, lives a quiet monogamous life with his female partner, believes in moderation, healthy minds and fair play and staying within the law – you might even fall into the broad social group 'conservative', no? You are 'minimum trouble' to the smooth running of the system. If capitalism was a game, you'd be 'playing ball'. (Does John McCain give a hoot what clothes you wear or records you buy or write in a blog? Absolutely 100% not. No amount of comment is going to install neo-communism.)


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Sep. 18th, 2008 03:52 pm (UTC)
Re: In Momus-world rebelling is conforming. So what, then, is an “unconservative”?

To continue: if there is nowhere outside society, then cursing people who live by means which aim to escape society is a hatred as misguided as their original motivation. They simply have more money. Which, even today, an idiot could attain.


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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Sep. 18th, 2008 04:25 pm (UTC)

You're quite right, I'm just annoyed that he's giving other, perfectly decent, enormously wealthy, Phil-Collins-resembling, stubby-fingered, money-grubbing, Bono-clothes-wearing, slightly pot-bellied individuals a bad name.


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cheapsurrealist
cheapsurrealist
Dave Nold
Thu, Sep. 18th, 2008 04:17 pm (UTC)

And the Lady (can I call you Lynn?) Lynn Forester De Rothschild is just a regular gal from New Jersey.



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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Sep. 18th, 2008 05:12 pm (UTC)

I haven't seen anyone else make this link, but I think someone, somewhere should: this week, we should remember Angus Fairhurst, one of Hirst's best friends, and someone whose death, I think, is not unconnected with the obscenity of the British art world's Gini-spreads. If Hirst represents the "good" side of the star system -- that artists can get very rich -- Fairhurst represents the unfair side. There is certainly some of Hirst's success in Fairhurst's failure.


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electricwitch
electricwitch
For anything, oh! she´ll bust her elastic
Thu, Sep. 18th, 2008 06:02 pm (UTC)

Hahaha, poor Damien. He is so very mediocre.

Aside from that, this is all I have to add:


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robinsonner
robinsonner
the maven
Thu, Sep. 18th, 2008 07:03 pm (UTC)

Oh yes..mediocre! Spot on and succinct as usual. You know some peeps think he is a shaman!!!

Is that cartoon from an early 80s copy of The Judy comic? They did a life of Elton in the 70s that made me almost take the Crocodile Rocker seriously.


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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Sep. 18th, 2008 06:21 pm (UTC)

Trite. I get the same feeling when I see his work as I do when I look at Hirst's: that if some crappy novel or film invented them as characters, you'd say "Well, actually, I know the art world quite well, and these are just silly stereotypes based on misconceptions of what art and street art are."

You know, that feeling you get when you see late Altman satirising fashion or whatever, and it just doesn't ring true. Neither do Hirst and Banksy. It's like someone -- the kind of person duped by poor satire -- put them there, and we're stuck with them because it's not fiction, it's real.


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Sep. 18th, 2008 07:02 pm (UTC)

"...preferring the ache to the aspirin..."


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