Punk Rock Politics and The Aesthetics of Participation

Hugh McCabe writes about early 80’s US punk rock, the decline of participation in culture, and how Jacques Rancière’s formulation of the relationship between politics and aesthetics provides us with a way of rethinking what it means to be a part of something.

Dan Graham’s film Minor Threat1 consists largely of grainy concert footage of the Washington D.C. punk rock group from which the film takes its title. It’s a chaotic scene, and bears little resemblance to conventional music performance. The usual division between audience and performers seems to have been completely dissolved: people constantly clamber up on to the stage, and the singer spends as much time in the crowd as he does with his band-mates. There’s an air of antagonism as the crowd violently slam into one another in response to the music, and the show is constantly interrupted as disputes of various kinds flare up. The music itself is intense, loud and fast: a particular strain of US punk rock that came to be known as hardcore2.

Minor Threat were early proponents of the anti-drugs and anti-alcohol straight edge movement that became influential within US punk circles in the 1980s but also exemplars of the DIY approach to producing and performing music. In particular, in their later incarnation as Fugazi, they brought an explicitly political slant into play, refusing to situate themselves within the parameters of the normal music industry, and instead operating according to their own principles of co-operation, independence and self-sufficiency. This would manifest itself in various ways: maximum admission prices for gigs, insistence that everyone involved gets paid equally, non-engagement with any corporate entities, and promotion of political and social causes they were sympathetic to. Perhaps the most significant aspect of Fugazi’s approach though, and that of the wider DIY punk rock movement that they sprung from, was an ongoing commitment to the possibility of participation. This possibility of participation is symbolically enacted by the ritualistic behaviour captured in Dan Graham’s film, but also takes concrete form when audience members are encouraged to form bands, become promoters, release records, or write fanzines.

I would like to examine this phenomenon and consider its effectiveness as a politically engaged form of participatory art. In particular I will look at it from two different perspectives. The first one is Greg Evan’s description of art alienation3, the situation whereby the commodification of art has resulted in people simply becoming consumers of culture rather than active participants, and ask whether this form of punk rock represents the kind of participatory practice that Evans laments the passing of. The second perspective is that of the writings of French philosopher Jacques Rancière. Rancière has developed a complex theoretical framework for explaining how aesthetics and politics are intertwined, and by analyzing DIY punk within this framework we can perhaps come to a more nuanced understanding of how it sits within a wider arena of artistic practice.

Evans’s concept of art alienation is derived from the Marxist principle of commodification whereby capitalism insinuates itself into all areas of everyday life by turning everything into a commodity4. The result is that we become alienated from fundamental aspects of human nature and the ultimate outcome is what Mark Fisher calls capitalist realism5: an inability to distinguish between capitalism and reality itself, and a consequent inability to imagine an existence outside of capitalism. Evans takes the example of artistic production and argues that a fundamental transition has occurred in our society with respect to how we engage with art. This can be simply put: at one stage art was something that people do, it is now something that people consume..

It seems inevitable that a society whose basis lies in the buying and selling of commodities would turn art itself into a commodity. Art had to be in a sense, taken away and alienated from people so that it could be sold back to them as a commodity6

Evans traces this process through various art forms including music, dance, theatre and the visual arts, and in each case shows how levels of direct participation in the making of these arts have tapered off over time. In the case of music, he describes how before the Industrial Revolution in Europe music-making was a common activity among the moneyed classes in the cities, and also fully integrated into village life in the countryside. It was considered a social faux-pas among the nobility to be unable to sing or play an instrument, and among the peasantry it was necessary to engage in communal music-making activities in order to be part of the social fabric. Professional musicians were not necessary, and even in the rarefied realms of classical music, compositions were distributed in the form of sheet music with the intention that all reasonably competent players could master them easily.

However, this situation underwent a change with the rise of what Evans calls the art specialist, whose role it is to manufacture art products for us to consume. This situation is so ingrained today that, strongly echoing Fisher, Evans states that we now “find it difficult to imagine a world without the fundamental division between specialist and consumer”7. One way this manifests itself is in the form of the highly skilled professional musician whose role it is to play music for an audience whose role it is to listen. Roland Barthes also writes about this separation between the experience of playing music and the experience of listening to it, and identifies its genesis with Beethoven, whose compositions were far too complex for anyone but the professionally trained specialist to attempt to play8.

The advent of mass mechanical reproduction of music recordings in the 20th Century also accelerated this process. While it may have brought a form of art to the masses, as Walter Benjamin dreamed of9, it did it in such a way that it further widened the gap between the producer and the consumer. It did this not so much by placing increasingly impossible technical demands on those aspiring to play it (most forms of popular 20th Century music, with the exception perhaps of jazz, are far easier to master than those deriving from the European classical tradition) but rather by erecting other, even more effective, barriers between those who produce and those who consume. The most powerful of these barriers over the last 50 years has been the cult of the rock star. Starting with Presley in the 1950s, the music industry elevated the rock star into a messianic genius-like figure, the purpose of which is to convince the masses that the star possesses almost supernatural abilities that it would be pointless to attempt to mimic. As a case in point, the most striking aspect of Michael Jackson’s death in 2009 was the plethora of celebrities rapturously testifying to near-mystical experiences that they had had while watching him sing or dance. Dan Graham suggests that after Pop Art exposed the fact that Art was only a business after all, rock music provided an outlet for the sort of transcendental religious yearning that Art was no longer able to cater for9. However, the religious ceremonies enacted in stadiums around the world were not ones aimed at liberating and empowering the members of the audience, but rather ones where their role was to simply hand over money in order to pay worship.

Viewed from this perspective we can argue that punk rock, in its original incarnation, was an explicit attempt to remove these barriers and to facilitate greater levels of participation among its audience. It arose during a period when rock music was becoming increasingly complex and technically sophisticated, and so by simplifying the music and eschewing virtuosity, it allowed more or less anyone to potentially play it. Similarly the stripped down nature of the instrumentation removed the financial barrier to setting up a band: all you needed was a couple of cheap guitars and a drum-kit. More importantly though it attacked the notion of the commercialized rock star in a manner that Dan Graham likens to Pop Art’s rejection of the abstract expressionist cult of the artistic hero10. We see this in punk’s sneering at the cosseted musical establishment of the time, in its insistence that anyone can do this, but also in how it conducted the relationship between those on the stage and those off the stage. While McLaren might have managed to quickly elevate the Sex Pistols for a brief time to more or less conventional star status, they were the exception rather than the rule, and the majority of punk acts, and those they inspired, did not expect or receive blind worship from their audience.

This is particularly evident in the US punk and hardcore scene of the early 1980s and it is instructive to think about what is shown in Dan Graham’s Minor Threat film in this context in order to contrast it with more conventional rock music performances. The traditional rock show is explicitly set up in such as way as to rigidly enforce the barrier between performer and audience. Evans, in relation to theatre, calls this the invisible wall11, but there is nothing invisible about the crash barriers we would typically get in front of the raised stage or the burly security men patrolling the area in front of it. Similarly the strictly controlled backstage area is designed to prevent any contact between the stars and the audience. Even the iconography of rock plays into this. Since the time of the Beatles, the classic imagery is of rock musicians huddled into speeding cars or hastily signing autographs before being ushered away. Any contact between performer and audience is either heavily policed (the autograph signing) or regarded as an unfortunate aberration. The phenomenon of throwing clothing on to the stage can be seen as a desperate attempt to symbolically breach this wall and similarly that of holding up signs with messages and so on. It only reinforces Evans’ thesis about commodification when we consider that the only people traditionally allowed access to the stars are the groupies, i.e. those who are willing to commodify their own sexuality and receive some contact in return12.

By contrast we see a radically different dynamic at work in Graham’s footage of Minor Threat. For a start there is no physical barrier between the performers and the audience. Members of the crowd are continually clambering on to the stage where the band are playing before diving back into the crowd. Even though the show is taking place in a somewhat conventional music venue (it was filmed in CBGB’s in New York), the audience are taking up positions seemingly wherever they feel like it, and the effect is that Minor Threat seem to be playing in the crowd, rather than above it, or for it. As we can see from Craig O’Hara’s comments in his book The Philosophy Of Punk, this is a deliberate strategy rather than an accidental one:

… a show is what Punks call a concert. It is different from an average music concert because there is a goal of removing the audience/performer separation13

We might also note that the dynamic of the punk gig differs also in the attitude of audience members towards the performers. This does not tend to be the unthinking worship that the venerated rock star enjoys but often a cynical and at times openly antagonistic relationship14. So, we might see the typical setup of a punk rock show as being a way of rejecting the cult of the rock star and thereby countering the alienation that is inherent to most forms of 20th Century popular music. Can we really say that this constitutes a form of participation though? Is it not the case that, in spite of its anarchic tendencies, this is really another form of mediated and controlled participation in that the band are still the band, and the audience are still the audience, regardless of where they are standing or what they are doing? Is this in any way political? These turn out to be problematic questions to try and answer, but I would like to consider how we might do so by turning to the thought of Jacques Rancière, and in particular his formulation of the relationship between aesthetics and politics.

Rancière’s conception of politics proceeds on the basis of a radical assertion of equality and a consequent rejection of the sort of liberal consensus politics that he sees as perpetuating existing hierarchies of power15. He sees these hierarchies as being based on what he calls the distribution of the sensible. This consists of those “self-evident facts of sense perception that simultaneously disclose something in common and the delimitations that define the respective parts and positions within it”16. By this he means that what we can see, hear and speak of, defines our commonality with those who can see, hear and speak of the same things. In a democratic society, a citizen is someone who has a part in the act of being governed, but the distribution of the sensible pre-determines our position within the community of citizens in the first place, and this in turn pre-determines our level of agency within that society. However, every community is defined not just by those who are included, but also by those who are excluded, and hence there is always what Rancière calls the part of no part, those whose position within the distribution allows them little or no participation at all.

Politics revolves around what is seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak, around the properties of spaces and the possibilities of time17

Aesthetics is therefore at the core of politics as it is concerned directly with issues of sense perception, with making things visible or invisible, and with facilitating shared perceptions that create and define communities of sense18. For Rancière aesthetics and politics should both be engaged in a process of dissensus whose aim it is to disrupt the consensual order and to effect a redistribution of the sensible. This adjusts what is available to be seen, heard and spoken of, and by whom, and consequently reorganizes the distribution of communities, with the ultimate aim of giving a part to those who previously might have had none. This is not a teleological endeavour with some sort of utopian perfect society at its end-point, but rather an ongoing process aimed at disrupting the hierarchical power structures favoured by the liberal consensus, and as such has much in common with Chantal Mouffe’s conception of antagonism as being at the heart of any truly democratic politics19.

So for Rancière, participation is not about an artist creating an experience that the spectators are somehow invited to interact with or be part of, but rather about aesthetic practices functioning as ways of framing sense experience in such a way as to create communities within which participation becomes possible. It is here that we see a distinct difference between Evans’s conception of participation and that of Rancière. For Evans, participation means an explicit and active involvement in the activity: doing and creating, as opposed to watching and consuming. In the context of punk rock this would mean becoming a musician and playing in a band, or alternatively engaging in associated activities such as writing fanzines, promoting gigs, and so on. Clearly the punk scene within which the likes of Minor Threat were operating was, and continues to be, one in which this is not just possible, but actively encouraged. However Rancière, as a result of his initial assertion of equality, rejects this radical opposition of the active and the passive in the first place, stating that it is simply one of a number of “embodied allegories of inequality”20. So the punk singer leaping off the stage into the crowd may be temporarily demolishing the invisible wall between audience and performer, but is also confirming the existence of that wall in the first place. By encouraging audience members to wake up from their passive stupor and get involved, punk is implicitly confirming the superiority of those who are involved over those who are not, and confirming the distance between them in a manner analogous to that of Rancière’s stultifying pedagogue21. So, for Rancière, an emancipated spectator is not simply a consumer:

Being a spectator is not some passive condition that we should transform into activity. It is our normal situation. We also learn and teach, act and know, as spectators who all the time link what we se to what we have seen and said, done and dreamed. There is no more a privileged form than there is a privileged starting point22.

It is in this context that we might consider how the activities visible in Dan Graham’s film could be regarded as aesthetic practices, and furthermore aesthetic practices that are specifically aimed at the sort of redistribution of the sensible that Rancière proposes is the business of both politics and art. For example, when a punk leaps onto the stage, he is in one sense simply enacting a slightly macho and sometimes tiresome ritual. However, in another sense, he is creating a community among those who witness his act; a community that is to some extent part of a larger community comprised of those who witness similar acts by others. The fact that what the community has in common takes place within a specific context, the music concert, where strict hierarchical power structures are normally enforced, and the fact that it is an explicit challenge to these structures, is what makes it a dissensual activity, and also what makes it an explicitly political activity in Rancière’s sense. Something has now been made visible that might not have been visible before, and possibilities have been opened up that might not have been opened up before. The viewers of this act are now members of a community in which they have a part, but the extent to which they choose to participate within it, or the form that this participation might take, is up to them.

Evans concludes his essay by arguing that the only solution to the problem of artistic alienation is the complete elimination of mass-manufactured art commodities. Back in 1989 this might have seemed like a fanciful idea, but with the recent digital revolution in music distribution and the consequent collapse in revenue for the professional music specialist it might well be that, in the case of music at least, his fantasy is coming to pass. Whether this results in a return to more directly participatory ways of engaging with that particular art-form remains to be seen, however what Rancière shows us is that even if it doesn’t, there are still many fruitful avenues of participation open to us, any many ways in which we can all have a part.

  1. Graham, D 1983 Minor Threat Exhibited CAPC Bordeaux (viewed June 2011). Video 38:18min
  2. See Stephen Blush American Hardcore (Feral House, 2010) for a detailed history of this second wave of punk rock in the US in the 1980s
  3. Evans, G.S. 1989 Art Alienated: An Essay On The Decline of Participatory Art
  4. A much earlier examination of how Marxist concepts such as the commodity fetish and alienation have affected the world of music was provided by Theodor Adorno (Adorno, T. 1938 “On The Fetish Character In Music And The Regression Of Listening” in The Culture Industry, Routledge, 1991).
  5. Fisher, M. 2009 Capitalist Realism (Zero Books)
  6. Evans, G.S. 1989 Art Alienated: An Essay On The Decline of Participatory Art p. 37
  7. ibid. p.37
  8. Barthes, R. 1977 “Musica Practica” in Image Music Text (Fontana Press, 1977) ps.149-154
  9. Benjamin, W. 1955, “The Work Of Art In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction”, in The Continental Aesthetics Reader (Routledge, 2011)
  10. Graham, D. “The End Of Liberalism”, in Rock/Musc/Writings (Primary Information, 2009) ps. 49-60
  11. ibid. p.56
  12. Evans, G.S. 1989 Art Alienated: An Essay On The Decline of Participatory Art
  13. The fantasy of the happy groupie perpetuated in Cameron Crowe’s film Almost Famous is just that. The reality undoubtedly had far more in common with the behaviour depicted in Stephen Davis’s infamous Hammer Of The Gods: Led Zeppelin Unauthorised (Sidgwick and Jackson, 2005)}
  14. O’Hara, C. 1999 The Philosophy Of Punk: More Than Noise! (AK Press, 1999)
  15. For lurid tales of violent confrontation with audience members, see Henry Rollins’s diary of this touring days with Black Flag (Rollins, H. 2005 Get In The Van (2.13.61, U.S., 2005))
  16. For an excellent exposition of Rancière’s politics see Toni Ross “From Classical To Postclassical Beauty: Institutional Critique and Aesthetic Enigma in Louise Lawlor’s Photography” in Communities of Sense: Rethinking Aesthetics and Politics (Duke University Press, 2012)
  17. Rancière, J. “The Distribution Of The Sensible: Politics and Aesthetics” in The Politics Of Aesthetics (Continuum, 2004), p.13
  18. ibid. p.13
  19. Rancière, J. “Contemporary Art And The Politics Of Aesthetics” in Communities of Sense: Rethinking Aesthetics and Politics (Duke University Press, 2012)
  20. See Stephen Corcoran’s introduction in Dissensus: On Politics And Aesthetics (Continuum 2010) for an in-depth treatment of how Rancière’s notion of dissensus operates in the context of liberal consensus politics
  21. Mouffe, C. “Artistic activism and agonistic spaces” in Art and Research vol.1 no.2 ps.1-5, 2007
  22. Rancière, J. “The Emancipated Spectator” in The Emancipated Spectator (Verso, 2009) p. 12
  23. Rancière uses the example of a schoolmaster who constantly stays one step or more ahead of his pupil. The pupil quickly learns that there is an unbridgeable distance between them and hence is denied the possibility of emancipation. Rancière calls this process stultification.
  24. Rancière, J. “The Emancipated Spectator” in The Emancipated Spectator (Verso, 2009) p.17

Hugh McCabe is a student on the MA Art in the Contemporary World course. He is also a photographer and musician, and lectures in Digital Media at the Institute of Technology in Blanchardstown. The photograph at the top of this piece is part of an ongoing project of his that involves taking long exposure photographs at music concerts. It is a 4 minute and 44 second exposure of Jello Biafra performing his punk classic “California Uber Alles” in Dublin last year. Many more examples of this work can be found at http://www.tracesofthereal.com.