Sunday, April 13, 2014

Punk leads to Putin?

Jon Cogburn:
Punk is great art, but the nihilism leads to Putinism. Again, consider the United States. We had two punk eras, punk proper and grunge. Analogous  to Russian punk and Putinism, punk proper led to Thatcher/Reagan and grunge to Bush the younger.
Robert Paul Wolff:
All societies exist for the purpose of transferring wealth from those who create it -- the poor -- to those who do not -- the rich.  The academic professions exist for the purpose of rationalizing this transfer, the churches exist for the purpose of blessing it, and the arts exist for the purpose of decorating the transfer so as to make it as charming as possible [even though this often comes to nothing more than putting lipstick on a pig.]
Cogburn is always right (in the sense that he is always edifying) even if some of his individual points are wrong (and he sometimes retracts things he's said, so he must be wrong sometimes). Here he looks wrong, but I think we have to go with the "nihilism leads to Putinism" part of the quote above rather than the "punk proper led to Thatcher" bit. Earlier on he says this:
For rock to be rock, there must be an audience base that believes in the possibility of liberation. Once that is gone, rock isn't really possible. And when rock stops being rock, its parents (blues and country) get a divorce. And, like a lot of children of divorce, rock gets angry and starts acting out. It becomes punk.
So the real problem, as he sees it, is the possibility of liberation, or the ability to believe in this possibility. And that ability apparently declined in the 1970s. Hence both David Bowie's "We never got it off on that revolution stuff/ What a drag--too many snags" and Hawkwind's "We used up all of our magic powers trying to do it in the road," in their rejection of Beatles politics in favor of violent revolution (the lines are from the song "Urban Guerrilla"). Bowie, too, rejects the Beatles and the Stones in favor of glam rock, which involves dressing like a queen but also kicking like a mule and drinking a lot of wine. Punk is roughly a combination of the would-be terrorist strain of hippiedom and the gaudy hooliganism of glam rock. It doesn't lead to Putin or Thatcher or Reagan, but the same despair that fuels it also opens the door to the likes of them. In short, Cogburn is right.

What about Wolff? It's not plausible that societies are a sort of con job that the poor are tricked into in order for the rich to be able to either take from them or use them to take from other poor people. Societies exist in the same kind of way that schools of fish and swarms of bees exist. That's just how human beings come: in packs. It's also relevant that we would struggle to survive otherwise.

But once we are in a society (which we are, as they say, always already) what then is the guiding mission of the society? Wolff's claim about the purpose of all societies looks plausible as an answer to this question. And the rest of what he says seems about right too. Except that there are norms internal to academia and the church and the arts that go against this idea. Academia might be allowed and even encouraged because it helps the rich get richer, but the norms of academia don't themselves directly promote this kind of useful idiocy. Nor, of course, do those of the churches or the arts. So I think views like Wolff's are true a lot of the time, maybe most of the time, maybe 90% of the time, but I don't think they are entirely true. Comically or not, I think he's exaggerating (and presumably he knows it, since I doubt he really thinks of himself as rationalizing the transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich).

Does punk then put lipstick on the pig? Real punk doesn't. This was always the complaint about disco and other kinds of mainstream pop music: they are and were a distraction from political reality, or perhaps just reality in general. Pretty much the definition of alternative music, which includes punk, is that it doesn't do this. The hard part is to be true to this ideal while not being godawful musically. It can be done, but the audience is always going to be relatively small. The Red Wedge tactic is never going to work. Which sounds like despair but only means that the goals of academia, religion, and the arts must be academic, religious, and artistic, not political. Art for art's sake, in other words.

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