It’s not the greatest photo, really, is it? If you ignore the black-and-whiteness and the fact that it’s a young Lou Reed on the right giving attitude to the camera, you could be looking at a picture that one of your mates just posted on their Facebook page, documenting the ker-razy wild times they had at their local last night.
Instead, this image by photographer and visual artist Anton Perich – along with about a squillion other punk-era happy snaps – is up on the wall at Steven Kasher Gallery in Chelsea as a part of a new exhibition documenting the heyday of Max’s Kansas City, the downtown venue where artists, proto-punks and various other countercultural luminaries rubbed shoulders from the mid-‘60s until the early ‘80s. The exhibition collects the work of various photographers who were on the scene at the time, along with “monumental sculptures and paintings by the inner circle of Max’s artists”. “There has never been a more exciting collision of art, music, and glamour than at Max’s Kansas City in the 1960s and 70s,” gushes the press release, showing the sort of grandiose and entirely unverifiable disregard for historical fact that press releases specialise in. If that’s true, we might as well all give up now, hey?
No doubt Max’s would have been a fascinating place to be, and the work in the exhibition provides an interesting historical documentation of its heyday. But is it art? Largely, no. Or, at least, not in any way beyond who it depicts. I’d argue that there’s a distinction between something with artistic merit and something with historical merit. The two can certainly overlap, but just because a photo or a painting depicts something interesting doesn’t necessarily make it worthy of immediately being hung on a gallery wall.
Given that America basically invented the idea of celebrity, it’s probably not surprising that it’s a country wherein the merits of a piece of art can be judged on the basis who it depicts rather than how well it depicts them. There’s a lot of it about – have a look at any photographer’s website, and most likely it’ll be the celeb shots taking pride of place. They’re not necessarily the best portraits, or the most technically accomplished images, but all that matters is who’s in them.
But still, it’s kinda demoralising to see galleries put on safe exhibitions of average work that repackages the same tired old faces that stare back at you from your TV set and the covers of the magazines on the newsstand, the ones guaranteed to get exposure and publicity, while truly interesting and innovative young artists go ignored.
It’s also a chastening realisation that the iconic faces of the punk era and its antecedent scene – Reed, Andy Warhol, The Ramones, Blondie, Television – have entered this pantheon of safe subject matter. It’s the nature of subcultures that they eventually get devoured by the mainstream and regurgitated as palatable, of course, but it’s still somehow depressing to see it happen.
In the case of NY punk, it’s only relatively recently that it has happened, of course. You can argue that no-one should begrudge some belated exposure for artists who were largely commercially ignored during their creative heyday. But still, do we really need another punk exhibition? Why not start making sure we’re not ignoring today’s artists? Why not head out and photograph the people playing at Silent Barn in Bushwick instead of recycling the past?
There are certainly some worthy pieces of art at the Max’s exhibition – some actually really quite beautiful portraits by Perich and his fellows, along with some fascinating artwork that dates from the era. But largely, the exhibition is a massive exercise in feeding the nostalgia industry. As State of the Art tried to fight its way through the copious back-slapping at the packed opening, the dangerous, cutting-edge days of Max’s Kansas City seemed like an era ago. And they are.