Cultural Renewal May Not Be Pretty, But It is Beautiful: Punk, The Ashcan School, and Remodernism

Robert Henri “Snow in New York” oil on canvas 32″ x 25 13/16″ 1902

“Do whatever you do intensely. The artist is the man who leaves the crowd and goes pioneering. With him there is an idea which is his life.”

-Robert Henri

When I was a teenage punk, I was just having fun.

Only later did I understand I was participating in the messy but vital process of cultural renewal.

It was a matter of being in the right place at the right time. I was sixteen years old in 1986, living near Washington, DC. My geeky group of friends and I were performing the young male ritual of rebellion right next to an epicenter of an aggressive, controversial youth movement.

Only about a decade old at that point, the music and fashion sensation of punk had mutated into what was called hardcore. DC was the home of now legendary bands like Bad Brains and Minor Threat, and the excitement they generated spilled out into the suburbs.

I got a bad haircut and started wearing a black leather jacket and combat boots. On weekends my buddies and I left behind VHS movies and Dungeons and Dragons marathons and ventured into the big city, prowling the hip enclave of Georgetown.

We had a routine route, visiting the Exorcist stairs, Smash Records, and the Commander Salamander boutique. Mainly we walked the streets, feeling a thrill of immediate kinship whenever we encountered another band of promenading punks. We finally had something in common with some girls, too.

In time we started to visit the seedy clubs featuring shows with loud, fast songs and shouted vocals, while the audience danced by jumping around and bouncing off of each other. It was exhilarating.

Punk began when a bunch of self-starting kids, often working class, got bored with the bland, predictable culture being offered by the establishment. At the time there was no internet, and only sensationalized, derogatory mainstream media coverage. Hardcore punk was all underground and word of mouth, shared mix tapes and Xeroxed fliers. It felt like a conspiracy, like being initiated into something mysterious and special. We created our own alternative, and it spread.

I wrote about some of punk’s contradictions in my 2018 book, Remodern America: How the Renewal of the Arts Will Change the Course of Western Civilization:

Punk’s anti-establishment outlook put it on the radical side of things, but I never got how advocates of a movement that emphasized individuality and independence could turn to a politically leftist worldview. In the 1980s the Cold War was still raging, and a lot of the major figures of the punk world openly sided with the communists.
But looking at actions instead of rhetoric, it was clear to me leftists were the most vicious enforcers of the establishment in history.
Around the world, their whole political system as practiced demanded an individual’s submission to centralized power, the exact opposite of punk’s message.
It made no sense to me how any free thinker would ally themselves with brutal regimes who used constant surveillance, intimidation and violence to keep entire populations captive. The problems
of America, how we fell short of our high ideals, how we were easily distracted by crass consumerism, seemed minor compared to the literally murderous systematic oppression coordinated by greedy and
aggressive totalitarians elsewhere in the world.
I did not understand I had been recruited into a covert war which had been brewing for decades. The Cold War was being fought unacknowledged right in the midst of our placid existences, in the classrooms, on the television. Postmodernism co-opted the potentials of punk.
If I’d had more perspective then I could have seen the double standards in play, and understood their origins. But I was just a kid, lacking experience and insight. It was easier just to ignore the contradictions.
If punk meant being a nonconformist, I would follow my own conscience. I could reject materialism and unthinking obedience to authority without buying into audaciously misguided leftist dogma.
To me punk went beyond the music that sounded a certain way, a gaudy aesthetic, lapses into lazy nihilism, and a juvenile reflex towards sardonic defensiveness. Punk advanced quintessentially traditional American viewpoints: no respect for the unjustified hierarchies the powerful attempt to impose; emphasis on action and energy; commitment to justice and progress; and the desire for the liberty to pursue individual happiness.

When I look around today, at all the people with the dyed hair, tattoos, and facial piercings, I still remember how shocking such trappings were when my peers were doing it back in the day. It makes me reflect how art is a leading indicator for society-for good or ill. All the once-startling punk displays are bland and predictable.

Almost one hundred years earlier, there was another aggressive, controversial cultural phenomena going on in the United States, in painting. We’ve come to call it the Ashcan School.

Artist Robert Henri (June 24, 1865-July 12, 1929) was an inspirational artist and teacher initially based in Philadelphia; he later relocated to New York City. Henri (pronounced Hen-rye) was bored with the bland, predictable art being produced in the American art establishment at the time: either gentle, pale Impressionist imitations, or flattering Gilded Age portraits of wealthy patrons.

Henri mentored a group of journalist illustrators which included notables such as William Glackens, John Sloan, and George Luks. In an era before common photographic reproduction, newspapers used artists to create the pictures for their stories. These men were used to depicting the grime and grimness of newsworthy city life. Henri encouraged them to bring that real world engagement into fine art.

Like punk many years later, the Ashcan School was an alliance of freethinking individuals each following their own artistic vision, rather than an organized, regimented movement. The artists shared a Modernist urban sensibility, dark palette, gritty realist subject matter, and an appreciation for the common people. They made sketchy yet accurate depictions how life was lived at the time, instead of polite, idealized fantasies. As Henri put it, “There is only one reason for art in America, and that is that the people of America learn the means of expressing themselves in their own time, and their own land.”

This was considered to be bad taste. Like many other art movements like Impressionism or Fauvism, the title of Ashcan started as an insult. A reviewer sneered about the “pictures of ashcans and girls hitching up their skirts on Horatio Street.” The artists embraced the derision as a badge of honor.

The Ashcan School artists were also referred to as “The Apostles of Ugliness,” much as the punks were called “foul mouthed yobs.”

But the critics are missing something important: the ugliness isn’t the point. It’s the willingness to undergo the rough journey needed to renew the energy of life.

Something too constrained stagnates, even dies. There’s always something a little wild and scary about real growth.

There’s a difference between pretty and beautiful. Prettiness is a surface. Beauty is the substance. Pretty is an outside appearance; beauty is from within. Pretty is agreeable. Beauty is truthful, and as we know, the truth isn’t always pleasing.

Accepting yet refining the harshness of truth through creative expression is a transcendental experience. The joyous human offering of art can add significance to mundane squalor.

Right now, Postmodern establishment mismanagement has created a culture which is neither pretty nor beautiful. They need us to believe the squalor is the point, after all. Artists are needed as the pioneers which carry out the idea that life is wonderful and surprising, even if elitists call us trashy. Cultural renewal will be a little wild and scary.

The latest cycle of real change in the arts actually started decades ago, although the cultural institution-controlling elites do their best to suppress the news.

In 2000, two British artists, Charles Thomson and Billy Childish, were tired of transgressive yet still bland and predictable Postmodern art. They were brave enough to tell the truth: the galleries and museum were filled with objects that weren’t really art at all. They described a new cultural understanding called Remodernism, rising to take the place of failed Postmodern artifice. Their manifesto included this key proposition: “The making of true art is man’s desire to communicate with himself, his fellows and his God. Art that fails to address these issues is not art.”

Childish soon struck off on his own, and continues as a celebrated painter, musician, and writer. Thomson remained committed to cultivating Remodernism as a movement. Guided by his inspirational example, grassroots art groups were founded around the world.

I was inspired. In my own Remodern America manifesto, I wrote my take on what is happening now:

Remodernism reboots the culture. Remodernism is not a style of art, it is a form of motivation. We express the universal language of inspired humanity. We do not imitate what came before. We find in ourselves the same divine essence of love and excitement which has inspired masterpieces throughout history. We are strengthened by drawing on traditions thousands of years old. We integrate the bold, visionary efforts of the Modern era into a holistic, meaningful expression of contemporary life. Remodernism seeks a humble maturity which heals the fragmentation and contradictions of Modernism, and obliterates the narcissistic lies of Postmodernism. Remodernism is disruptive innovation applied to the moribund art world.

As for Robert Henri, his wisdom was captured in a great book called The Art Spirit. It encourages us to understand how important the role of the artist is.

As for me, I still pull out my Bad Brains and Minor Threat albums when the mood strikes me. It’s good music to paint to.

A version of this article originally appeared on The Masculinist, now on Substack

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I don’t fundraise off of my blog. I don’t ask for Patreon or Paypal donations. If you’d like to support the Remodern mission, buy a book. Or a painting

Learn more About My Art: Visionary Experience

My wife Michele Bledsoe has written her own inspirational book, Painting, Passion and the Art of Life.

Remodernism Video: BEFORE THERE WAS FAKE NEWS, THERE WAS FAKE ART

Visit other posts for more commentary on the state of the arts.

Please send any inquiries to info@remodernamerica.com. Thank you!

Advertisement

DAILY ART FIX: Music Video -‘The Lively Arts’ by the Damned, Illustrated by Teenagers

Art world links which caught my eye…

From the Damned’s 1980 Black Album. This Youtube version was illustrated by teenagers:

Innovation Day 2013 at Dixons City Academy in Bradford, West Yorkshire, UK. I had a class of 13, 14, and 15 year olds for the day. I showed them my own version of I don’t wanna grow up, by the Ramones first. They each got a line from the song (they didn’t have a clue what the song was). By the afternoon they had worked together to create their own illustrated Damned song, and they loved it. Who says it’s impossible getting a bit of Punk into the classroom?!

Lyrics
I’m gonna stay in bed all day
I’m not gonna hear a word you say
It’s gonna be a life of style for me
Electric blankets, pillows, fire and TV
Take a look outside
Those lively arts are on the slide
And culture’s just a bore
When you’re angry young and poor
And if I got my way
Those idle rich would pay
When the discussion starts
On the lively arts
I’m gonna be a lazy slob
Sod the folks and sod the job
And tell the foreman that I’m ill
And in a week I’ll be here still
Yes I will
Take a look outside
Those lively arts are on the slide
And culture’s just a bore
When you’re angry young and poor
And if I got my way
Those idle rich would pay
When the discussion starts
On the lively arts

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I don’t fundraise off of my blog. I don’t ask for Patreon or Paypal donations. If you’d like to support the Remodern mission, buy a book. Or a painting

Learn more About My Art: Visionary Experience

My wife Michele Bledsoe has written her own inspirational book, Painting, Passion and the Art of Life.

Remodernism Video: BEFORE THERE WAS FAKE NEWS, THERE WAS FAKE ART

Visit other posts for more commentary on the state of the arts.

Please send any inquiries to info@remodernamerica.com. Thank you!

DAILY ART FIX: The Punk Marie Antoinette of the 1970s New York Art Scene

Art world links which caught my eye…

Colette Lumière, “Beautiful Dreamer Uniform Series II” (1980-84), mixed media on linen

Arguably, punk covered all forms of creativity: music, literature, fashion, and the visual arts. Before it settled in a predictable formula of ripped jeans, aggression, and sloppiness, punk was a questing, restless attempt to find new forms of expression. Now, one of the original NYC players is the subject of a new exhibition.

And indeed, it is an indisputable fact that the French-Tunisian Colette Lumière is a severely under-recognized artist, whose lasting importance on visual culture and performance practice has yet to be fully grasped by the art world. Before moving to Berlin in 1984, Colette was a prolific artistic persona immersed in the 1970s New York art scene, a punky Marie Antoinette with a childlike voice and fashion confections. Working across a variety of media, yet always emphasizing the performance of identity, her creations ranged from frilly dresses and punk T-shirts to sculptural installations, light boxes and short films.

Colette Lumière, “Off the Wall (Homage a Paul Delvaux)” (1974), fabric, photograph, light, and mixed media on wood

See the full article here: Hyperallergic – The Punk Marie Antoinette of the 1970s New York Art Scene

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I don’t fundraise off of my blog. I don’t ask for Patreon or Paypal donations. If you’d like to support the Remodern mission, buy a book. Or a painting

Learn more About My Art: Visionary Experience

My wife Michele Bledsoe has written her own inspirational book, Painting, Passion and the Art of Life.

Remodernism Video: BEFORE THERE WAS FAKE NEWS, THERE WAS FAKE ART

Visit other posts for more commentary on the state of the arts.

Please send any inquiries to info@remodernamerica.com. Thank you!

EXPLOITS: The Case of the Condescending Curator

*Update: Richard Bledsoe will be offline for an extended period due to an unexpected medical situation. I am Richard’s wife, Michele Bledsoe – and for the interim I will act as his hands and eyes. 

The following is a section from a major work-in-progress about art and culture Richard is writing. 

“It’s a fashionable world and even good artists go out of fashion.”

-Robert Storr, art world academician 

 

Through my early art school days in 1980s, while I focused on keeping up in classes and learning about the distant geniuses of the past, I was less knowledgeable about contemporary art. Although I was highly engaged with cultural interests, I didn’t know a lot about the art world yet. My punk habit lent itself more to musical trends, and film operates in an entirely different realm than the rarefied atmosphere of the art gallery.

It was my second year studying painting when consciousness of the dominant contemporary visual art scene started to seep in.

First of all, I was surprised to learn in my painting and drawing courses that painting was, in fact, dead.

To understand the logic of that idea requires understanding that the institutional art world is a fashion victim. Despite the airs of conviction and sophistication participants in the arts like to flaunt, the reality is many of them are desperate followers of trends, fads and cliques.

In this particular era when I was at Virginia Commonwealth University, the correct jaded and ironic pose to strike was that painting had run its course as an art form, that it was exhausted and had nothing left to say. We were meant to be embracing new means of expression.

In the early 1990s, while I was still at college, VCU imported a genuine New York museum curator for a lecture to demonstrate this for us. All that traditional stuff was passé, he inferred. He had seen the future; in fact he’d be one of the ones who got pick what the future would be. He was doing all us Virginia hicks a favor by coming to give us the inside scoop.

And what was the glorious destiny of the art world to come, according to this bigwig?

That’s right: political installation art!

If you don’t know what political installation art is, you probably haven’t been in a gallery or a museum for the last thirty years. This curator and others of his ilk created a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Under their stewardship every serious arts venue has become saturated with various forms of propaganda instead of art. Political installations indeed became the future of art, because that’s precisely what the few people entrusted to make the decisions about such things for our entire culture wanted to happen. They were partisans for the Postmodern corruption of the arts.

A recent example of what happens when “art” gets political 

During his lecture at us, the curator displayed a series of slides. I forget exactly what they depicted; they were recent works from some Biennale or something. What the pictures showed were rooms full of trash, misplaced mundane objects, and pointless aggregations of random items.

Fortunately the New York intellectual was there to translate for us, explaining how what we were seeing were not presentations of craftless junk, but Important Statements on homelessness, nuclear disarmament, and gender roles.

I left this lecture baffled yet angry. If painting was dead, what the hell was VCU charging all that tuition for?

It wasn’t the money that made me mad. It was the sheer folly of it all.

There’s some idea floating around in pop psychology that if something makes you angry it means you feel threatened by it, that it’s a challenge to your preconceived notions, and it’s an opportunity to grow.

In some cases this is true. However, often I’ve seen that concept thrown out as an attempt at misdirection, to change the subject away from some blatant travesty or transgression.

If you don’t put your values and beliefs to the test consistently, then you can be vulnerable to the suggestion that the problem lies in you, not with whatever absurdity raised your ire. Next thing you know, you are on the defensive, filled with doubt, and ready to eat whatever they’re trying to feed you. It’s a horribly manipulative process, and the gatekeepers of our culture have made themselves masters of this kind of distraction.

The only defense is to know yourself well, flaws and all, and recognize Who the only true source of authority is.

We’re all far from perfect, but that does not mean we have to succumb to the devious machinations of the wicked.

I recognized this so-called art was a lie. I felt it in my bones. It was as instinctual as breathing. I couldn’t put it into words at the time, but I understood I was witnessing a betrayal, a coup, an assassination.

What I experienced was the entirely justifiable rage felt when witnessing an attempted swindle unfold, perpetrated by a type of huckster who wasn’t nearly as clever as he thought he was. It was the classic fallacy of the appeal to authority. This guy was some big shot curator, thus his declarative statements were to be supposed to be received as wisdom. But what I saw was some patronizing poseur projecting all sorts of ridiculous significance onto heaps of torn cardboard.

He was just about the most naked emperor I’d ever encountered up to that point. Unfortunately I would soon be exposed to many more.

 

THIS IS WHAT HAPPENED: Vintage Music Reviews-Rudimentary Peni “Cacophony”

*Update: Richard Bledsoe will be offline for an extended period due to an unexpected medical situation. I am Richard’s wife, Michele Bledsoe – and for the interim I will act as his hands and eyes. 

A few years ago, Richard used to write for the punk ‘zine AZKAOS. This was one of the vintage music reviews he contributed from 2010.

Rudimentary Peni “Cacophony” Album Cover Art by Nick Blinko

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Rudimentary PeniCacophony

1989

Outer Himalayan Records

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And then the matter of that phonograph record…It must mean something; whether animal noises deceptively like human speech, or the speech of some hidden, night-haunting human being decayed to a state not much above that of lower animals.

  -H. P. Lovecraft   

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Does genius lead to madness, or is the other way around? Mental illness in reality is usually a drab and frustrating situation. The romantic cliché of the brilliant lunatic persists though, supported by the occasional rise and fall of some inspired martyr; there is some truth to the template. When an inventive mind gets caught up in a wave of mania, astonishing creations can occur.

The Rudimentary Peni album Cacophony feels maniacal, as if it were recorded at the height of some delusional frenzy. A rare hardcore punk concept album, an obsessive riff on horror pulp author H.P. Lovecraft, it captures that writer’s atmosphere of melodramatic creepiness. The recording seems like an organic whole; songs blend into one another, connected by snippets of dialogue and sound effects, racing along at breakneck speed. It is one of those records to be played in its entirety, to better appreciate the story arc.

Rudimentary Peni (named for a biology class definition of clitorises) grew out of the busy London anarcho-punk scene nurtured by the musical collective Crass. RP’s front man Nick Blinko is the songwriter, guitarist and singer; he also produces the horror vacui outsider art that illustrates the albums-teeming landscapes of grimacing faces, skulls and religious icons. Blinko could be a character out of a Lovecraft work-a talented outsider whose mind was broken by the pursuit of arcane knowledge. Diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, Blinko has spent some time institutionalized for his condition.

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Nick Blinko Artwork 

 

Despite the burdens of Blinko’s mental state, and all the growling death rock themes explored, Cacophony is a rollicking, playful album, bursting with excitement at its own inventiveness. The lyrics echo Lovecraft’s quaint verbose style in a manner that is both tribute and satire. The content veers between Lovecraft’s biography, his works, and more oblique rants. The original vinyl fortunately came with a 6 page lyric sheet, because the elaborate, articulate poetry Blinko wrote is often buried in layers of distortion and noise, or is barely intelligible. Blinko produces literally dozens of accents in his vocals-he chants, mutters, shrieks, hisses, croons and babbles; it’s an amazing theatrical performance. “Things have learnt to walk that ought to crawl,” he croaks in one interlude. Some pieces are nothing but sounds-chattering teeth, rude squishy noises, wheezing or screaming; others are little collages of tombstone inscriptions or buzzing alien voices.

The music swings between tight little punk gems and ominous droning soundscapes. The catchy hardcore passages throughout the album suggest Zen Arcade vintage Husker Du. In “The Only Child, ” about a bad seed murderous little girl, the delivery is a snarling Exploited style stomp; “Arkham Hearse” swings with a Sex Pistols sneer. “Dream City” warbles like the Buzzcocks: “The weedy old spires like veins in marble/The old gold domes/were just ancestral homes/The citadels of yore with their broken bronze bells/ tottering towers/shadowy staircases/spiral like ammonites…”

Rudimentary Peni, despite some hiatuses, continue to release albums, though nothing has ever topped this perfect storm of cult influences. Cacophony works on many levels-it ranges from being sinister and aggressive to being literate and tongue in cheek. It presents horror with mighty impact but doesn’t take itself too seriously. This highly personal and entertaining experimental album is a neglected masterpiece.

More Nick Blinko Artwork 

 

 

 

 

 

STUDIO: The Soundtrack of Our Art

CDs

Essential Art Supplies

Painting is my passion. But music is my hobby.

My music collection has been decades in the making. It’s mostly CDs, which I regard as an endangered species these days.

I was sad when CDs overtook vinyl back in the 1980s as the dominant form for music releases, but I adapted. I’m glad vinyl still exists as a popular format, however I haven’t kept up purchasing records. Going digital  is unappealing to me. Part of the fun of collecting is having an actual object.

A big driver of the music collection is inspirational painting music.

My wife Michele and I always have music playing while we paint in the studio we share. We turn it up loud enough to make an impression but no so loud we can’t talk to each other.

Michele and I have very similar tastes in music, though I go to more weird extremes than she does.  She has been enjoying movie soundtracks lately, and they really set a great epic tone to work to.

When Michele takes a nap I put on headphones and listen to obnoxious punk rock and abstract hip hop.

This is the stack of CDs that have accumulated in our home studio recently. These could be seen as the soundtrack for our recent work:

Black Keys – El Camino (2011)

Last Wave – Last Wave (2014) Amazing local music

The Damned -The Black Album (1980)

Devotchka – How It Ends (2004)

Film Soundtrack -Only God Forgives (2013)

The Monks – Black Monk Time (1966)

Mark Lanegan – Field Songs (2001)

Blind Willie Johnson – Dark was the Night (1998)

Love – Forever Changes (1967)

Film Soundtrack – Trance (2013)

Pink Floyd – Obscured by Clouds (1972)

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Tender Prey (1988)

Pearl Jam – Vs (1993)

Queens of the Stone Age – …Like Clockwork (2013)

Forest Swords – Engravings (2013)

The Police – Synchronicity (1983)

Tom Waits – Bad As Me (2011)