Dear Jonathan Jones,
We were reading your review of Paul Simonon’s art exhibition at the ICA and it was pretty brutal calling it this gauche biker art is a betrayal of punk’.
It was not as brutal as many of the great punk shows that we enjoyed in the late seventies when its wasn’t the words that were weapons but the weapons themselves flying through the air but pretty brutal none the less.
And that’s fair enough. A critic has to criticise. That’s the game. Your piece was well written but we didn’t agree with the main thrust of it.
Whilst Paul Simonon hardly needs us to step into the fray and we respect your right to say what you feel we felt that there were a few things we needed to sort out. We acknowledge that you like to create a ruck with your words – it’s all part of the critic game – the 1 out of five review to get the internet fuming so this reply will be gist to your grinding word mill.
The basic bulbous thrust of your review seemed to be the idea that the exhibition was a betrayal of punk is an interesting one. On some levels a highly successful musician displaying his art at the ICA is hardly street and hardly outsider art but then punk was always a mass of contradictions and I’m not sure if Paul S. is claiming to be outsider art. Punk itself was always a confusion of backgrounds – it was street and avenue at the same time- just look at the Clash themselves – Joe went to public school and still sounded like he meant it. That is ultimately why they were so loved.
Meanwhile art and noise at the ICA itself was actually part of the birth pangs of punk so the location is not out of sorts – the Clash themselves played the venue and not punk but fellow travellers Throbbing Gristle wound up one of those self appointed guardian of public morals Nicholas Fairburn (and look what he turned out to be!) with a show there in 1976.
High art, posh venues, grubby pubs, terrace chants, kinky sex, beery swearing, witty doggerel, cut and paste graphics- punk was everything all at once – a rolling confusing argument where it could be Crass, the Pistols, the Slits and a zillion others and an art exhibition four decades later all make sense in this contradictory context – and that’s assuming that Paul Simonon is even working within the limitations imposed by the media on their perception of punk and what it should be to them. Or even working within punk itself. Maybe he likes to paint and is pretty good at it.
We love the idea that you are so sure about what punk is. No-one else seems to know.
In fact everyone else seems to have a different idea of what punk is/was and even that seems to change every day. The idea that punk was just for the amateur is, of course, glorious but only half true. The Sex Pistols were one of the greatest British bands ever and that was way beyond whatever punk was and they were hardly amateurs – more like a rare case of normal kids being allowed to run amok in the pop industry, gloriously out of control, with their own ideas who created a great rock n roll band who would have made it even without all the brilliant baggage added to them by Malcolm and Vivienne whose artful madness and clothes we also love.
The art school genius of their management is, of course, a beautiful and thrilling thing but the Pistols were great anyway – the songs were great and the sound was great.
The same with the Clash. Mick jones was hardly an amateur and, to be fair, you seem to acknowledge this . Even on the first album his skill and craft at song arranging was breath taking and Joe Strummer knew how to deliver- that kind of delivery is beyond amateur and if Paul was fairly rudimentary at that time on the bass he learned fast and he already had the art school eye for classic British style which has dominated his life work. A sartorial style and a lanky cool that is an art-form on its own even before you take the paintings into account.
Of course at Louder Than War we love outsider art. We write about it a lot. We even pick up guitars and make our own outsider music art in our band the Membranes. Inside/outside upside down, whatever- do artists even define themselves with these terms?
Now if the painting in this exhibition were really that rubbish I think your review would have remained somewhat peevish but they actually look ok. I have seen most of the paintings and nearly came down to the launch so we nearly shared the same heated atmosphere Jonathan.
After your words I was expecting some kind of messy rubbish or mono dimensional perfunctory scribbles or I can barely paint scrawls but they are pretty good slices pop art- the rocker everyday framed into the important, a celebration of the classic street styles that the UK did/does so well, a framing of the sartorial world that most critics seem to have little interest in- they used to say ‘have you ever seen an accountant dance’, they also used to say ‘have you ever seen a cool looking critic’ – of course I don’t say that being a music critic type and I don’t know if they say that any more…
The point we did like from your hatchet job was the bit about promoting outsider art- that would be great thing for Paul Simonon to do but maybe a great thing for the Guardian to do as well- maybe you could tour the country and those battered wastelands of our cities and help encourage outsider art in the pages of your newspaper – that would be very noble! Maybe your colleagues could do that with music as well instead of often venerating the usual suspects, maybe you could get some of these lost voices in the rest of the UK to write for your fine paper as well- you can’t just leave this kind of things to the old punks alone. Can you?