May 13, 2011 11:35 pm

Of punk and postmodernity

An exhibition chronicling the SoHo scene is a bold attempt to place one of the 20th century’s most confusing movements in a historical context

In the Fales Library, the academic heart of New York University’s busy campus, Marvin Taylor gingerly hands me what I have asked to see: the single item that he considers to be the most valuable in the room. It is a small, two-volume first edition of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I am gripped by the romance, but cannot help asking a venal question. How much? About $75,000, give or take, he replies, and begins to recite playfully in a light ironic tone that would surely have pleased the book’s author: “It is a truth universally acknowledged ...”

DeCoursey Fales donated his father’s substantial collection of English and American novels to the university in 1957. Much of it was built in the early part of the last century, when fiction was far from the most prized literary form. It was an auspicious gift. The novel’s stock has risen spectacularly, in both cultural and monetary terms. We are sitting inside a treasure trove. Taylor, the library’s director, shows me some more highlights. The Whale by Herman Melville, a rare British edition before it was rebranded as Moby-Dick, and Charles Dickens’s personal copy of A Christmas Carol.

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Peter Aspden

But there is about to be a sharp change of register. As well as supervising the library’s starred items and the continuing purchase of contemporary novels, Taylor has an area of special interest. In 1993 he founded the library’s Downtown Collection, an archive chronicling the rise of SoHo’s 1970s underground scene. You mean, I ask, people like Richard Hell? The founding member of Television, that most cerebral of punk bands, was one of the first to pledge his allegiance to the “blank generation”, upsetting upright patriots and socially committed baby-boomers alike.

“Yes!” says Taylor, who is wearing red chequered shorts and a black T-shirt adorned with the sniggering figure of Mutley from Wacky Races. “I have the hand-written lyrics of ‘Love Comes in Spurts’.” So we cross to another side of the room in an act of literary bathos, bounding from the delicacies of Jane Austen to Hell’s reductive love anthem. (“Love comes in spurts, in dangerous flirts, and it murders your heart, they didn’t tell you that part.”)

Taylor pulls out a black notebook from the archive. The first part is a journal written by Hell’s comrade-in-iconoclasm, Patti Smith. Then Hell’s own writings take over. There is a child-like list of “first-string” influences: Godard, Chandler, Borges. And Rimbaud, of course, albeit only in a second tier.

The American punk movement, it should be obvious by now, bore little relation to its British counterpart. It sought inspiration in French poets rather than plastic bin-liners. “They stepped around American modernism altogether and looked back to symbolism,” says Taylor. Given punk’s live-today, gone-tomorrow ethos, I express surprise that such a substantial archive exists at all. “Richard was a junkie,” says Taylor. “And junkies keep everything.”

. . .

Taylor says the Downtown Collection is growing at the rate of “800 linear feet a year”, making it sound like one of those uncontrollable furry monsters from a 1950s sci-fi movie. He carefully locates the first-ever issue of Punk magazine, dated January 1975. There is a long article on Marlon Brando, “The Original Punk”, leather-jacketed in a still from The Wild One. Taylor riffs learnedly on the biker jacket’s history, on which he is writing a paper. “It introduced a new kind of male sexuality,” he says. By the time punk was under way, Brando was fat and appearing in Superman movies – a less palatable kind of male sexuality.

Artists in the Downtown Collection will feature in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s autumn exhibition Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, which promises to be a bold attempt to locate one of the 20th century’s most confusing movements in a historical context. The SoHo scene, bursting with energy and gleefully raiding themes from the past, was a vital ingredient. It was not always appreciated at the time: not every lovestruck boy who bought a Blondie single knew of the group’s art punk origins. But its style – sexually detached, lilting from sugary pastiche to New Wave freneticism – was archetypally postmodern.

It heralded a new cultural tone. Out went long hair and earnestness; in came playful, mannered blending of history. It was, and remains, an intellectually controversial development. But there was no doubting the scene’s promiscuous vitality. Growing in the same neighbourhoods as Debbie Harry and Richard Hell was the hip-hop movement, the hegemon of today’s popular culture.

Taylor is preparing for a more complete celebration of the archive in 2014, the 40th anniversary of punk, which he asserts to have started when Television first supported Patti Smith in summer 1974. It must have been quite a time, I say. “I think nostalgia is the death of criticism,” he replies, a little too quickly for my liking. I challenge him to identify an equivalent scene today. “I went to Berlin,” he responds. “But I wasn’t impressed.”

‘Postmodernism: Style and Subversion’ opens at the V&A on September 24, www.vam.ac.uk

peter.aspden@ft.com

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