PRINT April 1985


MICKEY MOUSE, MARILYN MONROE, and Coca-Cola T-shirts are still popular all over the world, proving America’s ability to sell an image. But in the ’60s the youth of America, disillusioned with the American way, sought to escape from all this by returning to past ideas of communal living and to slogans of love and peace. Incredible violence surrounded the times. Aside from the Vietnam war there were the Kennedy and King assassinations, and a steady stream of violent protest demonstrations. On the level of popular culture there were such events as the mysterious death of Brian Jones and the Rolling Stones’ tour that culminated with the deaths at Altamont. And then there was Charles Manson and “the Family.” Many people who didn’t die in the upheavals of those years remain as casualties of the ’60s, maimed either by drugs or the Vietnam war. During this time Pop art perpetuated the myth of America as an eternally “new” culture. Its representation of America as an entity of the moment perpetuated a pseudostate of no-history, and the American dream of innocence. In retrospect most Pop art appears to have reinforced the status quo, because it ceased to examine the America beneath the icons it adopted.

Although in the beginning Pop art’s ironic strategy was to glorify the image of America’s surface, its larger-than-life exaggerations brought out the violence of consumerism. But the shock value and absurdity of these images made the cultural critique ambiguous and entertaining. It was the music of the ’60s that really hinted at what lurked beneath the American dream. Within the seeming wholesomeness of surf music and the Beach Boys’ brand of happy, suburban-kids’ music there was “Cease to Exist,” the song Manson wrote. In Neil Young’s songs, the music seduced with the illusion of a drug-induced happy state of nature. But the lyrics—of “The Old Laughing Lady,” for example—expressed an unease within this borrowed Utopian system of escape:

There’s a fever on the freeway, blacks out the night.
There’s a slipping on the stairway just don’t feel right.
And there’s a rumbling in the bedroom and a flashing of the light.
There’s the old laughing lady everything is alright.1

“The old laughing lady” is a symbol for drugs.

The migration west to the land of psychedelia triggered the music that expressed the contradictions of those times. The San Francisco, Haight-Ashbury scene of drugs, love, and peace quickly turned sour. Manson, among the quickest to surmise the end, fled south to Los Angeles, heading for Paradise—suburbia. L.A.’s lush landscaping only begins to make sense when you realize that underneath it is a desert. L.A. is Ed Ruscha’s desert on fire. His paintings are analogous to that era of apocalyptic music: Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row,” the Doors’ “The End,” and the drug death of Gram Parsons culminating with his body being stolen and burned in the desert. And then, of course, there was Manson’s use of the Beatles’ “Heller Skelter.” Manson and the Family were tried and convicted. The Vietnam war ended. Everything returned to “normal.” By the ‘70s Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin were dead; Jim Morrison’s death followed. Corporate rock began to grow. It wasn’t until the end of the ‘70s that the “punk movement” was fabricated by England’s Malcolm Mclaren, who made it fashion. Mclaren took what he saw in a few American groups—the Ramones, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, and the New York Dolls—and packaged it in the form of the Sex Pistols, whose music proclaimed anarchy and the end of rock ’n’ roll. The first real punk or anarchy group actually was the Stooges, which came out of Detroit’s high energy garage-music scene at the end of the ’60s. Among their contemporaries were the MCS and Alice Cooper. When the Stooges’ first record came out in 1969 they were considered submoronic, and stood out from everything else. By the beginning of the ’80s, local groups in Los Angeles were beginning to mutate the form that had come to be known as British punk. Because L.A. has always been very conservative, there was never any reason to stop rebelling. In L.A., weirdly dressed kids are seen as a threat to suburban, family life, while in England fashion is an escape from the distinctions of class. Each person’s facade unites him or her with a certain music faction, each at odds with all others. In L.A., even though there are different cliques—sometimes based simply on which suburbs the groups come from—they all are jumbled together as “the enemy,” apart from the adult world. Just as in the ’60s hippie decor was an affront to most people’s sensibilities, now any derivation of it is looked upon with skepticism and as a reminder of the dissension of that era.

There is now a conspicuously growing nostalgia for the music of the ’60s. Within the resurgence of music forms of that period (including surf, psychedelic, and heavy-metal acid guitar music), there is a message in the lyrics, which again reflect something other than that all is well in paradise. It seems every month there’s a new derivation of the Velvet Underground coming out with a record from L.A. The Cramps (originally from New York), who were also a big influence in L.A., seem to have spawned a whole series of “Horror Rock” bands such as T.S.O.L., 45 Grave, Christian Death, and the Gun Club, with its references back to blues and the devil. The music of the Adolescents, a group from Orange County, combines the surf and psychedelic guitar music in a powerful sound which often achieves the uplifting feeling of the Byrds’ music. The lyrics, though, are more direct in their disenchantment with commercial entertainment and the constructed popular culture of L.A. For example, “L.A. Girl”:

We don’t really care if you say we’re too young
We don’t waste our time tanning in the sun
We don’t even care what you know or think
Spoiled rich brat you ain’t so neat
Chorus: L.A. girl, L.A. world
Don’t tell us how to act
Don’t tell us what to wear
L.A. girl, L.A. world
You didn’t create our scene . . . 2

Or “Kids of the Black Hole’’

No sound is heard from unit two
When there was once so much to do
It was once a green mansion, but now it’s a wasteland
Our days of wreckless fun are through

Kids in a fast lane living for today
No rules to abide by and no rules to obey
Sex, drugs and fun is their only thought and care
Another swig of brew another overnight affair

Chorus: House of the filthy
House not a home
House of destruction
Where the lurkers roamed
House that belonged
To all the homeless kids
Kids of the black hole

Messages and slogans are the primary decor
History’s recorded in a clutter on the floor
Inhabitants that searched the grounds for roaches or spare change
Another night of chaos is so easy to arrange


The nights of birthdays
The nights of fry
The nights of endless drinking
The knights of violence
The knights of noise
The nights that had to end for good
Still not understood by the girls and boys

Carefree in their actions as for morals they had none
When the girls were horny who would be the lucky ones?
Pushing all the limits to a point of no return
Trashed beyond belief to show the kids don’t wanna learn . . . 3

Or Saccharine Trust’s “We Don’t Need Freedom”:

we don’t need freedom
we don’t need freedom
we don’t need freedom
freedom is what ruined your brain
with creativity drugs and pain
freedom is what let you run wild
explain freedom to your fatherless child
we don’t need freedom
do we now

freedom preaches disobedience
idiot rebellion false allegiance
pride waste lust and greed
we’re free to obey all of these
comfortably that’s how we’ll be
enough for you plenty for me
we won’t need actors and rock stars
all we’ll want is farmers and soldiers4

These groups set up their own record labels and fanzines, and make their own music instead of waiting for the latest corporate A and R men to come to town and package them. They have very different attitudes from those of the rock ’n’ roll groups of the ’60s. For example, there is a faction of the hardcore movement from Washington, D. C., that is referred to as “straight edge.” These kids are antidrugs, antidrinking, anti-Reagan, and antisex—not so much out of puritanism as from a desire to be in control, and to avoid being manipulated by the consumerist system. These groups represent America’s tradition of horror, coming from Edgar Allan Poe and his antibourgeois, antifamily stories of incest. The groups that have most successfully taken from a wide range of American music—folk, jazz, blues, the sensuous anarchy of acid guitar—and who combine it all in a savagery of primal emotions to express modern apocalyptic doom are the Minutemen, Black Flag, Saccharine Trust, and the Meat Puppets. In his review of Black Flag’s album Damaged (The Village Voice, December 30, 1981—January 5, 1982), Doug Simmons wrote, “It’s difficult to sympathize with the rage of California’s hardcore, a scene populated mostly by the sons of upper middle-class white suburbanites.” Then, later: “More than any album, Damaged articulates and justifies hardcore, especially if you accept insanity as a defense.” In the version of the song “Damaged” sung by Henry Rollins, Black Flag’s present vocalist, he talks, over the intro, about his father, who he says used to drive him out to the country and make him recite the Pledge of Allegiance over and over.

Raymond Pettibon is a resident artist at SST Records, started by members of Black Flag. Besides producing record covers and posters for SST, New Alliance, and Thermidor (the three companies work together), he also published books of his drawings, which are available through SSTs catalogue. Wandering outside the realm of the art world and attached to a music subculture, Pettibon can depict a wider range of subject matter than is considered appropriate or even possible within the avant-garde of the art world, because of the inhibiting values that prevail in that system. Pettibon’s drawings all have texts of one-liner punch lines with a twist. The pictures are like stills edited out of a longer story. They can be seen specifically as comic strips based on the music of Black Flag and the Minutemen, but since they are not really done for the groups but are taken from Pettibon’s vast collection, they are ultimately statements unto themselves. The drawings feed off the simplistic morals of made-for-TV movies, which center around “contemporary” questions. Pettibon doesn’t feel that the themes of the drawings are his inventions. They are meant to be clichés, unconscious scenes or situations which have appeared before. A poster for Black Flag taken from one of Pettibon’s drawings shows in the foreground an androgynous-looking person with an insane smile on her/his face. In the background is the unhappy face of a boy.

Pettibon was only 12 at the end of the ’60s, but the events of that decade provide one of the prominent themes in his work. There are recurring Manson-like figures, with followers who wear the familiar X on their foreheads. Using illustration’s technique of image snowballing, in which certain elements are repeated in different drawings, the meaning of the images builds and changes from picture to picture, setting up a language of its own. Pettibon’s use of Manson to relate to the culture of the ’80s is akin to the use, by the punk movement of the ’70s, of bondage—not to advocate it but to show that they were in bondage by society. Now this L.A. subculture feels crossed out by the suburban, middle-class paradisiacal state of Los Angeles and the “culture’’ in general. In the words of Black Flag, they are “damaged.”

Pettibon links the idea of regeneration through sexual satisfaction to the idea of “regeneration through violence.”5 Manson understood the psychology of this process. When he first made love to new members of the Family he would tell them to pretend he was their father. To Manson his true father was authority, the government, the judge, the jail: “My father is the jailhouse. My father is your system ... I am only a reflection of you . . . But I know this: that in your hearts and your own souls, you are as much responsible for the Vietnam war as I am for killing these people . . . ”6 The drawing on the cover of Pettibon’s book Other Christs (1982) shows two hippie types and two straight-looking adults watching a Christ-like Manson figure being crucified on TV. The viewers all have halos over their heads; and the caption reads, “I’m glad to see someone from our group making it.” Pettibon puts the cultists on a plane equivalent to religion, and also connects them to media worship and to Andy Warhol’s famous statement about everyone achieving 15 minutes of stardom. He shows “the Family,” or any family, for that matter, thrilled to see their exploits talked about in the newspapers and on TV. Warhol never did a portrait of Manson because his portraits deal with heroes, or hero/victims: Marilyn Monroe, Kennedy’s assassination, Elvis, an American Indian. Manson is too articulate, too much a twister of language, too effective, to be put up as an emblem of American culture.

The split between the romance of technology and its effects that erupted in the ’60s, glossed over in the work of most Pop artists, was usurped by Robert Smithson. Now in the ’80s Mike Kelley presents this unresolved situation again, but from a viewpoint of confusion rather than through Smithson’s idea of gradual decay or entropy. Kelley is a performance artist who in the last couple of years has extended his work into the art gallery. Many of the props he uses in his performances have been shown in gallery installations. Additional paintings, drawings, and sculpture often deal with the same themes as the performances, but stand on their own as installations and as individual works. Imbued with a sense of energy and motion, they can be connected either directly to the performances themselves or to a sense of performing. Their tentative quality suggests that they are mementos of the artist’s overall activity and ongoing thought process rather than precious objects unto themselves. In this way the artist is more powerful than the product.

Like Pettibon, Kelley uses the gesture of illustrative cartoons as an appropriated, ordinary form, and as a means by which to contrast extraordinary images. His playfully vulgar subject matter and juvenile sensibility make the post-conceptual and structuralist influence on the work nearly invisible. He uses structuralist devices to make fun of the myth of rational thought which led to the myth of progress. Kelley creates a superstructure that shows the mechanics of nature to be as complex as the superstructure of technology. He points out that this seamless world of seeming perfection is in the hands of humans who are neither seamless nor perfect, allowing the possibility for anything to happen. Kelley’s man, often the character he plays in his performances, has an overactive libidinous nature. As he tries to “control” his quest for “the sublime’’ the sacrificed emotions, finding no outlet for expression, build on themselves, eventually manifesting themselves in some taboo display which reduces him to a kind of monkey’s ass.

Kelley’s work is often associated with that of Jonathan Borofsky. The look of the artists’ installations is similar, but the differences between them are enormous and significant. Because Kelley works up an actual juvenile energy, the world he creates is immoral, as opposed to Borofsky’s moral order. Kelley’s embarrassing takes are like Freud gone haywire. His swirling, pulsating lines create a sense of erotic fixation and project a horror and incestuous smothering not unlike that caused by Poe’s houses of death, or to give a more contemporary example, the movie Alien. In Alien, the being grows into a huge phallic monster which strangles and engulfs the spacemen; their technology is helpless against it. In a work entitled Buried Treasure, 1983, Kelley illustrates reward and punishment. The piece consists of two drawings in a vertical diptych. The top drawing shows a treasure chest sitting in a hole, while the bottom drawing shows a hole filled with garbage. Around the top of the lower drawing is written (right side up), “Someone else’s waste material,” written upside down along the bottom of the same drawing is the phrase “The reward comes only from strict adherence to directions.” Around the edges of the treasure-chest drawing-beginning across the top and going down the side, along the bottom and up the other side—is a text that begins, “The right hole must be examined carefully to exhume the nugget of satisfaction-treasure . . . ” You have to twist your head upside down and sideways to follow the meandering text. Having done this you feel a little foolish, reduced to a lower state—like a dog digging a hole, following the scent of reward.

Tony Oursler is another artist who uses homestyle animation and a childlike scrawl as a means of recapturing the viewer from the slick technological manipulation of the entertainment business. He works primarily in video and video installations, producing darkly humorous works. He begins by seducing the viewer with a lush and sensual array of sets. At times his narrations are the stories of the sets themselves as they collapse and metamorphose into something else. In Spin Out, 1983–84, Oursler presents the story of man and his evolution into the future. One of the tape’s sequences. a flashback to biblical times, shows a shepherd and his sheep on a hillside looking out peacefully at a starry night. Suddenly a constellation is delineated and changes first into the face of E.T., then into a demon. then into a good god, and finally into a god shedding tears for man. Oursler imitates the way the media manipulates and fabricates our past and future. Elsewhere his use of the soap opera genre turns sentimentality into social parody. Spin Out literalizes the “suspended disbelief” that describes the state of the movie goer who desperately wants to believe the experience he or she knows to be two-dimensional. Oursler’s work, like Pettibon’s and Kelley’s, is imbued with detail, which contributes to its dramatically realistic quality. This modern realism used to be called science fiction. The moral at the end of the tape is that “nothing will happen to modern man.” The puppet figure of man is absurdly not killed off. Just in the nick of time it is jerked away from disaster by a string. Among many other things, Oursler here is poking fun at America’s religion of optimism.

The dark, obsessive edge that holds Oursler’s tapes together could easily get lost in more formal concerns, as his work begins to achieve the seductive qualities of entertainment. However, Oursler’s sense of life as aversion of David Cronenberg’s TV-paranoid Videodrome allows his work to hold to its critique. Recently Oursler showed one of his tapes at the New York club Danceteria. The tape was looped footage of two children, a boy and a girl, playing with plastic ray-guns. For ten minutes the sound of the toys blasted through the sci-fi-like, utopian environment of the club’s video lounge, driving a lot of people out and symbolically killing off the ’60/’80s myth of the seamless relationship between popular culture and art. Most video and art shown at the club works only as ambient decoration. Oursler’s new tape, 1984–85, is titled Evol—“love’’ spelled backward. The reference to the ’60s is blatant.

The ’60s manufactured an illusion of “here and now,” in the ’80s truth passes into fiction and out again, history is recycled into the present without a context. and the present has become a leap of faith, as we sit back and enjoy the ultrafast life of MTV. In the ’80s the art world has come to mirror the fast-food culture that Pop art ended up glorifying. In one way or another Pettibon, Kelley, and Oursler, with their psychedelic, seemingly expressionistic styles, connect this moment to the ’60s to lead us back not for a nostalgic pondering, but for a confrontation with this crucial time.

By focusing on the split between the romance of technology and its forces of control they can isolate the manipulations that Pop art glossed over. Instead of producing ironic grand glossy icons to the products of popular culture, these artists are looking at its seamier sides. They do this by looking not down from above, but at themselves. Their use of male adolescent sexuality and the cartoon genre exaggerates and magnifies dynamics in human relationships not often visible in art, film, or TV. Their work belongs more to the literary tradition of Melville or Twain than to current figurative painting.



1. From Neil Young, “The Old Laughing Lady,” Neil Young, © 1969 Broken Arrow/Cotilion Music.

2. From the Adolescents, “L.A. Girl,” Adolescents, © 1981 American Lesion Music.

3. From the Adolescents, “Kids of the Black Hate,” Adolescents, © 1981 American Lesion Music.

4. From Saccharine Trust, “We Don’t Need Freedom,” Paganicons, © 1981 SST Records.

5. The phrase is taken from Richard Slatkin’s essay “Dreams and Genocide: The American Myth of Regeneration through Violence,” first published in The Journal of Popular Culture, Summer 1971.

6. Quoted in Vincent Bugliosi (with Curt Gentry), Hefter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1974.