Debunking Raymond Pettibon’s Punk

On the Mönchsberg’s summit, in Salzburg’s Museum der Moderne, Raymond Pettibon’s retrospective “Homo Americanus” showcases an impressive collection of zines, vinyl covers, posters, flyers and films, fashioning the evolution of a DIY punk scribbler to an epic art icon. In anticipation of his talk on 26 January at the Austrian museum, SLEEK met noted German author, theoretician and cultural critic Diedrich Diederichsen to debunk inflated notions of punk relating to Pettibon.


Raymond Pettibon


The word “punk” is a fashion statement even in the art world. Millennials and the generation that lived it share a romantic nostalgia. How would you define the “brand” of punk from which Pettibon emerges?
You can talk about punk as a type of historical, practical philosophy: a new oppositional Western position, developing between 75 and 82. It was opposed to the old new left and the ruling social democracy but also against any traditional or right wing position – to put it very general. But mostly people use it as an art/pop-music-historical description, applicable on a specific corpus of works and here I am totally opposed to the inflation of the category.

I would narrow it down to specific practices of certain local milieus of artists. What happened in the US on the West Coast differed from the East Coast or Britain in the late 70s. First, one has to distinguish between the SST culture which Raymond Pettibon was a part of; second, his practice as an artist in his own right.


“Black Flag’s variety of anarchism was very much against state powers like the police, and something similar can be sensed in Raymond Pettibon’s outlook too”


The American West Coast version of punk was not much received outside of its area before the early 80s. Black Flag and the record label SST’s artists became global later than – let’s say – Richard Hell from New York or the British exports. To distinguish this newer version of punk, it was sometimes called “hardcore”. That label stuck for the rest of the 80s. The SST cosmos was special in as far as they were not only about performing interesting attitudes, but really developed musically. Their work was more impressive around 84 than in 78.

Black Flag’s variety of anarchism was very much against state powers like the police. It did not believe in the availability of social change in a near future. And they had a Nietzschean component. They were singing for “No Values” —not “Other Values”. Something similar can be sensed in Raymond Pettibon’s outlook too. His drawings and his films were sarcastic portraits of LA’s hardcore generation with still some kind of solidarity. A very skeptic character, just short of nihilism.

Pettibon has distanced himself from being pigeon-holed as an artist for the punk movement. Is the punk-label simplifying his work?
I would not call it punk. But there was always a connection between visual art and punk: just think of the age-old connection between any relevant British pop-music and British art schools or think of the friendships between Mike Kelley with the protagonists of the SST world. But there was a difference in attitude. Punk tried to be as a-social as possible, art was more social: Art schools were socialising and politicising pure unrest and disgust with the world.

Or is the art-label simplifying punk?
For Pettibon this problem already existed in the late 80s, early 90s, when he started to show professionally in art galleries: What happens to someone who has already had a life and career in a certain subculture, organised in an entirely different way from the high art world?

At that time, the art world revalued techniques and practices, once considered to be mass-cultural or subcultural. Rethinking drawing, comic strips, or flyers as information aesthetics. It was an idea of the time to level the distinction between aesthetic experiences and information. Pettibon was grouped into this.

I think he thought of himself as an artist in the style of a social commentator from a unique position. Benjamin Buchloh compares him to Baudelaire’s “A Painter of Modern Life” on the 18th century illustrator Constantin Guys. But of course today the social commentator cannot refer to modern life per se, he can only concentrate on a specific subcultural perspective.


“You can’t mobilise social energy by displaying old album covers”


This subculture is now packaged as high culture in glass vitrines or in plastic sleeves. A crease, pen mark, or a coffee stain on a flyer increases its worth. These mediums were escapist and oppositional. What are your thoughts on the shift from media associated with punk to trendy, valued works of art?
That’s the way to respond to anything that you are not forced to live, the historical is one version, the exotic would be another one. But I don’t see any alternative. Everything recognisable also functions as a brand. Punk is historical. It happened under such different cultural circumstances. Referring to it, necessarily leads to academia, art, fashion or a museum. Maybe it is a statement of solidarity with the historical material to expose or study complexities. But you can’t mobilise social energy by displaying old album covers. At best you inspire people like good literature or art sometimes does.


Raymond Pettibon 2
No Title (homo americanus), 2015. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York. Copyright Raymond Pettibon


The retrospective expands the cult of Pettibon, narrating his evolution as an artist. The title is a bit of a non sequitur, how to define “the Homo Americanus”? Seemingly a shifting matter, depending on masculine, national identity politics, what’s your take?
That’s the nature of a retrospective if the artist is still alive. They are forced to take responsibility for their entire body of work. There is no way out, they can only be described through a narrative of development or betrayal.

In this drawing, the Black Flag logo has colours it is neither in the queer rainbow nor any national flag. The mohawk I rather associate with British hardcore. We do not know if this man is supposed to be the Homo Americanus.

However, the title has an interesting effect, it turns this image which looks like a historical, social caricature into an anthropological characterisation. It’s a joke or type of revenge. Pettibon is so often called a “social portraitist”, so he acts as if he’s an anthropologist.

He is influenced by film noir and television but Pettibon’s movies are lesser known. Could you preview what you will talk about in Salzburg on 26 January 2017?

I will introduce one of his films, a second one is in the show. There are five longer films and some shorter ones. They narrate specific historical junctions of subcultural formations and political practice. They are on the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), the Weather Underground, Charles Manson, and punk – and one is about Jim Morrison. His friends are the actors in these home video-style films; most of them are musicians.

Pettibon brings these different, often mythologized movements closer together. He develops a set of symptoms. Manson and the SLA are generally no longer taken politically serious. But people still try to be punk and the ideas of the Weathermen also survive. One symptom of course is the behaviour of their leaders. Punk rock also has masculinity issues, less about traditional male dominance, more in terms of the male loser. In Sir Drone Mike Kelley and Mike Watt act out noise-aggression as teenage-male-aggression. It’s ridiculously funny. The two “teenagers” in the film are clearly in their mid-thirties, they play virgin punk rockers looking for radical music. At the same time, they just want to get laid. My favourite line in the whole film is, “Sex. It can’t be too hard core, even your parents must have done it.”

Raymond Pettibon 3


Raymond Pettibon 5


Raymond Pettibon 4

Exhibition view Raymond Pettibon. Homo Americanus © Museum der Moderne Salzburg, Photo: Rainer Iglar

“The Whole World is Watching: Weathermen ’69” will be screened by Diedrich Diederichsen on 26 January 2017. More information on the event is available at




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