Pretty vacant

Punk art exploded into the decay and collapse of the 1970s, bringing a message of racial and sexual

I will admit that punk largely passed me by; I was a young single parent, and the only safety pins I was familiar with were the ones I was sticking into nappies. I associate that period with flares, stacked heels, big hair and everything being covered in horrible orange and brown flowers. For me, the 1970s were more Abba than anarchy.

I do recall, of course, that Britain was in crisis. The oil crises of 1973 and 1979 created a severe fuel shortage; there were power cuts, strikes, rocketing inflation and unemployment; rat-infested rubbish lay uncollected in the streets. An odour of decay and collapse hung in the air during the "winter of discontent" of 1978-79. Then Margaret Thatcher swept to power, and began her systematic vandalisation of the welfare state, public services and the mining industry, with the attendant destruction of its close-knit working-class culture. On the other side of the pond, New York was crime-ridden, bankrupt and experiencing the bitter aftermath of the Vietnam War, while Watergate had exposed a president prepared to lie to his country to save his skin.

The punk counterculture was both a symbol of and an angry riposte to those ravaged times. Intentionally or otherwise, it set about dismantling the white, male, straight, middle-class hegemony, replacing it with a do-it-yourself culture in which the predominant discourses were gay, feminist and working-class. The oil crisis highlighted the social and economic inequalities in both Britain and the United States, and the art scene became increasingly politicised. Many artists addressed issues of economic injustice and later turned their attention to racial and sexual empowerment.

The music scene in Britain was flooded with art-school graduates and dropouts. For the postwar generation, art school provided opportunities to those whose access to education was limited either by class or little conventional academic success. In the 1960s, musicians such as John Lennon, Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton and Pink Floyd had emerged from this niche; in the 1970s it spawned punk, which has been called the ultimate art-school music movement.

Punk is usually associated with music and fashion, but the primary focus of "Panic Attack! Art in the Punk Years", a major retrospective at the Barbican in London, is visual art. It is a surprisingly tame show; without the sounds and the clothes, it is hard-pressed to capture the raw, in-your-face-spirit of the movement. This is punk with its rotten teeth pulled.

The genesis of punk as a musical phenomenon was in the States, where a scene formed in New York around bands such as Television and the Ramones, but also involved visual and performance artists who congregated in the same downtown spaces. In Britain, the Sex Pistols and their influential manager, Malcolm McLaren, brought the movement into the public consciousness. McLaren had been inspired by a trip to New York in 1974.

The most iconic image on show is Jamie Reid's cover for the Pistols' infamous 45-inch single "God Save the Queen", which was released to coincide with Elizabeth II's silver jubilee. Reid had met McLaren when they were both studying at Croydon Art College. Taking Cecil Beaton's celebrated photograph of the monarch, he blindfolded and gagged her with strips of collaged lettering that spelled out the song title and the band's name. It provided a suitably angry graphic accompaniment to the Pistols' music and lyrics.

Collage already had a long radical history, having been used by the Dadaists and the surrealists as a hallmark of dissent. Punk was the obvious heir to these trends. The anarchic, amateur nature of collage fitted the mood of punk, which turned the tear or rent into a signifier of protest and the safety pin into the fetishised symbol of the movement. Bricolage (literally "tinkering") and making objects out of rubbish also became synonymous with the punk aesthetic. The work of the young sculptors who transformed urban detritus into art fed into the "new British sculpture" of the early 1980s, which produced stars such as Bill Woodrow and Tony Cragg.

The moral panic that punk generated pushed many fine artists and musicians outside the mainstream. Victor Burgin, a pioneer of conceptual art, wrote that "no activity is to be understood apart from the codes and practices of the society which contains it". He sought, with others such as Martha Rosler, Stephen Willats and David Lamelas, to expand photographic practice to incorporate advertising imagery that then acted as a critique of the culture it mimicked. In Burgin's UK76, a Tudor cottage stands as a sign of privileged middle-class life; another photograph in the same series depicts a migrant Indian worker, revealing the realities of sweated labour.

London in the 1970s still bore signs of bomb damage from the Second World War, and these wasted spaces and dilapidated warehouses were colonised by groups of drug-takers, artists and drag queens. The street became an experimental playground for subversion and resistance with a flowering of performance art that involved the body. In America, a masked and naked Paul McCarthy made his video Rocky (1976), in which he obsessively punches his head and smears his genitals with ketchup. Cindy Sherman adopted a variety of disguises that evoked stereotyped female characters from B-movies. And London's Institute of Contemporary Arts hosted "Prostitution", one of the most incendiary exhibitions in the ICA's history. It lasted just eight days and featured used tampons, among other things.

In 1974 the artist Andrew Logan and the film-maker Derek Jarman had moved into Butler's Wharf, where Logan and his bohemian pals held the drag Alternative Miss World extravaganza. Jarman made a Super-8 film of the punk icon Jordan, dressed in a white tutu and dancing around a bonfire in a wasted industrial landscape - like a character from A Clockwork Orange turning up in Swan Lake. Many artists were involved in gay and feminist subcultures, and sexual limits were pushed to the extreme. Robert Mapplethorpe photographed Patti Smith for her debut album, Horses, looking subversively androgynous, and tested the boundaries of acceptable represen tation with his "sex pictures" depicting sadomasochistic practices on New York's gay scene.

The street became the theatre for other artists. Jenny Holzer plastered her installation series Inflammatory Essays and Truisms on the walls of cities in the US, and Keith Haring made chalk drawings on empty New York subway advert ising panels. Jean-Michel Basquiat also merged elements of graffiti with neo-expressionism to create a unique, black street style.

With its interest in the fragment and its habit of appropriation, punk segued easily with the discourses around postmodernism. Marxism, psychoanalysis, feminism and queer politics all provided alternative critiques of mainstream society. This exhibition graphically shows how punk, with its nihilistic and anarchic ethos, offered a means of dissent and a different way of being in a culture where many felt silenced, marginalised and dispossessed.

"Panic Attack! Art in the Punk Years" is at the Barbican Art Gallery, London EC2, until 9 September. http://www.barbican.org.uk

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