By nature I’m an anti-elitist when it comes to art and steadfastly refuse to distinguish between ‘entertainment’ and ‘art’ (but that’s a post for another time). Anyhoo, my topic here is what I consider one of the greatest pieces of visual art in the last 50 years.
It’s by Peter Bagge and appeared in an early issue of his black and white comic Hate in 1990. The full page single panel shows a young woman on her bed (a bare mattress on the floor with a single sheet) surrounded by the impedimentia of Generation X alternative culture (though no one was using the term Generation X and ‘alternative’ was only used ironically). I was…. around people like this at the time (more on the edges than in the middle) and damn but he nails the zeitgeist (new favorite and overused word) before it was a recognizable zeit with it’s own geist.
The bookshelves are groaning under an array of what hip people (who detested the word ‘hip’) were reading, from Naked Lunch (two copies!) to Re/Search publications like Modern Primitives and the Industrial Culture Handbook. Below there is a collection of VHS tapes of unofficially official cool movies of the time (Liquid Sky, Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, Desperate Living). She’s dressed in a combination of dominatrix and punk, has a Manson X carved on her forehead, has a couple of tattoos with occult paraphenalia scattered around and an open copy of Apocalypse Culture next to the bed.
She’s on all fours on the mattress with a pained Bagge-like expression as she faces the reader and recites her mantra “I wanna be bad!”.
I love the sheer accuracy of the vision, which partly comes from what isn’t shown. In terms of music there’s nothing of the time, no Mudhoney or Sonic Youth. In the alternative scene at the time the moment a band acquired 100 fans the real hardcore music fans would disown them. The only safe musical posters would be elder statesmen like Iggy Pop or Lydia Lunch who acquired their street cred long before.
Bagge captures both the allure of the cultural milieu she was part of as well as just what made it so ridiculous.
For Generation X, this is Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe print. You can get a close up here.
The allure came from its collective self expression of Generation X. As Neil Howe once put it (paraphrasing) their parents took pills to not have them and as they grew up vacilated between disinterest and outright antagonism toward them. They were raised by the most divorced generation in history and popular culture tracked their existence with movies about how terrible they were; Rosemary’s Baby, It’s Alive and the Omen accompanied their childhood like Pretty Baby, Angel and River’s Edge when they were teenagers.
Unable to rebel by not living up to expectations, they rebelled by living up to and surpassing the precise expectations their parents seemed to have of them. They consciously embraced what their parents considered deviant and ugly and downright evil and worked as hard as they could to enjoy them, which is part of where the ridiculousnes comes from – the calculation and sheer effort put into the enterprise. Those books and VHS tapes and posters weren’t cheap and took time and concentrated effort to collect into one place before online shopping.
The effort is shown in her desperately contorted face, she’s absurd yet beneath it all is the real human desire to fit in; She’s bound and determined to be loyal to her tribe (in this case a particular generational cohort) no matter the cost in comfort or dignity. There’s something valiant about her pretensions.
Yeah, there’s all that and more in a single comic book panel.
I try to think of what a modern update would be and the closest I can come up with would be the pinched scowl of Chanty Binx (aka Big Red) in her quest for victimhood. Sad and hilarious and strangely admiable all at the same time. O tempora, o mores.
Each generation rebels using its own special trauma