Sell Out Now

7.1 / Sell Out Now

Sell Out Now

By Steven Wolf September 10, 2015

Accompanying this essay is a selection of images from Transformer, Steven Wolf Fine Arts 2010 exhibition of work by Joe Rees, artist and  founder of Target Video.


In high school I was desperate to gain the upper hand in the game of teenage domination. What needy child wasn't? There was little I wouldn't do to leverage my position in that petty suburban hierarchy aside from genuine hard work. When punk rock came along with its backslang of exclusivity, its lions’ gate of dark aesthetics and angry ideology, it perfectly suited my needs. I slithered into the crusty fortress, got my first taste of entertainment as power, and stared back with superiority upon the left-behinds still passively content with the easy-listening classic-rock disco glam of our youth. That new way to feel cool buttressed me as I went out into the world, and it helped form the template of my future, which now, perhaps predictably, includes selling the work of pranksters and punks.

Negative capability is some of visual art's dark sorcery.

I know what you’re thinking: how cynical of Art Practical to give a dealer the job of editing an issue devoted to punk rock. Dealers are the monetizers of culture, the fork-tongued descendants of hip capitalists, those Bill Graham music presenters of hippie days gone by who set the standard for co-opting counterculture so it can be watered down and sold back to the mainstream as a T-shirt or an album.1 The choice seems even more galling since one of the things people cherish about punk rock—perhaps the thing they cherish most about punk rock—is the value placed on authenticity. The Wikipedia definition of selling out includes a section on punk rock. That's like saying there's a picture of Jello Biafra in the dictionary next to authenticity. That scenario would be comical if not for the subject's sour gravity, which you can taste in the suicide note of Kurt Cobain, who lost touch with that authenticity and paid for it with his life. Listen to the despair in his voice after falling prey to the falseness that so often accompanies fame and fortune: "All the warnings from the punk rock 101 courses over the years, since my first introduction to the, shall we say, ethics involved with independence and the embracement of your community has proven to be very true."2

Yet learning to digest the hypocrisy that comes with marketing objects that critique commodification is what makes me a decent candidate to speculate on the future custodianship of punk rock's warehouse of authenticity, its stored credibility. Negative capability is some of visual art's dark sorcery. Accepting that paradox is the first thing you need to do if you want to deal in the avant-garde, and my goal here is to use that sorcery to get past the simple binary surface of the authenticity/sellout conundrum that limits the way people think about punk rock.

Joe Rees. Duchamp Template, 1971; 8 mm glass, argon gas and mercury; 12 x 7 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Steven Wolf Gallery, San Francisco.

The stakes are getting higher, especially now that the history of punk is being torn from the clutches of its original creators. Families and estates are taking over the licensing of the music, while the artwork is making its way into the hands of curators and historians. Just recently, Stanford University bought a large collection of San Francisco punk rock flyers. No longer fraying on a lamppost next to babysitter ads and missing cat notices, or piling up in some aging scenester’s trunk, the flyers are now in little drawers next to Bach sheet music and John Cage ephemera.3 That seems like a desirable new context. It's in line with my dream of an art history in which the canon will ultimately sort out the value of works and replace the sound of Whitney Houston singing “I Will Always Love You” with Penelope Houston singing “Gonna fuck you fuck you fuck you fuck you fuck you.”4 But the canonization of punk also risks academic exclusivity and further marginalization.

Though precious few bands from the first generation of punk rock even got the chance to sell out to major labels—so many great ones like the Screamers never even recorded an album—the threat of a Judas-like betrayal haunted the movement from the start.5 The Christian reference is by design. American punk is often cited as the negation of hippy utopianism, but I see those as two points on a long line of American reform movements, from the 19th-century transcendentalists to the mid-century Beats to Occupy Wall Street. With all due respect to Steven Lee Beeber's The Heebie-Geebies at CBGBs: A Secret History of Jews in Punk Rock, punk is more like Christian rock in disguise, and I'm not the first person to notice. In the experimental documentary Rock My Religion (1982–1984), artist Dan Graham ties punk rock to ecstatic poetry, and slam dancing to 19th-century Shaker spinning, a form of exertion that pushed the body to physical extremes as a way to get closer to god. And like the Shakers, who were celibate and have since died out, punk generated straight edge, a D.C. hardcore subculture whose adherents reject alcohol, drugs, and sex.

Joe Rees. Cancelled Mona, ca. 1975; Neon gas, tubing & found painting; 24 x 16 x 4 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Steven Wolf Gallery, San Francisco.

The question of selling out unearthed itself in the '90s with the mainstream success of punk-rock revival bands like Nirvana and Green Day, and it has popped up again now that several bands have licensed their music for commercials and entertainment. No one cares if the Who or the Stones sell out. What would it even mean for Beyoncé to sell out? It's only when a band like Minor Threat takes money that a shit storm follows.6

The problem is today we don't differentiate between art and advertising as rigorously as we once did.

What happens in the exchange is pretty clear: The advertisers, now made up of kids who went to punk shows or heard about them secondhand, get to use the music they actually like for their products. The products benefit from association with the music fans’ love and respect. In turn, the band gets paid (which they almost never did the first time around) and exposed to a new audience. The problem is today we don't differentiate between art and advertising as rigorously as we once did, and we are likely to consume the music without worrying about the context. The music becomes a detached signifier that no longer carries the original intent of the band, which in the case of Minor Threat included a heavy dose of anticonsumerism. The band then seems hypocritical, like they've given up on their ideals—hey, welcome to my world—to the disappointment of fans, who embraced their anticapitalist ethos in the first place.

Part of me also wants my artists and my bands to remain pure and virginal (just to persist with the Christian rock theme). The music can feel drowned or canceled by another artist or a sponsor's message. But to insist on limiting the context for a song like “Kill the Poor” by the Dead Kennedys to the way it was first heard in 1980 isn't just a quick recipe for creating nostalgia, it's antithetical to the semiotic openness that is at the origin of punk rock. Just look at the Dictators, proto-punks who married the toxic signifiers of fascism to harmless images of layabout domesticity as a way of creating a new breed of teen delinquency.

We're the members of the master race
Got no style and we got no grace
Sleep all night, sleep all day
Nothing good on TV anyway7

Trying to preserve punk rock as it was also carries the false assumption that only the artists know what their songs are about and that their intention is stable and impervious to revision. It's a hopelessly antiquated take on intentionality and personal identity that my NYU English professor put to rest for me in 1982, when he said—I kid you not—that the Ramones' “Teenage Lobotomy” illustrated how the democratization of language and meaning had decentered the location of the brain and obliterated old models of personal identity. “How you gonna tell 'em/they ain't got no cerebellum.”8

Joe Rees. Belief, 1974, refabricated 2009; glass, argon gas, mercury, transformer; 11 x 37 x 2.5 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Steven Wolf Gallery, San Francisco.

Okay, so NYU wasn't as good a school then as it is now. But I did learn that static judgments like “the avant-garde is always good and commercial capitalism is always bad” harbor the kind of romantic nostalgia for a clean-cut idea of counterculture that dominates sentimental works like Woody Allen's Sleeper (1973), in which the owner of a Greenwich Village health-food store wakes up in the future to discover to his horror that steak and hot fudge are good for you and wheat germ is not. Punk is already an elitist, under-circulated art form, and if we let it stagnate in the archive as a late-20th-century cri de coeur against consumerism and inequality, it will produce little new culture in the future.

So, at the risk of turning punk rock into a thing that can only be said in quotes, a husk casing of a term, as Jennifer Egan9 would say, emptied of meaning through co-optation, I am issuing a call for a new eugenics, a program for breeding it with things totally unlike itself in the quest for new mash-ups. We need to re-enchant punk rock to undo the fatalism that accompanies the thinking that every avant-garde rebellion is doomed to be absorbed by the mainstream. Who doesn't want to hear “Kill the Poor” in an ad for Humvees, in a commercial for, or in conjunction with any get-rich-quick scheme or anti-poverty program imaginable? These new punk hybrids should be circulated dangerously. We can’t worry if it results in embarrassing scenes like the Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibition and opening night party Punk Rock: Chaos to Couture. The weirdly American narrative about the upper class trying to drag something from the gutter to a formal ball more than made up for the fact that punk was sometimes just a stray reference in an Alexander Wang sweater dress. This impulse to combine punk with other incongruous things will likely mean a continued future of polite waiters with tattoos and mohawks waiting to serve you at fancy restaurants, but also the infiltration of DIY spirit into, say, renewable energy production.

Joe Rees. Mondrian's Chair, 1975; Argon, phosphorous, glass; 36 x 18 x 18 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Steven Wolf Gallery, San Francisco.   

A couple of totally oddball case studies to support this thought: Right at the time of Lou Reed's death in 2013, PlayStation 4 flooded the airwaves with commercials of two young white males battling to the death in video-game combat set to the elegiac strains of the Velvet Underground's “Perfect Day.” It was an eerie bit of intertextual choreography if you knew Reed was on his deathbed, and a cynical way to say that a perfect day was no longer spent out in a park with some drag queen getting stoned but in front of a TV screen with your best buddy playing video games. But the commercials introduced the song to a new audience, and they did it in a self-consciously ironic tableau that the Velvets could never have dreamed of. In one scene, an actor happily embraces his own death, knowing he will be reborn in the next game, while singing the song's refrain. The juxtaposition of the tender song against the barreling new artificial reality looks as surreal/dada as any good punk-rock paste-up.

Punk rock was always like a virus to which mainstream society built up a resistance.

Another humble example comes from the now defunct reality TV show "Work of Art" starring China Chow and Jerry Saltz. A horrible, tacky, hokey, silly, embarrassing, predictable mess of a show, and yet the winner of Season Two produced an interesting surprise. Twenty-two-year-old Abdi Farah won the first prize: $100,000 and a solo show at the Brooklyn Art Museum. He also won one more award: the right to auction off a work of art at Phillips. Simon de Pury, who strutted in and out of the show as a cheerleading consultant, was one of the show's breakout stars, and Phillips a sponsor. In the past the auction would have seemed more like a booby prize than an actual reward. Artists used to cringe when they saw their work come up for sale at auction, out of context, out of their control, an obvious analogy for a punk band seeing their work in a TV show or an ad. Saltz himself has compared the work of art on the auction block to the sacrificial slaughter of the lamb. But this show turned that logic on its head. The Brooklyn Museum exhibition turned out to be sterile and predictable, really more like an ad for the TV show than anything else. The auction became the semiotically interesting event because Farah, who is black, chose to auction a self-portrait in tighty-whities called Baptism. On its own, it’s a conventional image. But in the auction context, the ultimate capitalist setting, before a largely white crowd, it took on the aura of a slave auction, elevating the work in a way that no other context could. When it hammered at $16,000, it not only became the painting's most successful appearance, but an extraordinary payday as well.

Punk rock was always like a virus to which mainstream society built up a resistance. Now, songs uprooted from their natural soil, floating free in the mediasphere with no clear connection to land, can mutate and survive in a new form, and once again become a paradigm for radical reinvention. No band has done this better than Devo. An avant-garde art project preternaturally concerned with evolutionary issues, they smuggled themselves into pop music and then grew with the technology, the changing ear of the audience, and the distribution system, collaborating with advertisers, Hollywood, and even children’s TV, while still retaining a wry detachment from it all.

Okay relax
Assume the position
Go into doggie submission.10


  1. Michael J. Kramer, The Republic of Rock: Music and Citizenship in the Sixties Counter Culture (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013).
  3. Jerry McBride, conversation with author.
  4. Avengers, “Fuck You,” Avengers, 1983.
  5. Jack Boulware and Silke Tudor, Gimme Something Better: The Profound, Progressive, and Occasionally Pointless History of Bay Area Punk from Dead Kennedys to Green Day (Penguin Books, 2009), 93.
  6. Brandon Ferguson, Minor Threat: Anti-Capitalist Punk Icons or Blatant Sellouts?, OC Weekly Blog, August 17, 2011,
  7. The Dictators, “Master Race Rock,” Go Girl Crazy, 1975.
  8. Ramones, “Teenage Lobotomy,” Rocket to Russia, 1981.
  9. Jennifer Egan, A Visit From the Goon Squad (Anchor Books, 2010), 323.
  10. Devo, “Praying Hands.” Are We Not Men? We Are Devo, 1978.

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