style wars




It became obvious to the British art world at some point in the Eighties that the Sixties were finally over. Important cultural changes which had occurred around the middle of the Seventies at the centre of popular culture in this country had until then been comfortably dismissed as irrelevant to the mainstream of art.

In one chapter from his book Style Wars, entitled ‘You, Me and One,’ Peter York says:

Auberon Waugh, probably meaning it, said in his Private Eye column in December:
‘ … one realizes that England still survives. Beneath the notice of television or colour supplements there exists a whole world of quiet, intelligent people going about their daily lives pretty well as they have always done, untroubled by trade unionists or transistor radios or comprehensive schools. The secret is to take no interest in what people say is happening and disbelieve everything you read in the newspapers.’

In this chapter Peter York humorously pinpoints the fundamental contradiction in post-war British society, between paying lip-service to the modernist belief in re-invention of self (and therefore society) and a strict adherence to ‘traditional’ values and structures. This contradiction is, of course, as central to art as it is to politics and probably explains why ‘youth culture’ (pop and fashion) are more vital and highly-developed here than anywhere else in the world.

Having failed to grasp the significance of what was happening at home, it was not until these cultural changes began to manifest themselves in the art of foreign countries that the British art world reluctantly recognized that something was changing, “as though the neighbours had suddenly gone punk.”

Artists and critics found themselves having to re-define their relationship to popular culture, and whilst maintaining the traditional pseudo-aristocratic attitude (an objective contempt for popular culture) develop at the same time some street credibility (an involvement in it). However, most of all, it is essential to deny a contradiction.

Given that the intention of most ‘critics’ is to neutralize the radical potential of art by over-use of terms and concepts in such a generalized way as to make them meaningless (suddenly words like ‘punk’ and ‘poseur’ began to be used at every available opportunity), it is encouraging that Peter York makes popular culture seem so vital and relevant. Style Wars is guaranteed to make the reader feel like a minority, and Peter York recognizes that today to be an elitist minority it is necessary to be ironic. Written in a style that is both extremely arrogant and patronizing, and involved and observant, it would seem to be a lesson for others in positive provocation through lack of commitment.

Style Wars, needless to say, is about fragmentation. Peter York, like many others, believes that people no longer ‘have absolute obligations or constraints of the ideological, religious or economic kinds, and they no longer have the absolute imperative of one great convergent fashion’. Combined with ‘the technology of the new media, which means all kinds of cultural products – and all time periods – are available’ leads to the idea of infinite choice and repertoire, ‘that enormous, pluralist, eclectic vocabulary of lifestyles and poses and ideologies and products and experiences that are, or look to be, available to people.’

Peter York ironically points out that the freedom to be an interesting person, to choose a lifestyle, won at the expense of the dissolution of traditional values also creates a paranoia, which moves people to attempt to legitimize their chosen lifestyle, proving its claim by saying, ‘My style’s better than yours, my team’s better than yours.’ Making relative values absolute. Style Wars is in part then, also a catalogue of different dinosaurs; defensive and redundant, elitist minorities without a sense of irony in the face of mass media and cultural change.

The ‘total retrievability of everything’ which means that ‘nothing quite dies, but conversely nothing is quite alive’ causes a search for the ‘authentic’ experience.

Janet Street Porter: ‘OK, but why become a Mod, because the word Mod is going back twelve, fourteen years, right? It is a kind of backward thing. Why not choose something entirely different?’

Now here speaks the Modern Movement (JS-P studied architecture) which has crept into rock criticism. One of the central ideas of the Modern Movement is the avoidance of historical reference. which means in youth culture terms, that revivals are wrong QED. Anything that looks like a revival is politically reactionary and artistically in-authentic.


The Depressions
The Cortinas


Beneath the haughty irony of his style it is possible to suspect that for Peter York the ‘massively important cultural watershed’ in British life known as Punk has a special place in his affections. For it is with Punk that it is possible to see all these elements crystalized and played out; dramatising the contradictions, the most extreme elitist minority ever, with a sense of irony (at least for a time).

Punk brought it all together and pulled it all apart. Punk undermined traditional notions of what youth culture was all about, it introduced some pretty highbrow ideas directly into the reservoir of ordinary working-class youth culture. The main thing that Punk introduced was the idea of cut-ups, montage – a bit of Modern Artiness – to an audience who’d never heard of eclecticism. Punk was about changing the meanings of things.

Modern Art into Punk and back into Modern Art. The mainstream art world some years later suddenly realized that all their neighbours had gone punk. Having ignored the early warning signs, the deluge of art which emerged from Italy, Germany and New York finally caused a reflection on the changed relationship of art to (popular) culture. An art that, like punk, has all the ironies and contradictions of the inter-relationship of Modern beliefs and Traditional values. An art which indicates that what has come to be called Post-Modern is nothing more than a recognition of the implications (and dangers) of fragmentation.

The art world may now have appropriated a limited ‘New Wave sensibility’ and accommodated a ‘New Image’, but as Peter York says, ‘the idea of people who’ve been educated (as most people have) to expect infinite options and then not getting a crack at them is producing a lot of little gangs of terrorists of all kinds.’
For anyone who needs to know what’s been happening lately, and why the neighbours are acting strange, Style Wars is a good introduction.


Style Wars by Peter York, Sidgwick and Jackson, 1983
Book Review
First published: Studio International No 1003 Jan 1984