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Crass

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Crass was a British punk band that became the face of the anarcho-punk movement. Founded in 1977, their multimedia approach to promoting anarchist ideology left a lasting imprint in British punk and “protest art” more broadly. Advocating anti-capitalism, nuclear disarmament, anti-racism, environmentalism, feminism, and animal rights, among other movements, Crass was deeply suspicious of any kind of State power and urged for collectivist resistance as a form of self-liberation. While punk movements broadly were vocal about resisting State dominance, less visible were how “protest” aesthetics gained dominance within anarchist movements, repressing independent thought. Critical of not only "high" culture but also existing punk movements for becoming an aesthetic of “protest” rather than engaging in direct action, Crass sought to rouse listeners out of political complacency. Beinecke's collection showcases a series of DIY fanzines, graffiti, spray-paint stencils, films, and other forms of ephemera that Crass used to invite listeners to participate in political action. While Crass sought to defy the footsteps of their predecessor punk bands, the degree to which they were successful is less clear—reflecting the challenges of mobilizing authentic “protest.”

"Bloody Revolutions" Sleeve Cover

Self-Critical Protest

Crass’s anarcho-punk developed in response to the traditional punk movement. Crass’s poster sleeve cover for Bloody Revolutions, designed by band member and visual artist Gee Vaucher, “blew a lot of old school punks away”—ripping off the heads of band members from the Sex Pistols and replacing them with that of the Pope, the queen of England, the Statue of Liberty, and Margaret Thatcher. This design challenged both high and low culture, particularly by accusing the latter of becoming lukewarm—an aesthetic that ended at itself and failed to demand radical liberation. Demanding reflexivity rather than mere words of "protest," one of their stencils writes: This Poster Exploits You. In “You Can Be Who?” Crass criticizes this political complacency:

Anarchy, freedom, more games to play?

Fight war, not wars? Well it’s something to say

Slogans and badges worn without thought,

instant identities so cheaply bought.

By pushing against the existing punk movement, Crass’s popularity demonstrated the divide between “traditional” and “new” anarchists. As artist Owen Thornton said in an interview with The Museum of the Contemporary Art, the Bloody Revolutions’s sleeve cover made a statement: “The Pistols are dead.”

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Collection Highlights: Fanzines's "Liberation" and its Contradictions

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New contradictions emerged from pushing against traditional punk culture. In “You Can Be Who,” Crass sings: “I want to be free / So you can be you, and I can be me.” Yet, Crass’s fanzines stored at the Beinecke, in particular, encapsulate the band’s challenges of inviting listeners to redefine “protest” while also maintaining its own self-proclaimed “liberation.” Band member Penny Rimbaud reflected:

 

“People have been waiting years for us to “sell out.” We didn’t have a holiday for eight years because were worried that someone might fuckin’ see us getting on the boat, and I’m serious. It wrecked us.” 

Escaping Definition

Aware of the repressive nature of establishing a “protest” genre, Crass sought to escape definition. In “Yes Sir, I Will,” Crass shocked listeners by releasing a piercing shriek. Expressing pure fury rather than articulatable protest, “Yes Sir, I Will” not only expressed the band’s frustration with State, but also their concerns that listeners were replacing Crass’s words of “protest” with independent thought. By answering with a shriek, Crass responded to its audience’s demands for “protest” with incomprehensibility.

 

While the live aspect of performances like “Yes Sir, I Will” gave band members more freedom—to perform new iterations each time—visual representations like logo design demanded Crass to pin down a specific aesthetic, demostrating the challenges of escaping genre. Crass’s logo designer Dave King remarked, “There may be kids who most certainly have never seen the band live, because they stopped playing in 84. And in that way I suppose [Crass’s logo] does function as a brand.” 

Although fanzines provided a new avenue to invite continual transformation and resist definition, Rimbaud’s words also reflect the tension between Crass’s liberatory and collectivist visions. Crass members were critical of not only their predecessor bands in the punk movement for their nominal “protest,” but also of their own listeners. The collaborative nature of Crass’s aesthetics also produced contradictions in its political message. “Punk was very male at that point in time, and [Crass] had two women onstage, talking about gender issues,” Jon Savage remarked. Yet, despite Crass’s commitment to feminism, some of their fanzines, for example, sent mixed messaging: "It's delicious being a slut!". Furthermore, as the collection of fanzines reveal, establishing an aesthetic of “protest” threatened to reinforce rather than subvert conformity. Thus, the participatory nature of fanzines demonstrate the challenges of authentic “protest art” more broadly.

Self-Liberation & Collectivist Visions

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Fanzines / circa 1976 - 2004

"This Poster Exploits You" (undated),  stencil

Finding aid

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Dial House: Open Doors

Despite the challenges of producing authentic "protest," Crass remained invaluable to providing a safehouse against the oppression of State power. Removing the locks from the doors to their home, the Dial House in Essex, band members used their proceeds to support other political organizations and small punk bands, such as Poison Girls, Conflict, and Flux of Pink Indians. As band member Gee Vaucher said, at a moment of heightened political anxiety, fury, and disillusionment—the word she would assign to the Dial House is “safe.” “Over years you've realized how unusual it is for people to feel safe.”

Crass’s legacy lives on.

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