Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Punk Debunked: Museums, Publishing and Punk

Anarchy in the UK, French vinyl single. Via

The accusations of plagiarism surrounding VivienneWestwood’s new memoir are sure to strike cold fear into the heart of anyone who has been involved in publishing. Much of this story smacks of a tricky but eagerly awaited book being rushed through to hit that all important Christmas market: no time to confirm sources, no time for a proper proof read, no time to fact check.

And Vivienne Westwood probably doesn’t care about this controversy in the slightest. Despite her being co-opted as one of our British national treasures, Westwood is a punk, and – as the mouthpiece of punk Malcolm Mclaren once said – “stealing things is a glorious occupation, especially in the art world.” Punk wasn’t based on acknowledging your sources, or paying dutiful respect to those who went before you. It’s a cut and paste movement; creativity born from chaos. As the Sex Pistols snarled in “Anarchy in the UK”, they “wanna destroy”: what punk celebrates is the antithesis of the aims of a biographer.

Dates, facts, provenance: these are all things punk doesn’t care about. It’s hardly surprising that punk has created problems for museums, as well as publishing houses, as exemplified by the problems surrounding the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection of ‘punk’ clothing. Take the view of record producer, John Porter, who was quoted in the Guardian on the Met controversy: “if the clothes were real, you’d feel cheated.” His argument emphasises that punk has always been more about attitude than authenticity.

Bondage suit, 1976. Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren. Collection of the V&A Museum. 

For a relatively recent movement, punk retains its mythology. It’s still mysterious and, perhaps as a result, it’s still cool. The Manchester Free Trade Hall Sex Pistols gig, for instance, is regularly reported as one of the most legendary gigs of all time, but in reality, probably only had an audience of 50 people at most. Not aiding any search for punk ‘truths’ are Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren (now veraciously represented by his widow Young Kim) – at the heart of any critical discussion of punk – who tussle over their relative contributions to punk’s formative years. When the Westwood exhibition opened at the V&A in 2004, McLaren staked his claim on the earliest, punk pieces in the show. He had a point: these pieces were born out of the creative collaboration between the two of them. But it continues. Despite the spokesman saying in that 2004 article that “Vivienne has always tried to make clear the exact nature of her collaboration with Malcolm and she is extremely happy for him to be credited where appropriate,” I noticed that the punk pieces in the Women, Fashion, Power show, currently at London’s Design Museum, were credited only to Westwood (possibly because she also loaned pieces for the show?). And, just as McLaren laid claim to the clothes, Westwood is now asserting her contribution to the music, stating in her new autography that the phrase “Anarchy in the UK” was her idea (leading John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, to dub her a “silly cow”).

We expect our museums and our books to bust myths and establish truths, but punk doesn’t seem to want to play ball. Punk’s legacy is about more than the look – it’s that all important attitude too. Meaning that while anyone can stick safety pins into their ripped T-shirt, without the corresponding punk spirit, it becomes another empty fashion statement – as seemingly demonstrated by the disappointing reviews of last year's Punk exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

For those who want to play by the rules, Punk is undeniably frustrating. There is no definite biography, no comprehensive collection. But, grudgingly, I have to admit there’s something quite enjoyable, inspiring even, about all the chaos that still surrounds it. Do we need to make order out of everything to be able to fully appreciate it? The final words go to McLaren: “England deceives itself. It is a nation of liars.”

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