The disposable place of punk

April 1, 2016

When I heard that the son of creative pioneers Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren intended to burn his collection of original punk clothing and memorabilia worth an estimated £5m, my first feeling was that this was in keeping with the anarchic message of punk itself.

The event has been planned by Joe Corré, himself an entrepreneur and former co-owner of the lingerie company Agent Provocateur, to take place in Camden, north London, in November, on the 40th anniversary of the release of Sex Pistols’ first single, Anarchy in the UK.

Corré is angry, it seems, at punk’s commodification by the mainstream and how this seminal moment of social rupture has been somehow tamed by the intervention of the heritage industry, specifically the series of exhibitions and events called Punk London currently underway.

I find his views provocative and exciting, enticing even. Art needs renewal; cultural organisations connected to music, to fashion houses and art galleries need change to grow and develop. And I believe art needs to remain vital.

But perhaps we could think twice before we allow all punk’s earliest traces to be destroyed. Becoming an essential part of our cultural history may not be part of punk’s initial purpose, but ineluctably it is a strand of our development we would be foolish to throw away lightly.

I wonder what Corré thinks of the Grade II* Listing recently awarded to the one-time home of the Sex Pistols on London’s Denmark Street by the Department of Culture, Media & Sport, on the advice of Historic England. This listing was made in consideration of the graffiti scrawled in magic marker by singer John Lydon which apparently includes caricatures of Sex Pistols’ bassist Sid Vicious, his girlfriend Nancy Spungen, and their manager McLaren.

And what of the use of classic punk music in seemingly “establishment” events? Once banned, the Sex Pistols’ 1977 single God Save the Queen could be heard in 2012 during the opening ceremony of the London Olympics. Former prime minister Tony Blair once walked out on stage to the sound of Sham 69’s If the Kids Are United.

Corré may not want punk to retain any permanence in our social history, but I suspect it is too late. Indeed, burning his parents’ memorabilia could be seen as an ongoing, almost renewing, acknowledgment of this movement’s energy. A part of the process.

Punk may not be to everyone’s taste, but it has inspired fashion designers such as Gianni Versace, visual artists including the Stuckist movement, photographers like Robert Mapplethorpe, and even protestors such as the Russian band Pussy Riot. There isn’t a bonfire big enough that will take that away.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation