Art & Photography / Culture Talks

A Malcolm McLaren Moment

While the world discusses Madonna's fishnets and Anne Hathaway's quiff, we mark the Met's new PUNK exhibition by revisiting Jefferson Hack's 1999 interview with the man who created the whole concept – Malcolm McLaren...

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Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood inside Let It Rock, 19
Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood inside Let It Rock, 19Courtesy of Sanctuary

First held in 1948, the Costume Gala Ball has been dubbed the Night of Nights, the evening where cultural luminaries descend upon New York’s Metropolitan Museum to mark the opening of the latest Costume exhibition. In honour of 2013’s iteration, PUNK: From Chaos to Couture, last night’s red carpet welcomed a range of sartorial riffs on the punk ideology – from Madonna’s torn fishnets and Pulp Fiction bob, to Anna Wintour’s floral Chanel column, its pink accents a homage to “the colour of punk.”

But as Twitter tussles over whether punk ideology is accurately celebrated by Sarah Jessica Parker flashing her underwear to the baying paparazzi, AnOther takes a trip back to 1999, when Jefferson Hack interviewed Malcolm McLaren, a man whose forays into fashion, music, art, film, love and many a dubious moral and legal situation make him perhaps the best contender to be crowned father of Punk. As Jefferson Hack wrote in the introduction to the piece, after all that he had done, experienced and escaped, McLaren was “no longer to be considered simply as an ‘operator’ but rather as an acute cultural attitude…[an] archbishop of pop whose vision of contemporary culture has defined a generation.” And revisiting the interview a decade and a half on, this provocateur still fizzes off the page, his analysis of contemporary music culture still apt, the artists he selects for discussion still relevant, the questions raised about authenticity still at the forefront of 21st century minds.

So let AnOther give you a break from the neon streaks and alternative eyebrows that forged the Met Ball construction of punk, and read on for the McLaren version – ever controversial, always angry, never complacent.

Let’s talk about your theory of karaoke versus authenticity?
Karaoke is a product that can be sold and the authentic is something that isn’t as easily assimilated by capital, so therefore what is authentic isn’t necessarily what the culture wants on location, because it’s complicated, it’s messy, it’s difficult.

You mean the authentic is rendered useless in a consumer-driven society?
You could say that the authentic in some ways is almost art for art’s sake, you are not necessarily doing it as a pursuit to create a product, to create success.

So the authentic is about failure?
Exactly. In the 1960s, careers were never authentic, rather it was the noble pursuit of failure that was authentic. Authenticity is to be found in the ruins, in reclaiming the past. That was how you preserved the authentic, but society just isn’t programmed to develop flamboyant failures like Malcolm McLaren, it’s programmed to produce benign successes like Alan McGee. It fits much better. When you’re a member of the golf club you get Tony Blair to co-opt you, you’ve finally become friends with everybody and you have a seat at every single dinner table throughout the planet. By contrast, authenticity is dirty, it’s horrible, it’s disgusting, it has built into it this uncomfortable idea of chaos where anything can happen, but we don’t want anything to be possible, we want these things to be possible. This division has never been more clear than today.

"Authenticity is to be found in the ruins, in reclaiming the past. That was how you preserved the authentic, but society just isn’t programmed to develop flamboyant failures like Malcolm McLaren..."

What lessons can we learn from this?
That the machines that have made us suddenly believe in all this karaoke are going to become more and more human and we humans are about to become more like machines. It’s a new kind of biology which we are all going to have to deal with. If you think we’ve had anarchic explosions in the past, just get ready for the huge big bang that will happen in a few years from now when people get more and more dissatisfied with the fact that they can’t get any satisfaction. Karaoke culture is a blind and dead alley. There’s no romance in that lifestyle. That’s why so many contemporary artists try and struggle to make themselves as real as possible within a karaoke world by creating something that you can’t pin down and sell on the stock market but it always ends up being sellable. People were pissed off with all this concept crap – we’re bored with Tracey Emin’s bed. We don’t want to be her psychiatrist.

Do you think that contemporary pop culture has lost its political edge?
It’s gonna flare up – there’s no two ways about it. There’s all of that social unrest and that’s interesting. You’ve got Brit Art on one level which is being deemed now by new generation as a kind of art that is packaged and ultimately run by TV and advertising executives. It is an art that is ultimately establishment, it’s controlled and modified. Then you go to the alternative called “political art” which seems to be lost in time. Today it now looks fresher and far more exciting, far more interesting. Art that has a presence to lead someone into action.

How would you place David Bowie within your theory?
He has made himself into a brand where everything is for sale and therefore can be reproduced.

And Damien Hirst?
You too can go and put a shark in formaldehyde if you wanted. You too can copy the dot paintings. Paperchase have done it so why don’t you? All it means is that Hirst has been accepted into the mainstream and therefore become a part of it. If you can be imitated in this world today you are worth a lot more than if you can’t be. That was never the case twenty five years ago. That’s the real difference.

"If you can be imitated in this world today you are worth a lot more than if you can’t be. That was never the case twenty five years ago. That’s the real difference."

Why does no one opt for romance anymore?
Because romanticism is not for sale. It deals with the messy process of creativity. It doesn’t fit in. It doesn’t have within it the ability to be sold. It has only the ability to create something called romance. We used to adore it as a noble pursuit because we used to put the notion of romanticism as a very high cultural adventure, as something we should look to, as something we should try to follow. Today it bears no sense of purpose for what governs the way we want to – or think we want to – live.

I think it’s because people do not want the struggle. To be romantic, to find a place that has a particular, unique ambience is a struggle. To actually create it is a struggle. To actually deal with it is a struggle. People don’t want to struggle. They have been told they can have everything they want by just sitting in bed. If you are living in a culture like that then the last thing you are going to want is something you are going to have to walk ten miles through muddy fields to find. We live in what is easy. We have all already been told we are all a nation of middle class. No struggle. If we are all a nation of middle class then we are all celebrities. The person who first tried to invent that concept was Adolf Hitler.

The Nazi party were ultimately responsible for the invention of media. They were the first to actually brand their country and tell everybody they were fabulous. In some respects, America took that up after the war and so did the Russians. I reckon in ten years time we will look back on the 20th century and realise we are all godchildren of the Nazis. We live basically within a system that they helped set up. Just look at America. Nowhere in the world has a country been so believing in its total superiority after the war as the US.

The symbol of choice and freedom of expression. The ultimate democracy but all dancing to the same tune?
Exactly. It was never a coincidence that Andy Warhol’s artistic vision was co-opted within seconds. He was deemed acceptable because he created the art of the reproducible. He believed that people were, without a shadow of a doubt, able to be channelled and reproduced. He was right. We will all be stars for fifteen minutes.

Although in Warhol’s universe you had to be beautiful and buy into the image in order to be famous. Punk took that notion and subverted it. Punk was never about having to be beautiful to be famous. It was about having the democracy of being ugly…
It was making ugliness beautiful. The Sex Pistols’ whole premise was: I’m going to be the artful dodger. I’m not going to accept that. I’m going to search for the authentic. I’m going to fucking write songs that I believe in. I’m going to write lyrics that haven’t been used before. I’m not following the old-fashioned template. I’m going to declare the ultimate culture: DIY.

"The Sex Pistols’ whole premise was: I’m going to be the artful dodger. I’m not going to accept that. I’m going to search for the authentic... I’m going to declare the ultimate culture: DIY."

An inclusive subculture rather than an exclusive corporate one.
Absolutely, and for a while the industry was shocked because punk undermined everything they had built up. In the end that moment of madness was just a blip on the map. What they didn’t realise were the repercussions within a new generation. You could say that The Sex Pistols, by struggling with their authenticity within the industry, were accepting the fact that they were caught in a world of karaoke. They couldn’t fight it, it was impossible.

Punk: Chaos to Couture runs until August 14 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Interview by Jefferson Hack

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