PRINT January 1989

Museum Piece

Malcolm McLaren

MALCOLM McLAREN DIDN’T invent punk. All he did was envisage it, design it, clothe it, publicize it and sell it. I am not inventing Malcolm McLaren. All I did was envisage him, design him, clothe him, publicize him, and sell him, to an art magazine. This is the story of the great rock ’n’ roll swindle.

_The networks of boutiques that emerged in London in the late fifties and early sixties provided an infrastructure for the rise of pop culture, transforming whole districts of London (King’s Road and Carnaby Street were the main “boutique strips”) into playgrounds for Mod consumption. They established the central role of the boutique as a forum for the assimilation and dissemination of subcultural style—a hothouse for cult activity. Displays were designed to shock. The “long front” of pop culture, as Lawrence Alloway described it, abolished traditional hierarchies of culture, value and taste, and promoted cultural convergence. For an emergent generation of artistic activators, the boutique environment presented a vehicle for effecting the artist’s transfer, as Marshall McLuhan observed, from "the ivory tower to the control tower of society.”1

It was this style of shopkeeping and movement-making, as well as the fading energy of the late Hippie era, that McLaren and Westwood revived and developed, making 430 King’s Road the most singular and significant cult landmark of its time. In 1974, the new name, Sex, was emblazoned across the facade in giant shocking-pink letters. The cult style of Sex was constructed from the iconography of the taboo. The shop promoted hardcore rubber and leather, fetish and bondage wear as “alternative” streetwear, precipitating a demonic parade of the loaded and stereotypical images of sexual “perversity.” Conceived as a parody of a conventional sex shop, its appearance mimicked the sleazy look of “authentic” sex shops—the kind secreted in red-light districts.

Sex acted as a magnet drawing collaborators to the cause. The customers divided into two factions, as McLaren recalls:

Half were MPs and fetish buyers from out in the country places, from all over. And half were kids that came to the shop because it was so extraordinary. It suddenly swept them up and made them feel very dangerous and unique and important. It was a great ladder to climb, that shop. It was something that when kids had finally sequestered themselves into that environment they never wanted to leave.

The effect of Sex clothing when paraded in public was predictably volatile. “If you want to find out how much freedom you really have,” Westwood observed, "try making an extreme sexual statement in public.2

Encouraged by kids who came to avail themselves of the shop’s open space, McLaren decided that the Sex shop needed a Sex band. He created the Sex Pistols out of “street people,” non-musicians who hung about Sex. With the finally constituted Sex Pistols, McLaren tried to infiltrate the music industry. Their appearance was extraordinary: Sex clothes were mixed with the shop’s remaining stock of past youth subcultural styles. The phrase “Boredom” described the expansive, occluded, utopian politics that built up at the Sex Pistols’ core. Many of McLaren’s ideas derive from Situationism, most obviously the notion that alienation has its roots in the problem of leisure-time. They are derived not from theoretical Situation-ism but Situationism at the point of action, not from the often badly translated and distributed texts, but from the slogans and events that caught the mood of possibility in Paris, May 1968—a brief glimpse of freedom sparked by Situationist activity and much romanticized thereafter.

When punk exploded on the public horizon, the shop was transformed into Seditionaries. _If the seeds of iconographic subversion central to the punk revolt were nurtured in Sex’s exploration of the forbidden, Seditionaries was designed as a stage for punk’s anarchic celebration of chaos and destruction as creative principles. Seditionaries sold the staples of the punk uniform—bondage jackets and trousers, parachute jackets, long-sleeved “Anarchy” shirts and T-shirts decorated with porn images and political signifiers—all under the label “Clothes for Heroes,” a legend also inscribed on the shop door. All this served to mediate and politicize the image of punk’s own world-vision. The conduit, as it should be, was the media. Early in 1979, in the last days of the Sex Pistols, Malcolm McLaren and Jamie Reid wrote as clear a statement of past intention as one would ever get, on the back of the “Something Else” 45 sleeve. “The media was our lover and helper and that in effect was the Sex Pistols’ success. As today to control the media is to have the power of Government, God or both. ”Just as the Situationists had first described the media totality that was to become a post-modernist commonplace, a highly developed sense of media politics and media terrorism was implanted in the Sex Pistols from the beginning.

In 1980, Malcolm McLaren was asked by Adam and the Ants to reshape their image. His first move was to replace Adam with a new lead singer, a 14-year-old amateur singer of Burmese origin named Annabella Lwin. McLaren obviously saw the consequences of the “generation gap” as being potentially revolutionary, an inbuilt anarchistic mechanism to disrupt the system. His analysis of youth as the leaders of a new society based on mass unemployment and total leisure, is contained in Bow Wow Wow’s second single “W.O.R.K.” This agit-prop “rap” sees “technology as the demolition of Daddy,” the end of a form of society based on patriarchical subordination to “your parents . . . to your teacher . . . to your boss.”

Rock is the first musical form to be totally commercial and consumer-exploitative. It is largely produced by adults for the purpose of exploiting a vast adolescent market whose consciousness it manipulates through radio, film, magazines and television. Yet, at the same time, rock expresses the real ideology of adolescent culture. Sexuality in children, of course, is the last great taboo. McLaren’s use of 14-year-old Annabella Lwin was wildly overdetermined, like an ad campaign for a new product. It was a counter-spectacle in calculated symmetry to the appearance of Brooke Shields. Both young women were used to exploit the new buying power of the 13- to 17-year-old consumer. What is interesting is that the access on the part of a self-conscious, adult audience to a fantasy of pure, youth-oriented rock ’n’ roll and to Annabella’s pleasure is constantly blocked by McLaren’s shadowy presence. The producer’s role was made obvious.

“Impresario: Malcolm McLaren and the British New Wave,” an exhibition curated by Paul Taylor at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, in the fall of 1988, was addressed to a man known to us for his involvement in the late ’70s subculture called “punk.” (McLaren has played other roles, but punk remains his badge.) The show was thus an opportunity to explore the knot of issues bound in with the concept and the fact of the subculture, to reflect on and develop the ideas outlined by such writers as Dick Hebdige in his book Subculture: The Meaning of Style.1 Though punk’s most explicit dogma was spontaneous anarchy, it served as a channel for more considered modes, and is certainly available for more considered analysis. Hebdige’s book builds on an intellectual foundation laid by writers like Roland Barthes, who applied methods rooted in linguistics to systems of discourse such as fashion, film, and food so as to locate and prise open, through a semiotic analysis, the invisible seam between language, experience, and reality; and by Antonio Gramsci, whose theory of hegemony posits that an alliance of certain social groups can exert “total social authority” over other, subordinate classes, not simply by coercion, or by the direct imposition of ruling ideas, but by "winning and shaping consent so that the power of the dominant classes appears both legitimate and natural.”2 Subcultures, Hebdige argues, offer a challenge to such hegemony, but they do not issue it directly. Rather, it is expressed obliquely, in style. The objections are lodged, the contradictions displayed, at the deeply superficial level of appearances: that is, at the level of signs.

The struggle between different discourses, between different definitions and meanings within an ideology, is always, at the same time, a struggle within signification, a struggle for determination of the sign. The battle extends to the most mundane areas of everyday life—even to the safety pins, clothes pins, and bits of string that attracted so much horrified fascination to the punks. Humble objects like these can be magically appropriated, stolen, by subordinate groups, can be made to carry secret meanings, made to express, in code, a form of resistance to the order that subordinates them. Thus style in subculture engages transformations that go against nature (as constituted by authority). These are gestures, movements toward a speech that offends the silent majority, that challenges the myth of consensus. And as Hebdige makes clear, no subculture has sought with more grim determination than punk to detach itself from the landscape of normalized forms, or to bring down upon itself more vehement disapproval.

As the curator of “Impresario,” Taylor, like Barthes, could have illuminated the messages encoded in the battered surface of punk style, and of other styles in which McLaren has shared. But the punks themselves—a generally antiliterate group, who pushed profanity to startling extremes—were omitted from this exhibition, and a single former art-school student and entrepreneur was historicized instead as the single producer of meaning. (This is the way history works.) Apparently, “McLaren is like a new type of artist. A ‘producer’ in more than one sense of the word.” Because he has “orchestrated new musical events and created provocative ‘cultural texts’ within the mass-media,” has “shown that art in the post-avant-garde era is a matter of synthesis, of combining elements from radically different sources,” he offers us a fresh model of the creator and of the creative act. It is curious, though, that the redefinition of the artist at which Taylor arrives by looking at McLaren continues an old romanticization of the individual talent, particularly when so many of the impresario’s activities are engaged in jointly by so many people: not only the fashion and graphic designers and musicians with whom McLaren has worked directly, but a whole social tissue of others whom he never met. In short, a subculture.

Taylor produced McLaren in the same way that McLaren produces art. But if McLaren can claim, “Rather than while away my time painting, I decided to use people, just the way a sculptor uses clay,” then so can I; I can reenact the historicization of the impresario without sharing in his conclusions. Using the raw material in the exhibition catalogue, I auteured a bricolage of quotations from the essays there by Jane Withers, Jon Savage, and Dan Graham; I collaged them together as one insistent voice in the cynical marketing of Malcolm McLaren as art star.3 These elements, here italicized, make up one picture, my picture, of Malcolm McLaren. I deprived the catalogue authors of authorship in the same way that McLaren appropriated the voice of a subculture. The rest is history, of sorts, as it is and always was part of another, older, longer dialectic.

Karen Marta is the American associate editor of Parkett magazine, and a freelance curator and writer who lives in New York.



1. Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, 1979, reprint ed. New York: Methuen & Co., Inc., 1987.
2. Ibid., pp. 15–16.
3. ‘Impresario: Malcolm McLaren the British New Wave’ was published by the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, and the MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., and London, in 1988. The quotations, in the sequence in which they appear in the catalogue, are from pp. 12, 32, 33, 37, 38, 39, 49, 62, 50, 52, 62, 52, 39,40, 52, 61, 63, 62, 64, 65, 66, 71, and 53.