Old punk seeks life on the street

August 2, 1996

Malcolm McLaren, the father of punk, may be seen more often in lecture halls than the King's Road these days, but his inspiration is still drawn from the streets. He talks to Kam Patel.

Malcolm McLaren strolls into a London cafe, leaving behind the bustling, sun drenched street. In a quiet corner he takes a sip of coffee, lights the first of many cigarettes and removes his Cutler and Gross sunglasses. He looks a little tired.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the first single, Anarchy in the UK, by the Sex Pistols, the band which spearheaded the punk music scene in the late 1970s. The Pistols grew out of an anarchic, alternative subculture that McLaren and the fashion designer Vivienne Westwood nurtured on the King's Road through a series of clothing shops. Youngsters, fed up with the preponderence of what McLaren calls "boring old farts" on the popular music scene and repulsed by tree-huggers and hippies, had finally found an attitude, a music and a look they could identify with. It did not last long. But then it was never meant to.

McLaren has often been accused of grossly exaggerating the role he played in the creation and success, both of the Pistols and the punk movement in general. The usual charges levelled at him are that he is little more than a conman, a plunderer and manipulator. Then there is the accusation that he has perverted British culture. How does he feel about such slights? A flash of irritation skates across his face. "If Damien Hirst had been on the art scene 25 years ago he would probably have been accused of the same. In those days anybody who diversified was considered enormously suspicious. Now it's all very de riguer." Postmodernism had barely made itself known in those days, but for McLaren there was nothing wrong with plundering from here and there, whacking it all together and blasting in there with a point of view. But he stresses that he did not do it for commercial reasons. "That is the major difference. Today you are only doing it for commercial reasons, whether you are a painter, filmmaker, sculptor, graphic designer, fashion designer . . . whatever."

Now aged 50, McLaren has in recent years stepped up his lecturing commitments, particularly in art colleges. Recent venues include St Martin's School of Art (where the Sex Pistols held their first gig in 1975) and Croydon College of Art. In October he is scheduled to speak at Oxford University. Why does he think he is getting all these invites? "I don't know . . . I think they just find me cute now - just like the Sex Pistols reforming is cute," he says laughing.

In his lectures he offers the younger generation the observation that art is now fashion and fashion art: "It is quite extraordinary. An artist who is one of the enfants terribles of the contemporary art world, who is in the public eye or who is challenging certain norms cannot now do so without a manager able to embrace the whole spectrum of the media and exploit it the same as any pop star. Everything has come down to product, market trends and salesmanship."

Painting for instance, says McLaren, was built on strong, quasi-religious foundations and painters once thought of it as a noble pursuit, but that is now history: "They were gods. It was about honour. But are they gods now? Or are they just brilliant marketing phenomena? Are they any different from George Michael? Would they maybe like to be George Michael?" he asks, stretching his arms out and laughing wildly.

He recalls the late Francis Bacon saying to him that he had always wanted to be on "Top of the Popsy". McLaren, laughing, remembers being completely stunned by the great painter's admission: "I think he felt the pop world was a much more groovy scene. He hated artists you see. He never surrounded himself with other artists. And he absolutely loathed David Hockney, thought he'd be best off getting run over by a bus."

Perhaps Bacon, in his own way, was just ahead of his time in his longing to be associated with the ultra-commercial world of pop music. "Wanting to be uncommercial today is regarded as totally mad. No one cares enough about attacking anything because there is nothing to attack. Twenty years ago the enemy was fairly clear. It was the establishment. But now Damien Hirst is the establishment - that is the point I am trying to make. If you put your head above the parapet, you are immediately asked to come on in and join the global culture. And before you know it you are just a slot in somebody else's heroic portrait."

McLaren is producing a new album that features people he has met on his travels and is inspired partly by his work with youngsters who scratch out a life on the street. He has found it an "extraordinary, exciting experience". He says: "The media and politicians may have said 25 years ago that these communities were dying out and that we were becoming middle class but it is not true. When you look you realise there are many incredibly ghettoised areas where people have created their own language and their own motives. They eye everyone outside their group with suspicion. A gang-like mentality has been built up."

Paradoxically, Gucci, Vogue and Jackie Onassis are big style influences on these street kids and the securing of middle-class artefacts such as BMW cars is highly regarded. Movie icons - especially James Bond and the packing of a gun that goes with the Bond image - are also popular.

McLaren says: "We may think of Bond as misogynist and politically incorrect - a very uncool guy. But many people in these street groups don't. They don't think such icons are vulgar and devoid of content and politically incorrect. No. They have been sold the style and the attitude and they are going to keep them. It is not anti-culture, it is a variation on mainstream culture. And a lot of people are terrified of it because we have a middle class that is hanging on to some vague notion of what they think constitutes good taste. What are they talking about? It's all tasteless. It's all irrelevant. It's all fashion."

McLaren has developed an interest in things which most people would consider irrelevant. In his view, the most unfashionable, pointless and therefore most glamorous occupation has to be philosophy. "It is the pointlessness that is so wonderful. I am a true believer in people's ability to be poetic with life and that for me means being a romantic. And true to say, no matter how many decades I've lived through, there is invariably one moment within each decade when everybody comes along and says: 'Right, we are sorting it all out. Everything's together. We are going to be more pragmatic than we've ever been.' And along comes this fault in all we human beings . . . that we don't like it. It's all too organised. And this romantic attitude comes into play and we realise that we want to live out our emotions in the most violent, fashionable way possible."

He is particularly interested in how young people perceive the present and in their notions of art and fashion. In fact he is becoming a little concerned that when he gives lectures he is only talking to a sea of faces, with little interaction. McLaren has agreed with one college at which he has lectured that he will go back next year to have one-to-one conversations with students. His advice to art students is the same as that which he gave to a group of their Polish counterparts a few months ago - although for a different reason: "Be a chef", (tongue firmly in cheek). He explains that when travelling through Poland, he noticed very few cafes. McLaren told the perplexed Polish art students: "Poland doesn't need more artists, it needs more chefs. Maybe with a training in fine art you would make brilliant chefs - you have got one year left. Why don't you learn the art of food?" He laughs and admits it all sounds very odd, but believes that it is important for today's artists to have the opportunity to assume other identities.

For McLaren, the role of an artist nowadays is a packaged pursuit, which entails moving within certain circles to have any reason to exist. He says: "If you can change your horse, ride down another road, that would be ideal because that is the way you could perhaps keep your sense of who you are more than you would otherwise. It is implanting a notion of anarchy but that word is terribly unpopular today."

Conventional routes, more than ever, restrict freedom of behaviour: "I think once artistic behaviour has been laid down in such a dogmatic way as it is now, you are not really much more than a decorator. You can be a decorator with food but maybe you can be much more because it is an area that at the moment does not have the green light for artists to go through. Art should always be about creative change and maybe now you have to take these other routes." He does not underestimate the difficulties of pursuing this course of action. People are a lot more self conscious and suspicious now than they used to be. A chance meeting with a like-minded soul, like the one that started him off on the King's Road, are that much more difficult to experience.

For McLaren young artists first and foremost should be aware that everything and everyone is up for sale. Not that this was not the case in the 1960s - it was just far less prevalent. "Now, when you see a Chechen guerrilla, some IRA gunman, some strange invisible computer hacker - these characters have almost become mythical creatures who seem quite untouchable. The artist used to be there. All those people are fighting for something. What are you fighting for as an artist now? For success? What success?" A happening artist wears Georgio Armani and is feted by the media. An unhappening artist sits in a pub in Hackney with a pint of bitter rolling Old Holborn: it's not what the media wishes to report. And it's not where the younger generation want to be at. McLaren says: "Artists want to be fashionable and fashionable means being successful and fashionable at the same time. And if their art is fashionable, they are successful. Today, it is all about presentation."

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