Dear Joe Corré,
I read with concern that you plan to chuck all of your punk memorabilia onto a fire. And I wanted to write to ask you, politely, if you would mind awfully, you know, not. Please.
See, you may believe that punk has been co-opted and absorbed by the British establishment. And you may well think that Punk London, the National Lottery-funded programme of events and exhibitions, is an attempt to turn punk into a museum piece or a tribute act. In fact, you said that. You said: “Punk has become like a fucking museum piece or a tribute act.” You said it the other day in The Guardian. I read it.
Well, it is already a tribute act. You’re looking at someone who grew up during pop-punk. (I legitimately liked Blink-182 and I went to their gigs and everything. Yes, I know. Shudder.) It is also a museum piece. Loads of punk stuff is already in museums. Like this jumper designed by your parents, Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren. It was sold in 1976. It has been in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s collection for 22 years. You probably remember the V&A from when they did that richly successful exhibition of your mum’s work with all her punk clothing and whatnot. They did that 12 years ago.
Punk London isn’t just about letting middle-class people gawp at punk. Just because you think that punk is being recycled by the establishment to suit its own ends doesn’t mean that punk doesn’t belong in museums, nor that its cultural legacy should not be subject to the kind of critical inquiry that is made possible by museums, or historians. Punk has a history – one embedded in the history of our society and culture – and it is right that this history is understood and analysed. It helps us to learn who we are. We being the punks, we being the people. Does the (highly debatable) view that nothing like the Sex Pistols has existed before or since show that punk was a phenomenon that ruptured itself from cultural history, or from time? Of course it doesn’t.
You see, on behalf of historians everywhere, it makes us really upset when people destroy our sources. We fucking love sources. God, how we do. We love touching them, reading them, looking at them. But most of all – and this is where we really get horny – we love evaluating those sources in a bid to unpick assumed narratives of power handed down from the past and thereby democratising and radically transforming both our collective social understanding and our memories of who we are. We’re wild. We scrutinise the tales of the rich, critique the lies of the powerful, empower the voiceless. AND THAT’S ONLY ON THE HISTORY CHANNEL. What’s more punk than being a historian? Absolutely nothing. Honest to God, we’re great.
But we can’t do all of that cool shit when you destroy our sources. We need stuff. Now, there’s a field of historical inquiry that borrows techniques from anthropologists to study the past via the objects, things and stuff that humans made, used and owned – and humans made cultural expression through these things. Stop me if you know this. This stuff, this “material culture”, is cracking good. Not only is this a relatively new sub-discipline of history (about 20 years old, which in historian terms is fashionable as hell), this approach also offers exciting ways of studying the past that weren’t previously available to historians. So instead of just studying punk through, say, contemporary newspapers, TV coverage or photography, we can think about the things that were key to punk and elucidate their histories, their biographies.
Take, for example, that door handle you have, the one from the front door to Sex, McLaren and Westwood’s shop on the King’s Road. It’s a self-evidently valuable (I’m not talking £££) piece of punk memorabilia. It’s cool AF. It also tells us something about Sex that we can’t learn from photographs. For example, we can feel how heavy the handle is. You said it’s a metal handkerchief with a pink enamel logo saying ‘Sex 430’. I would guess that a metal handkerchief isn’t necessarily a very practical instrument with which to open doors. The weight of it, its shape, its size – these things tell us something about how Westwood and McLaren might have wanted us to feel about entering the shop. It might also tell us something about the processes that went into making it. Where did the metal come from? Who crafted it? How much were they paid? How old were they? Were they professionally skilled or a willing amateur? These questions help us to understand, among other things, the social, economic and political make-up of Britain in the late 1970s and 1980s. These questions help us to challenge the stories of the powerful that pretend that people like this don’t matter, that the histories of class, difference, protest and resistance are footnotes in the Oxford English Biography of Civilised Progress. That stuff is vital. That shit is dope. It is our history and it belongs to all of us.
As such, that handle belongs in a museum. Now, museums aren’t politically neutral. Of course they aren’t. Exhibitions and collections are very often expressions of power of various ruling groups and ideologies. For example, the British Museum’s forthcoming ‘Sunken Cities’ exhibition on ancient Egyptian cities lost underwater is likely to include a fair bit of Egypt’s past offered up as carnival for the white, western gaze. Indeed, some of Punk London’s events are barely-disguised and patronising admonitions of working-class culture. A quick look at the list of events will point to… hang on. What the… You’re on here! Your burning thingy! It’s right here on November 26. Listed as “Joe Corré burns his punk stuff”. You never said!
Well, now what? That’s sort of just proved my point. Now you’re a part of this tribute-act-museum-piece thing that you wanted to avoid. It’s almost as if you are part of the spectacle. Perhaps what this demonstrates is that the meaning of punk is far more complicated and far more powerful than you suggest. Punk isn’t a victim of capitalism; it needs capitalism. Its practices follow the most basic examples of capitalist enterprises. Produce, market, exchange, invest. Sell records, make clothing, spread the message. Far from being manipulated by the processes of capitalism for commercial gain, as you say, punks were heartily involved in commercial manipulations of their own.
After all, Westwood and McLaren were traders. They marketised punk, put a barcode on it and sold it to kids on the Kings Road before anybody heard the first G-chord of Anarchy in the UK. And they did rather well out of it. So did you. Inherited wealth, by the way, whether that is cash or assets tied up in punk memorabilia, is pretty close to the definition of “establishment”. (Ah, to be 48 and white and male and rich and punk!) Moreover, selling was always part of what punk was about. It has always been ephemera. It has always been throwaway trash. That was the point. Was it not always about holding up a mirror to meaningless degradations of capitalism, to the horrific unreality of its depressing spectacle, to highlighting the life-affirming truth that under the modern world’s alienating machinations we have all become sick?
So you are right to identify that the monetary value of your memorabilia is a warped way of understanding its importance. You are right, too, that “we need to explode all the shit once more.” But please, please don’t. On behalf of historians everywhere, put down the petrol can. Step off the flaming barge.
Giving this stuff to a museum is possibly the most punk thing you could do with it. You can help to challenge the stories of the powerful, stories that pretend that the people who created and adored this stuff don’t matter, that the histories of difference, protest and resistance are without value.
In so doing, you offer people their own history. Their own, for them to claim, if they want it. Future, no future. Whatever.
Image: John Blower