“DUCHAMP CHOSE A URINAL. I CHOSE JOHNNY ROTTEN”
A text message comes surging through from the Oxford Art Factory, Malcolm McLaren is dead.
Searching online over the last few days for stories on McLaren’s life a few things become really clear to me. If you want to make a difference in rock’n’roll go to art school.
Like so many others I have been entertained and influenced by McLaren’s antics, attitude and actions since 1977 when he was the manager of The Sex Pistols.
I recall attending his press conference at the Art Gallery of NSW when he was an invited ‘artist’ at the Sydney Biennale. Nothing much really happened, yet all who crashed the event absorbed the electricity generated by his physical presence.
It was his Svengali like weaving between art history and popular culture that will always captivate me.
“I didn’t create it (punk) alone or out of nothing. Duchamp chose a urinal. I chose Johnny Rotten”, is a quote I read in The Times newspaper obituary.
He understood that the notion of challenging and unsettling the dominant idea of common sense, proper behaviour and logic was best achieved by having an appreciation of the past.
“I learnt all my politics and understanding of the world through the history of art. Plagiarism is what the world’s about. If you didn’t start seeing things and stealing because you were so inspired by them, you’d be stupid.”
When you read about McLaren’s history in the brilliant book, ‘England’s Dreaming, Sex Pistols and Punk Rock' by Jon Savage you get an idea of where McLaren got the notion to propel the Sex Pistols into more than just being a snotty arrogant rock’n’roll act.
McLaren has always been linked with the art movement in the sixties, the Situationist International.
Although formed in 1957, it was the galvanising times of the Paris uprising in 1968 that made these artists come into their own.
It was one of those crossroad events where political gesture and aesthetics became one.
The Situationists were interested in breaking down the divisions between individual art forms, to create situations; to construct encounters and stage lived moments in urban settings.
The art was disseminated through magazines, manifestos, broadsheets, montages, slogans and happenings.
“Demand the Impossible”
“Imagination is Seizing Power”
The playful techniques of challenging what is perceived to be ‘proper and right’ where taken up by McLaren in the punk days.
Having been to St Martin’s, Harrow and Goldsmith’s art schools McLaren was an activist on campus and part of an Situationist type group called King Mob who did things like dress up as Santa’s Claus, go into a department stores and start handing out toys for free to passing children.
Frivolous, stupid and harmless maybe, but the poignancy of the act is there, politics is in the everyday.
It is the sort of strategies and pranks I remember from the days of the Pistols, and beyond. He was at his best challenging assumptions and status, always manoeuvring himself into a position of causing trouble.
He once ran for Mayor in London on a manifesto that included selling alcohol in libraries.
A maverick that shall be missed, I think.
I’ll end with a McLaren quote I sourced online. He was talking about the author William Burroughs (but was really talking about himself!)
“I think all great artists are separated from ordinary artists by one thing. They are magicians. They are people who really change the culture. They have an alchemy that few of us possess and Burroughs was one of these.”
No quite, but I reckon Malcolm goes pretty close!