Punk is Burning

Joe Corré set his archive on fire to keep the spirit of punk alive—but what about the memory?

Joe Corré is nothing if not true to his word. The founder of Agent Provocateur and true heir to the legacy of British punk (Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren are his parental units) announced back in March that he would be setting fire to his £5 million ($7 million) collection of punk memorabilia. This past weekend, he did it. Hey, people burn through $7 million of inheritances all the time—he just did it literally.

But Corré, ever his mother’s son, did not put on a show just for fun—it was in protest to the Queen announcing that 2016 was the official “Year of Punk,” seeing as it marks 40 years since the movement’s inception, and since the release of The Sex Pistols’  first single, “Anarchy in the UK.” At the event, effigies of the current and former Prime Ministers of England were dressed in some of Westwood’s most iconic pieces and torched along with posters, albums, and other memorabilia. Meanwhile, both Corré and later, Westwood, made speeches about climate change, and the political system.

Punk was not without faults. For one thing, it was immature. The punks wanted revolution, but didn’t really offer up plans on how to put change into action. It was also hypocritical—dress different, be different, but all in the same sort of way.

“Rather than a movement for change, punk has become like a fucking museum piece or a tribute act,” Corré said when he announced his intentions. Fair enough—intention is a very important part of art, after all. But in a small way, punk changed the world, and that act of change is solidified in history.

Punk is also a perfect example of how fashion operates within a culture—as a unifier, as an identifier. Well before fashion co-opted the aesthetic, back when it was still authentic, punk still had its own hierarchy of style, its own mode du jour. And this is exactly why we need archives to be saved, to be studied, to be made available to the public—so that generations can understand where real punks were coming from. It seems illogical to complain that punk has lost its meaning, but then stop public education of what said meaning actually was. Holding on to items of the past isn’t always about nostalgia, sometimes it can be way to contextualize. And for all those worried that punk has been reduced to clothing, maybe the added understanding of the culture that bred such a response would help those see that it was about so much more than just being cool. The Met’s latest exhibit Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion features one of Westwood’s Venus t-shirts—an item burned over the weekend—which perfectly helps illustrate punk’s meaning within 20th century fashion history. Sure, the museum has gotten their punk coverage wrong in the past (Punk: Chaos to Couture was very contested), but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a great platform to explain the history of fashion to patrons.

Then again, holding on to archives of punk would be a contradiction as well. Corré was only being brutally true to what punk was, and his action was tied to modern politics. 2016 has been the most tumultuous political year in recent memory on both sides of the pond, so there is a common ground between what the original punks were feeling in the 1970s, and what today’s youth is starting to feel now. Perhaps it was actually the middle ground, providing a first-hand punk experience for a new generation in a way that ensures the establishment won’t profit from it. The big, bad punk kids need to realize that they did something great, after all.

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