Some Punk Archaeology

Somehow the popular press noticed an article published on an assemblage of graffiti associated with the punk rock band the Sex Pistols (h/t Richard Rothaus). The graffiti appeared on the walls of a London flat where the Pistols lived on and off during their heyday in the late 1970s. The graffiti received somewhat idiosyncratic study by Paul Graves-Brown and John Schofield in an article in an article titled “The filth and the fury: 6 Denmark Street (London) and the Sex Pistols”, Antiquity 85 (2011), 1385-1401.

Despite the potentially edgy topic, the article follows a rather traditional trajectory. The first parts of the article call for a more careful and sophisticated study of material like graffiti and the contemporary urban landscape. The article then turns to a brief study of the architecture and history of the building on Denmark Street and finally, the graffiti itself. A Beazley-esque study of the style and hands involved allowed the authors to associate more of the work with John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten). They then historicize the graffiti through appeals to the master narrative of the Pistols tumultuous career as a band. In their analysis, the graffiti largely served to illustrate the chaotic and tragic story of the band including tensions between Lydon and John Ritchie (Sid Vicious) and manager Malcolm McLaren.

Despite the suggestion that documenting the material culture associated with punk could serve as a kind of anti-heritage (presumably because of the anti-establishment themes in punk rock music), the article itself is conservative in methods and conclusions. The effort made to document the history of the 17th-century Denmark St. flat was traditional heritage management at its finest and completely at odds with the iconoclastic streak in the punk ethos.  The reference to the traditions of squatting associated with the punk movement showed that the authors recognized the ephemeral character of “punk settlement pattern”, but their study embraced a place bound approach to the history of the band.  In fact, the effort to document the graffiti left behind by the various bands who stayed at the Denmark St. flat worked against the explicit purpose of the punks in creating the graffiti. According to the article, Rotten and company made the decision to draw on the walls of the interior of the flat so it would not appear “too posh”.

By making the flat part of a heritage landscape, Schofield and Graves-Brown used the practices of heritage to subvert the message of punk rock by bringing out some of its internal contradictions. For example, despite the association of punk rock with practices typically reserved to the lower classes or other marginal groups in society (squatting, petty theft, threats of revolt), punk rock appealed as much to the middle classes as to any imagined working class or lower class. In fact, many of the punk rock icons themselves used punk as a means of rejecting or questioning their own middle class origins. The decoration of the Denmark Street flat with graffiti speaks to this attitude toward the middle class and the performative nature of punk’s rejection of middle class sensibilities.  (Yep, punk rock embraced irony. How shocking is that?)

Publishing the graffiti simply continued the long-standing practice among punks of laying bare their private lives as an important context for their music. The outrageous clothing, drug use, chaotic personal and professional relationships, and unpredictable behaviors, validated punk’s authenticity. By documenting the graffiti at the Denmark Street flat, the authors have worked, on the one hand, to continue this practice of making the private, public. On the other hand, they’ve appropriated part of the public narrative of punk rock by embedding it within the larger discourse of heritage management which has roots in middle class (if not unapologetically elite) practices. In particular, heritage management seeks to ground history in particular spaces while the punks themselves eschewed (generally) such grounding (especially public property).

A true anti-heritage would resist the temptation embed the transgressive practices of punk within a heritage management context.

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