Monday, 12 April 2010

Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood

When the history of the cultural development of the last fifty years is written, will there be a mention of Malcolm McLaren? And how much? A chapter? A paragraph? A sentence? Or a footnote?

My view is that it will probably be the last. Reading the obituaries makes me realise that his own creative achievements were very slight; his talent was in enabling others to achieve rather larger things. He was a catalyst, not a creator; a Max Clifford rather than a Diaghilev; a fixer more than an originator. His antecedents were the fly-boy and the spiv, guys who would sell you anything and had the patter to convince you to buy, if you gave them enough time. More importantly, he had the self-belief that convinced him that every idea he had was automatically a good one. And he persuaded a lot of people he was right.

The most important thing in McLaren's expression of his own creativity was his well-known association with Vivienne Westwood, to whom he was the fairy godmother whose magic wand (or was it the Prince Charming kiss?) transformed her ambitions if not her creativity. When she was with him, she assumed the same raffish cockiness and embraced the enthusiasm he felt for shattering 'the system' and pretending to be an anarchist. In fact McLaren was behaving like a cultural barrow boy. He was happy to compromise and conform in order to sell his wares (pre-eminently the Sex Pistols and Westwood, and later hip-hop) not on ideological grounds but on the traditional capitalist principle that the only thing that matters is finding a way to convince the punters to buy (it's revealing that Glenn Matlock of the Sex Pistols says that McLaren was never really interested in the music, and that others report that most of the records he actually owned were of show tunes). His methods were the traditional ones of shocking the timid and exciting the inexperienced.

Vivienne Westwood survived the break-up with her Svengali and, once free of his influence, blossomed with a creative strength that he could never have matched. Her triumphs over the past twenty-odd years have served to demonstrate just what a minnow her one-time creative support actually was by comparison. More idealistic and principled, although just as intellectually eclectic, she has soared like an eagle on the currents of her own convictions to become a serious figure in a field still considered by many as trivial. He, left behind like an eager little sparrow, popped up occasionally - and, to me, each appearance seemed sadly more trivial than the last.

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