Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Archaeology, the Sex Pistols, etc.

Founded in London in 1975, the Sex Pistols are widely considered to be one of the best and most influential punk rock bands--perhaps even one of the most influential modern bands period--despite existing for less than four years and only releasing one full-length album. Their M.O. was to subvert everything--music, pop culture, politics especially--at all costs; thus, they’re still, in 2011, the posterboys for rebellion and angst. The band’s singer, John Lydon (better known as Johnny Rotten), has laced this contemporary rebellious through all his art--from his work with the Sex Pistols to his subsequent music with PiL to his butter commercials to his drawings. Some of the latter of these enterprises--the drawings, I mean--are currently, believe it or not, the subject of an archaeological debate.

Yes, Johnny Rotten is relevant right now in the world of archaeology--but as Guardian art writer Jonathan Jones stresses in a recently published polemic, he shouldn’t be. Archaeologists writing in the journal Antiquity have been urging that Rotten-scribbled graffiti (pictured above) in a London house be preserved; they liken his doodles, in fact, to paleolithic cave art and thus deem them necessary to save and cherish. But is using archaeology to talk about modern history a fresh approach to an oft-overlooked science? Or is it a desperate attempt to get the largely-apathetic public to care by using the archaeological skill set to examine things that are more “fun” and “relevant”?
James argues that the preservation status of Rotten's graffiti is a cop-out. “Their real agenda,” he writes, “is to provoke their own profession, to imply that archaeology should be about graffiti as much as it is about cave paintings. But here they are being the opposite of subversive.” They seem to think that by tying their cause to a subversive icon, Rotten, they can modernize their time-worn art. Appealing to the masses, however, is neither what Rotten is about nor what archaeology has ever been about. Many archaeologists have tried different tactics--such as writing essays for “lay people,” or talking about Indiana Jones using archaeology, etc. - to draw younger people in, but one has to think that doing so can corrupt the practice. It’s true that Rotten’s drawings (or Indiana Jones, for that matter) define an epoch just as rock art did--but the implications of such art, both why and how it was made, are completely different. Rock art is a cultural, sociological movement--a testament to the evolution of mankind. Rotten’s drawings, while cool and fun and everything, are just one man’s haphazard work. By suggesting that Rotten’s work is equitable to that of, say, the San people, these archaeologists are feeding into the hands of the modern-day folks who are uninterested in their work to begin with.
They are also feeding into the hands, meanwhile, of their Western archaeologist forefathers. In attributing preservation status to Rotten’s doodles, they are doing exactly what has been done throughout history: placing importance on the Western man’s work, glorifying the white man as a hero and a visionary. It’s unlikely that these same archaeologists would call for the preservation of King Sunny Ade’s doodles. Perhaps some Africans would, but it wouldn't be under the same auspices or authority, This notion that Western art is better and/or more important has pervaded archaeological history. That archaeologists frequently in the past thought that impressive findings in Africa had to have been imported some how by the Western world is a form of imperialism that isn’t all that different from what these archaeologists now are doing. While the Rotten ordeal is not on as large a scale and may not be that huge a deal in the scope of things, it stands as a signifier for Western self-importance in the field of archaeology.

Granted, Johnny Rotten is awesome (full disclosure: PiL is one of my favorite bands of all time), and these archaeologists are both entitled to do what they want and make their work “relevant.” But it’s a shame their framing Rotten’s graffiti in the context of archaeology, because it just gives the people whose attention they’re attracting the wrong idea.


  1. Some of the text won't show, but if you highlight the places where there are blanks, you can read it!

  2. ok - I think I've fixed the text problem joe.

    Intriguing and topical post! With great pictures...it's a shame there is no soundtrack -

    Perhaps though the art of the Sex Pistols is worth preserving on its own terms as part of a key moment in British history, (and not just as an attempt at archaeological outreach?).

    Do you think the comparison to Lascaux might be meant to provoke the very questions that you raise - can it be seen as a way of undermining that privileging of a certain kind of art and a certain kind of narrative? I wonder what the authors would say...


  3. I think my main comment would be - read the article. I'd be happy to send you a copy. Jonathan Jones clearly didn't, as I commented on his Guardian blog - because we didn't argue for the preservation of the site, nor does the actual article make any serious comparison with Lascaux. As usual, the press produced a completely mangled account of the story.

    Personnaly I'm deeply sceptical about the preservation and memorialising of pop related sites - I have a couple of other publications either out or in press that argue to that effect. And in this context the conclusion of the article discusses the absurdity of making punk into Heritage with a capital H.

    I think your bit about western/northern centrism is just yoghurt knitting. I'm a white British man, living in Britain. As such my work on pop centres on British pop, although I've done a tiny bit on CBGBs and the Ramones. If I lived in Africa, or could afford to go there, I would probably be working on stuff to do with Fela Kuti or Miriam Makeba.


    Paul G-B