The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art has forgotten that clothes and fashion are not art. When you go to see the PUNK: Chaos to Couture exhibit, which opened on May 9 and runs until August 14, you may think you stumbled instead into a luxury couturier’s boutique. The outré fashions are fabulous and gorgeously displayed and there’s some badass soundtrack music by Jayne County, Suicide, and the Sex Pistols, but you can’t try on any of the clothing and in the end, you are only permitted to buy over-priced T-shirts in the gift shop. Dude, I see the couture, but where the hell is the CHAOS?
On Friday, May 10 at high noon, I organized “Punk OUT!” on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum, a protest of both the Punk exhibit and horrendously bourgeois Metropolitan Museum Gala. Our band of “punks” was composed of a ragtag dozen artists and performers from 21 to 58 years of age who’ve been inspired by or involved with punk music, fashion, and the lifestyle. There are no real punks and never have been, since once you call yourself a “punk,” you have become a yuppie in a T-shirt and black leather. Nonetheless, the punk lifestyle and art during the 1970s and 1980s was real and it is still an important influence in art, music, politics, and yes, fashion. We weren’t angry about the show, just disappointed that the Metropolitan Museum has become more and more corporate and less interested in documenting punk and what it has influenced in a serious, well-rounded way — recognizing that the punk aesthetic has always fought against commercialism and corporate culture.
Keep in mind that I adore the Met and often wander over there to soak up the atmosphere, hang out in the Temple of Dendur or frolic among the European Sculpture Court, fantasizing all the while that I am lounging in my living room. I was looking forward to the Costume Institute punk exhibit with excitement. In 2011, I enjoyed the magnificent McQueen show, which attracted approximately 700,000 visitors. However, I was extremely underwhelmed by the 2012 Schiaparelli and Prada show which was less successful and less imaginative. In fact, it was another example of curator Andrew Bolton, who has been with the Met since 2002, turning the museum into a boutique rather than a serious art show.
Prior to actually seeing PUNK: Chaos to Couture, the Costume Institute Gala set off a feeling of repugnance in me. What fiend chose Beyoncé as the honorary chair of the Gala? Where the hell is Sid Vicious when you need him! Even worse, I wasn’t invited, which only reinforced the feeling that I’ve been hanging out with the wrong people lately. Then, there were the insanely pricey tickets, ranging from $10,000 per person to $250,000 for a table. The red carpet gala hoopla rivals the inanity of the Oscars red carpet gala, with breathless coverage of what various celebrities are wearing. Is that punk enough for you? At the very least, the red carpet gala should have featured a black carpet. The unfortunate emphasis on fashions on the red carpet has only been a phenomenon for the last few decades, although the earliest known reference to walking a red carpet in literature is in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon. His vengeful wife Clytemnestra offered him a red path to walk upon but Agamemnon was suspicious, knowing that only gods walk on such luxury. Why do Americans obsess over who wears what at these red carpet galas? Of course, as a mere attendee to a gala, is there really an obligation that you must copy the theme of the event or just look good?
The Gala was truly a tacky extravaganza, but the actual Costume Institute show itself is inherently flawed. Yes, the stated objective of the show, outlined in the foreword of the $45 book about the exhibit, is “punk’s enduring influence on high fashion,” and “haute couture’s appropriation of punk’s avant-garde ideology.” The emphasis is heavy on expensive fashion and light on the punk originals. From the 90 outfits of the show, many of which are admittedly breathtaking, at least 60 are from 2006 or later, high priced couture pieces. The exhibit’s book at least juxtaposes the original punk outfits, most of which are DIY, next to the couture piece inspired by it. The galleries of the Met show are arranged by an assortment of do-it-yourself materials or techniques, such as hardware, bricolage (garbage and trash culture), graffiti and agitprop, and destroy. It’s an interesting way to divide up the techniques of punk fashion, but how much better would it have been had they provided more original pieces or something that would show us how it all began.
A museum has an obligation to provide a historical basis for their exhibits and a context. With most of the clothing displayed costing in the thousands, there is no feeling of how the pioneers of punk originated these styles. Most visitors will have absolutely no clue about what punk is or why it became so popular. It may inspire visitors to throw on a pair of fishnets when they get home or tease out their hair, but where are the punks and who were they? You will not find out by visiting the Punk exhibit. You will, however, discover that the couturiers loved to appropriate and copy their revolutionary and extravagant designs. I’m sorry, but that’s just not enough for me.
Many of my friends from New York City during the ’70s and ’80s are dead (from drugs or AIDS) or have left NYC. New York City today has become a world of gentrification, corporate culture, and commercialization, which began with the Republican regime of Giuliani and continued with Mayor Bloomberg. PUNK: Chaos to Couture is a prime example of how our culture has become a giant mall.
I myself landed on the gritty sidewalks of New York City from the cushy suburbs of Boston in 1974, the year that punk was reputedly born here. Although I’m a lifetime uptown bitch, I frequented the various temples of punk from CBGBs to the Mudd Club, went to the shows and bought the punked out fashions at Trash & Vaudeville and Ian’s, so I grew up with the punk aesthetic all around me. Anyone who was present on the scene during the punk era of the 1970s and 1980s would have to object to this commercialized and sanitized version of a revolutionary movement.
There was much criticism of the recreated CBGB lavatory being too clean, but far more objectionable to me is the supposed replication of the Vivienne Westwood-Malcolm McLaren King’s Road boutique SEX/Seditionaries. I went to the SEX shop in London in the late 1970s and it looked nothing like the sterile Met version, which resembles a modern retail operation such as Banana Republic or Urban Outfitters. They display some of the original protest T-shirts with a backdrop of banal boutique fixtures without one iota of rebelliousness or authenticity.
In the coffee-table art book accompanying the exhibit, curator Andrew Bolton has included interesting essays by John Lydon, Jon Savage, and Richard Hell, father of punk, who eloquently expresses what is precisely the problem with the Met’s show. “But clothes themselves, no matter how beautiful or interesting are not great art; they remain decoration unless they’re actually worn, vivified into soul plumage, by an artiste of personal appearance … There’s something inherently sad about clothes in themselves, and fashion, no matter how lovely or effective. Clothes are empty.” Yes, that’s precisely what is wrong with PUNK: Chaos to Couture. It’s full of couture, not chaos. It’s mere clothing, not art.
PUNK: Chaos to Couture continues at The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Ave, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through August 14.