MET dumbs down exhibit of punk fashion into an amusement park fright night

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new exhibition on fashion, Punk: Chaos to Couture, raises a basic question about the modus operandi under which the MET and other museums operate: is the museum a place to contemplate or to be titillated?

For contemplation of the influence of the punk style on high fashion is impossible in this installation, which unfolds as a noisy maze of blinking lights set to an aural wall of the crude clashes and pulsations of punk rock. Each room seems like a different movie version of not a punk gathering, but a psychedelic party of the 1960’s. Viewers parade down narrow passageways which turn back on themselves and see dress after dress hanging on mannequins with overblown punk-like wigs that look more like dust mops teased into a chaotic but freestanding mess. The display of fashion wear is broken up with large screen videos of punk-looking men playing musical instruments.  I can only assume they are former punk rock stars.

Because the display rooms are narrow and unidirectional, the light pulsations so incessant and the walls all textured or covered with imagery, walking through the exhibit seems like a trip through an elaborate “fright night” at an amusement park. Instead of a new ghost or goblin suddenly appearing, it’s a new but still raucous beat or a new combination of bright colors.  If you like the music, it’s an easy five to twenty minutes of floating among phenomena of a former youth culture.

But it was impossible to study that youth culture, or that culture’s effect on designers of expensive clothes for rich folk.  The best you could get was a sensation or two before your sensations were numbed by the totality of sensations coming at you at one time.

The exhibit will attract the fan of amusement parks like Universal Studios or Epcot Center, but what does it have to do with the mission of the museum or even that of its notable costume department?  That mission, by the way, is “to collect, preserve, study, exhibit, and stimulate appreciation for and advance knowledge of works of art that collectively represent the broadest spectrum of human achievement at the highest level of quality, all in the service of the public and in accordance with the highest professional standards.”

While the Punk: Chaos to Couture exhibition collects and preserves period costume (which may or may not represent “human achievement at the highest level of quality”), it does not give us any way to appreciate it except through crude titillation.  What small nuggets of knowledge found in the exhibition, such as the influence of graffiti or of the “do-it-yourself” aesthetic, are completely overwhelmed by the sensory overload.

This exhibit could mark another watershed in the dumbing down of America. It’s one thing for both the history and the science museums in a provincial capital such as Pittsburgh to focus on sports. It’s quite another for the flagship museum of the cultural center of the United States, if not the world, to create an exhibition in which it is impossible to engage with the artifacts on display in any intellectual or even any sensual way. (I can only wonder what the Roman poet Horace would have said; he was the one who postulated that all great art must educate as well as amuse.)

We have not even considered the question of cost. To erect this collection entailed far more than arranging bricolage in displays and hanging clothes on mannequins. The textured walls, music rights, over-teased wigs and elaborate AV and acoustical system must have driven up costs. But then again, the MET enjoyed the sponsorship of a fashion design house and a major publisher.

What is so interesting about the exhibit is that it’s as false as the fashion it portrays.  The punk mentality was one of crude, do-it-yourself grunginess. Yet fashion designers imitated it to produce expensive goods for a very exclusive clientele that basically lived in luxury, so that punk haute couture is really a form of slumming, a favored pastime of the ruling elite for millennia. In a similar way, the elaborate walls and halls of the Punk: Chaos to Couture exhibition are meant to bring the punk mentality alive. Instead they come off as a homogenized scrubbing away of the grit and with it the meaning behind the grit, leaving behind a few empty gestures—style without substance.

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