Thursday, May 30, 2013

pretty vacant

"Punk: Chaos to Couture" is an attempt by the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum to explore the impact that the punk movement has had on the world of high fashion from its beginnings in the 1970s to the present. At the beginning of the exhibit is a recreation of the bathroom at CBGB, the once influential rock club located on the Bowery that has gone the way of so many other culturally significant locations all in the name of gentrification and luxury living. The recreated bathroom is gritty, nostalgic, funny, fascinating; feels historically substantial, and also seems just about the only thing in the vast spectacle that feels museum-worthy in the cultural context of punk. Of course, some of the gowns are beautiful; their materials luxuriant, the workmanship painstaking and exquisite, but what does any of that have to do with punk? 

The first room of clothing boasts a bulky collection of Vivianne Westwood T-shirts and blouses. That their inspiration was derived from angry disenfranchised British street-youth is undeniable. In the corner of the room was a small assortment of Westwood T-shirts worn by Adam Ant, the pop star was never considered punk to begin with, but rather was maligned by punks and rockers for commodifying and mainstreaming what had been created to represent anti-establishment and anarchy. The very design concept of the show; each mannequin wearing identicale bubblegum-pink, shag afro wigs is more reminiscent of a disco-dance-floor theme party than of the angry individualism branded by punks.

And them came the gowns: Versace, Prada, Dolce & Gabanna, Gucci, etc.; beautiful to be sure, yet in the context of punk; fractured, disassociated, and hardly worth talking about. I was no stranger to the New York punk scene of the late 70s and early 80s. I remember one party in particular, where the music was painfully loud and wrathful, the floor filthy and covered in sticky wetness, and a young woman I was talking to was wearing a torn, white, vintage dress that had rat's heads safety-pinned, higgledy-piggledy across the bodice. I remember her explaining to me that she had gotten the rats from the laboratory of whatever school she'd been going to, severed the heads, frozen them so that they would thaw and then bleed down the dress as she wore them during the evening. I don't recall seeing anything like that represented in the exhibit. 

Most disturbing is that "Punk: Chaos to Couture" implicates fashion, luxury, and exclusivity as the inevitable consequence of punk. Truly, what stands on display in the museum is the antithesis of what the punks were expressing. The show itself, concept and execution, is clearly financially motivated; a transparent move on the part of the Museum to attempt to recreate the success of the Alexander McQueen exhibit, which was on display from May to August of 2011. "Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty" was the Met's best-attended exhibition in the history of the Costume Institute. It was so successful that the museum had to extend its hours to accommodate the long lines of visitors. This brazen presentation of capitalist corporate greed masquerading as museum-worthy art and culture is so illicitly contrary to the roots of punk as to be reproachable. Like countless other businesses and attractions in New York City, the museum is now capitalizing of the surfeit of tourists flocking to the city. Tourist revenue seems finally to have surpassed art, culture, and curatorial responsibility as what is of paramount importance to this world class institution. It is exactly this brand of manipulation of the masses; this forcing of a corporately sponsored, and socially acceptable hegemonic culture onto an exploitable public that encouraged the punks to question the dominant power structure and to champion anarchy.

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