The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Punk: Chaos to Couture exhibit closes tomorrow, so–while in town for Greg Gutfeld’s RedEye–I decided I had to see it. What is punk doing in an art museum anyway? Surely punk, in its rebellion against conventional aesthetics and institutions of all kinds, would mean defacing art rather than creating it? I imagined something like the museum scene in the original Batman movie:
But there was no chaos at the Met, apart from the usual tourist throngs. Instead there was an orderly crowd wandering in unidirectional conformity through a multimedia exhibit and ending–as all such journeys must–at a gift shop, where you can take a bit of anti-bourgeois rebellion home with you as long as you are willing to part with your paper money (when that can no longer rely on our implicit faith, the real anarchy begins).
It turns out that Chaos to Couture is not primarily focused on punk music as such, but on the clothing style that emerged from the movement–especially in the UK, where punk style evolved (?) beyond ripped jeans and t-shirts into studded leather, spiked hair, giant safety pins and bright neon everything. The exhibit is a tribute to the designs of Vivienne Westwood and the late Malcolm McLaren, who created UK punk style.
Some of the dozens of designs on display were quite unusual; most seemed quite standard Venice Beach attire, which may be a testament to how thoroughly punk has penetrated popular culture, in more than just a “retro-chic” kind of way. I would let you, dear readers, judge for yourselves, except the exhibit did not allow any photography at all, as we were constantly reminded by posted signs and hyper-vigilant guards.
There was, surprisingly, little music at all. That is not to say that punk fashion isn’t worthy of focus; it’s just hard to imagine punk without the music. But there was plenty of politics: we were informed that UK punk was “working class,” as opposed to punk in the USA, which was “middle class” and hence both less exciting and less prone to Marxist alienation/exploitation by the elite of the fashion world–a familiar morality tale.
As much as the designs may have been intended as symbols of rebellion, at the Met they were carefully mounted on mannequins and pedestals, objects of critical acclaim. One brightly-lit hallway through the exhibit featured mannequins arrayed between white faux-stone columns, as in a grand neoclassical passage–with a twist: giant styrofoam panels were glued to the columns, an invitation to (safe) punk rebellion.
“Can we write on the walls, Daddy?” one boy asked. I brought out my iPhone as a guard stepped into the adjoining room, and grabbed a quick photograph. Someone had scrawled: “Punk is for outcasts, so don’t confirm!” Admirable sentiment, though somewhat self-defeating on styrofoam (the mannequins themselves remained untouched). Perhaps patrons will work up the nerve to trash the exhibit on its last day. I doubt it.
One of my more capable colleagues would no doubt have much to say about the decadence of taking an anti-art movement and celebrating it in the very temple of Art. I’ll settle for noting the contempt the curators seem to have reserved for the public with the last mannequin, with middle finger raised to all and sundry. I decided to defy the rules once more, while the guard was admonishing another patron. F*** you, too.