First As Farce, Then As Tragedy: Punk at the Metropolitan Museum
The first thing you need to understand about Punk: From Chaos to Couture, at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, is that it’s about fashion.
(The show recently closed after a well-attended summer, but I’m still going to write about it in the present tense, because that’s how much of a crazy rebel I am; this review was written three weeks ago but was delayed for various reasons).
The exhibit was assembled under the umbrella of the Met’s Costume Institute (one of the institute’s two annual shows at the museum). The blurb on the Met’s website notes that Punk “will examine punk’s impact on high fashion from the movement’s birth in the early 1970s through its continuing influence today. Featuring approximately one hundred designs for men and women, the exhibition will include original punk garments and recent, directional fashion to illustrate how haute couture and ready-to-wear borrow punk’s visual symbols.” And just in case you arrive with any false expectations, tastefully sized but explicitly stark lettering informs you that the show is “made possible” by on-line retailer Moda Operandi, and that “additional support” for it was provided by Condé Nast. A show at the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute displaying a hundred outfits by some of the biggest (and most expensive) names in contemporary fashion, sponsored by the publisher of Vogue: this ain’t no Mudd Club, or CBGB’s; this ain’t no fooling around.
To expect any different is to walk in under false assumptions. Punk is entirely in line with other recent offerings from the Met’s Costume Institute. A part of the Metropolitan Museum since 1937, the Costume Institute has until recently been better-known for hosting the luxuriously exclusive Costume Gala than for its exhibits. This has slowly been shifting in recent years: shows like Punk, the 2008 show Superheros: Fashion and Fantasy, and last year’s exhibit about Prada and Schiaparelli have brought a new vigor and youthful cachet to this part of the museum’s holdings, a wave of popularity that peaked with the 2011 exhibit Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, which for much of its duration reported hours-long wait times. In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I saw the McQueen show three times that summer. It was savage, and it was beautiful, and you can’t blame the Met for trying to repeat that recipe. The echoes are clear: the lighting, the division and feel of the space, the production design, the oversize video displays, and the thematic arrangement all evoke the McQueen show, right down to the location, in the same gallery, identifiable from a distance by the sound emerging from it and the general condensation of visitors milling around the entrance, the exit, and the merch store, prominently located at the end of each widely-publicized special exhibit at the Met.
If the content of the show is primarily about fashion, in its form and conception Punk is primarily about the increasingly vigorous appeals that cultural institutions like the Met are making to younger audiences and to forms of expression beyond the familiar purview of traditional art. Everything about Punk resists the kind of museum experience with which the Met is ordinarily associated: a shadowy multimedia space replaces the well-lit gallery; thematic, associative links replace periodization and genre; fluid movement between three-dimensional objects replaces the dull gaze resting on two-dimensional surfaces; and a shimmering audio-video experience replaces the frozen archeological object and the wood-framed masterpiece. All important developments in the world of museum culture, and their effect in broadening the institution’s appeal is immediately evident in the youthful vigor of the show’s audience: the mood and effect of the Punk galleries is made palpable by their proximity to the salon-style display of Rodin sculptures next door.
The show’s content makes a clear and undeniable case for the aesthetic impact of punk on high fashion. The impact and influence of punk are evident everywhere from the fabrics, textures, and silhouettes to the materials themselves, whether leather, canvas, or the infamous safety pins, and it’s demonstrated most clearly by the juxtaposition of punk clothing from the 1970s with more recent outfits, many of them from the past decade, by designers like McQueen, Dolce & Gabbana, Yohji Yamamoto, Viktor & Rolf, Dries van Noten, and Hussein Chalayan. The visual, conceptual, and aesthetic debt owed by contemporary fashion to punk is vivid, distinctive, and immediately clear. Punk is not about punk as a musical genre, or as a subculture, or as socio-political phenomenon: it’s about contemporary design aesthetic, and the insistence of that contemporary aesthetic on locating its own origins in the “influence” of punk. To say that the show is about fashion isn’t just to say that it stresses certain aspects of what was and is a wide-ranging and diverse cultural phenomenon. Fashion is the emphasis of the show, but it’s also the source of the show’s narrative and associative logic: Punk is not a sustained consideration of a cultural past but the resolute celebration of a contemporary present. It’s not so much that the present owes a debt to the past as that the present is the past’s destiny. If punk was important, it’s only because fashion is important; Joey Ramone’s destiny was to inspire Marc Jacobs. If the traditional function of the museum is to freeze the object as a relic of its own moment, to locate the value of the object in itself, the narrative of influence functions instead to make the meaning of the object’s past coextensive with its value in the present. It’s not that the concept of the museum has grown to encompass even fashion; rather, the assimilative logic of fashion has grown to encompass even the museum. What presents itself as a narrative of temporal development – from chaos to couture – is in fact a narrative of spatial expansion: here’s one more domain that the mechanisms of cultural production have come to recognize as having actually belonged to themselves all along. If the past matters, it’s only because it is recognized by the present as a source of value. The merch store sells rolls of duct tape for $8. As a celebration of stylistic influence, Punk: From Chaos to Couture is fun and effective. As the documentation of a spirit, or an ethos, or an attitude – as the embodiment of punk as a way of living and relating to the world – the show is mostly just depressing.
The function of the influence narrative is to write punk’s impact on fashion as a story of viral infiltration: here’s a radical form of outsider art that in progressive stages has come to take over the sensibilities of the resolutely traditionalist artisanal world of haute couture. Here punk is a challenge to our notions of what art and fashion and style can and should be, and it’s undeniable that punk has not only expanded but significantly reconfigured the palette of possibilities for sartorial expression. Look: here’s a skirt that a then-unknown punk made outside of the fashion industry in the 1970s, and here’s a completely identical skirt that one of the world’s most famous designers produced in 2005 or 2009. Punk fought the law, and punk won. But Punk doesn’t just lay claim to punk’s “style”; it also lays claim to its most fundamental operating procedure, the concept of do-it-yourself. Punk is many things to many people, but if punk has any kind of unifying ethos, DIY is it, and it’s that very ethos to which the narrative of influence wants to lay claim. As the Met puts it: “Focusing on the relationship between the punk concept of ‘do-it-yourself’ and the couture concept of ‘made-to-measure,’ the seven galleries will be organized around the materials, techniques, and embellishments associated with the anti-establishment style.”
The thing is, DIY is an ethos of inspiration, and not of influence. Influence, at heart, is a concept of identity, of assimilation. The problem of “influence” is that it makes things the same, even when they are, in fact, very, very different. Think of influence as a physical imprint: the harder the imprint, the more it will retain the shape of the object doing the imprinting. Influence stamps itself on its objects, in its own shape. But inspiration is something different: it’s the beginning of a movement, an incitement to action. Inspiration is fundamentally temporal in a way that influence is not. Influence is spatial; two things have to coexist in space and time for one to influence another, or for them to influence each other. Inspiration unfolds over time, and, almost by definition, it can’t act in the same place twice. The same action, performed in a different time and place, might generate an entirely different product. On the other hand, generating the very same product in two different times and places might require an entirely different set of actions and resources. This is Punk’s dirty little secret.
Style, or influence, is a way of generating identity; DIY, or inspiration, is a way of generating difference. Each bears a distinct relation to social concepts of value; more importantly, where DIY locates the value of the thing in its mode or ethos of production, the juxtaposition effected by the idea of influence generates identity precisely by effacing the specificity of the thing’s coming-into-being. Consider the notion of “primitivism” still insisted on by many exhibits of modernist art, with a “tribal” mask of African or Polynesian provenance placed next to a Cubist portrait by Picasso. In fact, this is the general problem with the notion of aesthetic “influence”: placed side-by-side, the ineluctable modality of the visible makes two or more objects effectively identical by reducing them to their commonalities. Juxtaposition in the present creates a spatial identity that belies difference in the past. The process by which visible similarities generate a concept of identity is the flipside of the process by which the invisible differences are effaced. The reduction of DIY from an ethos to an aesthetic, and the framing of punk’s relation to couture as a question of influence, renders invisible a massive edifice of labor and material organization, the actual mechanisms of production by which things come to look similar.
By putting a punk skirt next to a couture skirt and making their relationship one of influence or imitation, Punk emphasizes the identity between the two objects while deflecting our attention from the most radical difference between them: their cost. “Cost” doesn’t just mean sticker price, the few pounds a Westwood design might have cost at SEX in the ‘70s versus the hundreds of thousands of dollars which the privileged pay for contemporary haute couture designs. More important than the sticker price is the apparatus of production itself, not the cost of buying the thing but the cost of making it, and it’s here that the punk-to-couture narrative becomes particularly painful. Punk clothes – like punk interior design and punk music – are self-made things. They are self-made because they are made of materials nobody else would recognize as being valid raw materials for the kind of production in question; that’s the whole point. Punk’s commitment to DIY is precisely a way of circumventing established relations of material cost and social value. Also, DIY means self-made because back when punk was punk, DIY meant sitting your ass down and making the damn thing yourself. The visual juxtaposition of new and old clothes – the story the show wants to tell – makes punk punk and couture punk identical. But the respective material history of these object categories marks an almost total difference. What could be less DIY than a professional clothing atelier where dozens of highly-skilled craftsmen each performs, for hours, a single, carefully-mastered action? Couture is about carefully putting things together; punk is about crudely pulling things apart. DIY is an ethos in which a single person can perform an action or series of actions from conception to execution: contemporary big-budget fashion design is an opposite process in which a single master’s conception is executed through the endless labor of countless workers, each performing a crucial but effectively anonymous task – only one name goes on the label, after all. The difference between DIY and, well, not-DIY is the apparatus of production necessary to create an object. It’s the difference between generating new kinds of value where before there were none and between extending existing system of value – brand names, cultural institutions – into a domain previously beyond their reach. Punk wants to show that DIY and couture share a similar ethos in their absolute investment in the object’s specificity. Instead, though, it lays bare a fundamental sleight-of-hand; for couture, the specificity of the individual object and the differences between objects are entirely secondary to the continuity of production itself: if DIY is about inventing a new way of doing things from the ground up, even if you’re making an object that seems familiar, couture is about preserving the exact same way of doing things, even if you’re making an object that seems radically different.
If there was some brief moment in the later 20th century where it seems like a genuinely new language of cultural value and social meaning was born, by the early 21st century it’s clear that the culture machine has downloaded a universal translation app. Far from emphasizing a challenge to “traditional” categories of high and low culture or a radical challenge to the economic structures of the culture industry, Punk instead illustrates the resilience and adaptability of existing modes of production, even in the face of subcultural threats of the sort punk once seemed to represent. The flipside of the aesthetic narrative in which punk sneaks its way into high culture and haute couture is an economic narrative in which high culture and haute couture – sponsored by Condé Nast – purchase wholesale movements and moments like punk and then exploit their ownership to put on profitable exhibits at the Metropolitan Museum. It’s not that high culture as an hermetic category has been shown up by the DIY aesthetic of punk – rather, the rarified value of high culture is reinforced by a teleology in which the destiny of every truly worthwhile form of culture is to end up at the Met – sponsored by Condé Nast. Punk reifies and reaffirms every barrier that “punk” might once have challenged or rejected. Far from challenging the gatekeeping function of cultural institutions like the Met (or Vogue, for that matter), Punk represents a triumphant affirmation of their authority – here punk attains its cultural value not because it has successfully resisted but because at long last it has finally been assimilated. Juxtaposed with its high-end bastard progeny, it finally becomes clear what punk’s relics were destined to be all along. You can’t say Andy Warhol didn’t warn you.
I should probably confess that I loved many of the contemporary designs in the show. The craftsmanship behind many of the pieces is magnificent, and many of the designs take the sensibility of punk in beautiful and fascinating directions. Katherine Hamnett’s stark black-on-white t-shirt prints have lost none of the their brute simplicity even in an age of American Apparel and Helvetica, and McQueen’s sensual Gothic spin on punk, more Siouxsie and the Banshees than the Clash, continues to amaze. But it’s incredibly telling that the most interesting clothes in the show, as opposed to the most recognizably “punk” ones, are the ones that least resemble punk’s familiar visual template: the mind-bending sci-fi silhouettes of Rei Kawakubo’s Comme des Garcons designs; the baroque geometries of Viktor & Rolf’s tiered jackets; the surprisingly supple forms Yohji Yamamoto produces with thickly textured fabrics. These astounding creations are works of art and they belong in the Met at least as much as the Dyson vacuum cleaner in the permanent design collection on the first floor. The most important thing these constructions have in common with punk is not safety pins or torn-up tartan but simply the fact that they look like nothing that has come before. What’s punk about them is their willingness to find value in places, in things, in shapes, in concepts that do not yet have a recognized, coherent value. But that’s not the same as DIY.
Punk offers plenty to look at and much think about, but little of what it offers is actually about punk. If you don’t already have a sense of what punk is going in, the show might amuse, excite, or inspire you, but it won’t go very far in helping you understand. There’s little in the way of definition or explanation, little in the way of historicizing beyond a nod to punk’s dual origin in New York and London. There’s no real effort to document or explore the musical aspect of the subculture beyond a deliberately cool soundtrack that nonetheless manages to not be too abrasive. A few iconic names are scattered here and there: McLaren and Westwood, the Clash, a video of Patti Smith by the entrance, but no systematic attempt to explain or relate them. There’s no mention of punk’s origin in the economic and social conditions of the mid-1970s and in the endemic cynicism that began to replace Flower Power as the dominant cultural mode after peace, love, and understanding were beaten to death at Altamont. There’s a predictable quote from Dick Hebdige about subculture stenciled on one of the walls, and right near the entrance – behind a plate of glass, incredibly – a recreation of the bathroom at CBGB’s. Not the stage, not the bar, the bathroom. This is all the history you need to understand Punk: punk was born in the toilet and now it’s at the Met. Oh, and here’s a quote from some guy with a Ph.D. confirming its conceptual and cultural importance. The thing is, none of these absences matter, because Punk makes no pretense of being about history, or cultural theory, or music, for that matter. Punk: Chaos to Couture is about fashion, not just fashion as a kind of object but “fashion” as a metonym for a vast system that generates value and meaning through aesthetic assimilation: by replacing history with influence, by replacing difference over time with identity that collapses all times into the present, by replacing production with provenance – by teaching the very same all-encompassing Rube Goldberg machine of cultural production to make any product, no matter how viral or revolutionary it might briefly have seemed.
This bit of SMH news came to me on Twitter today via the lovely @codemesh.
I haven’t really thought of BAPE in a while, but I remember a few years ago when people were flying to Tokyo for the sole purpose of buying limited-edition BAPE swag that was only available in the Japanese stores.
"Branding" is really the apex of capitalism: a genuine affective and economic investment in what is basically an entirely abstract idea of the possibility of a commodity. This collaboration is a piss-poor, DOA cross-promotion idea that was clearly birthed by executives and not by creatives, but still; we are confronted with piss-poor, DOA cross-promotion ideas every day, but most of them don’t actually produce an affective response. If you’re a member of the "streetwear community," try to pin down in words (other than "WTF SMDH") what it is that is actually making you weep. If you manage to, by all means send me an ask or an e-mail and let me know.
The rest of it - the affective investment you can’t quite articulate - that’s commodity fetishism.
I spent the morning at the Magritte Museum in Brussels. It’s been a while since I really spent time thinking about Magritte’s work, and I kind of forgot how incredible his work is, and how deeply I absorbed it as a teenager.
One of the most incredible things about Magritte is his ability to articulate not only the meaning of his work but its theoretical and conceptual implications - Magritte doesn’t really require secondary literature, and the galleries in the Museum are very effectively designed to emphasize Magritte’s art as he understood it, the walls lined with well-chosen and effectively-placed quotes of which the one on the index card above is an example. The collection itself wasn’t that mind-blowing (many key works and themes are curiously absent), but it was very well curated.
Especially impressive is a large reproduction right at the entrance to the exhibition space, in the basement, titled “Les Mots et Les Images” (“Words and Images”; you can see an image on my Twitter feed here) which articulates, in a few simple propositions and definitely avant la lettre, a range of ideas which post-structuralist theory would make self-evident several decades later. Today we take it for granted that a signifier and a signified are not essentially linked, but the clarity and simplicity with which Magritte was able to articulate these propositions, without neologisms and without obfuscation, puts contemporary theory to shame.
Also in the exhibit was a hilarious pamphlet about ass-fucking that I really wanted to take a picture of but the security guard was a dick and insisted that the “no photography” rule was, in fact, a rule. The vain attempts to museums and galleries to treat works of art like intellectual property is surreal in itself, but that’s a whole other post.
Here’s what I want: I want Steven fucking Pinker to take a copy of Spinoza’s Ethics and explain one of the propositions to me. Not all of them; not the whole book. One. Just one proposition. I’ll even do him a solid - I’ll let him read it in English, instead of embarrassing him by making him try to translate Latin. Or maybe the Critique of Pure Reason. Can you explain that to me, Pinker? Hell, can you explain any of Kant’s critiques?
I’m gonna go out on a limb and say “no.” In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb that Steven fucking Pinker has not read a single one of these thinkers he so casually and authoritatively name-drops since his undergraduate years, if then. If Pinker has ever read all of Leviathan, I will eat my fucking copy of the book.
Let’s be absolutely clear - not a single one of the thinkers this asshole claims for “science”were scientists. Not a single one of them thought of themselves as scientists; not a single one had a concept of “science” that was anything like the concept Pinker is so anachronistically imposing on them. All of these men, even if they didn’t think of themselves as “a philosopher,” thought of their work as “a philosophy.” It’s right in the texts, if you take the time to read them. And the way you can tell Pinker has no fucking clue what he’s talking about is that he misses the two most important examples that would actually support his claim: Francis Bacon and Robert Boyle. Of the thinkers that he lists, Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz are the only ones who actually conducted anything that might even remotely fit the bill of “scientific experimentation.” Smith was an economist. Rousseau was a dilettante. Kant…I mean, the idea of describing Kant as a an “evolutionary psychologist” is just…OMFG.
“I often long to travel back in time and offer them some bit of twenty-first-century freshman science that would fill a gap in their arguments or guide them around a stumbling block.”
Did you follow that, folks? Stephen fucking Pinker, the great scientific genius, is going to go back in time to correct Spinoza’s arguments and “guide” him. The idea that these thinkers wrote “in the absence of formal theory” is so reductive and offensive. Descartes’ Discourse on Method, Spinoza’s Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione and his correspondences with Olderburg and others, Hume’sTreatise…these thinkers were conscious of formal method and self-reflexive about it in a way few scientists today are even remotely capable of. Incredibly, implausibly, each of these philosophersinvented an inferential method, from the ground up, instead of taking for granted any assumption they were taught.
Let’s be perfectly clear - “science” as we think of it today is a new thing. It dates back to the middle of the 19th century, when the disciplinary divisions we today regard as entirely natural wereformalized by people like Hermann von Helmholz. Before that there were no “scientists”: there were thinkers, writers, philosophers, ethicists, geometers, and doctors. There were also theologians, who Pinker dismisses out of hand, even though “science” would not exist without the precedent of Roger Bacon and Albertus Magnus. “Science” is a fully historical product of the regimentation, organization, and professionalization of what used to just be people observing the world and thinking about it. Science is the transformation of knowledge into a cliquish guild.
But the best part of this verbal tripe is the fact that Pinker is so narrow-minded and unself-reflexive in his anachronistic, ahistorical claims that he doesn’t even realize the extent to which his critique of the humanities itself depends on ideas generated by the humanities. Like this hilarious bit: “The term ‘scientism’ is anything but clear…The definitional vacuum allows me to replicate gay activists’ flaunting of ‘queer’ and appropriate the pejorative for a position I am prepared to defend.” First of all - “flaunting”? And second - isn’t that fucking rich. Such an original concept! We can already see how indebted the humanities are to science. Or this bit here: “we know that we did not always know these things, that the beloved convictions of every time and culture may be decisively falsified, doubtless including some we hold today.” Oh, really? You know that, do you? And where did this concept of epistemological relativism come from, exactly, if not from the humanities?
Assholes like Steven Pinker think that people in the humanities resist their ideas because we don’t understand “science.” But the truth is that many people in the humanities love and embrace the sciences: there are historians of science, there are digital humanities, there are philosophers of technology. What we resist isn’t “science”; what we resist are obnoxious fucking ignoramuses like you who come up in our house and tell us how ignorant we are, how much we don’t understand, and what we should be doing with our research. This is not an issue of science vs. humanities - this is the nature of contemporary academic research and, indeed, human nature itself. I’m not saying it’s good, I’m not saying it’s healthy, but I am saying that in an era of incredible competition and increasingly narrow specialization, nobody likes people from other disciplines stepping on their turf. The sciences don’t like it when the humanities do it - have you ever seen the absolutely hideously rude responses a humanities scholar gets when they try to deliver a paper at a science conference? - so why should you expect different when you do it yourself?
Pinker is defending science against an extremely odd idea: “The mindset of science cannot be blamed for genocide and war and does not threaten the moral and spiritual health of our nation. It is, rather, indispensable in all areas of human concern, including politics, the arts, and the search for meaning, purpose, and morality.”
So, first of all, I’ve been a scholar in the humanities for a while now and I’ve never heard anybody accuse science of genocide. Unless incurable dweeb-hood is lethal, in which case run for the hills. Second, “indispensable in all areas of human concern”? Well, let’s think about that for a second. If Pinker had ever read Spinoza and Hume, much less understood them, he would understand how basic claims from necessity function: namely, if science is 200 years old and aesthetic and political theory are over 2,000 years old, then former is not necessary to the existence of the latter. To borrow a formulation from Descartes - you know, the philosopher - both art and politics “can be and be conceived” without any concept of “science.”
But really there’s a point more important than all of these, which is this: Science doesn’t cause genocide or war. The humanities don’t cause genocide or war. What causes genocide is the ignorant belief in an absolute formal distinction between two things where in fact there is only a spectrum. Nobody has ever started a war under the mantra “let’s all get along” or “we’re all human,” but plenty of wars fall under the rubric of “us or them.” One of the most fundamental sources of human error, anxiety, and misery is this unreflexive tendency to set up absolute oppositions between things that have never been and never will be absolute opposites. The supposed division between the sciences and humanities is not a question of method, or of epistemology, even - it’s question of disciplinarity and the economic structures of contemporary academic institutions. Simple evidence: you can get science funding to write about Bachelard, because he’s a “historian of science,” but you can’t get science funding to write about Bachelard’s student, Michel Foucault, because Foucault was a “philosopher.”
The best thinkers - throughout history, in every field of inquiry - embrace whatever insights and information that their thought requires. The best scholars in the humanities respect the sciences; the best scientists are the ones who actually take the time to read the occasional book and can form a decent sentence. The worst thinkers are the ones who insist on inane distinctions, who set up false binaries instead of knocking them down, and who think of knowledge as an either/or proposition instead of embrace the notion that knowledge is a mosaic of perspectives that together generate an evolving and diverse picture of existence.
Personally, I think “science” can be incredibly useful to research in the humanities. I have regular arguments about this with traditionalists in my discipline. But I don’t think this because I want to “infuse” the humanities with science, I think this because I consider all human knowledge to be a single vast and manifold field, and I pick and choose what’s useful to me and not what the disciplinary guilds of contemporary academia think I need. This true when literary scholars frown at my diagrams, and it’s equally true when obnoxious, ill-informed assholes like Steven Pinker tell me that evolutionary psychology is useful for literary criticism. Don’t tell me how to do literary criticism, you self-important airbag.