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.