Punk Needs More Meat

Two weekends ago I flew to New York City. The whole trip revolved around seeing Punk: Chaos to Couture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I took in other shows as well while I was there. In two days, I saw six fashion exhibitions. Some were more high brow than others, but they were good overall. Unfortunately, Punk fell short of my initial expectations.

Punk: Chaos to Couture title wall gallery, from Metropolitan Museum of Art

When I first found out the show would be curated by Andrew Bolton, I decided I really wanted to go. He’s created some of the best exhibitions at the Met in my opinion. Dangerous Liaisons: Fashion and Furniture in the Eighteenth Century, Anglomania: Tradition and Transgression in British Fashion, and Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty were all his. With that kind of track record, I wanted to see this show. But then the less than stellar reviews started rolling in.

The reviews had two major problems with Punk: first, it was a show about high fashion appropriating punk, not a punk show, and second, there was a lack of contextualization. The first point is indeed true. Bolton and the Met never set out to make an authentic punk show or mislead people about what they would see. It was always going to be about high fashion co-opting the aesthetics. So if you don’t like high fashion’s blatant use of punk imagery, well, you probably aren’t going to like this show. I personally don’t mind that basic premise.

The second point about contextualization was the one I was skeptical about. I’ve read reviews of Bolton shows before, and so many of them complain of a lack of written contextualization. Well wake up folks, I wanted to say. Contextualization doesn’t always have to come in the form of the written word. It can be done through the exhibition design setting the scene. It can be done by showing period sketches or photographs in a case in the same room as a period garment to demonstrate that garment’s background. Audiences are smarter than you think. Give them a little credit that they can infer connections without everything being spelled out.

However, in this show the contextualization argument may be right. I left the show feeling like I hadn’t learned anything. I had just seen a bunch of cool looking clothes. The question “what was the point?” has been nagging me since I saw it.

Clothes for Heroes gallery, from Metropolitan Museum of Art

The small amount of clothes that were contextualized in the first gallery space was pretty cool, seen in the photo above. Authentic 1970s garments sold in Vivienne Westwood and Malcom McLaren’s shop in London were paired up with contemporary high fashion versions. The “real” stuff was fascinating to see. Their fashiony doppelgängers took on an elevated meaning standing right next to the authentic items. I saw an “Anarchy Mask” T-shirt reputedly worn by Johnny Rotten and the “God Save the Queen” T-shirt.

D.I.Y.: Bricolage gallery, from Metropolitan Museum of Art

But then things broke down to purely superficial aesthetic details in the following four gallery spaces. Not only were there a lack of references about how pieces were inspired by punk — other than they fit some vague approximation of what punk looked like and there was very loud music playing to hard-to-watch videos of punk imagery — but there were few details about the garments themselves. No descriptive labels for individual garments, no pictures of the clothes on the runway or worn in everyday life. The exhibition design left me wanting more. I wanted to know what it was like to sew Gareth Pugh ruffled gowns out of garbage bags (seen in the photo above on the center platform). There was no video of the infamous graffitied McQueen dress from spring/summer 1999 getting spray painted live on the runway by robotic machines. No insight into the minds of any of the designers when they were conceiving of these clothes.

430 King's Road Period Room, from Metropolitan Museum of Art

My first walk through of the exhibition was a treat however. My friend Sarah Scaturro, head conservator in the Costume Institute, took me through. She pointed out things I would have never noticed on my own — every element in the replicated Seditionaries shop is archival (seen in the photo above), the single garment owned by the Met in a particular gallery was standing on the only pedestal that didn’t house a speaker, a T-shirt that said “58% DON’T WANT PERSHING” was the real punk deal. That was very exciting getting an individual tour. So I have to say a big thank you to Sarah for taking time out of her day to walk through it with me.

D.I.Y.: Graffiti & Agitprop gallery, from Metropolitan Museum of Art

The garments in Punk were really cool, and they were a treat to see, especially that graffitied McQueen dress (seen above at left) — I had a sacred moment when I saw it in person. The show was a visual treat and mounted very well. But I felt the exhibition could have taught me more, could have pushed beyond the superficial aesthetics. It lacked the heart and soul Bolton’s other shows are known to have. I wanted something a little more meaty, but I didn’t get it.


  1. Brenna says:

    Thanks for a great review! I saw a twitter comment the other day from the Victoria & Albert’s head of research stating that one of the Tate museums was no longer using text panels in an exhibit because people had become their own researchers thanks to smart phones. I wonder how true that is. I don’t think that the museum is the arbiter of taste and knowledge it was in the early 20th century, but more a participant in a dialogue with visitors. That being said, you make an excellent point, every dialogue needs to have substance in order to maintain interest.

    • jacqueline says:

      That’s a bit frightening coming from the V&A! Do they expect me to spend the whole time in the exhibition on my smart phone googling information on what I’m seeing?

      It’s great that we have more information at our fingertips than ever before, but there’s so much more to wade through to find what’s relevant. I expect the museum to take the expert role and at least help start the discussion on a topic, not leave it up to me entirely to figure out.

      • Brenna says:

        I was quite shocked. I think he was talking about the Tate, not the V&A, but I’d have to go through the Twitter backlog to verify. I substitute teach at the high school level and am stunned at my students’ gullibility. They have more information at their fingertips than I had available throughout my entire high school career, but they can’t tell the difference between a reliable source and a phony one. If it’s on the internet they believe it. Which is really terrifying, actually.

        That’s where I think museums and universities still have the advantage, as you pointed out. They should be guiding discussion as well as participating in it. The field is changing — as are all fields right now — but I think taking such a passive role as to provide no context, or apparently no text panels, is a dangerous way to go. It minimizes the expertise that the museum staff has and fails their visitors.

        • jacqueline says:

          Oh I misread that and only saw V&A head of research, not the part about s/he talking about the Tate. Still, the Tate should know better.

          And I should clarify something. The Punk exhibition did have gallery text panels in each room and each garment had a tombstone (label that denoted designer, year, material, source).

          • Brenna says:

            Oh, I know that the Punk exhibit had more information than the one I was discussing. You didn’t give the impression that the Punk exhibit was without any information, just that it didn’t have enough. I just think that the Punk exhibit has shown some opportunities for growth in the way museums do exhibits. Which I guess makes it a success in some ways if not others?

            • There has to be a balance of information. I’ve been to exhibitions where there was an over-abundance of printed info, and what happens is that one can’t digest it all. To me, that is the purpose of the catalog. But to display objects with no notes of context turns a museum into Pinterest!

              Last week I saw a fashion exhibition that had a text panel for each item, most having 2 or 3 short sentences, telling the most important facts about the garment plus the tombstone information. But then there were also notebooks throughout the gallery that contained details, period photos, catalog references and other valuable insights about the garments. It was very effective, and it let the visitor choose how much information she wanted to access.

  2. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this one. I’ll be seeing it later in the summer, but I’ll admit that I’m much more excited about seeing Retrospective at FIT. I’m just more interested in “the real stuff” than in clothes that one can see in the windows of Burberry. If you, having the tour with Ms. Scaturro felt it was lacking, I can imagine how most visitors must feel.

  3. Shaelyn says:

    You will have to forgive my rambling comment — I’m a little brainfried right now but wanted to participate!

    I have thought about this exhibit often in the last few weeks. I went into it (and through the first two contextualizing rooms and the first straight-high-fashion room) feeling really enthused about it, but by the end I was frustrated by the lack of contextual information you mentioned. I’m not a fashion historian (and I reckon that most of the visitors who heard about “that punk exhibit” at the Met and decided to traipse through it themselves aren’t, either), and so I don’t know how to evaluate fashion without some kind of expert voice. With only tombstone labels, it felt like I was expected to ooh and ahh at the pieces on display simply because I recognized the names of their designers. That’s not cool.

    It also left a very bad taste in my mouth about commercialization of punk aesthetics. I mean, I never thought the exhibit was going to be about anything else, and yet I was disappointed that the journey through the exhibit almost made me feel like the Met was saying it was an inevitable progression from grass-roots to corporate, from DIY to mass-manufactured.

    The most interesting thing to me was the fact that visitors have carved anarchy and other symbols into the styrofoam walls in at least one room. Interesting from a community engagement perspective; terrifying from a museum professional’s perspective.

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