At the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, this summer’s exhibition "Punk: Chaos to Couture" endured one of the angriest and most universal critical drubbings in recent memory. An “overwhelming failure,” according to Sasha Frere-Jones of the New Yorker. “A disaster,” wrote Natasha Loder of the Economist. “Fashion has rarely looked as frivolous, beside the point and 1 percent-ish as here,” deplored Roberta Smith in the Times.
And guess what? Nobody cared! According to the Met, "Punk" attracted 442,350 visitors over the course of its three-month run. That makes it one of the five best-attended shows the Met’s Costume Institute has mounted in the last quarter-century, and puts it well ahead of last year’s intelligent and perplexing Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada two-hander (339,838 viewers). If I’ve figured it right, something like 4,900 visitors traipsed through the "Punk" exhibition, with its ersatz CBGB toilet, every day.1 By way of comparison, the Met’s newly renovated American wing, featuring such crowd-pleasers as Washington Crossing the Delaware, pulls in 2,000 visitors a day; the glorious Islamic wing gets about 2,500.
Art museums’ attention to fashion isn’t new; under Diana Vreeland, the legendary editor of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, the Met produced focused exhibitions of designers such as Balenciaga and Yves Saint Laurent. Now, however, we are living through an obsessive, pseudo-egalitarian, dispiritingly celebrity-driven moment for fashion, and our fine art museums have responded in kind: with giant shows of questionable relevance, which seem to bring in the crowds regardless of quality. The Met’s blockbusting Alexander McQueen exhibition of 2011, so popular that anyone who wanted to see the 19th century French collection had to shove queuing punters aside, is only the most successful of recent fashion shows in fine art museums. At the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston now there’s "Hippie Chic," featuring mannequins in stars-and-stripes go-go boots standing on shag carpeting. In Seattle you can see "Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion," with wacky gowns from Rei Kawakubo and Issey Miyake. The Victoria and Albert Museum is currently hosting "Club to Catwalk: London Fashion in the 1980s," soundtracked to Boy George and Divine.
And coming this fall is a massive retrospective of the designer Jean Paul Gaultier, which arrives at the Brooklyn Museum following iterations at the de Young in San Francisco and the Dallas Museum of Art. First seen in Montreal, the show has brought in nearly a million visitors at its stops so far. Thierry-Maxime Loriot, a curator at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts who organized the exhibition, told me earlier this month that his show isn’t a commercial one: Gaultier has not underwritten it, and the curatorial team had unfettered access to the designer’s archive. Still, Loriot pointed out that “you have so many fashion exhibitions now that are only vitrines and advertising for brands.” And while the presenting institutions have had to fund the shows themselves, it’s an easy lift. The Brooklyn Museum iteration is underwritten by Lexus, who I suspect would not have been so keen to throw their money at an exhibition of 18th-century porcelain.
To a museum director with a tight budget and an eye on visitor traffic, the appeal of such shows is evident. Unlike with Monet haystacks and Renoir soft-core, these popular fashion exhibitions are relatively cheap to produce—loans are easy to obtain, and insurance costs far less than it does for $100 million paintings from the 19th century. They’re also easy to monetize further. The gift shop at the end of the "Punk" show featured T-shirts from Rodarte, Moschino and Dolce & Gabbana (noted tax evaders), a $775 necklace composed of pearls and safety pins, and, for those feeling a little skint, Manic Panic hair color for under $10 a tube.
Most of all, the big audiences drawn to fashion exhibitions help to pull in donations from corporate sponsors, who are ever more necessary as government funding disappears and our nouveau-riche lords of finance turn out to be much less charitable than the last century’s Rockefellers and Astors. With money drying up and benefactors getting smarter and stingier, museums are clearly looking for an easy way out. And fashion shows, I fear, are especially vulnerable to corporate influence and the ethical hiccups that go with it. At their worst, these shows are themselves corporate—intended less to analyze and study clothes than to sell them.
I’m all for breaking down the boundaries between fine and applied arts, and I have no problem in principle with fashion shows in fine art museums when they’ve got an argument to make. Loriot’s exhibition, for example, makes a strong case for Gaultier as a pioneer for racial and sexual equality in a prejudiced fashion world. The Met’s Schiap/Prada show presented Prada, herself a major art collector who adamantly rejects the idea that fashion is an art, as something like a young Hegelian of haute couture.2 Fashion itself isn’t the enemy. The real concern is what happens when the profit motive of international fashion conglomerates insinuates itself into the space of museums, which are supposed to be nonprofit organizations with a public mission. Designers are no longer solitary geniuses slaving away in ateliers. They are participants in a multibillion-dollar industry, and that industry’s motives are not exactly altruistic.
Not long ago, a discreetly placed logo in the catalogue’s frontmatter and a few seats at the opening night dinner were enough to secure a major sponsorship deal for a blockbuster exhibition. Today, however, it’s an open secret that benefactors, especially corporate benefactors, are giving less and demanding more. They have cottoned on to our desperation, and in an art world in which only the super-rich matter, they want their money’s worth.3 Back in 2000, for example, the art world was up in arms when the Guggenheim put together a retrospective of the work of Giorgio Armani after the designer donated something on the order of $15 million to the museum.4 But nobody is giving $15 million to anyone these days; for a fraction of that—a couple hundred thousand should do it—you can now get a whole lot more. “Sponsorship is not a donation; it’s a deal. It has to work for the business as well as for us,” said Sandy Nairne, the director of London’s National Portrait Gallery, to the Art Newspaper this spring. And the fashion world knows it.
Witness the crazy exhibition on now at Paris’s Palais de Tokyo, a semi-public institution, which features 16 artists invited to create “artworks” in the ateliers of Hermès.5 Hermès’s private foundation selected the artists and has paid for the entire show: all the works were created in an edition of two, and Hermès owns one of them. If the show is not exactly a giant walk-in advertisement for the luxury firm, it’s something very close to it. When I asked Gaël Charbau, the show’s curator, about how the challenges of organizing an exhibition under such conditions, he suggested that “we need to change the idea that public structures are educational, where private are promotional. My strategies are the same when I’m working for public or private. My question is always: can I talk about art?”
For independent curators working under tough circumstances, that’s an appealing claim. But what if what we’re talking about isn’t art at all, but simply marketing materials? What if the museum serves not to provide art-historical rigor or cultural context, but simply social prestige? Fashion isn’t uniquely guilty in this regard—there was a notorious Star Wars show at the Brooklyn Museum, with props provided by Lucasfilm—but fashion, more than other categories of commerce, can elide the boundaries between the creative and the corporate with such finesse that many viewers may not notice the degradation.6 And fashion, which in the past decade has grown both far more corporate and far more popular, is singularly positioned to fool museum directors with straitened budgets that its commerce is actually the stuff of art.
We have seen several cases these past few years of museums rolling over in the face of the super-crazy-expensive art market, presenting the collections of their own board members and increasing their value in the process. It’s also becoming more common for museums and biennials to solicit artists’ dealers for funding: a mutually beneficial arrangement, as the prestige of a museum show usually raises an artist’s prices. (At the opening of this year’s Venice Biennale, I witnessed one of the most powerful gallerists in the world making deals right inside the Arsenale.) Corporate money is the most insidious, though, since unlike collectors and dealers, it has no investment in the art world at all. With nonprofit museums effectively priced out of the art market, and with fashion-hungry viewers suggesting they’d rather not look at art at all, it’s up to museum directors to stand firm—lest our public galleries turn into just a few more corporate showrooms, and all of us end up punked.
Jason Farago is a writer and critic living in New York.