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Dressed for Success: Will the Met’s “McQueen” Inspire Cheap Knockoffs?

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Bummed by the “bumster”: A scene from “McQueen”

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has lately been boasting about the boffo box office for its recently concluded fashion retrospective, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty. Its exultant post-show press release announced that 661,509 attendees had made “McQueen” the eighth most popular show in the museum’s history.

I’ll leave it to Los Angelenos to say how they feel about the outsized attendance success of LA MOCA’s graffiti-intensive Art in the Streets exhibition, which also recently closed. As for the Met’s fashion extravaganza, the monstrous success and the disproportionate frenzy that this show provoked among otherwise sensible adults is astonishing and troubling. Two of my own friends confessed to me that they had withstood the lines and endured the gallery scrum during the final desperation-driven week of the three-month run.

People suddenly realized that this was their last chance to see the show-of-the-moment. But it’s not likely to be a show-for-the-ages, like the Number 1 hit on the Met’s Top 10 Countdown of popular shows, the King Tut extravaganza of 1978-79, or Number 5, “Origins of Impressionism,” 1994-95.

Success breeds imitation. The curse of “Savage Beauty” is that the very attributes that helped make this seductive display such a deservedly big draw could undermine the very qualities that traditional art audiences value most about museums—deeply informed interpretation and unobtrusive presentation, giving primacy to the works of art.

As demonstrated by my very early review and video (posted on CultureGrrl before the exhibition opened to the public and reposted on the Huffington Post ), I was second to none in my admiration for the late fashion designer’s darkly alluring (if mostly unwearable) garments, and, especially, for the ingenious installation’s coup de théâtre.

What worries me, though, about McQueen’s triumphant (but posthumous) reign is that the British designer may spawn a dynasty: The Met and other attendance-hungry institutions, dazzled by this flashy show’s stunning achievement, may be increasingly tempted to emphasize theatrics over serious purpose.

As a sample of curatorial scholarship, “McQueen” was what-not-to-wear. Its accompanying publication, according to the Met, sold “well over 100,000 copies.” But (as I previously wrote) this sumptuously illustrated book, with a macabre hologram on its cover, is one of the least erudite catalogues ever produced for a Met show. And while the introductory wall text for each section was illuminating, the individual object labels were disappointingly dim.

The Met’s previous director, Philippe de Montebello, frequently fretted over the possibility that today’s multimedia, multi-tasking generation might lack the patience and rapt concentration needed to appreciate the subtleties of objects that just stand there, motionless and mute. With its haunting projections, eerie audio, pirouetting mannequins and windblown fabrics, “McQueen” may considerably up the ante for sound, animation and atmospherics.

High attendance brings high revenues—not only from admissions (which were bolstered by a whopping $50 charge for those attending the show on Mondays), but also from retail sales. In the case of “McQueen,” the merchandise spinoffs included armadillo shoe ornaments, crystal skull paperweights and tartan purses, which, as the Met proudly informed us, “sold out several times and were repeatedly reordered.” Usually an admirable leader, the Met, triumphantly milking the McQueen cash cow for all it was worth, may now be pointing the way in the wrong direction.

One almost detects a note of regret in the Met’s farewell to its star attraction, which must now make way for less trendy fare. Its post-“McQueen” press release states: “The exhibition could not be extended further, because the galleries need to be turned over for the preparation of the exhibition “Wonder of the Age”: Master Painters of India, 1100-1900, which will open on Sept. 28.”

That chronologically arranged traveling loan exhibition of some 220 works from a variety of lenders will be “devoted to the connoisseurship of Indian painting,” according to its description. This sounds reassuringly like what we have come to expect from the Met. The show was organized not by the museum’s own experts, however, but by the Museum Rietberg, Zurich, where it is currently on view.

For a project of great breadth and scholarly ambition that is co-organized by the Met itself, we must await December’s The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini, billed as “an unprecedented survey of the period [that] provide[s] new research and insight into the early history of portraiture.”

That’s my idea of a must-see at the Met—timeless masterpieces, animated by scholarly intelligence.

an ArtsJournal blog