Friday, September 2nd, 2011

Savage Beauty, Tame Museum: Alexander McQueen at the Met

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

May 4–August 7, 2011
1000 Fifth Avenue
New York City, 212-879-5500

Installation shot, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2011.
Installation shot of the exhibition under review. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, recently finished at the Metropolitan Museum, is an exhibition that is Important with a capital “I”. It drew in the crowds, the money, the new members, and fulsome critical praise. A game-changer, it is the type of show that many hope could influence museum practice for years to come. Why, then, am I so very uncomfortable with the positive response pouring in from all sides, from cultural mediators both high and low?

There is the sheer shock value that McQueen’s creations emit. Collection titles like “Highland Rape” (autumn/winter 1995–96) and “Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims” (1992) have been cast as easy feminist targets, distracting from the designer’s true calling as an icon reshaping standards of beauty for all women. While there is merit to these arguments—his work denies the viewer the pleasure of the typical feminine silhouette—the violence remains. Not only do names suggest horror, but the construction of the clothes, which McQueen’s own words frame as centered on destructive motions of cutting and slashing, also depict an unending cycle of deformation of the female figure by a man’s hands. The materials chosen for these designs, ranging from objects found in worlds both natural and man-made (glass, medical slides, razor-clam shells, aluminum), perpetuate this thematic of pain, derived from a variety of sources. At times, McQueen distorts the model’s body to such an extent that it no longer exists. Consider his famed hologram of Kate Moss that closed the show for his autumn/winter 2006–07 collection, “Widows of Culloden.” Presented in such a way, woman becomes a weightless being; with no physical presence of her own, she exists rather as a phantom apparition that the celebrated male genius manipulates for his own purposes.

Still from the hologram of Kate Moss that closed Alexander McQueen's 2006 show, Widows of Culloden. photo credit:
Still from the hologram of Kate Moss that closed Alexander McQueen's 2006 show, Widows of Culloden. photo credit:

But, more problematic, is how the museum completely abandons its institutional responsibilities of critical scholarship. The feminist complaint against McQueen is well-established—the claims that he sexualizes violence towards women have existed since he emerged as a fashion powerhouse in the mid-`90s—yet is never acknowledged within the exhibit itself. Wall text is limited, often overly dependent on the artist’s personal quotations, and the catalogue disappoints with its overreliance on a simple narrative of McQueen’s never-questioned achievements. One could even argue that those behind Savage Beauty, instead of allowing for a neutral space that would provide much-needed intellectual distance, reinforce the fashion designer’s violent fantasies through the too-theatrical displays that dramatize the conflict inherent in his pieces. Why else does the museum exist but to analyze and engage critically with the visual world overwhelming us? When an organization as well-regarded as the Metropolitan fails to address the most basic of controversies facing an artist, it ignores its mission and sets a dangerous precedent.

Where Savage Beauty does take a firm academic stand is in its casting of McQueen as a Romantic artist. Curator Andrew Bolton certainly argues this point convincingly, laying out galleries according to various Romantic tenets like Nationalism, Exoticism, and Naturalism. Despite the quality of the presentation, the scholarship here again makes me squeamish. Romanticism was a movement rich in rightly-celebrated artistic successes, yet it left a complicated heritage, one which McQueen inhabits without creating a productive dialogue. His observations lay the groundwork for a real discourse, as he stated that “[f]ashion can be really racist, looking at the clothes of other cultures as costumes. . . . That’s mundane and it’s old hat. Let’s break down some barriers.” Yet nothing on display here evokes anything but the cultural pillaging and misrepresentation characteristic of the 19th century. And when a citation like, “What I do is look at ancient African tribes, and the way they dress. The rituals of how they dress. . . . There’s a lot of tribalism in the collections,” follows the previous quote, McQueen squanders much of his previously gained progressive goodwill. Dismissing the complex traditions of a continent as mere “tribalism” situates the designer in the same ranks as a Romantic like Delacroix: a talented artist, yes, but one also prone to fall under the spell of an imagined unified culture-scape existing solely in Western minds, a universe where a multi-faceted society can be deduced to its most exotic parts, as the French painter once did in his Orientalist canvases. Again, curatorial failure emerges as these concepts are presented without more critical discussion of their socio-political undertones.

Art, a wide-ranging term encompassing fashion, is never easy. The job of the museum is not to simplify, but to illuminate, challenge, explain. Savage Beauty ultimately disappoints not because Alexander McQueen turned violence towards women into a stylish spectacle, but rather because of the Metropolitan’s unwillingness to expose and flesh out this dynamic. Contemporary cultural colonialism is troubling, but not nearly as distressing as one of the art world’s most-respected institutions failing to address this issue.