In Defense of the Met’s Punk Show

The Punk show at the Met—now finishing its first weekend open to the public—has seen a range of reactions, most of them tepid, some of them hostile. Given the theme this year, the museum’s attempts at whipping up interest have not been helped by the glitzy Met Gala, seen by many as emblematic of just how far removed from any anarchic notion of punk the show is.

Nor have critics been very kind. Suzy Menkes wrote in the International Herald Tribune: “How could Andrew Bolton, the brilliant and cerebral museum curator, whose blockbuster shows have included the Alexander McQueen retrospective and last year’s fusion of Elsa Schiaparelli with Miuccia Prada, have made punk seem so dull?” She concludes her rather scathing review by saying, “The true punks — those who lived and survived that moment — should find an exquisite irony in the idea that their no-future kick at a dead-end society should, 40 years on, have moved from a defiant statement from society’s impoverished and self-proclaimed social outcasts to a display of clothes for global celebrities and the super-rich having a ball.”

Cathy Horyn, meanwhile, opined in the New York Times, in advance of her more agreeable Met Gala write-up, “Kill me now. I mean, I appreciate the do-it-yourself spirit of punk, but punk was never my thing, and I don’t see why I should bother now trying to be a poor imitation of Soo Catwoman or even Elizabeth Hurley in her hot Versace dress. Post-punk fashion doesn’t get any better than that expensive bit of craft and wit.”

I myself wrote, for Artinfo, “The show was never meant to be a comprehensive survey of punk fashion. Indeed there are no actual punk garments, as in those worn on stage, which by now have become the sweaty detritus of performative disdain. But without a visceral connection to punk’s potency, the show itself comes off as staged.”

So it might seem that Bolton was so concerned about offending the punk legacy that he removed any potential conflict, reining in the purview of the show to punk’s influence on high fashion. Mindful that everyone has an opinion about punk, he’s said he didn’t want to create a “parody.” And therein lies the difficulty in focusing on a recent cultural phenomenon, one which its surviving members will certainly remember and have an interest in protecting.

But here is a thought. Perhaps, just perhaps, Bolton has been circumspect intentionally, so as to inflame the very chorus of naysayers we’re seeing. Has not the ensuing chaos felt very punk?

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