"Have you read the Brooklyn Museum article in the Times?" is a question Culturebox overheard twice at the press preview of "Rock Style," an exhibition of rock 'n' roll outfits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute. The show, which opens Thursday, is the boldest display of corporate muscle and easy museological virtue to appear at a respected New York art institution in, oh, about two months--since "Sensation" opened at the Brooklyn Museum. "Rock Style" celebrates the influence of rock on fashion, deploying to that end an excess of media more often seen on the E! channel than in public museums (videos, a soundtrack, floor-to-ceiling photographs of musicians in full stage regalia that cover several ancient Egyptian frescoes). The show was brought to you by Tommy Hilfiger U.S.A., the quasi-official couturier to the hip-hop generation. That means that Hilfiger funded the show, of course, and also that he served as its "principal designer," according to the press kit. His name is printed in large white letters on the cover of the catalog, which he co-wrote with Rolling Stone contributor Anthony DeCurtis.
It was a nice coincidence that "Rock Style" should preview the same day that the New York Times laid out in sordid detail the kinds of compromises museums make in pursuit of big-ticket shows. The article revealed that the director of the Brooklyn Museum, Arnold Lehman, granted the owner of "Sensation" 's artworks, Charles Saatchi, an astonishing level of control over the show's budget and layout; that Saatchi is now claiming that money seemingly donated was actually a loan; and that Lehman probably lied to the press as well as to potential donors about exactly how much money Saatchi had contributed and whether Lehman had personally laid eyes on the "Sensation" show when it was in London.
The Met is unlikely to suffer similar embarrassment, since its director, Philippe de Montebello, inoculates himself against criticism by being more openly corrupt than Lehman. Under Montebello, it has become standard practice to ask interested parties to sponsor and curate shows. Christian Dior subsidized a show of Dior couture; Tiffany paid for a show of Tiffany bibelots; Fabergé underwrote a show of Fabergé eggs, jewels, and bric-a-brac for which a Fabergé consultant was the guest curator. Next to the Metropolitan, the Brooklyn Museum looks like a bunch of amateurs. Why bicker over artistic control when you can just cede the hall to the sponsor?
The justification offered by museum directors for shows that double as highbrow advertisements is, Hey, get real, that's the only way museums can afford to get expensive stuff inside its walls. "No museum, except maybe the Getty, has an endowment big enough to be free of the marketplace, so all other museums have to retail products, solicit corporations, franchise themselves," Glenn Lowry, the director of the Museum of Modern Art, told a reporter a few years ago. "It's up to each institution to make sure that none of it affects the content of the exhibitions or the integrity of the museum." In light of that excuse, Culturebox thinks the following standards should be applied to "Rock Style" and other shows of its ilk: Does it add value above and beyond what you'd find in a commercial for the sponsor's product, and does hosting it compromise the integrity of the museum?
In the case of "Rock Style," the answers to those questions are no and yes. It goes without saying (though Culturebox will happily say it) that the show is a Hilfiger commercial, legitimating as art the marketing strategy embraced so successfully by Hilfiger in the past few years, which mainly consists of turning rock musicians into fashion models. What's notable is that the show's exhibition strategy is essentially the same--reducing rockers to clothes horses, and without adding an iota of critical perspective.
The thesis advanced in "Rock Style" is that individual rockers had a transformative effect on fashion. The evidence lies in their stage costumes: Elvis Presley's gold lamé suit and the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band outfits and Janis Joplin's feathery ensembles and George Clinton's outsize rabbit-and-fox fur coat and David Bowie's metallic clown suit and Madonna's peach-colored conical bras and Beck's cream cotton Nehru getup and Tori Amos' (Tori Amos'?) lilac jumpsuit, all looking suitably outrageous if somewhat wilted behind glass. The whole glorious spectacle is thrilling to look at, even absent the performers. For the categorically minded, there is a nominal division of styles: icons (Elvis and the Beatles); poets and dreamers (Janis, the Artist Formerly Known as Prince, Bruce Springsteen); rebels (Lou Reed, Alice Cooper, Courtney Love); and the categories of brilliant disguise (Bowie, Bono, Björk) and high style (Cher, Madonna, Puff Daddy).
But fun like this we could have watching old video clips on VH1. The Met, after all, is supposed to be an educational institution. So what do we learn from the show about the history or sociology or even the aesthetics of rock music or fashion? Can we say that Janis Joplin's and Jimi Hendrix's romantic thrift-store eclecticism created the late hippie look, or emerged out of it? Ditto with Mick Jagger's and Bowie's androgyny and the disco aesthetic of the late 1970s, or Kiss' heavy-metal goofiness and punk? What about rock itself? How did it change once music videos made a band's appearance more important than its sound?
There are no answers, because "Rock Style" 's wall captions are stunningly fatuous. "The concept of the rock artist as poet--even visionary--endures, and many performers uphold the tradition in their music and dress," reads a typical one. (The wall commentary at Costume Institute, which was overseen by fashion historian Richard Martin until his death last month, has not always been this insipid. The bubbleheadedness in this show surely reflects Hilfiger's input.) The videos, etc., are no help either. The book exhibits a modicum of historical consciousness; it's broken up into periods, at least. But it is also stuffed with Hilfiger's personal reminiscences about serving as designer to the stars, which are as presumptuous as they are empty: "Making clothes for Keith [Richards] is easy, because he knows exactly what he wants."
In the end, all we have to go on are the costumes themselves. That's plenty, of course--Culturebox would never discourage you from going anywhere to see Michael Stipe's gray-blue sheer organza suit, a beautiful embodiment of androgynous glamour, or the wholly deconstructed Edwardian getup Jean-Paul Gaultier designed for Madonna, with its exuberant bursts of taffeta, twill, and satin, as well as an over-the-top silk top hat. It's hard to keep in one's mind just how out-there David Bowie once was, so it's instructive to see his black quilted jumpsuit from the mid 1970s, the thighs of which are so exaggerated they form a perfect vertical disc, then taper in neatly at the knees. Get the book--which, Culturebox forgot to mention, is very snazzily designed--and give it to the most rock-and-fashion-conscious teen-agers you know. Just don't expect it to add to their ability to analyze the activity they're so obsessively devoted to. Those insights will have to wait for a less synergistic occasion.