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Punk at the Met: For People Who've Never Had to Safety-Pin Their Clothes

The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art takes on punk, with mixed results.

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So, in spite of the beautiful garments and the stylish video and sound design accompanying them, such thematic weaknesses leave the astute folks who came for more than the hemlines wondering what this exhibit is trying to say. Is it somehow flaunting the truth: that consumerism swallowed up even the ethos and spirit of a great non-consumerist, DIY production-oriented movement? That in so much swallowing up of the past, there really is “No Future,” just like the Sex Pistols said? The wall of the final room, DIY Destroy, states this:

 “Through its ethos of do-it-yourself, punk not only de-established the authority of the designer, but it transformed it to the wearer. Once and for all, it rejected the concept of the designer as unique creator. Effectively, punk democratized creativity and invention. It broke all the rules and allowed anything to be possible.”

Anything, that is, except touching or photographing the exhibit.

And this is where, in spite of itself, “Chaos to Couture” does manage to capture the essence of punk in ways that none of its creators could have expected. As alarms go off to reprimand those standing too near the mannequins, museum employees engage in a hypnotic, if threatening, chant of “No photos! No video!” They’re making sure there won’t be any  Brian Eno action on those CBGB replica urinals at the front of the exhibit…or anywhere else. This is no Temporary Autonomous Zone. 

The Met, simply by being the Met, has created a police state environment that tells us “No!” at every turn—no touching, no photos, no standing too close—even as we stand amidst the larger-than-life images of Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten, glittering spikes and staples and spray-paint. Is it an accidental act of détournement? Or just a bit of cheeky irony? With the roar of those alarms sounding off in the name of upholding museum law, it might be enough to propel even the most docile among us into an act of sedition. With so much flash and noise, they might make punks of us yet. 

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