Pretty Vacant at The Met

STORY BY Howie Pyro

Published: June 13, 2013

I wasn't even going to bother with the Met’s Punk exhibit. After reading a bunch of typically whiny complaints, mostly from people that were NOT there-- in the '70s, I mean-- I had a strong feeling it would be a letdown. But then I actually started to enjoy the fact that all these people were getting stirred up, and I realized that this was probably the most Punk Rock thing about the exhibit: the reaction. So my friend Jimmy and I took the plunge uptown, where, in the vicinity of the Met, we were met with those New Museum-type street signs on light posts proclaiming “PUNK!” placed awkwardly above modern imagery. As we approached, my eyes hit the massive banner attached to the front of this magnificent building again proclaiming “PUNK”, silver on black, in a Disco-esque font that-- in any decade-- would have never made it below 23rd street.


The Metropolitan Museum of Art presents cultures as they were meant for us to see, to get a glimpse into the past. An unbiased glimpse I thought, like most of the population would, taking it all as it was presented and believing it. Walking around the massive museum, taking in the Egyptian exhibit, Roman statues, things dating back to the B.C. era, these are all things I, and most of us take at face value.  But now I have to wonder.  The punk exhibit was based on an experience that I was very much a part of, and it was very misrepresented & opinionated-- not presented as a culture in history. Not at face value either, though 80% of the patrons being paraded through there do not know this.  

It was a weekday afternoon and the exhibit was so packed I was shocked. People were being herded around where they were met with brash sights & sounds, all of which acted as nothing more than a bow on top of a fashion exhibit: room after room of samey non-cutting edge modern fashion from recent years, many resembling “fancy” versions of Hollywood Blvd hooker store fashion. Lots of spiked heels & fishnets, buckles, etc.  I figured I’d see a Chanel bag on display at some point…they have chains on them, right? That’s punk, right? Sadly, it is quite obvious that provoking the punk world was not on the Met’s agenda. What is very possibly on their agenda is creating sales & publicity for certain designers that they (The Costume Institute) seem to be promoting in a round about way. 


I was asked what I remembered about the exhibit, and after raving about the amazing giant floor to ceiling Wayne County pink film clip (there was one in each of the rooms after the first room, one of Sid Vicious, Johnny Rotten, The Clash, etc.) I was asked again what I remembered after taking all the bells & whistles away. What did I remember of the actual fashion exhibit? Not much. Now I know this was not an overview of Punk as a movement, but about fashion. Out of the scores of punk era designers, that could be showcased, they picked one. One. This is truly bizarre. Vivienne Westwood, Malcolm McLaren’s partner in crime & possibly the greatest designer of our lifetime, but still, no one else? 

The only pre-1980 New York acknowledgement in any way, besides Richard Hell’s recorded voice saying something for a few seconds, was a recreation of the disgusting men’s room of CBGB-- which is funny, yes-- but what the fuck does that have to do with fashion? That is trying to recreate culture, like an Egyptian tomb. Even if pieces by New York designers were displayed in there like trash scattered on the floor it would have maybe been interesting. I was friends with Anna Sui during 1970’s punk days, she was roommates with Walter Lure from Johnny Thunders’ Heartbreakers and is a New York fashion institution-nothing. Even Michael Schmidt who made razor blade dresses for Deborah Harry, etc. Nothing. Gaultier? Rick Owens? Nada. There were designers I like (Comme De Garcon, Zandra Rhodes), don’t get me wrong, Stephen Sprouse being the only New York one.  So New York gets a toilet? In this bathroom, the first thing you see is graffiti of mine, very obvious to me, but it was obviously traced out of a photo blown up a thousand times & the letters were relegated to shapes that resemble the words “The Blessed” (the name of my first band). All they would have had to do is look at the photograph & see what it said. So much from the greatest researchers in the great museum. It makes you wonder what actually happened in Egypt, ya know? Maybe this subject just wasn’t worth the time, as no one on earth has more tools to have made this amazing than the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


The first (and best) room you walk into is a painted black & dimly lit showcase of Vivienne Westwood designs, mostly t-shirts (around the perimeter)  with other items, Westwood 70s designs paired with newer items from other designers that might be interesting had they not been juxtaposed with such amazing & strong Westwood pieces. In the same space is the above mentioned recreation of CBGB’s men’s room and a somewhat interesting recreation of Malcolm McLaren & Vivienne Westwood’s 1976 boutique “Sex” soon to be called “Seditionaries”. This made total sense. Certainly it would have made much more sense to recreate the only ongoing massive corporation born of NY punk, Manic Panic’s humble beginnings in their 1977 punk boutique of the same name on St. Marks Place (the first of it’s kind in the US) just blocks from CBGB’s. Of course the most radical pieces of Westwood’s designs are absent. These concepts she used to shock the public are a huge part of what she did and the original impact she had. All sex, gay & straight, even cartoon (the “Fuck Your Mother” fist fucking shirt, the “Snow White” orgy shirt, the Sex Pistols “pedophile” shirt, swastikas and other imagery Westwood used) were not represented. Nor were much of her actual non t-shirt designs, many of which were the things that inspired couture fashion designers-- certainly more than some rude t-shirts that teenagers wore to annoy everybody. It seems that it was all safely cleaned up for the modern masses without their consent or knowledge. Each piece had a small plaque with a description, more than one stating that the t-shirt was “reputedly worn by Johnny Rotten”! Haha…seriously? Reputedly? Even a child would suss out that this is a total lie or why would they use that terminology when there is a plaque right next to it saying THAT shirt was “worn by Adam Ant”, for sure. After parading through the other faceless rooms with the giant film screens in them, you exit through the gift shop, to quote Banksy. Here we have, truly the most bizarre eye opening pieces in the entire exhibit.


The gift shop was actually shocking in the funniest sense of the word and is what got the biggest reaction out of me. I wanted to buy the bedazzled set of 3 safety pins affixed to the awful “PUNK” logo display card ($7.95) to add to my collection of ironic “fake punk” items, but it just didn’t cut the mustard. They had duct tape with safety pins screened on it ($8.95), postcards with the Ramones and other iconic images ($1.50), a little Vivienne Westwood replica studded platform shoe “ornament” for $35, little pink /black or silver glitter/black Barbie-esque “zip case” (like a change purse) for $20, and even Manic Panic hair dye (temporary colors only-$9.95!). if this was a bit too “juvenile”, then step right this way folks! Gaze into the showcase and ask the high school student working in the gift shoppe for a look at the $140 and up pieces of high end razor blade, safety pin or barbed wire (and pearls!!!) jewelry. To your right Givenchy t-shirts & others priced up to $665 (couldn’t they hike that one up just one dollar?). The biggest shocks & laughs were had in the gift shoppe. Truly bizarre to me, what could it have sparked in some normal passer by’s cranium? I honestly can not imagine.


As I said, this is what I expected and I wasn’t surprised. Though while standing in the middle of it I couldn’t help but feel an odd combination of excitement (because of the massive oxymoron I was seeing in my lifetime) and disappointment. 


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