Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Thoughts on the Met Gala and the Vatican’s Loan, Some Perspective

Rihanna at the Met Gala
I was afraid of this.  Once I read the announcement that this year’s summer Costume Institute exhibition would be called “Heavenly Bodies:  Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” I was very afraid.  When I learned that the Vatican had loaned a large number of items for this show I confess to shaking my head. 

No doubt the show, which I have yet to see, as it was strictly off limits to non-involved staff and volunteers, will make some interesting and valid connections between the arts of painting and sculpture and especially the textile arts, that have been inspired, commissioned and displayed as part of Catholic worship and prayer through the centuries.  Indeed, as is being reported widely, the decision to make the show center on the Catholic influence on fashion came about when exploration of a larger show proposal about the influence of religion on fashion turned out to be massively tilted toward Catholicism.  Apparently, fashion has drawn very little from other religions, such as Protestantism, Buddhism, Islam or Judaism.  And fashion, it should be remembered, is primarily a Western, First World obsession.  It really isn’t the exhibition that troubled me.
What troubled me was the Gala which precedes it (and which causes the Met to incommode its visitors and close its doors to them for days in advance and days following to allow for the set up and knock down of the sumptuous decoration for the big party).  In this case, several heavily visited parts of the museum were off limits to view for nearly a month, while other portions, including the extremely popular Temple of Dendur, were totally closed for several days in advance of May 7.  The plaza in front of the museum has also mainly been off limits for all of the preceding week and will continue to be for several days as the very large number of tents to accommodate the arriving guests and the attending media, were set up and will be demolished.  This has forced visitors to ascend and descend the stairs by a very narrow channel running directly along the museum wall. 

The entire building was closed on Monday.  In the morning there was a press preview, the afternoon was devoted to the final set up of the interior, and the evening was, of course, the Event.  To get an idea of what the preparation entailed here’s a video from the Met’s Instagram account, showing the transformation of the main information desk near the main entrance in the Great Hall.  Easy to see why visitors and staff are not welcome!  Set up of the Great Hall

The Gala was instituted in the 1940s as a fundraiser for the Costume Institute, which is a self-funded entity within the Metropolitan Museum, supported by the fashion industry and the Gala.  Invitations to the do are limited to 500 or so people and tickets are $30,000 each.  If every ticket is paid for this should result in a gross take of $15 million dollars.  I assume the resulting net amount (after the deductions for the expenses of the event, which must be huge), plus whatever other funding the Institute raises, supports the conservation of the costumes themselves.  It most certainly does not support public access to the collection.  1

This was not always so.  When I was a child, teenager and young adult the Costume Institute actually maintained a number of ground floor exhibition galleries.  It used to be great fun to wander through and look at the manner of dress of people from several hundred years ago.  Like most of the museum in those far away days it was basically a fairly plain space that drew its interest from the items on display.   Lighting was kept fairly low, though not dark, on account of the effects of light on fabric.  There was not much razzmatazz.  Things began to change a bit in the 80s, when the great Diana Vreeland was the director of the Institute.  There was somewhat stronger lighting.  More revolving exhibitions took place, but there was still a fairly large space for the public to wander in and some permanence. 

Somewhere along the line, I’m not entirely sure when, the galleries were closed to the public.  I think some of them may have been given to enlarging the staff cafeteria, especially the area for tables, which happened around the same time.  Permanent exhibition of garments ceased and the cycle of publicity grabbing special exhibitions began.  However, these were small and generally confined to the Institute’s own galleries, still in their downstairs location.  I remember standing for a long time on the stairs leading to them with friends just in front of Sting for a show on rock and roll costumes.  (I think it indicative of Sting’s approach that he chose to stand on the stairs with everyone else rather than to demand special treatment.)

With the change of leadership during the 1990s from Ms. Vreeland to a succession of male curators (Richard Martin, Harold Koda and now Andrew Bolton) the exhibitions broke out of the confines of the ground floor galleries and invaded the body of the museum, starting with 2004’s “Dangerous Liaisons:  Fashion and Furniture in the 18th Century”. 

Dress by Christian Siriano
Then, again at some point I’m not really sure of, the Galas, which have been a feature of the social calendar since the 1940s, began to change. From events involving mainly New York fashion and society they became “celebrity” events.  The invitees began to come, less from the more established New York milieu, than from the world of entertainment, pop and hip-hop music, sports and Hollywood and frequently from their most outrageous fringes.  Therefore, they are not very likely to be aware of much history, art history or of Catholicism, apart from the caricature of it which passes for knowledge among the general public.  Does anyone seriously think that Rihanna has any idea of the meaning of her "hat"?

Therefore, I would guess that more than 95% of the "celebrities" who came to the Gala this year have virtually zero interest in the items on display and even less knowledge.  It is up to the designers they hire (or who hire them, which is more like what actually happens) to draw some idea, no matter how perverse, from it.  And, since the point is to attract attention to the brand, the louder, the skimpier, the more vulgar the better.  One thing that should be borne in mind is that this event, in addition to raising money for the Costume Institute (not the Met, as some people mistakenly think), is all about brand names, something that the Times article I referenced makes very clear.  A lot of brand name recognition for the fashion designers is riding on this.  One nice looking dress that got virtually no publicity was by Christian Siriano, a former winner of TV’s Project Runway.  So, shall we say that “nice” didn’t cut it?

Sarah Jessica Parker by Dolce and Gabbana

In reality, some of the most outrageous outfits were also quite ridiculous, laughable indeed.  Sarah Jessica Parker was probably the funniest, as well as the saddest, covering herself in Dolce and Gabbana gold damask with embroidered images of the Sacred Heart (sort of) and wearing a silly crown chapel with a Nativity scene on top of her dramatically aging face.  

Even more stupid was Katy Parry, fresh from her encounter with Pope Francis and her successful (so far) attempt to evict a group of cloistered nuns.  She came as an angel, fallen perhaps, as she slumped down at the top of the stairs.

It is no surprise to me then, that there should be controversy about the 2018 gala, as there was about the 2015 “China, Through the Looking Glass”, which led to similar complaints about disrespect for a culture, or last year’s incredibly silly “Rai Kawakubo: Comme des Garcons”.

The Sistine Chapel Choir performing in the 
American Wing, underneath a projection of
Michelangelo's Last Judgment from the end
wall of the Sistine Chapel.
That the Vatican should have lent a significant number of items to the exhibition and, in the person of Cardinal Dolan and the Sistine Chapel Choir, lent their presence to the event is not too surprising.2 Loaning the objects, which include papal tiaras and vestments from the collection of the Sistine Chapel, is perfectly understandable.

These objects will be kept within the ground floor Costume Institute galleries, while the fashion garments will be displayed in the medieval galleries at the main Met building on Fifth Avenue and at the Cloisters branch in upper Manhattan.  However, I doubt sincerely whether any of the persons involved in Rome have any knowledge or understanding of the Gala (and the attendees it draws) or realized quite how provocative was the sly double entendre in a portion of the title, as in “Heavenly Bodies”.  * 

And I have never doubted that Cardinal Dolan is a good soldier for the Church.  At the morning press preview, he is quoted as saying “You may be asking, what’s the church doing here? You may be asking, what is the cardinal archbishop of New York doing here? Think about it just for a moment. It’s because the church and the Catholic imagination are all about three things: truth, goodness, and beauty. That’s why we have grade schools and universities, to teach the truth. That’s why we love to serve the poor, to do good. And that’s why we’re into things such as art, poetry, music, liturgy, and, yes, even fashion, to thank God for the gift of beauty.”3 Lots of luck with that, your Eminence!

Cardinal Dolan at the Gala with Stephen and Christine Schwarzman, the Honorary Chairs of the Gala.  To his left are Donatella Versace, Amal Clooney and Anna Wintour, all co-chairs of the Gala.  Co-chair Rihanna is missing.
No doubt the Cardinal hoped that his presence in the evening would be interpreted as a gesture of good will to the Met and not as an endorsement of the goings on.  But, I’m sure that many of the participants, with probably no idea of who he was, probably thought he was a chubby guy wearing one wild party frock.  However, not everyone there was entirely disrespectful and vulgar.  I think that the lovely Versace gown (thank you, Donatella) worn by actress Blake Lively was a nice adaptation of the theme.
Blake Lively in a beautiful bead embroidered gown from Versace.

In fact, based on the number of retweets of her gown, it was the clear public favorite, beating out all the coarse, vulgar, over-the-top competition.  And, of course, the press, in its desire for sensation, mostly showed us only the most outrageous of the costumes on the stairs.  The number of published photos is relatively small, when one considers the number of tickets, representing well under 1/5th of the total possible.  No doubt most women wore regular evening wear.  Men, of course, had the default position of some iteration of the tuxedo, which no doubt the overwhelming majority of them wore.

Brook Shields in a simple but elegant gown.

Indeed, one comment that I read lamented the fact that so many women came plainly dressed, wearing, as the writer put it, exactly the same kind of dress they would have worn to any other gala.  But who would call Brooke Shields ladylike gown plain?  Or thought Colin Firth’s wife, Livia Giuggioli, was inappropriately dressed?  Probably the vast majority of the attendees were appropriately dressed and those that made themselves absurd and vulgar were a tiny, albeit heavily publicized, minority.  It is interesting to note that neither of the photos of these two referenced ladies came with designer information.  This gives you some clue about what was really going on at the Gala.   So let’s all take a deep breath and calm down.

Mr. and Mrs. Colin Firth

By far the funniest comment I read on the event was on the Met’s Twitter feed for the event.  The writer said “Sitting here judging these $273,927,293 dresses as if I don’t wear the same four shirts every week.”  That puts things into proper perspective, I think.  One should really think of this event as a costume party, with extremely expensive costumes.  Would that some of the cash for that bling could have been given to the Church to serve the poor of the Archdiocese!

The actual exhibition opens this week and will run until the beginning of October.  I’ll be going to a preview viewing tomorrow and will make up my own mind.*

1.  For some background on the event see:  Vanessa Friedman, “What Is the Met Gala, and Who Gets to Go?”, New  York Times, May 3, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/03/fashion/what-is-the-met-gala-and-who-gets-to-go.html  and now also
Nancy Chilton, "The Met Gala:  From Midnight Suppers to Superheroes and Rihanna" on the Met's website at https://metmuseum.org/blogs/now-at-the-met/2018/met-gala-costume-institute-benefit-brief-history  Also, the Met's publicity department puts the profit of the 2018 Gala at "over $13 million".

2.  To the folks who were worrying on Twitter about what the boys might have seen I say, they probably could barely see anything due to the strength of the spotlights that were shining on them.  In circumstances like that anything beyond the immediate space appears as just a dark blur of heads.

3.  Quoted in H.W. Vail, “Inside the Met’s “Heavenly Bodies” Exhibit”, Vanity Fair, On the Scene, May 7, 2018 https://www.vanityfair.com/style/2018/05/met-exhibit-heavenly-bodies

*  Update:  Apparently  the Vatican is now acknowledging that they slipped up, regarding the Gala "as a “stand-alone event” and took little notice of it — indeed most knew nothing about it until this year".a While I find this excuse entirely in keeping with other similar flubs in recent Vatican history, it is appalling that no one made the minimal effort to search the internet for information about the Met Gala's history.  Not for the first time recently, the Vatican is coming up with a great deal of egg on its face.  

Quoted in Edward Pentin blog post "How the Vatican Became Enmeshed in the Met Gala" at the National Catholic Register website http://www.ncregister.com/blog/edward-pentin/how-the-vatican-got-involved-in-the-met-gala

* I did attend the preview.  However, the amount of time it took just to get through the Vatican items in the densely crowded ground floor rooms of the Costume Institute made it impossible to catch more than the briefest glimpse of the fashion part of the exhibition.  So, I will have to wait a bit before writing any kind of review of the whole.