As I mentioned in my last post, one element of my visit to the Met yesterday was the temporary exhibit “Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy“. This is an interesting look at the role of superheroes, particularly the most iconic ones, the archetypes, in our collective consciousness, and in particular avant garde fashions which draw upon these archetypes.
To be honest, I think the exhibition for the most part falls flat. It all but completely fails to address comic book art itself, the true medium from which superheroes were born, and it fails to convincingly (to me anyways) tie the fashions to the superheroes. Not every overly macho machismo manly fashion style necessarily has anything to do with the Hulk, for example. And not everything that uses the American flag as a motif has anything to do with Wonder Woman.
But what is truly interesting about this exhibit (and don’t get me wrong, some of the fashions were themselves quite interesting) is what it says about the Met’s experimenting with new directions. It seems to me a very hesitant step – a toe in the water, not a bold stride forward – towards doing things the traditional conservative museum world – of which the Metropolitan is a core fundamental part – has long shied from doing.
The exhibit attempts to tackle “low art”, that is, pop culture, commercial art, but refuses to take it on its own terms, insisting on dressing it up in references to Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, and other well-respected “proper” artists and using many words on the gallery labels that even I have never heard of. It was not lost on me that all the comic books displayed in the gallery were on loan and are not in the Museum’s own collection; the museum world as a whole is slowly gradually moving towards accepting more low art, pop culture, sort of materials into their collections and into their conception of what’s “proper” art, but they haven’t quite gotten there yet.
Fashion itself is also a touchy subject for a museum like the Met. Unlike, for example, the Victoria and Albert, which is a design institution, founded to help inspire new generations of British/European/foreign designers by bringing the designs of the world to London, the Met’s mission is something somewhat different. And as far as I am aware, fashion has never been at the center of the high art, fine art scene. People are hesitant – and I understand where they are coming from and I don’t blame them – to show fashions next to the Van Goghs, Monets, and Rembrandts. … But note, that even in taking that step, and being bold enough to do a fashion exhibit, the Met takes only about a half-step, making this an exhibit not truly about superhero costumes, their design, their art, but about avant-garde fashion. Without that avant-garde aspect, it would truly be low art, and so that would truly be too bold a step, I venture to say the Met’s curators, trustees, and other decisionmakers would think, for the Met to take just yet.