MCQUEEN: Agent Provocateur

The Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art has been drawing in massive crowds since its opening. No doubt its attraction is primarily due to its uniqueness, being an art exhibit entirely dedicated to a contemporary fashion designer, as well as because of the popularity of the distinguished designer himself.

Words: Anna Graizbord
Images: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

McQueen had, even post-mortem, a reputation as a visionary provocateur with a Romantic fixation and an extraordinary set of tailoring skills, attention to detail, and other-worldly precision. Though certainly the exhibit is a grand spectacle to behold in awe at every turn, one of the more glaring elements to catch my attention was an undercurrent of racism.

McQueen’s preoccupation and love of all things Victorian, Gothic and of the Romantic period that permeates through the collections displayed is remarkably precise in that McQueen was and remains after his death a particularly relevant designer in the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s. In the audio guide to the exhibit, Met curator Andrew Bolton remarks that the exhibit is, “…organized thematically around concepts central to McQueen’s fashions…central to the 19th century Romantic Movement—the cult of the artist, the gothic, nationalism, exoticism, primitivism and the power and beauty of nature…[bringing] Romanticism into the present while touching on the major issues of our times—race, class, gender and identity.”

While at first you’d think the holistic approach in organizing the exhibit based on theme and the explorations of the issues Bolton names are nuanced enough for a contemporary audience, Bolton’s use of the word “primitivism” betrays either a lack of awareness of post-colonialist discourse that has been in existence since at least the mid-20th century, or an intentionally racist slap in the face. Whether or not McQueen himself intended his work to reflect and perhaps draw a parallel between the racist rationalizations of imperialist Europe with the political climate of the late 20th century/early 21st century is certainly a subject for debate.

Alexander McQueen – Plato’s Atlantis from SHOWstudio on Vimeo.

To his credit, the collection that garnered McQueen the most critical acclaim was his “Highland Rape” collection—at once a reference to his own Scottish heritage as well as the oft-glossed-over colonizations of Scotland by England. Actress and friend of McQueen’s, Sarah Jessica Parker praises him in the exhibition’s audio guide for his social consciousness:

“There’s such a lack of critical thinking and exploring ideas and referencing periods in culture and history and fashion and a sense of literature, and you know, how a country sits politically with another country…”

McQueen himself even commented on cultural re-appropriation as a fashion trend—a quote displayed on one of the walls of the exhibit:

“I want to be honest about the world that we live in, and sometimes my political persuasions come through in my work. Fashion can be really racist, looking at the clothes of other cultures as costumes… That’s mundane and it’s old hat. Let’s break down some barriers.”

It’s very curious then, that directly after that quote, we see a collection entitled “Romantic Primitivism.” The text in this section explains that McQueen had drawn upon the idea of “primitivism…the noble savage living in harmony with the natural world”—supposedly in reaction to other designers romanticizing ethnic dressing, “…like a Masai-inspired dress made of materials the Masai could never afford.” Except, they, nor any of the so-called “primitive” cultures who presumably “inspired” the pieces cannot afford anything in these collections either, still. Regardless, the text goes on to assert that, “…the collection was a meditation on the dynamics of power—in particular, the relationship between predator and prey. Indeed, McQueen’s reflections on primitivism were frequently represented in paradoxical combinations, contrasting ‘modern’ and ‘primitive,’ ‘civilized’ and ‘uncivilized’… [with] McQueen glorify[ing] the state of nature and tip[ping] the moral balance in favor of the ‘natural man’ or ‘nature’s gentleman’ unfettered by the artificial constructs of civilization.”

So, instead of a critical analysis about how horribly racist the concepts of “noble savage”, “primitivism” and “uncivilized” are or how they permeate international politics and ideologies throughout history as well as today, we’re left with a hackneyed, offensive explanation with little nuance.

Of course, one can argue that the focus should really lie in McQueen’s exemplary aesthetic artistry, skill and craftsmanship. This is all fine and well, but for someone who has such a reputation as a rebellious innovator and shook the fashion establishment to its core, shouldn’t a more rich text be in order? Or perhaps even some attempt at a reflection or explanation as to why such a designer, who allegedly found cultural re-appropriation racist, was enamored with so-called “exoticism” in his Asian and African-inspired designs? Why not provoke some interesting discussion amongst a public that would perhaps not be familiar with these concepts or with the many facets of McQueen’s work?

Holland Cotter of The New York Times put it best—that if you’re going to put fashion in a museum and treat it as art, that it should at least be brought to “the distanced evaluative thinking, including social and political thinking, that scholars routinely apply to art.” Where is the danger and supposedly provocative McQueen spirit in the art if it’s presented as just a bunch of regurgitated old, and conventional ideas?

To paraphrase A.V. Club writer Steven Hyden: where is the danger in art if you are never the one who is challenged?

The Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is on view until August 7, 2011.

Images courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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