Blue Star Museums Blog (Archive)

Anti-Establishment Aesthetics

In the latest edition of NEA Artswe look at select elements of the American art tradition that once struggled to find acceptance in the artistic mainstream. Many of these genres, like punk, street art, and hip-hop, have their foundations in American counter-culture (gasp!). It's true! Today's perfectly accepted art form was yesteryear's frightening new development.

What is most fascinating to this blogger is how the museum institution has slowly welcomed these former counter-cultural creatures into their programming. The evolution from "outsider" to an established art form is at the center of the new exhibition PUNK: Chaos to Couture, on view at The Costume Institute of The Metropolitan Museum of Art through August 14. The exhibit looks at two odd bedfellows: punk music and high fashion.

Since punk's emergence in the 1970s, there has always been a correlation between its music and its aesthetic, which serves as a reminder about the fluidity between artistic mediums. In NEA Arts, we spoke with DC's legendary punk musician Ian MacKaye about the early days of the now-acknowledged genre. When MacKaye first heard the Ramones and new wave music, he found the sound aesthetically challenging to conventional thinking. Similarly, Chaos to Couture curator Andrew Bolton found another kind of aesthetic in punk's anti-establishment efforts, one that introduced a new postmodernist dialogue to the couture world of high fashion.

In all, the exhibition includes approximately 100 items of iconic punk garments as well as the high-fashion outshoots they inspired. The rawness that Patti Smith, Sid Vicious, and Debbie Harry took to the stage, London designers Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren took to the street in the early days of their punk boutique, and later, big-name labels like Christian Dior, Chanel, Dolce & Gabbana, and Alexander McQueen took to the runway. As Bolton keenly observed, Punk: Chaos to Couture is a story of "the sidewalk to the catwalk."

In a short film about exhibition's development, Bolton provides evidence of punk's influence on fashion and the ideas that solidified it as an aesthetic, notably "the idea of eclecticism, the idea of deconstructionism, the idea of mixing different stylistic references into one ensemble." All these notions funneled into couture and the outcome makes up the bulk of this exhibit.

Gallery View. Facsimile of CBGB bathroom, New York, 1975. Image ©The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Gallery View. Facsimile of CBGB bathroom, New York, 1975. Image ©The Metropolitan Museum of Art

According to The Met, the exhibit's seven galleries are organized "around the materials, techniques, and embellishments associated with the anti-establishment style." The galleries also correspond to select themes, starting with punk's origins in New York and London. Bolton notes the relevance of New York's CBGB nightclub as the epicenter for bands like Television, Blondie, and the Ramones. "The focus [in New York] was music, rather than fashion, and it had more intellectual and artistic underpinnings than it had in London. The seeds of the look of punk very much were germinating in New York at the time. " Even the CBGB restrooms are noted as a source of insight for the underground punk scene and are highlighted in the show.

Gallery View. Clothes for Heroes. Image ©The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Gallery View. Clothes for Heroes. Image ©The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The London experience is captured in the "Clothes for Heroes" gallery, paying homage to 430 Kings Road, the location of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood's boutique. For Bolton, the punk look took a more formal form in London. As he notes in the exhibit video, "In New York punk very much centered around a club, CBGBs, and nighttime sort of movement. In London, people lived and breathed punk in the daytime."

Gallery View. D.I.Y.: Hardware. Image ©The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Gallery View. D.I.Y.: Hardware. Image ©The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The remaining galleries in the exhibit cover punk's "do-it-yourself" aesthetic, seen in four different materializations, covering hardware materials (safety-pins, zippers, etc.), graffiti, and deconstruction. Given the success of the show, it seems that Ian Mackaye's notion of punk's influence was right on target. "[Punk] was, I think, a true artistic blossoming," he said in our NEA Arts interview. "It was the real thing, and it had an effect that I think is still sort of ringing to this day in our culture."

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