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Review: Karl Lagerfeld at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Karl Lagerfeld. A Line of Beauty. Metropolitan Museum of Art
May 5 through July 16th, 2023
How times have changed. In nineteenth-century in America the purpose of a museum wasn’t the passive contemplation of the B.U.T.full, for which American industrialists had little patience to begin with. The mission, rather, according to the charter of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was
“… encouraging and developing the study of the fine arts, and the application of arts to manufactures and practical life, of advancing the general knowledge of kindred subjects, and, to that end, of furnishing popular instruction…”
How times have changed. Here is the 2000 supplement to the Mission Statement, which contradicts the original statement:
The mission of The Metropolitan Museum of Art is to collect, preserve, study, exhibit, and stimulate appreciation for and advance knowledge of works of art that collectively represent the broadest spectrum of human achievement at the highest level of quality, all in the service of the public…
It’s been a while since I’ve seen artists, or graphic designers, or architects going to the Met to hone their skills the way they would in the nineteenth century:
Forget about that factory worker from Eastern Pennsylvania I once took around the American Wing, who was fascinated by the ironwork; he’s surely gone MAGA by now, what do you care. The Met’s new mission is to foster contemplation of the “highest level of quality,” meaning the quality of those objects in which the trustees are invested. Those who work at being artists nowadays don’t seem to feel there’s much to learn from visiting the Met; at least there aren’t enough of them to matter.
On the other hand, today most everybody wears clothes; most everybody’s interested in dressing up; doubtless today there are more New Yorkers involved in making or designing clothes than in painting canvases. And the Costume Institute packs them in. “Line of Beauty,” indeed.
Only for what? To learn to dress, to learn to plan or design or judge or make clothes — or to admire dresses at a distance, like naked men in Plato’s cave? The Lagerfeld show begins on a promising note, with videos of the women who actually produced “his” stuff:
Then it’s B.U.T.full all the way down:
Those aren’t really clothes you’re seeing, they’re paintings that happen to be made of interesting material slapped onto plain shifts, grounds for lush, two-dimensional patterns or trompe-l’œil to beat regular old artworks at their own game.
It’s a stupid ploy. This show is held together by its insistence (the designer’s and the curators’) on being “just like art,” only in a retro, nineteenth-century academic fashion. The objects on display are heavy—very heavy—on period name-dropping. You come in hoping to discover the language of fashion, and you come out with the same tired old language of art.
The show is organized around the hoariest of art-historical methodologies, Heinrich Wölfflin’s Principles of Art History [Kunstgeschichtliche Grundbegriffe, 1915]. You see, art evolves independent of human intervention through basic oppositions of formal approaches like “linear” and “painterly.” Or, in this case, concepts like “Rococo” and “Classical.” It’s all contrived and shallow, an attempt to give the objects and their study more more depth than they warrant.
This is not Art History that instructs, it’s Art History that validates. And the curators are desperate to validate this show and its sponsors. Like the Mission Statement itself, Karl Lagerfeld starts out letting the producers speak for themselves and ends up speaking for the museum’s owners and trustees.
You don’t belong. Get out while you still can.
June 18, 2023
Charter of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, State of New York, Laws of 1870, Chapter 197, passed April 13, 1870 and amended L.1898, ch. 34; L. 1908, ch. 219, with additional statement by the Trustees on September 12, 2000. It’s not at all clear that the latter addition has legal standing.