Savage Beauty

It felt like a cross between a movie premiere, a post office line and a funeral for a head of state. The lying in state of the body of work.

Friday my partner Dustin and I went to see Alexander McQueen’s Savage Beauty with our friend Eric McNatt. We stood in line for the show for two hours, a line that wound through the Met starting in the Asian Arts, going past the atrium on the 2nd floor and into the Assyrian angels through to the Greeks and Romans and the 19th Century gallery, until we ended in the gallery for the show. It had the feeling of going past the eons of influences that went into the McQueen show–as if the show was some sumptuous culmination of it all.

During life, McQueen’s work was hidden by the cost and exclusivity of his work. Who can and can’t be at the show, buy the dress, see the image, and so on, the vagaries of fashion’s ecosystem. Now we have the show, composed entirely of donated items from private collections, giving the public a view not even McQueen had of McQueen. When the show is over, the collected items will perhaps disband and return to their separate corners, but not before a finale—this week, the Met is open until midnight.

My memory of the show is composed partly of the throngs moving slowly and uncoordinatedly, as people began in a sort of initial incurious blankness and moved into a dull frenzy. Some were texting, as if to say “I’m at McQueen”, as if that had been the entire point of the line, to get inside. Others were filming or taking photos despite prohibitions otherwise. If security had simply removed everyone taking photos illegally it would have drastically cut down on the lines. The spectacle reminded me a little of when a deceased courtesan’s clothes and jewels would be put up for auction back in 19th Century France. Or of the ladies of the court who would try to sneak in and view a famous courtesan’s apartments. Though if anyone understood the vagaries of the Parisian courtesans’ legacy of success de scandale, if anyone was their male heir and modern protector, as it were, it was him. Among the most moving of the exhibits was his hologram of Kate Moss, a finale to a show appearing at a time when Kate had been caught up in a tabloid scandal [Usually they did not affect her]. As the audio tour pointed out, her appearance in the show, as a dazzling holographic muse dancing in the air, was a bravura stroke that also restored her.

I remembered at the time how soon after that scandal she was bigger than before. I marveled at it, but in the room with the crowd hunched over the glass where it was exhibited, some too impatient to wait even for it to start, I felt I understood it.

I kept my camera in my pocket.

I can imagine McQueen getting some sort of delight from the spectacle of people waiting in line that long just to text their way through the exhibit and miss it. It would have proved his longstanding misanthropy as justified, too.

Dustin, Eric and I went through with the audio tour, which had the effect of putting a wall between myself and the offending parties, as if I were inside a private story of the collection, a narrative forcefield. Most people did not opt for the audio, and instead just ran gawking between the items on display. The audio tour had a mix of personal information, anecdotes and descriptors that beautifully fulfilled the show.

The conversation we had afterward was, though, of the thrill of seeing artistic genius like that being celebrated. So much of what our culture celebrates now comes to us after focus groups and careful niche marketing, it often has very little real point of view left when it gets to us. To see someone making clothes that were also about the body, genocide, sexuality, global warming and technology, was, well, amazing. But I suppose the irony of something produced at the very highest level of consumer culture is that it not only can disregard the ways more modest things are marketed, but it should—the disregard it shows proves it is what it is. If he was seen to pull a punch, the bad boy show would fold. He was the ruling class’ official rebel knight, and while it is tragic that he’s dead—he truly was a genius—his work has a freedom now, an influence it never had before, for being available this way.

It’s strange, the transfiguration death brings, and it is often resented, and it can’t be chosen. It is only undeniable when it comes.

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