Today, we get a dispatch from the trenches by Arts Advocate Clarissa Crabtree. For nearly 30 years, Ms. Crabtree has been an indefatigable patron of the arts, working tirelessly on behalf of such disparate causes as affordable, classic theater to museum preservation. She recently attended the much-ballyhooed Jean Paul Gaultier show at the Brooklyn Museum, and offers her thoughts below.
As a woman of a ‘certain age’ I may not be the most appropriate person to review the current Jean Paul Gaultier exhibit From the Catwalk to the Cakewalk at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. As someone who doesn’t get the fashion statements made by ripped jeans, micro-minis that leave nothing to the imagination and pants hanging so low that the wearer has trouble walking, I am hard-pressed to find anything of value in this retrospective. That the man is a good illustrator cannot be denied, his design sketches are quite lovely and although he is prolific, he is not very original. One room is full of black leather and shiny plastic S & M gear for both men and women, there are riffs on plaids and kilts, non-kilt man-skirts and the almost mandatory ethnic influences, on corsets, bustiers and panniers (all originally undergarments now worn on the outside) and of course Madonna’s (in)famous cone bra ensemble for her 1990 Blond Ambition Tour as well as costumes for her 2006 Confessions Tour. He has also designed for Australian singer Kyle Minogue, as well as for numerous films. To be fair, there are flashes of whimsy – my favorite dress was a rather non-descript white ball gown -- but when the hem was lifted as if one were about to dance the can-can, the entire underskirt had high-kicking legs printed on the fabric. Perhaps the most amusing aspect of the exhibit was that the mannequins appeared alive. By projecting filmed faces on them some talked about the outfit they were wearing, some sang or provided sound effects, and several flirted with the crowd.
Jean Paul Gaultier (born 1952) is a French haute couture and Pret-a-Porter fashion designer with no formal training who presented his first collection in the mid-70s and has long been considered the enfant terrible of French fashion – this show will not diminish that reputation. He has worked for Pierre Cardin and Jean Patou, he launched his haute couture line in 1997 and was the creative director of Hermès from 2003 to 2010;. As with all things French, there are very strict rules about what can and cannot call itself haute couture and it is protected by law and regulated by Chambre de commerce et d'industrie de Paris. The bedrock of Haute couture is fashion that is constructed by hand (without the use of sewing machines and sergers/overlockers) from start to finish, made from high quality, expensive, and often unusual fabric and sewn with extreme attention to detail and finished by the most experienced and capable seamstresses, often using time-consuming, hand-executed techniques. It is generally this exquisite attention to craftsmanship and detail that makes an haute couture garment special and swoon-worthy. To think that these highly trained and skilled seamstresses wasted their time, energy and talent to produce garments that almost no one would ever wear appalls me.
This exhibit also raises a bigger issue that has generated debate in the art world for some time now. As someone with a modicum of social conscience it galls me Gaultier can make a living producing what he does, but then to be additionally rewarded and have the work validated with a museum retrospective begs the question is it art? Museums, in an effort to attract younger audiences and meet their bottom line, have for several years been playing on the edge of this issue – just because it is cool, hip or whatnot, does not mean it is worthy of being shown in a fine art museum. The Art of the Motorcycle at the Guggenheim in 1998, the recent Chaos: Punk to Couture from the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn’s previous exhibit on Star Wars and perhaps most famously the quilts from Gee’s Bend that not only were shown at the Whitney Museum in New York City but also at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, among others are all examples that the fuel the debate. I am not suggesting that any of these shows are not worthy to be seen in an appropriate venue but I question if museums, in their rush to bring in paying customers, are not sacrificing their missions and reputations as centers of vigorous scholarship and keepers of our collective heritage.