Mainstream museums embrace countercultures of the ’70s and ’80s

Outcasts to Insiders

By Rachel Felder

There’s a trend in museum exhibitions at the moment that has nothing to do with painting, sculpture, drawings, or lithographs. Instead, we are seeing institutionally curated selections of filthy toilets with graffiti and cigarette butts, old school recording equipment, ripped t-shirts and gold lamé.

There are, at present, a handful of exhibitions focusing on counter-culture movements that would’ve seemed dramatically un-museum-worthy not all that long ago. In New York, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, there is Punk: Chaos to Couture, a show that opened to largely negative reviews in May. In London, the Victoria & Albert Museum has mounted David Bowie is; really more of a multimedia event than a traditional museum show, running through mid-August. In July, Club to Catwalk: London Fashion in the 1980s will open in the same venue, examining the often outlandish fashion subculture surrounding clubs like The Blitz—think guys in makeup, lots of makeup—and its link to, and influence on, designers like John Galliano. And in Frankfurt, Glam! The Performance of Style recently opened at the Schirn Kunsthalle, after starting at the Tate Liverpool earlier this year.

All of which begs the question: Why are these movements being spotlighted by museums, and why now? “It’s a demographic issue,” explains Dick Hedbige, author of the influential semiotics text Subcultures: The Meaning of Style and Professor of Interdisciplinary/Experimental Studies at the University of California Santa Barbara. “There’s a certain demographic that’s grown up with all of this stuff and observed it or lived it. One way or another, people who are likely to have been shaped or formed or affected by these different trends will be interested in reliving them to some degree. I guess it’s to do with the aging process . . . [and what] becomes clearer in the rear view mirror.”

That personal link to the items in these shows—the Ziggy Stardust album you loved as a teenager, or the bathroom at CBGB’s, where many punk fans either spent their evenings or aspired to—has been a key to why some of these shows are particularly resonant. “To some extent, the exhibition is a mirror,” says the V&A’s Geoffrey Marsh, describing the David Bowie show he co-curated. “For a lot of people, what they’re actually seeing is not David Bowie but themselves and what was happening in their lives [at a certain time].” In other words, beyond the curated objects, there’s another, private story in the exhibition for most people.

Maybe that’s the core problem with the Metropolitan Museum’s Punk show: a bit of X-Ray Spex music here and there and a few films in the background might well trivialize for viewers a movement that so deeply affected them at such a pivotal age in their lives—namely, those angst-filled teenage and early-twenties years. Some critics—this one included—wish the Punk show connected more dots: There’s no explanation of the difference between New York City and London punk, for example, just a slapdash juxtaposition of reproductions of the bathroom of CBGB’s on the Bowery and Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s Kings Road store, Seditionaries. The challenge for this type of show is that it needs to make sense to everyone who sees it—as Marsh puts it, “whether you’re someone who grew up with Bowie and it’s the soundtrack of your life or an 18-year-old design student”—which is a heady problem indeed.

At the Punk: Chaos to Couture exhibition © Giada Paoloni for L'AB/Pamono

While enough time has passed since these movements happened to reflect on them, there’s another reason why these shows feel relevant at the moment. “There’s very much a parallel between what was happening in the ’80s in Britain and what’s happening now,” observes V&A Assistant Curator Kate Bethune, who put together the upcoming Club to Catwalk show. “It’s quite a similar economic and political situation. It seems that there’s a real interest in the ’80s at the moment, and that’s filtering down in what you see in high street fashion as well.”

Darren Pih, curator of Glam! The Performance of Style, was also motivated by the parallels he recognized between the glam era and today. “We seem to be experiencing a recurrence in the political shifts that were evident in the 1970s,” he explains. “You think about the end of the utopianism of the 1960s and that shift into economic austerity—at least that’s how it was experienced in the United Kingdom. It was a time when society was collapsing into itself and the economy was in a bad way.”

But if your image of glam is simply Bryan Ferry’s stage wear from his Roxy Music days, one inspiring thing the exhibition achieves is to make the movement itself seem more substantial, in part by including art by Richard Hamilton and films by Andy Warhol to extend the focus beyond clothing and music. “We weren’t really interested in presenting a nostalgia exhibition, because that’s not a very imaginative way to curate museum shows. What we wanted to really show is how glam, at its best, was fine art ideas bleeding though to the front space of popular culture,” Pih says.

Although it was theatrical and pushed buttons, glam had widespread, mainstream impact in the United Kingdom thanks to the popularity of bands and singers like David Bowie, Roxy Music, and T. Rex. “This supposition that punk was the only meaningful cultural explosion of the seventies was really not quite right,” Pih says. “The thing about glam, particularly in the UK, was that it was more meaningful to more people than punk rock. It was experienced as a stepping up of the entire culture. Punk was quite an exclusive thing. To be a punk, you had to put on a bin liner and put a pin through your nose; it was quite an extreme thing. Glam was more achievable: Bowie going on Top of the Pops wearing tons of makeup was like, ‘I could do that.’”

The lure for museums to focus on specific eras of recent pop culture instead of, say, Renaissance paintings is huge, since the former tends to almost magnetically attract big audiences, media attention, and plenty of admission fees. Tickets to see David Bowie, for example, were the fastest-selling in the V&A’s history. It certainly feels like several recent, extremely popular exhibitions of wow-factor clothing—like the Met’s 2011 Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty show and a comprehensive retrospective a few years ago of Vivienne Westwood’s designs at the V&A—paved the way for the current focus on comparatively recent ©-culture movements.

It’s also worth noting that, with all these shows, not every museum is created equal, particularly in terms of ideal settings. In other words, New York’s Met, filled with Greek and Roman antiquities and Renaissance art, might well be less suited to showing street-fueled fashions than a museum of the applied arts, like London’s V&A. Admittedly, the hugely popular Alexander McQueen show a couple years ago was a brilliant success, but that truly focused on high fashion (albeit of the extra-edgy variety) instead of trying to capture the mood of a rebellious movement. Whether or not we (or the curators) like it, settings do affect a show’s impact.

For many viewers though, the most impactful setting related to their experience of these exhibitions isn’t within those museum walls: It’s at home afterwards—or, maybe, in their teenage bedroom, many years before—listening to the music that inspired and fueled them, feeling moved or nostalgic or simply inspired to look at the world in a slightly different, and usually more colorful, way. And what’s at the heart of a rebellion anyway, if not a struggle between the present and the past?

  • Text by

    • Rachel Felder

      Rachel Felder

      Focusing on fashion, beauty, and trends, Manhattan-based Rachel's writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Financial Times, Travel & Leisure, Town & Country, and Women's Wear Daily, among others.

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