Versace’s Up at the Met, But Why Drag in Proust?

When you enter the Gianni Versace exhibition in the lower depths of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, what you find conspicuously inscribed on the walls of the show are a number of quotations from Marcel Proust’s great novel, Remembrance of Things Past. One of them declares that “What artists call posterity is the posterity of the work of art.” This is meant to be a reference to Versace’s use of certain motifs from the work of Alexander Calder and Andy Warhol in his dress designs. Another of these passages from Proust informs us that “When a man is asleep, he has in a circle round him the chain of the hours, the sequence of the years, the order of the heavenly host.” What this has to do with dress design is anyone’s guess, but the wall text sporting this quotation goes on to claim that “Versace’s Byzantium is similar to that of William Butler Yeats.” This, of course, is nothing but copywriter’s hyperbole. We are actually a good deal closer to what now constitutes Versace’s appeal for many people when we descend from all this high-minded blather to the frank acknowledgment, in another wall text, that “Versace chose the prostitute as his exemplum.”

The quotations from Proust, like the allusion to Yeats, really have nothing to tell us about the fashion designs of the late Gianni Versace, which were anything but Proustian or Yeatsian. They do have something to tell us about the intellectual pretensions of this exhibition, however. They are clearly designed to lend a veneer of high culture to what is, after all, only haute couture -a fashion show that is itself a shameless exploitation of tabloid celebrity. Since the public that is now flocking to the Versace exhibition knows it is there to satisfy its curiosity about a media celebrity lately gunned down by a real-life male prostitute, why drag in Marcel Proust? Most of the crowd gawking at Versace’s naughty-naughty designs haven’t the foggiest idea of who Proust was, anyway. For the few who might actually have read Proust and therefore have some understanding of the profound moral delicacy that governed the writing of his masterpiece, it is an affront to see his words used to hype the dubious accomplishments of a dress designer.

Yet I cannot honestly say that I was surprised to see Proust invoked on this bizarre occasion. For those quotations from Remembrance of Things Past triggered a distinct remembrance of my own, the memory of an event going back some 20 years. That was when the Met devoted a huge exhibition to the fashion photography of Richard Avedon. That, too, was expected to be a big deal. Not as big as the current Versace extravaganza, perhaps-but then, of course, Mr. Avedon had not lately been the victim of an assassin’s bullet, and his name could therefore not be expected to command anything like the tabloid fame that now attaches to everything associated with the Versace label.

It was Mr. Avedon’s additional bad luck-bad luck, that is, from a publicity perspective-that his big moment at the Met opened during the 1978 New York newspaper strike. The show was thus denied the support of both the gossip columns and the fashion columns that would otherwise have been very busy on his behalf. Still, undaunted by the shadow of adversity, Mr. Avedon staged a press conference at the Met to talk about the show, and it was very well attended, especially by the fashion correspondents for European newspapers and magazines. It was one of these European correspondents-a handsome Italian lady, as I recall-who had the audacity to ask the question that was undoubtedly on the minds of many people in the room that morning.

These pictures, she said, were produced to sell hats and dresses. Why must we now consider them works of art? Unperturbed by the question, Mr. Avedon unhesitatingly replied: “I use hats in my work the way Proust and Matisse used hats in theirs.” Alas, I should have known that poor Proust was doomed to become an adornment of the fashion industry from that moment on-but I didn’t. As shameless as Mr. Avedon’s statement was, it now seems almost modest when one compares it to the utter shamelessness with which Proust is used and abused in the Versace exhibition 20 years later.

As for the Versace clothes-for men as well as for women-that were based on the prostitute as “exemplum,” they also triggered a memory of the 1970’s. In a conversation with the late Richard Lindner, about whose paintings I was then preparing to write an essay, I asked him what he regarded as the most striking of the many changes that had occurred in New York life since he had first arrived in the city from Europe in the early 1940’s. “That’s easy,” Lindner replied. “When you walked the streets of New York in the 40’s, you could tell at a glance who was a prostitute and who was not. Now all the girls dress like whores. Even many older women dress that way. It’s sometimes very confusing.” Lindner, with an eye nurtured on Weimar decadence, saw what was coming-and painted it-long before anyone knew Gianni Versace’s name.

Versace didn’t really invent the idea that women-and some men, too-could be persuaded to dress like whores in the name of style. The whole drift of late 20th-century social life had long been heading in that direction-the direction of a moral decadence cheerfully embraced by the arbiters of taste. Versace only made more extreme what was already a runaway trend-which is, I suppose, what we mean by “style” in this context. As for whether “style,” in this sense, belongs in a great art museum, that is another question. In this regard, I was interested to see that Herbert Muschamp, in his overheated review in The New YorkTimes -“sex kittens from the distant galaxy of Desire,” etc.-said of the Versace show: “It places the museum and its audience on the same unstable plane.” This was meant as praise, of course. But if the statement is true, then the question that follows is: Why go to a museum? Versace’s Up at the Met, But Why Drag in Proust?