Camila Dominguez Reviews of The Met's 'Heavenly Bodies'

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By Cami Dominguez

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As an avid consumer of both art criticism and social media, I regularly find myself irritated by takes on the museum experience in the digital age. I recently read “The Price of Shares” by Rob Horning shortly before attending the exhibit, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Though Horning’s piece deals with the Tania Bruguera performance currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art, I found myself constantly thinking about his essay as I made my way through the Heavenly Bodies show. 

Horning writes, “The museum should now be understood … not as a place to look, or to feel, or to learn, but a place to wait until a sense of your own significance closes in on you.” In Horning’s view, this drastic shift is blamed squarely on the public’s  appetite for spectacle. Horning describes a one-sided dynamic that has forced museums into a reactive mode by exposing “culture” to the base desires that drive social media popularity. Seeing the Heavenly Bodies exhibit, I was left thinking about the way in which museums have always been responsible for producing the awareness of self-importance. What has changed, then, isn’t the type of spectatorship afforded to viewers within an institutional context, but where the power lies within this exchange. A contemporary viewer might be drawn to a museum because of its perceived authority, but he also might visit the Met to feel like the kind of person who spends time enjoying art. This situation is made all the more unstable by the rise of popular non-art “museums” like the Spy Museum, or the Museum of Ice Cream, which bypass the cultural component almost entirely to deliver aesthetics for aesthetics’ sake.

I could feel the effect these shifts likely had on the Heavenly Bodies show. Loud hymns fill the main exhibition chamber of the Heavenly Bodies exhibit, a large, dimly-lit room in which designer gowns and Medieval artifacts are shown side-by-side. The space has all the trappings of an “immersivity,” but the effect is less transportive than it is grating. The exhibit felt almost exactly like being inside of an Abercrombie and Fitch store. The show creates few opportunities for contextualizing the relationship between the Catholic Church and the fashion presented. One of the more effective moments came from a row of several gowns that each riffed on Catholic vestments. Viewed all together, recurring motifs in this series visually sketch out the ways fashion designers have twisted and manipulated Catholicism’s traditions over time. A much less effective and very peculiar moment occurs in a corridor adjacent to the main exhibition hall, where sequin dresses are displayed on a row of mounts that rise several feet above viewers’ heads. The effect is bizarre. What does the “Catholic Imaginary” have to do with an up-skirt view of a mannequin’s thigh?

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Holding the Costume Institute show every year draws a large crowd and lends pop cultural relevance to the Metropolitan Museum, an institution that’s been operating in New York City since 1870. This positioning and repositioning of fashion, pop culture, and high art does little to alter the way viewers interact with museum objects. Museums impose a code of conduct on the public regardless of what items are being shown. While the clothes are meant to interact with the objects in the museum’s collection by virtue of their placement, they are kept out of the viewer’s reach – and in the case of the sequin dresses, even out of the viewer’s line of sight. 

I haven’t been to the The Museum of Ice Cream, but I’ve seen plenty of pictures of it. A glance at the #museumoficecream hashtag on Instagram reveals how the space is designed to optimize interactivity – at least when it comes to the production of images. Most posts show people physically engaging with the space, whether they are lounging in a pool of sprinkles or taking selfies in a room of mirrors. By contrast, the images that populate the #heavenlybodies Instagram hashtag are conventional shots of well-lit, untouchable objects. One exception is a post by @judyandmadeleine that shows the user in hair and makeup clearly inspired by the concept of the Met exhibit. In “The Price of Shares,” Horning discusses how audiences increasingly want to be one with the art objects they see. Social media has undeniably shifted our aesthetic practices in ways that directly contradict the rigid rules museums and other traditional art institutions establish for viewership: Look but don’t touch. Appreciate, but don’t take anything home. 

Unlike Horning, I do not believe that smartphones have made us incapable of deeply engaging with art. I believe our immersive, digital media landscape has the potential to create more active viewers. Through our use of social media, we are learning to break open the passive, contemplative space that traditional art institutions have established around art objects. We are learning to understand culture through our embodied experience. This shift is inevitable and already taking place. We don’t need more Museums of Ice Cream – we need more museums willing to let us imagine ourselves in and alongside their precious collections.