Alexander McQueen at Metropolitan Museum: Are the Crowds Worth It?

THE DAILY PIC: You wait hours to get in to the Met’s exhibition of Alexander McQueen’s—then see the backs of visitors’ heads.

The best advice for anyone still planning to see Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, the Metropolitan Museum’s survey of the much-lamented bad boy of British fashion, is to make a point of going there during a New York rush hour, by subway. The crush underground might just about be preparation for the crush of the show, which wraps up this weekend. (The museum is keeping it open until midnight on Saturday and Sunday.) On Tuesday, with five days still to go, the exhibition had already totaled an astounding 594,000 visitors, putting it in the league of more obvious blockbusters featuring stars such as Picasso and van Gogh. The endless lines to get in have been covered as a cultural phenomenon, and as a sign of the “success” of the show. But no one seems to mention how successful things are, once visitors come to the end of their wait.

When I went last weekend, there were moments when I couldn’t raise my arms to take notes. Standing on my toes to get a better view guaranteed I’d come down again on someone else’s foot. Dropping my head low, ostrich style, was more likely to lead to a closer sniff of an armpit than to a clearer view of a work. The impression I came away with was that McQueen should be dubbed "The Genius of the Neckline"—not because that is where his talents focused, but because there was not much else I could see over the heads of my fellow visitors. In some of the galleries, I got only the barest glimpses of such minor fashion details as shoes, waists, hemlines, and bodices.

I have been to diabolically crowded shows of art by van Gogh, Vermeer, and Caravaggio, at the Met and elsewhere. They’ve always left me longing for a closer, more contemplative experience of the works on view. But only at the McQueen show have I left wondering whether I’d had any sort of experience of its objects.

“You can never expect, predict, or anticipate a show with 500,000 people,” said Harold Holzer, who is senior vice president for external affairs at the Met. (He also moonlights as a much-quoted expert on Abraham Lincoln.) “The reports of the crowds create more crowds. Who wants to go to a restaurant where you can get a table?” The Met ended up with throngs packing into an exhibition whose layout had been designed for much smaller numbers. Once mobbed, the galleries’ McQueenish twists and turns and moody corners become more like the shambles at an abattoir. (Which I guess is itself a kind of McQueenish image.)

“We’re aware that conditions inside the galleries are less than ideal—it’s difficult to maneuver, sometimes hard to see, often impossible to move until a few clusters of people in front of you advance first,” Holzer said. After impossible crowding early on in the run, the museum cut admission to 450 people every half-hour—which led to crowding that’s merely astounding. “We’re torn between trying to make the most ideal experience and giving people access,” said Holzer. “Maybe some people just want to say they’ve seen it.” He remembers his mother taking him to the Met to see the Mona Lisa in 1963. They waited for hours in line, then were in front of the picture “for about six seconds—that’s it,” he said. “My mom just thought it was important to see it.”

Holzer said the Met has certainly had complaints about the show: “There are people, I will concede, who write, ‘I saw nothing, and wished I hadn’t come.’ ” But there are plenty of people who write in with raves, and three-hour lines prove that word hasn’t spread that anything’s wrong. I polled a few random guests coming out of the show. They all felt it was too crowded, but also insisted on how much they’d loved it. “It’s just pure art—it’s genius,” said Claudia del Castillo, a 27-year-old visitor from Colombia.

Maybe for this exhibition, and increasingly in the culture at large, the old idea that “pure art” is about contemplation, analysis, and a deep gulp of looking simply doesn’t hold. In fashion, especially, visitors may want an instant hit of emotion—the McQueen trademark—rather than a chance to dig deep into the particularity of objects that they’ve actually seen.

It used to be that quiet time in chaste galleries was any museum’s essential commodity. It may be quixotic of me, but I still believe that gets viewing basically right, for everything and anything that’s worthy of museum space. With fashion, so long neglected as a serious art form, I’d love to see the Met pushing for the same close attention a Cezanne painting so obviously deserves, rather than buying into runway effects. But what happens when everyone in New York seems to want to dig into the same Cezanne?

“The Met is an institution that is open to the broadest public,” said Holzer. “It’s very, very hard for us to go back and say we should have made [McQueen] less accessible.”

View a full archive by visiting Blake Gopnik’s Daily Pic.