Opinion | The Met Gala, or When Fashion Consumes Art

The Met Gala began in 1948 as a $50 fund-raising dinner. Today its tickets cost $50,000 and, like Coachella or Art Basel, its ostensible occasion — an exhibition opening at the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute — has largely disappeared in the flash and bright lights of media spectacle.

The fanfare surrounding the event takes center stage: celebrity selfies, red-carpet gossip and attention-seeking fashion stunts. Whether attendees know anything about the show they are there to honor is beside the point.

The Met Gala is perhaps the most high-profile example of a much broader phenomenon: the accelerating convergence of art and fashion. It epitomizes the rewards, as well as the risks, that come with this marriage of aesthetic industries — mainstream visibility and financial gain on the one hand, and the reshaping influence of success on the other.

At first glance, the event appears to offer nothing but benefits. Each May, Anna Wintour, the longtime editor of Vogue, brings the glamour and excitement of celebrity-fueled fashion to the Met’s hallowed halls, while the museum steeps fashion in the august trappings of timeless art. The event is a boon to both. It raises millions for the Met ($17.4 million last year) and generates more “media impact value” than the Super Bowl. For fashion, there is no greater showcase. Louis Vuitton C.E.O. Michael Burke has called the Met Gala “the pinnacle of our business.”

The confluence of art and fashion at the Met Gala and elsewhere has far-reaching ramifications. Each field has begun to see itself anew. Art, having never achieved such mass relevance, wonders whether it might descend from its ivory tower and become genuinely popular. Fashion, unused to such high-culture cred, wonders if it might win new seriousness and cachet in the public eye. Inspired by these potentials, each side turns more ardently to the promise implicit in the other.

This cross-pollination has a long history. At the dawn of the 20th century, Paul Poiret, “the king of fashion,” enlisted artists to create his textile patterns, fashion illustrations and business stationery. Elsa Schiaparelli collaborated with Salvador Dalí on several iconic designs, including the “shoe hat” and “lobster dress” of 1937. Christian Dior ran an art gallery before becoming a fashion designer and later named his dresses “Matisse,” “Braque,” “Dalí” and “Picasso.”

But in recent years the reciprocity between of art and fashion has become big business. Fashion houses now look to transcend their narrow identification with clothing and accessories. Louis Vuitton, according to Bernard Arnault, the C.E.O. and chairman of the fashion and luxury goods conglomerate LVMH, which owns the brand, is “much more than a fashion brand. It’s a cultural brand with a global audience.” By emphasizing its links to art — and, by implication, art’s rarity and exclusivity — Louis Vuitton symbolically undercuts the reality that its business imperative (to sell more goods) effectively decreases the rarity and exclusivity of its products. The company made $20 billion in sales last year, doubling its revenue from four years prior. But as a “cultural brand,” Louis Vuitton dissolves the crass reality of products and sales in the mythic allure of storytelling and image.

Art institutions have come to regard themselves as cultural brands too. For many, the pandemic was clarifying. In the early days of Covid, the Met, for instance, saw its social media engagement increase by 95 percent on Instagram, 64 percent on Twitter and 17 percent on Facebook. Today the museum boasts over 11 million followers, many of whom may never see its art in person or post photos from its world-famous galleries.

For art businesses, becoming a cultural brand offers ambiguous rewards. Galleries, auction houses and art fairs, once reliant on a small coterie of moneyed collectors, now attract millions of online followers. But they’re unlikely to convert many social media users into buyers, given the high price of art. While followers may share content about an exhibition or a sale, cultivating desirability and consensus around the artworks, their impact on the bottom line is indirect at best.

Why, then, are so many of the art world’s major players angling to become cultural brands? For one, they likely sense financial opportunity. Last year Louis Vuitton’s profit margin was around 50 percent, whereas Sotheby’s had a profit margin of just 1.7 percent in 2019 (the last year it was publicly traded). LVMH reported about $86 billion in revenue in 2022 — considerably more than the $67.8 billion generated by the entire global art market.

At the same time, these art organizations see the potential to have a greater influence on the culture writ large. As they emulate and partner with industries like fashion and luxury, they court a broad public, promote art that privileges accessibility over criticality, and embrace commercial tie-ins. The art world, long the province of an elite in-crowd, is becoming less insular and more inclusive.

This pivot is not without cost. Art is not like most consumer goods, even the most sumptuous. Handbags gain meaning when they’re stamped with a logo. They take on the resonance of the brand, acquiring a multiplicity of associations. Artworks, once subsumed by a brand, lose some of their potency, idiosyncrasy and subversiveness.

For Calvin Klein’s Spring 2018 collection, designer Raf Simons applied imagery from Andy Warhol’s “Death and Disaster” series to leather totes, tank tops, and gauzy dresses. Warhol’s source images — photographs of a lone electric chair in an empty room or a gruesome car crash, with bodies strewn among the wreckage — disarm and shock. Repeated in his screen-printed paintings, they enact the inuring effect of mass media. It is a powerful indictment of the press and its lust for tragedy. But taken out of context and printed on clothing, they register as edgy decorative motifs, in service — and thus subordinate — to Calvin Klein’s commercial agenda.

Context is a major part of what makes art art. Artworks can be many things — from found objects to performance, involving no objects at all. What distinguishes art from non-art is its intention to be understood as such. Its context helps signal that it should be seen as having meaning beyond ornament or decoration, whether that be personal expression, commentary or criticism. Recontextualization muddies this intention and risks drowning out the story an artwork tells with another story: the marketing narrative.

The biggest threat, however, is not that art is overpowered by its commercial context, but that its understanding of its own nature and purpose changes. In drawing closer to fashion, art abandons the pretense that it exists independent of commerce. Yet this pretense has historically allowed it to reject normal rules and metrics of success. The point of art has never simply been to attract an audience or accrue value. Rather, it’s seen itself as serving a unique role in culture: registering complaint, critique and protest; exploring realms of experience beyond transaction or exchange; realizing what the market could not or would never think to.

When art ties its fortunes to profitable enterprise, something vital is lost. The commercial realm is incapable of accommodating the full range of art’s potentialities — the politically sensitive and the staunchly anti-market being among them. Art must abide by the brand’s rules, and brands cannot afford to unnerve or offend consumers. What does art become when it can’t, either?

Natasha Degen is a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology and author of the forthcoming “Merchants of Style: Art and Fashion After Warhol.”

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