Finn McRedmond: Met Gala unmasks a crisis of inequality

Museum costume party lays bare stark divide between US rich and poor in Covid era

 Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute benefit gala in New York: And amid all the gauche pageantry at an event that costs more than the average American salary, the affair gave physical expression to the crisis of inequality plaguing America. Photograph: Nina Westervelt/New York Times

Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute benefit gala in New York: And amid all the gauche pageantry at an event that costs more than the average American salary, the affair gave physical expression to the crisis of inequality plaguing America. Photograph: Nina Westervelt/New York Times

 

If asked to pay sartorial tribute to the idea of America, what would you choose? Cowboy boots and a stetson in homage to the cattle ranches of Texas might work nicely. Green drapery and a seven-pronged crown to invoke the iconic Lady Liberty and all that she says about the American dream would be befitting too. How about denim jeans in recognition of Bruce Springsteen’s Americana and the blue-collar tradition?

This was the question the world’s biggest and brightest stars had to grapple with as they attended the gaudy spectacle that is the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual costume ball, or more commonly known to the laypeople as the Met Gala. For one night a year, designers vie to dress A-listers, who in turn fight for scraps of paparazzi attention as they ascend the iconic steps of New York’s Met museum into the world’s most exclusive party.

So spiritually impoverished is the affair that its organiser, Anna Wintour of Vogue, complained in 2014 that the event was too inclusive (at just $15,000 a ticket). Last week, entrance would have set you back $35,000.

Attendees this year attempted to dress according to the theme of American independence, with varying degrees of success. There were Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn tributes, American flags, and some showcased American designers. What they all had in common was a potent narcissism we have come to expect from this genre of ultra-celebrity. And amid all the gauche pageantry of the very-wealthy rubbing shoulders with the super-wealthy at an event that costs more than the average American salary, the whole affair gave physical expression to the crisis of inequality currently plaguing America.

‘Great equaliser’

Emergencies lay bear the fault lines of society. We learned this from the Spanish Flu in 1918, and the pandemic has been no exception. Covid is not responsible for unleashing all societal ills, but it has thrown them into sharper relief than we have ever seen before. And when Andrew Cuomo, former governor of New York, claimed the pandemic would be “the great equaliser”, he could not have been further from the mark.

Covid is not responsible for unleashing all societal ills, but it has thrown them into sharper relief 

Starting from the obvious point, there is a racial disparity when it comes to those who are worst affected by the disease itself. And then there is a stark income inequality when it comes to the further reaching effects of the virus – with those in low-paid service industries far more vulnerable to job losses than anyone whose employment status was not endangered by stay-at-home orders. And we shouldn’t forget the inequality of experience – the chasm in quality of life between those weathering lockdowns in cramped apartments versus those in mansions on sprawling land.

None of this is conceptually hard to grapple with nor is it a particularly controversial observation. Appeals to the equalising nature of Covid-19 are hollow and intellectually disingenuous. What is remarkable, however, is how after a year and a half of having this made clear, anyone deemed the morally bankrupt, hubristic and myopic extravagance of the Met Gala in any way tonally appropriate.

Capturing the heart and soul of a nation racked by such ills – racial, financial, generational – on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum could have been a task delicately handled. But instead the whole thing became an unintentional masterstroke of performance art. The beautiful, cultural elite photographed partying maskless in beautiful gowns, as they were attended to by their lower-paid aides, hauling the trains of their dresses up the stairs, reapplying makeup, uninvited to the festivities themselves.

Visual metaphor

But it was the maskless stars being waited upon by the masked-up aides that became a perfect visual metaphor. There are two types of people, it seems: one who is exempted from the practice thanks to their elevated status as a member of the rich and famous, and the other who is societally bound to adhering to governmental decree. As though we do not pose the same epidemiological risk as each other. The imagery is so trite it borders on caricature.

It was the maskless stars being waited upon by the masked-up aides that became a perfect visual metaphor

It is not the masks themselves that are the problem, but rather their inconsistent application. “The country’s workers have long been faceless in a figurative sense” wrote commentator Glen Greenwald. And now, as they primp and preen supermodels and pop stars and teenage influencers on the most famous red carpet, it has become unavoidably literal.

The gross display of immense wealth amid a climate of huge ructions in the labour market, the prospect of a deluge of evictions, and in the wake of mass tragedy is one thing. But it is the total lack of interest in even trying to adjust the optics of the event that speaks to something much more unpalatable: celebrity culture cannot even be bothered to conceal its abject shallowness and cynicism at a time of national crisis.

On the steps of the Metropolitan Museum last week the foundational lie of Covid-19 as “the great equaliser” was made physically manifest. Perhaps there was no better homage to pay to the idea of Americana in its current incarnation.

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