Visions of a culture in decline at the 2021 Met Gala

During the 2020 election season, I wrote an article about the commodification of political duty in response to liberals pumping out endless “Vote” merch. Although voting season has ended, this tasteless and ideologically-empty strategy hasn’t ceased (The Miscellany News, 2020). If you went online in the last couple weeks, you probably know exactly what I’m talking about: “Tax the Rich,” “Peg the Patriarchy”––the slogans on outfits Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Cara Delevingne wore at the Met Gala that people across the political spectrum memed to oblivion. Besides being tacky and misguided, these demonstrations fell flat in the elite context of the Met Gala, an event with tickets priced at around $35,000 (The New York Times, 2021). However, it must be said that commodifying ideological slogans for the sake of public spectacle over anything else is—in fitting with the theme of this year’s Met Gala—uniquely American.

The theme of the 2021 Met Gala was “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion,” but the undeniable absurdity of the exclusive event eclipsed most of the attempted adherence to this concept (Today, 2021). The glitz of the occasion failed to cover up the unfortunate optics; as COVID-19 rates still trend upward in many places in the U.S., the image of masked workers assisting while unmasked celebrities paraded down the red carpet was a little too on-the-nose (CDC, 2021). Police forcefully cracked down on demonstrations right outside the event, arresting several Black Lives Matter protesters. These protests called out New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio, a guest at the Met Gala, and his partiality for the NYPD, but the attendees and press largely ignored them as the night went on (Black Enterprise, 2021). Additionally, the presence of Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Mayor DeBlasio at this clearly demarcated celebrity occasion further demonstrated the American tendency to fuse politics and fame. While the hypocrisy surrounding this year’s Met Gala isn’t necessarily actively harmful, many of the images from the night present a vision of a culture in decline, or at least one in denial. Real resistance against dominant ideologies doesn’t exist within the institutional political realm, especially when aesthetics and politics become so entangled.

Some argue that fashion has always been the most accessible form of dissent (The Independent, 2021), yet it seems there would be more genuine ways for these celebrities and politicians to serve their causes, be it taxing the rich or…pegging the patriarchy. To be honest, I’m less interested in admonishing the individual actions of Rep. Cortez or Cara Delevingne, who just happen to be the most recognizable examples of this trend, than in pointing out the larger cultural hypocrisy at hand. The problems these specific people and their designers pointed out at the Met Gala are inherent to the elitist and performative culture the lavish event represents––the guest list is full of rich and powerful people, even if they are largely to the left of the political spectrum. 

The slogans seen at this year’s Met Gala weren’t actively useful nor did they symbolize much besides an utter lack of awareness. There is, however, an insidiousness to these empty and performative displays. As Walter Benjamin wrote in his essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” the aestheticization of politics through capitalism precludes the deterioration of democracy and is, as he argues, “the logical result of Fascism,” (Benjamin, 1935). There’s truth to this argument––the idea that these hollow slogans actually do anything is just another example of the illusory and declining nature of our democracy. The American public’s relationship to politicians and their policies eventually descends into the realm of the aesthetic, latching onto provocative rhetoric instead of any legitimate political convictions (GQ, 2021). More than anything else, the Met Gala put this aspect on full display.

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