BY Sam Moore in Features | 13 DEC 21

Stories We Missed: The Met Gala’s David Wojnarowicz Problem

Sam Moore looks at how the artist became yet another victim of Costume Institute Benefit’s appropriation problem

BY Sam Moore in Features | 13 DEC 21

‘The Met Gala’s David Wojnarowicz Problem’ is part of a series of short essays on the events and trends we missed in our coverage of art and culture in 2021. Read more – and last year’s stories – here.

Once a year, I want to write about fashion. The annual Costume Institute Benefit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York – known informally as the Met Gala or Met Ball – is a big moment in all kinds of calendars: celebrities, designers and queers on Twitter. Inevitably, it produces strong reactions to some strong looks – from the good to the bad, and even the ugly. The 2021 benefit, with its ‘American Independence’ dress code, was no exception: there was the good (Debbie Harry’s hooped ‘flag’ skirt formed from ragged red and white ribbons, a look that right-wing outlets such as the Daily Mail and Fox News reductively branded ‘patriotic’), and the bad (Cara Delevingne’s ludicrous ‘PEG THE PATRIARCHY’ vest), and the ugly (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s commendable but uninteresting ‘TAX THE RICH’ dress). However, there was one look that simultaneously nailed each variable in the good/bad/ugly triptych: Dan Levy’s elaborate, puffy-sleeved and polo-necked celestial/cartographic jumpsuit, which was ‘inspired’ by David Wojnarowicz.

When an artist whose work you love gets misused on the red carpet, there’s a temptation to get territorial over their work and become a bit of a purist about it. To purse your lips, squint in judgement, and say, ‘I knew their work before this.’ It isn’t only a matter of ‘getting the reference’ but the problems that arise from how the reference is used. And that’s the root of the issue with Levy’s Loewe-designed outfit for the 2021 event. It wasn’t so much that it repurposed Wojnarowicz’s work, but more that as an act of adaptation it both maimed and fundamentally misunderstood it – turning references to the experience of living with AIDS, and the legacy of a major figure in the history of AIDS activism/art, into a fashion accessory.  

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Cara Delevingne arrives for the 2021 Met Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on September 13, 2021. Courtesy: Getty Images; photograph: Angela Weiss / AFP)

The centrepiece of the garment derives from Wojnarowicz’s 1984 collage Fuck You Faggot Fucker. Loewe repurposed the image at the heart of the work – two men cut from a map of North America, kissing – and placed it across Levy's chest. This panel kept some of the central background of the original image (something between a luminescent ocean and a starry night) but the other map fragments and photographs of Wojnarowicz and his friends (taken in abandoned buildings around New York's piers) that were set around its edges, and which were vital in defining a context of degradation and alienation for the central motif, were removed. Loewe rendered Wojnarowicz’s work politically toothless. There is, of course, room for queer-inspired Met Gala looks that gesture more in the direction of love and memorialization. Nikki de Jager’s 2021 tribute to Marsha P. Johnson (a pioneering trans activist)– including a crown of flowers and ‘PAY IT NO MIND’ sash – captured the ways we can use referential garments to engage in a dialogue with the past. But Levy's Wojnarowicz look extracted only the parts that most easily fit with mainstream narratives of LGBT+ acceptance. Alone, the central kiss of Faggot Fucker felt more like a vague echo of the popular visual slogan ‘Love is Love’ than a piece of political art. But the power of Wojnarowicz's 1980s original comes from the fact that it understood – in an era defined by homophobic violence – the inherent danger in one man expressing desire for another. 

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Daniel Levy arrives for the 2021 Met Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on September 13, 2021. Courtesy: Getty Images; photograph: Angela Weiss / AFP)

Levy’s look captured something messy about the relationship between historical queer art and mainstream acceptance: the idea that, for the life and work of radical queer artists to be accepted, it needs to be palatable to a straight audience. A reproduction of another Wojnarowicz, from 1990–91, Untitled (One Day This Kid…) – emblazoned Levy's clutch bag. In New York in 2018, members of the AIDS activist organization ACT UP protested at the Whitney Museum against the inclusion of this collage in a Wojnarowicz retrospective (‘History Keeps Me Awake at Night’), arguing that presenting the work without explaining the ongoing nature of the AIDS crisis dangerously historicized the issue, making it appear over. In many ways, it’s fitting that Untitled features lines such as ‘One day, families will give false information to their children and each child will pass that information down generationally to their families and that information will be designed to make existence intolerable for this kid.’ Transferred to a designer clutch, the work doesn’t historicize AIDS and the shadow it casts – it simply ignores it. 

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Nikkie de Jager arrives for the 2021 Met Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on September 13, 2021. Courtesy: Getty Images; photograph: Angela Weiss / AFP)

The idea of teaching has been vital to so many aspects of queer culture. Yet, there is an ongoing tension between the past and present because so many queer lives have been systemically erased and silenced. To see Wojnarowicz’s art appear on the steps of the Met Museum, itself a perpetrator of this kind of cultural erasure, is ugly at best. Jonathan Anderson, Loewe’s creative director, described his brief for Levy's outfit as being to create ‘the kind of thing a “gay superhero” might wear’. But Wojnarowicz wasn’t a superhero. At no point in Untitled (One Day This Kid…) does he offer a utopian escape route out of his lived political reality. So to see his work defanged and repurposed as a form of accessory feels – ironically, given the words appear nowhere on a garment inspired by faggot fucking – like witnessing a short-sighted and ahistoric Fuck You.

Main image: Daniel Levy arrives for the 2021 Met Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on September 13, 2021. Courtesy: Getty Images; photograph: Angela Weiss / AFP)

Sam Moore is a writer and editor. They are one of the co-curators of TISSUE, a trans reading series based in London.