The recent costume exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, “China: Through the Looking Glass,” illuminates the ways of cultural postmodernism, so prevalent in our universities today.
The introductory caption paid homage to Edward Said, but with a twist. It gave obeisance to his famous characterization of Western efforts to understand the East as negative, stereotyping “Orientalism,” but went on to explain that the exhibit would take a more “positivistic” approach (by which I think it meant simply “positive”), in showing how the great couturiers incorporated Chinese elements into their designs. The garments on display were sumptuous, exquisite, startling, outlandish, and sometimes ridiculous, but always fascinating.
True to the postmodern pretensions of the exhibit, however, the manner in which the creations were displayed defied ordinary expectations, supposedly reflecting the blinkered Western view of the mysterious East back to us viewers. Thus you walked through dark, mirrored covered rooms, stepped unsteadily among irregularly patterned installations, gazed into black reflecting glass, traversed corridors with rounded walls, wandered into pagodas, read some pseudo-sophisticated captions about dialogues and signifiers, and in general felt mildly dis-oriented, pun intended. But all the while you were also drinking in the extraordinary costumes that designers have created using Chinese garments and objects as inspiration. I felt that it was postmodernism that had been unmasked–a nod to Said and a lot of smoke and mirrors (some of that literally), but the underlying reality remains what it is and what it has always been, if through a glass darkly. It was still all about the clothes.