Few arguments are rehashed ad nauseam quite like the debate over what is art and what is not art. In the right corner, wearing the red trunks, the Fine Arts: ars gratia artis. In the left corner, wearing the blue trunks, the Applied Arts: everyday design and decor.
In the past, there is a division between these two, and never the twain shall meet. But this is the 21st Century, and, baby, that wall is eroding fast. And it’s eroding faster thanks to cinema and fashion, two forms intersecting beautifully in The First Monday in May, a documentary about the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute and their yearly gala fundraiser. Directed by Andrew Rossi, First Monday uses the fundraiser as a jumping-off point to discuss the very nature of art and fashion. Specifically, is fashion art? And can that art bridge disparate cultures? The answer to both of these questions is yes, and obviously so. Yet, it is how Rossi constructs his doc that gives his affirmation an air of poignancy.
Rossi begins with a little background: The Met holds a fundraiser on the first Monday in May for their spring show. Five years ago, Met curator Andrew Bolton paid tribute to the recently deceased British fashion designer, Andrew McQueen, with the exhibit, “Andrew McQueen: Savage Beauty.” The exhibition was such a success that Bolton wanted to top it in 2015 by creating a new fashion-centric exhibition, this time focusing on China.
Bolton works closely with the chair of the Met Gala, Vogue editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour, and Chinese filmmaker, Wong Kar-Wai, to plan this monumental exhibit, one that will attempt to distill one of the largest and most ancient nations on the planet. Their goal is not to simply recreate Oriental ideas of mysticism and exotic beauty—themselves controversial and problematic—but to give an idea of how American audiences, past and present, have come to Chinese culture, namely through fashion and cinema.
This alone is what makes First Monday a worthwhile watch. Bolton and Wong do not skirt obvious red flags and welcome controversy into the exhibit. Yet, it is the process of planning, creating, and, ultimately, pulling off the exhibit that makes First Monday a fanatic study of creation. Between Bolton’s nervous and precise placement of the objects and presentation of the dresses, Wintour’s pull-no-punches approach to staging and seating arrangements and Wong’s effusive ideas—Wong spends the entirety of the documentary behind his trademark sunglasses with hands folded in his lap or behind his back—Rossi makes the most of his backstage pass and brings viewers into a world that remains walled off from the masses.
The resulting exhibition and fundraising dinner is a hybrid of art and celebrity, the kind that fashion and cinema both strive for. It is interesting to note that as the talking heads of the fashion industry discuss whether or not their practice is an artistic one, the two filmmakers interviewed in the doc, Wong and Baz Luhrmann, along with Rossi, make no such misgivings about their own craft. Movie screens are the way most Americans came to China and Chinese history—Bolton even singles out silent and sound film star Anna May Wong in his exhibit.
When Bolton titled his exhibit “China: Through the Looking Glass,” he must have had Lewis Carroll and Alice’s sense of fantasy in mind. But for Rossi, that looking glass is the camera lens. And he knows how to make the most of it.
The First Monday in May (2016)
Directed by: Andrew Rossi
Produced by: Fabiola Beracasa, Dawn Ostroff, Sylvana Ward Durrett
Starring: Andrew Bolton, Anna Wintour, Kar-Wai Wong, John Galliano, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Karl Lagerfeld, Baz Luhrmann
Magnolia Pictures, Rated PG-13, Running time 90 minutes, Opens April 15, 2016