Last Wednesday, I finally had a chance to see Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. This exhibition explores art, fashion, and social change in Paris from 1860 to the mid 1880s. As someone that is interested in the interrelationship between fashion and art, I was dying to get to this show! Images from the exhibition kept appearing on my Instagram feed, which really put the pressure on me to get to the museum. I just had to see these amazing works of art in person!
Exhibition entrance for Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity.
So, I have to admit, I was a bit confused when I arrived at the exhibition. Photography was not permitted. Yet everyone was taking photographs anyway. This happens in just about every museum I’ve ever attended. A no photography policy is stated, and everyone breaks it. And now with stealthy cameras in phones and sites like Instagram and Twitter, images abound are published in real time. Even press preview events leak photos. Just look up the magazines invited to the events, like Vogue and Glamour.
Young girls sketching a day dress from 1865-68. Dress on loan from the Manchester Galleries. Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The social pressure was just too great. Guests snuck about, dodging guards to take pictures. All in all, it became a very fun game. People were helping one another to take pictures. A person would stand just so, to cover for another guest taking a shot. Others would sort of laugh after getting reprimanded by the guard for taking a picture. Really, maybe this no photography rule is a way to engage visitors in social interaction. I found myself more engaged with objects that other people found important. I wanted to spend extra time observing the objects I saw on Instagram. I also wanted to take pictures of the objects other guests found important.
Young girls sketching a day dress from 1865-68. Dress on loan from the Manchester Galleries. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Particularly, I was really interested in these two young visitors that brought their sketchbooks. They ran about the galleries, drawing objects that caught their interest. What fun they seemed to be having! I paid more attention to what they were looking at. In fact, many visitors did. We were all desperately trying to get a look at their sketches. I felt a bit sad that I didn’t have my own art materials.
Day dress1865-67 of gray silk faille with Indian paisley shaw, 1865 (Above and below). Costume Institute. Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The exhibit is accompanied by wonderful text. The curators were brilliant in selecting excerpts from literature at the time that focused on Impressionist artists desire to capture the modern. Modernity is what the Impressionism movement was all about. It was a rejection of religious painting and contrived staging of scenery. It was a desire to capture and record everyday life. Everything was important, particularly social customs and fashionable dress.
“At last, the subject matter of art includes the simple intimacies of everyday life in its repertoire.” Edmond Durante, The New Painting, 1876
“One of the big ways that the people around us exert these influences is through the use of norms, those messages that we send out about what’s acceptable, appropriate, and…well, normal. Descriptive norms simply describe the way that things are, whereas prescriptive norms offer a mandate about how things should be. . . .Quite possibly the most important takeaway point from all of the research that’s been done on norms is just how powerful descriptive norms can be. When people try to change behavior, they often focus on prescriptive norms, telling people what they should do. We often underestimate just how strongly we respond to what other people actually do.” (Quotation from The Scientific American)
Mme. Bartholome by Albert Bartholomé, 1881 and the actual garment it portrays. Image courtesy of Habitually Chic.
The article goes on to explain studies conducted on signage at the Petrified Forest in Arizona. Signs discouraging tourists from taking samples of the forest were more effective if they included a descriptive norm that most people left the environment intact. Melanie Tannenbaum, author of the article, sums up why rules that include descriptive norms of social behavior work:
“We don’t really care so much about what we should do. We care about what other people do. And then we really, really care about not being different.”
Hopefully we can embrace modernity, and rules to go along with it.