By Ray Mark Rinaldi
I’m approaching the Star Wars exhibit at the Denver Art Museum the same way I’m dealing with the fact that Donald Trump is president. That is to say, I’m going to keep breathing and wait for it to be over.
They have a lot in common, the man and the movie franchise. Both are mega-entertaining, show-biz fluffs that have puffed themselves up into something crucial to the culture; each has successfully hijacked our devotion from more credible rivals; and neither belongs in the big house.
No doubt, we can all agree that pop culture has a meaningful place in our stressed-out age. I’ve seen every Star Wars movie and sat through at least four seasons of Trump’s TV show The Apprentice. Fun stuff. But i never confused it with art, that most valuable of things that challenges us to look at our world in rich and complex ways, that peddles candid truths, and not phony effects, as a way of pushing us forward. Art has had its bold and shocking movements, no doubt, but it’s always been a journey toward a more authentic and soulful way of seeing, not a reduction of everything around us into good vs. evil, me vs. you, absolute truth vs. heresy.
DAM is the house of art. The place that isn’t afraid to hurt our brains while it entertains. But the only thing Stars Wars and the Power of Costume hurts is our wallets at $28 a pop. It is among the greatest sell-outs in the recent history of American museums.
The problem isn’t the subject material, necessarily. It is that Star Wars is simply a weak exhibit that lacks the sort of critical thinking a museum like DAM has the skills to produce, or even that Star Wars fans themselves in engage in during their own deep exchanges over the films.
Viewers parade past one costume after the next — the flowing black robes worn by the character Darth Vader, Queen Amidala’s elegant gowns, the sleek, white armor of the stormtrooper soldiers. They’re as well-made as you’d expect from a movie with a multi-million dollar budget, though you’ve seen every fiber of it before, probably multiple times. There’s nothing new of note, except maybe a few underplayed sketches that examine the creative process and some recreated office dioramas that, set behind glass, look entirely canned.
The whole show is built on nostalgia. Film clips from the movies whiz by, that familiar soundtrack music blares. There’s only a bit of interactivity and it’s disappointedly low-tech. Push a button and the (clearly visible) tube of a lightsaber glows pink or green. It’s schlocky, like the low-budget Battlestar Gallactica television series, definitely sub-quality for anything to do with George Lucas’ highly-polished movies.
There’s hardly a single moment of authentic challenge or enlightenment. The show exists only to make you feel good about everything you feel good about already. That’s exactly the opposite of DAM’s mission and a degradation of the temple we hold dear.
Yes, you do get to see costumes up close, to examine their construction, and that is interesting. But ultimately it’s empty. The colorful characters of the world’s highest-grossing action films are turned cold and static. Star Wars: The Power of Costume positions itself as an elevation of costume design but ends up being a total insult to it. Objects intended by their artists to be in motion and glimpsed in passing are de-animated and demystified. It’s like a magician giving away the secrets to his tricks or like hanging a Picasso upside down because you think it looks better that way.
A movie fan has to wonder who let this happen. All of the costumes came from the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art and clearly it cooperated with this self-defeating venture. Though maybe that isn’t a surprise to anyone, like the folks in my own household, who have seen the endless run of TV commercials lately where Star Wars has signed over its brand as a way of selling cars for Nissan. My spouse, a life-long fan whose father actually let skip school to see the very first Stars Wars in 1977, sighed in surrender as it came on. The franchise has lost itself.
And DAM is off-course as well. There’s an argument that museums need to do these things to stay afloat. That’s not the case here. Denver’s biggest museum is well-funded; no comparable institution gets more public funding to ease its burdens and the museum has been in expansion mode for a decade, building and improving structures at a rapid pace. It’s not desperate by any means.
There’s also a case for getting new faces into the place, though DAM constantly touts its high attendance already. And at what cost does it want more visitors? One supposes it could ask all the guards to go topless and visitors would quadruple over night. Neither that, or Star Wars is a good way to go.
It didn’t have to be this way. A curator with some imagination and a bit of courage could build an intellectual outing around the costumes in Star Wars, and at DAM in particular, pairing the costumes and weapons with related clothing and objects from its Western or American Indian or textile collections so we could examine its inspirational roots, or display it up against some of the high-end pieces of couture the museum has acquired to show how it reflects the evolution of the art of fashion. How interesting it might be to see that severe stormtrooper gear or one of those shiny leathery, jet fighter suits next to some S&M-inspired creations of iconic fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier or Alexander McQueen.
Suppose it placed the fictional costumes of evil empire generals next to actual uniforms worn by soldiers in Mussolini’s Fascist army or held up Yoda’s wrinkled, ratty cloak against items worn by the homeless people who hang on the corners in the surrounding neighborhood. I’m not interested on a debate about the cinematic accomplishments of Star Wars, it has multiple merits. But it’s not Truffaut or even Tarantino or even Woody Allen. It espouses a simple, black-and-white view of the world — the force is with you or it ain’t — and any actual attempt to present it in a more complex and human way, would be welcome. In other words, a museum could still cash in on the brand, fill its galleries with fresh faces and retain its integrity.
Or suppose it let Star Wars happen at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science or the Colorado History Museum, successful venues that present the past in a purer form.
Or this: suppose it designed the exhibit so folks, who are now forced to exit through the gift shop where they can buy Star Wars socks or Star Wars lunch boxes, were routed through DAM’s great collections of Spanish Colonial or African or Pre-Colombian art? Or even better, a show of high-tech work by some of Denver’s current artists who rarely get to exhibit there.
There would, in that bold move, be a challenge, an invitation to come back for something a little more arty, and adventurous in a different way. No one wants to cram fine art down anybody’s throat — take it or leave it, I say — but instead of being a commercial for the next Star Wars movie, coincidentally released this month, it could be an ad for DAM itself.
It’s a missed opportunity. All give and no take, except for the $28 bucks. I don’t recommend it, especially for Star Wars fans; be strong and hold on to your movie fantasies. They’re valuable, respectable and absolutely necessary in these times. Don’t wreck it for yourself.
As for those of you who won’t line up for this costume pageant, just keep breathing.
Star Wars and the Power of Costume continues through April 2, at the Denver Art Museum. Tickets are $28. Info at 720-913-0130 or denverartmuseum.org.