Art, Fashion & Activism – Dr Emily Garside on Dan Levy’s Wojnarowicz-inspired 2021 Met Gala look

Schitt’s Creek creator and star Dan Levy stood on the steps of The Metropolitan Museum of Art at his first Met Gala on Monday night wearing a rendering of the work of artist and AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz. A name many of Levy’s younger fans had likely never heard before. In honoring the artist’s work Levy was participating in a through-line of queer culture and queer activism. 

Fashion activism on the steps of the Met. It feels very Dan Levy, but it also pays tribute to not only the artist, but to the legions of others who went before.

Levy’s outfit itself is a collaboration with Jonathan Anderson, Loewe, and Cartier. Custom-made with styling by Erica Cloud, who has helped shape Levy’s distinctive style in recent years. Cloud is a talented and inventive stylist. Her work with Kacey Musgraves on her recent album illustrates a similar playfulness while understanding the power of fashion to make a statement and tell a story. Cloud and Levy have a shared love and understanding of that, with the custom Met Gala outfit (and its more playful afterparty look) a testament to telling a story with the clothes you wear. And making a statement in more than one way.

The New York-based Wojnarowicz died of AIDS-related complications in 1992. Naming how he died is important in acknowledging the history that his work represents. Artist is the best umbrella term to describe his work as he moved between genres and mediums, a fitting parallel with Levy who is already carving out a multi-faceted career. Wojnarowicz was a writer, performer, visual artist, and filmmaker, and in all of it activist. His personal stories were incorporated into his work across all formats, as was his politics, particularly his work with activist group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) 

ACT UP was performative to their core. Founded by playwright Larry Kramer and populated by many from New York and San Francisco’s art scenes in its infancy—including Wojnarowicz—a performative element to their direct-action approach was always present. They used performance to elevate their protests, from elaborate die-ins to political funerals, to their distinctive placards and artworks. Visual artists from Gran Fury, Douglas Crimp, and of course Keith Haring contributed to art related to ACT UP’s work. Alongside ACT UP’s use of visual art, the NAMES project and its creation of the AIDS quilt remains one of the most memorable expressions of artwork during the AIDS crisis. Art, visuals, and performance as both subversions and protest but also a memorial to those lost were integral to these artists, as activists. 

Art and activism went hand in hand for AIDS activists like Wojnarowicz. The use of art as mourning and protest was integral from the outset of the epidemic. It made sense as artists found their communities decimated by disease and death, they used their art. AIDS activism through art was also protesting American governmental inaction and the homophobia that led to death and the loss of a generation. Of artists, of gay men. That Dan Levy chose his Met Gala debut with the theme of ‘American Independence’ to showcase a queer artist who died from AIDS is fitting. Because decades on too much silence remains around AIDS.

But does the work of Wojnarowicz, more broadly his work with ACT UP, sit well with the Met Gala? Yes and no, and maybe that’s precisely why Levy chose it.  

In 2018 ACT UP protested an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art which included some of Wojnarowicz’s pieces, including one of the works incorporated into Levy’s outfit. ACT UP, which is still active, protested because the event was ‘historicizing AIDS’ and they sought to remind attendees that ‘art isn’t history’ and that AIDS isn’t over. That kind of ‘establishment’ art exhibition doesn’t sit well with ACT UP’s direct action, grassroots politics. 

A protester from the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP, at the Whitney Museum of American Art exhibition “David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night.” Photo by Alan Timothy Lunceford-Steven.

A far from grassroots Cartier collaboration might seem incongruous with Wojnarowicz, who famously said ‘drop my body on the White House lawn’, whose work inspired the wave of ACT UP protests that did indeed drop the ashes of those who had died of AIDS on the lawns of government officials, the FDA, and other buildings, and whose own ashes were dropped on the White House lawn as a protest.

How might he have viewed his artwork as a couture garment on the steps of the Met?

There is an element of direct action about it. Fusing the eliteness of the Met and couture with subversive art. This could go either way as protest, is it subversion or selling out? But there’s something significant in taking art from minority artists and giving it a mainstream platform. Importantly giving it authenticity, being worn on the body of another gay man is significant—crucial even—to this conversation with art, activism, and the past; an important and uncomfortable conversation.

When we talk about AIDS we’re frequently also talking about gay men’s bodies and wearing AIDS art as clothing on the body of a gay man means something. Because when we talk about AIDS, AIDS history, and activism, we’re talking about bodies. It’s a physical link, almost artwork to artwork and body to body across space connecting that link; personally, artistically to someone who went before. It’s bringing that work into the present, not just within the queer community but putting it on the world stage and challenging them to have a problem with it. 

To pause in the history lesson—or more accurately to align with the present—was still a risk for Levy too. To be so brazenly queer in his outfit choice, to choose to make a queer political statement at his first Met Gala is not without risk even today. Even the most ‘out’ of artists, even those riding high in their careers like Levy know there is still a risk involved with being visibly, politically, confrontationally queer. 

Wojnarowicz might have liked that aspect certainly—particularly the infiltration of the establishment, of using a mainstream platform to subvert, of taking the expensive and exclusive and ‘queering’ it with his art. The point of Levy’s outfit was saying AIDS out loud. As we should. We should say the names of those lost, loudly so they aren’t forgotten.

Levy’s generation came of age in the long shadow of AIDS.

This looked like many things. It looked like new freedoms to be themselves, to be out, to marry, to be free from the fear of AIDS itself. But it was also to grow up with the longterm impact of the AIDS epidemic, the fear and panic around queerness it caused. The idea of a ‘doomed life’ it created. And the loss of a generation to guide the way.

It is hard to explain to a younger generation just how tragic and seismic the loss of our elders was, personally and artistically to a generation of queer people, queer artists. Personally, those elders loss was felt first-hand in communities that relied on that handing down of knowledge, of chosen families. But beyond that, the generation of artists lost—not just the world famous ones, the Freddies, the Rock Hudsons—but also the grassroots artists, those embedded in communities, making work on the fringes.

That the artwork Levy’s outfit is inspired by is from 1984, the year after Levy was born, and that Wojnarowicz was a couple of years younger than Levy when he died in 1992, brings something poignant to a lifetime’s difference between their experiences. The freedom Levy has to wear this outfit while being a gay creative making work within the mainstream that has resonance. Because the work Levy has done already, and likely will do, is part of a queer legacy, a history, that Wojnarowicz and many like him paved the way for. Many of whom were either never acknowledged as part of that history in their lifetime or didn’t have a life long enough to make as much impact as they might have. There’s a weight of expectation to a degree, often unspoken on today’s creatives, like Levy who can make their mark, while owning their identity. A weight of expectation because their work, whether consciously or not, is part of a queer legacy. In gay men’s work too, it’s part of a post-AIDS conversation.

Levy has in his work of course already been contributing to that. Schitt’s Creek with its joyous celebration of love, and deliberate absence of prejudice is a subtly post-AIDS queer text in its celebratory nature, in its freedom. But also, in its redressing the balance; offering queer joy in a culture where for years there was little. But equally, in an act such as wearing Wojnarowicz’s art, there is a nod personally to a less joyous past. But one that Levy’s generation—and the one he is now inspiring with his work—should acknowledge if not a debt, then a link, an invisible thread perhaps tying together queer experience across the decades.

So, it matters that Levy collaborated with the Wojnarowicz estate to make that outfit, to bring that story to a world stage. We as a queer community might already know his story but in the wider world, younger generations did not. Those fans of Levy, who have lived a life removed from queer life, know that story now. That’s what using a platform for activism is about. Activism starts by telling our stories too, taking ownership of them.

By walking the Met Gala in that outfit, Levy is owning that story. A gay man, literally wearing queer history. Something Levy himself growing up watching the Met Gala pictures of straight men in straight tuxes, or queer men unable to be themselves, might not have imagined possible.

The pieces chosen were important too—Fuck You Faggot Fucker—as the influence for the outfit and an untitled piece of work as the clutch purse Levy carried. Kudos too, for Levy in his Instagram post detailing the outfit for not using asterisks to cover the title of the work, as the poster for the documentary of the same name (2020) did; like naming the artist and how he died these things matter. The piece is at once dreamy and beautiful, in the pastel colors of the map it’s made from and the soft embrace of the men it depicts, but it’s also confrontational. It uses homophobic graffiti alongside images of gay men; contradictions, and beauty. The map itself, of North America, on the torsos of the men and worn on Levy’s torso in the outfit, commenting what Wojnarowicz refereed to ‘this killing machine called America’ seems hauntingly apt today, as in 1984 when he made that work.

Fuck You Faggot Fucker (1984) PPOW Gallery, New York.

The second piece in Levy’s outfit- the beautifully made clutch bag he carried, uses a moving, altogether more chilling reminder of the past from Wojnarowicz. In Untitled (One Day This Kid…), 1990, a black and white image of a boy (a young Wojnarowicz) smiling out surrounded by text which details the desires, and forces against him he will encounter including:

‘One day, this kid will do something that causes men who wear the uniforms of priests and rabbis, men who inhabit certain stone buildings, to call for his death’.

‘One day politicians will enact legislation against this kid’.

‘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’.

Untitled (One Day this kid) 1990/1 the estate of David Wojnarowicz/PPOW Gallery, New York

All at once, Levy’s Met Gala outfit is both a warning from history as much as a celebration. Yes, we have progressed. Levy can stand in this outfit, sharing a stage at the Met with many other LGBTQIOA+ artists equally celebrating their identity. Alongside him, Elliott Page gave a nod to Oscar Wilde with a green carnation, Nikkie De Jager gave a tribute to Marsha P. Johnson in her ensemble, while MJ Rodriguez, Lil Nas X, Jeremy O. Harris, Lee Pace, Hunter Schafer, Tom Daley, and Megan Rapinoe took up their own space as part of the gala, expressing their true selves in their outfits. Nevertheless, Levy’s clutch, bearing Wojnarowicz’s art and words, is a reminder that the fight is far from over, however many gains have been won.

In reminding us to know our history, we’re also reminded not to take our queer futures for granted unless we continue to fight for them.

Cynics might argue that it’s ‘just an outfit’. That’s as reductive as arguing ‘it’s just a painting’, whether that’s one of Wojnarowicz’s or any on display in the Met. Much like a painting, it doesn’t matter if aesthetically you like Levy’s outfit. It’s not there to be worn to a wedding or on a date (though if someone rocked up to either in it, points to them). It’s about the story of the piece. Art has power; the power to move, to inspire. And art is activism. That’s what Wojnarowicz’s stood for, it’s the power ACT UP harnessed, and it’s what Dan Levy’s outfit inspires us to consider.

David Wojnarowicz with Tom Warren,Self-Portrait of David Wojnarowicz (1983–84). Photograph by Ron Amstutz.

By Dr Emily Garside

Dan Levy’s Met Gala outfit was also made in conjunction with a donation to Visual Aids find out more about their work here.

Resources on ACT UP and their history can be found here. Some of David Wojnarowicz’s work may be viewed online via PPOW Gallery .

Emily Garside is hosting a discussion about the Queer Impact of Schitt’s Creek on 9th October 2021 4pm EST/9pm BST as a fundraiser for aidsmap the The Faculty of Native Studies details here

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