The Times' Karen Rosenberg was thoroughly unimpressed by the 350 glittering chunks of diamonds comprising "Set in Style: The Jewelry of Van Cleef & Arpels," at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York, and not because she found such ostentation vulgar. "Extravagance isn’t the nauseous part; staggering displays of wealth don’t look out of place in this former Carnegie mansion," she writes. The problem, rather, is that Van Cleef didn't bother to hide that it's basically a promotional show — a huge, glittering advertisement that, because it's in a Smithsonian museum, has the pretext of being something more enlightening.
"Allowing a luxury brand that’s still very much in existence to bankroll its own exhibition — one that often looks as if it were put together by the company’s creative directors — does not seem like a smart move, even if it draws A-listers to the opening-night gala," writes Rosenberg. Sure, plenty of museums cater to their flashy corporate sponsors (the Metropolitan Costume Institute, for one), but they usually attempt to preserve their scholarly objectiveness when it comes to things like museum notes, which is not the case here, she says.
If “Set in Style” didn’t feel so in thrall to the company it might be less of an embarrassment for the museum. The show and its catalog, organized around rubrics like “innovation” and “transformation,” are full of breathless text that reads like ad copy.
Of course, at the end of the day, the jewelry is pretty fun to gawk at, and Rosenberg enjoys a good sparkler as much as the next magpie in all of us.
I don’t mean to diminish the pleasure people take in looking at spectacular pieces of jewelry or to suggest that jewelry has no place in the museum. But a company with the resources of Van Cleef & Arpels could stage its own promotional show elsewhere — as Chanel did at a temporary Zaha Hadid-designed structure in Central Park in 2008 — or submit to the sort of measured, critical exhibition that enlightens as much as it dazzles.
So, in other words, here's one museum exhibit where you can feel completely justified in ignoring all the museum notes that you didn't really want to read anyway.