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Cultural Capital

Spike Lee’s Stuff Is Cool. But What Does It All Mean?

"Creative Sources" at the Brooklyn Museum has everything but doesn't say much.

Spike Lee’s Louis Vuitton suit at “Spike Lee: Creative Sources.” (Hell Gate)

On Saturday night, the Brooklyn Museum was bustling. It was the monthly First Saturday, and hundreds of people had showed up for a night of free music and the chance to wander after-hours through the museum's latest exhibit, "Spike Lee: Creative Sources."

"Creative Sources" displays a number of artifacts from Spike Lee's personal collection. Up on the fifth floor, I watched visitors gleefully posing at a staircase fabricated to resemble a brownstone stoop, one of the exhibit's numerous installations seemingly designed for picture-taking. I heard someone next to me coo, "Oh my god, I remember this," pointing at a leather jacket worn by crew members filming 1988's "School Daze." People were having a blast.

Wow, I thought. First "It's Pablo-matic," then "The Book of Hov," and now I'm going to complain about how "Creative Sources" is a haphazard collection that doesn't accomplish much but to aggrandize an already widely celebrated person? Do I just hate fun? What kind of person objects to so many things that bring people joy? 

(Hell Gate)

Do I simply have less of an intrinsic appreciation for the thrill of celebrity? No, I love celebrities! I just like when they do things. And as I stared down a mannequin wearing Lee's fuschia double-breasted Virgil Abloh-designed Louis Vuitton suit and Air Jordans, I wondered where Lee's own vision was, and why the exhibit around me was so unable to achieve more than displaying a hodgepodge of stuff he happens to have.

Because this is Spike Lee we're talking about, after all. We're talking about a man of exacting aesthetic sense, a daring stylist and titan of filmmaking, an avid student of Black history and a visionary of Black possibilities. So what's the excuse for how "Creative Sources" arbitrarily handles its materials? Lee has indeed compiled an impressive collection, but why isn't he using it to say anything? 

"Creative Sources" mostly consists of three types of artifacts: ephemera from Black pop cultural history, ephemera from Spike Lee's personal history, and fine art made by Black artists that touches on some level of African American experience. These artifacts are arranged into a narrative of Lee's creative influences (sections include "Music" and "Photography"), and are meant to come together under the vague auspice of having informed Lee's artistic practice. A signed FBI wanted poster for Angela Davis is next to a signed poster advocating to free Angela Davis, is next to a signed cover of Time magazine that features Angela Davis—Spike Lee knows Angela Davis. And then there's a signed letter from Kamala Harris. Next to a room where you can watch a clip from Lee's film "BlacKkKlansman," there's a signed picture of Frank Sinatra. One room is just posters for movies that Lee enjoys, some signed. There's Serena Williams's racket and there's Willie Mays's bat. Spike Lee likes the Knicks, so there are jerseys from Knicks players, often signed, and old tickets to Knicks NBA finals games. Plaques announcing sections try to explain what these artifacts mean to Lee, but settle for simply saying that he "honors" the civil rights movement, that music has "always been critical" to him, and that he "loves his family." 

In a final room, you'll see one of Prince's iconic love symbol-shaped guitars and collectible Biggie Smalls MetroCards issued by the MTA. At first, you think you're being confronted with a monument to Black contributions to music, until you see there's also one of David Byrne's guitars. You're not supposed to get some profound sense of the weight of Black musical history, you're just supposed to know that Spike Lee likes music, and that his famous friends have given him a lot of gifts.

Kehinde Wiley, "Investiture of Bishop Harold as Duke of Franconia," 2005. (Hell Gate)

A plaque near the end of the exhibit, next to a collection of World War II-era propaganda posters that depict Black soldiers, says Lee collects such things as part of his commitment to “the ongoing struggle for social, political and economic equality in the United States." Why, then, is "Creative Sources" just a confection, when I'd have rather seen a struggle, or even an argument? One perhaps about the relationship between pop culture architects like Lee and movement activism. Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" was playing on loop over speakers as I peered up at the Kehinde Wiley painting Lee commissioned in the 2000s, the exhibit's capstone. But "Creative Sources," ensconced at the top of the Brooklyn Museum, didn't leave me feeling like I was fighting the power. It doesn't put up a fight at all. It is what it is: a neat collection of artifacts that Lee owns. While "Creative Sources" erects an abundance of important tokens of Black history with Spike Lee at its center, any trace of Lee's artistic capabilities is conspicuously absent.

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