Is fashion art? [Part 2]

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#NEWSERIE – Jose Romussi | cargo collective

We can look at fashion in two ways:

a) look at their functional aspect that enables clothing to keep us warm, giving us erotic appeal, adorning us

or

b) regard them as beautiful objects of aesthetic contemplation by “disregarding the concept under which they fall and therefore ignoring their functional dimension. They could be (as indeed they are) objects of admiration in a museum (Miller, 2007).

It is a quote like Guillaume Apollinaire’s (1927) in Le poète assassiné that could potentially help us understand what sentiments fashion could invoke within a person: “Fashion is becoming practical and no longer looks down on anything. It ennobles everything. It does for materials what the Romantics did for words (Apollinaire, 1999). It is this power of fascination, historical value and freedom of identity that makes fashion a strong subject of interest, regardless of whether one agrees to its status as art or not.

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Issey Miyake outfit on the cover of Artforum magazine, Feb 1982

The Artforum editor that put the Issey Mikaye dress on the February 1982 cover, Ingrid Sischy, sparked controversy by associating dress with art, but she even admits she doesn’t necessarily think fashion is art, but still poses the question as to why the definition for artistic creativity is so narrow as to be characterised purely as a painting in a frame (Spindler, 1996). She even described fashion designers from the likes of Muccia Prada, Rei Kawakubo and Karl Lagerfeld as the “equivalent breakthrough visually, as there was when artists broke through the idea of the picturesque’’ and carries on the comparison by saying: “The most creative and the most attuned designers are revolutionising what a palette means, what a line means, a shape. For fashion, it’s the equivalent creativity of Cubism” (Spindler, 1996).

For Sischy, the difference between art and fashion lies in the system in which fashion is judged. She points out the lack of system in which people could step back and really look at a piece of clothing or at a look and truly think about it: what it means, what it represents, what it might convey, as opposed to keeping a level of debate and interest to a low and superficial level (Spindler, 1996).

Fashion adheres to quite a few of the philosophies mentioned in a previous extract, in that is not always aesthetically pleasing, more often than not is based on a mood and an inspiration which gives it meaning and it portrays the personality of the designer or the house that design it. It can make us feel tremendous joy, pain, even shock, can be anchored in our minds forever and it can take us back to times we never experienced or lived in. Unfortunately, this might not be enough. There is no definitive answer as to whether fashion is art. This might have been possible if the fashion system was different if designers had more time to work on their creations, and if a real platform was offered to viewers to judge the art. Fashion can also still be linked to status and frivolity as it is not used as a marketing tool by celebrities and bloggers to manifest their status to the world.

This way of looking at fashion as a sign of status could be undermining its true meaning. Evidently, some of fashion’s best moments happened off the runway. As Ms Sischy stated so adequately:’’At the opening of the Andy Warhol Museum in May 1994, the most fabulous moment was when these dames emerged in their Halston-designed dresses when Andy had done the fabric’’ (Spindler, 1996).

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Andy Warhol x Rob Halston collaboration (Fall 1974) 
Halston and Warhol: Silver & Suede exhibition poster at The Andy Warhol Museum 

Indeed, fashion is not only about what happens in big fashion houses. It is as much about history as it is about contemporary happenings. Indeed, innovation was always at the forefront of the fashion world, as well as a constant shift in clothing styles. Most of these changes were inspired by art movements or social shifts in societies. This can even date back to the time of French king Louis XV’s time when his mistress Madame Pompadour established Rococo fashion, described as a happy, fresh style in pastel colours, and subsequently, light stripe and floral patterns became popular. We could even look at Marie Antoinette who became the leader of French fashion, as did her dressmaker Rose Bertin. She basked in extravagance and it became her trademark, which ended up majorly fanning the flames of the French Revolution.

In the next section, we will look at fashion in the 20th Century, how it cultivated ideas, what art movements were the catalysts of modern fashion, and take a look at what could be described as the early show-pieces.

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Is fashion art? [Part 1]

The theories

In her article Fashion as Art; is Fashion Art?, Sandra Miller (2007) asks if fashion can be regarded as a form of art.

In its February 1982 issue, Artform magazine featured on its cover an Issey Miyake outfit, which could have doubled as an aggressive/erotic sculpture or painting. It was the first time clothing had been featured on the cover of an art magazine (The Issey Miyake Foundation, 2009). This marked the beginning of all parties attempting to “bridge the gap perceived to exist between the worlds of art and fashion, culminating in the 1996 extravaganza that was the Florence Biennale” (Miller, 2007). Entitled Time and Fashion, the exhibition was the first biennial event to explore fashion in depth (Spindler, 1996).

 

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Muccia Prada x Damien Hirst Entomology bag

The Biennale held seven exhibitions with the only purpose of exploring the relationship between the visual arts: design, architecture, film, photography, music, costume and communication. The catalyst of this exhibition was the belief that fashion, in its complexity and innovative worth, was the most important expression of mass culture (Catalogue of the Biennale di Firenze, 1996). Miuccia Prada collaborated with art collector Damien Hirst in one of seven pavilions; Helmut Lang with neo-conceptual artist Jenny Holzer in another; Gianni Versace with pop-artist Roy Lichtenstein in a third. Works of Ms. Prada, Jil Sander, Rei Kawakubo, Mr. Lang, Mr. Versace and Karl Lagerfeld had been criticised for being unattractive, but were exhibited nonetheless to appropriately challenge what is considered beautiful (Spindler, 1996). 

 

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Issey Miyake outfit on the cover of Artforum magazine, February 1982

 

 

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Since then, the question of fashion as art has been constantly discussed in matter of art history and philosophy. George Dickie provided a deemed logical definition of art by proposing that “a work of art is an object of which someone has said I christen this object a work of art” (Dickie, 1977;436). If this theory is accepted, then conferring the status of art on fashion should be acceptable when looking at Elsa Schiaparelli’s work for example (Miller, 2007), especially her collaboration with surrealist painter Salvador Dali. This work will be discussed further in the section on Cubism.

On the other hand, Noël Carroll seems to disagree. He believes that “sometimes the mere fact that an artefact can be used to serve a historically acknowledged function suffices to call an object art, irrespective of the original creator’s intention” (Carroll, 1999). Art has to provide historical narrative. The reason for this theory is explained clearly: all famous theories of art have been replaced by the appearance of new ones, and experimental innovation should not be feared but embraced to ensure the never-ending evolution of art (Carroll, 1999).

The study of the history of clothing has not yet acquired the status of fine arts history. Nevertheless, the history of fashion is directly linked and dependent on the visual arts, if only because of its perishable nature. Clothing has always offered very important clues to art historians regarding issues of class, gender and social status and has been used as conveyors of meaning in many religious studies. If we were to consider the aesthetics of dress and how they have influenced economic, political and technological history, and even of social customs, we would see that they were very closely aligned. These matters can affect invention and sartorial craftsmanship, and help fashion expand its horizons (Miller, 2007).

 

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A collaboration between Gianni Versace and Roy Lichtenstein, showing an overlapping of artistic disciplines.

 

An association with frivolity offers yet another opinion as it links fashion to social customs rather than aesthetics. Kant (1892) defines this theory as an imitation of the other, especially holding a higher status than one’s own, like a child would his parents. The frivolous nature of imitation provides the justification for predicated vanity and recklessness of fashion (Miller, 2007): “thus fashion belongs under the heading of vanity for its intent is no inner value; and also under the heading of folly, for it is folly to be compelled by mere example into following slavishly the conduct shown by many in society” (Kant, 1892). An opposite view given by Edmund Burke, argues that our desire to imitate is especially important in a society as it shapes manners, opinions and lives (Burke, 1990). “It is a species of mutual compliance which all men yield to each other without constraints to themselves, and which is extremely flattering to them” (Burke, 1990). This is a proven theory in fashion diffusion and is called the trickle-down theory, a hierarchal process where individuals with high status establish trends, only to be imitated by lower-status individuals producing cheaper versions of the style offered. This circle keeps high-status individuals motivated to differentiate themselves from the masses, and this, in effect, is what fuels innovation and style changes.

 

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Ultimately, if fashion is not considered art, then it is a subject of aesthetics. In his book Art, the critics and you, Curt John Ducasse (1944) argues that man is a reflective being, but most of all a self-centred one (Miller, 2007), and goes on to place appearances at the centre of human happiness and states that clothing is “an ornamental mask for the human form, and whatever manages to serve as such constitutes clothing” (Ducasse, 1929). Thus beauty, mystery, interest, grandeur, glamour are means of fascination and therefore significant the flourishing of humankind (Miller, 2007).

Kant’s view on art

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Art is, at best, an open concept, but Danto’s (2013) view maintains that it should be a closed one. Ultimately, something renders art universal in how it makes the public feel.

For Kant, art possesses free beauty. Had abstract painting existed in his time, it would have been easily added to this category. Clement Greenberg (1999) agreed with this approach and showed little interest in natural beauty, but believed that one would not need to know the history of an artwork to know it was good, and that “those who know what is good are certain to agree with one another” (Danto, 2013: 117).

Kant’s second theory introduced the concept of spirit, a concept that is widely different than taste or aesthetics. When he spoke of spirit, he spoke about the creative power of the artist. Therefore, a painting can be beautiful, as far as taste is concerned, but lacking spirit (Danto, 2013). This ties well with German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s distinction between natural and artistic beauty: “Artistic beauty is “born of the spirit and born again””(Geulen, 2006: 17). This conception of art pushes it away from the idea of it being a purely aesthetic object. It is important to note that spirit was connected to cognitive abilities in Kant’s theory, and this in turn, connects Kant to contemporary art better than any other period.

Eventually, Enlightenment values began to give way to Romanticism, and we still saw Francisco Goya argue the same view on art as Kant. Goya wrote that there are no rules in art: No hay reglas in la pintura. This is what might explain our attraction to less intricate work, as opposed to a highly finished piece of work: it is the spirit in art, that elusive presence of genius, that is truly important. At that time, people were beginning to appreciate that something more was being promised by art than that it be in good taste only (Danto, 2013). It was something that could transform viewers, opening them up to a whole new system of ideas – very much like fashion has over the years – but there were no more rules to achieve and control art, and it just did not necessarily have to be tasteful any more, but had a lot more to do with judgement. Indeed, judging a piece of work, more often than not, means giving it rank in relation to other works and most importantly considering its originality (Barrett, 1994), but it can also be purely personal and biased.

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Kant speaks of spirit as the animating principle of mind, which is “the faculty of presenting aesthetic ideas” (Danto, 2013: 123), or that an idea is experienced to and through the senses. This contradicts the theory that ideas are grasped by the mind alone, and that knowledge is achieved by turning away from the senses. This suggests that art is cognitive, as it presents us with ideas through the use of sensory dispositions and conveyed to the mind of the viewer. As an example of the use of the senses in fashion shows, one could remember the flower walls at Raf Simons’ first Dior Collection of Autumn/Winter  2012/2013. Made of fresh flowers, the show-stopping set of a million flowers was incredibly fragrant and held an important meaning of paying homage to Dior’s Flower Woman. Not only did the set convey meaning, but it also engaged the viewer’s sense of smell through flowers, hearing through music, and sight through beautiful pieces of clothing.

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Today, art can be made of anything, put together with anything, in the service of presenting any ideas whatsoever. This puts a lot of pressure on viewers to interpret and grasp the way the spirit of the artist works, but also makes experiencing art incredibly personal.

Defining what art is can be very tricky. If we question whether Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup painting is art or not, then we would have to ask if Hussein Chalayan’s conceptual pieces can be considered clothing. Performance and installations are also immensely valued by designers, and are used as a way to convey their views and worlds through their shows, as a way to transcend the body and look at the overall context or inspiration.

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This is particularly important to present ideas and pressure the viewer to interpret the spirit of the artist, as for example the legendary Alexander McQueen Spring/Summer 1999 show, when model Shalom Sharlow was dramatically spray-painted by robots, showcasing the clothing and its powerful message (Lyssens, 2012).

Plato’s views on art

As part of my attempts to stay sane whilst writing my Masters thesis on the critical examination of fashion as an art form and establish its relationship to the catwalk today, I have decided to upload some of my notes onto the blog. This is the first instalment of what could develop into a literature review. I hope you don’t imminently hate it!

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Plato had a love-hate relationship with the arts. He must have had some love for the arts, because he talks about them often, and his remarks show that he paid close attention to what he saw and heard. He was also a fine literary stylist and a great story-teller; in fact he is said to have been a poet before he encountered Socrates and became a philosopher. Some of his dialogues are real literary masterpieces. On the other hand, he found the arts threatening.

▽ Plato’s views on art

Plato defined art as imitation: it looks like the real thing, but isn’t the real thing. He believed that art was of minimal practical used, and was ready to rid society of artists in his view of an ideal society. It is important to mention that art offered was nothing else in Athens during his time.

No one can deny that art does consist of imitations, or capturing appearances (Danto, 2013), but this has widely changed. During the 18th century, it seemed like imitation disappeared and aesthetics were invented or discovered. From then on, the thought was that art contributed beauty, hence gave pleasure to those with taste (Danto, 2013). Beauty, pleasure and taste were attractive qualities from a societal point of view.

Plato’s view could easily be rejected after the influx of non-imitational art. In his book What art is, Danto (2013) would argue that if some art is imitation and some art is not, neither terms belong to the definition of the word art, as art can only be defined by a word only if it applies to every existing work of art. 

Plato’s definition of art was not dismissed until 1905-7 when the Fauves and the Cubists sprung onto the scene. Looking at more recent artists, one could move away from Plato’s imitation art, as well as the idea that art had to be beautiful.

Marcel Duchamp eradicated beauty in 1915 with his cubist sculptures and Andy Warhol, Pop Art, Minimalism and conceptual art in the 60s made art that wasn’t exactly imitation, but more conceptual. In the 70s, sculpture and photography shifted the centre of artistic awareness and everything was then feasible. This approach to art meant that art has become indefinable, with the inevitable proposition anything cannot be art. 

▽ What to remember

  • Art is imitation
  • A premise that the artist is divinely inspired
  • Art is powerful, and therefore dangerous because of the emotional intensity it holds.