Fashion as the Avatar of an Avant-garde Essay
Art and fashion share many significant characteristics in the way they function in society. Both have also changed with increasingly dramatic speed over the centuries. In art, the movement known as the Avant-garde set out to continually redefine itself; in fact, to redefine art. However, this continual discarding of what was done already has had a tendency to be self-destructive of the movement itself.
In fashion, because of its continual pattern of rejection of the past and re-creation of itself, the mood and positive goals of the Avant-Garde may be able to retain and regain a foothold.
In the discussion that follows, the links between fashion and art will be explored, the potential for fashion to represent the Avant-Garde will be addressed, and the specific case of Viktor and Rolf will be examined as a possible avatar of the Avant-Garde in fashion.
Fashion, art, and the Avant-garde: how are they related?
Fashion seems to be a universal feature of human societies. No matter how near nakedness a human may be, there appears to exist an urge to decorate, and, over time, for the character of this decoration to change. At its most basic level, this impetus to add to our bodies, and in ways that evolve, is the root of couture and fashion.
As Entwhistle puts it, Conventions of dress transform flesh into something recognizable and meaningful to a culture and are also the means by which bodies are made decent, appropriate and acceptable within specific contexts.
Dress does not merely serve to protect our modesty and does not simply reflect a natural body or, for that matter, a given identity; it embellishes the body, the materials commonly used adding a whole array of meanings to the body that would otherwise not be there.
Even the most apparently simple societies demonstrate this tendency to adorn, modify, and embellish bodies, hair, skin, and even the odor of the body, and this is the essential core of fashion and style. The evidence suggests that even the human races Neanderthal cousins modified their appearance in various ways that are instantly recognizable even to modern eyes.
Art also seems to be a universal feature of human societies. We see modification of the environment in ways that cannot be attributed to the actual tasks of physical survival as far back as we can define our species as truly human. In fact the making of art is almost a marker archeologically for identifying an ancient site as belonging to people who shared our modern penchant for symbol and expression.
The current date for the oldest known art is now 20,000 years B.C.E., and could be pushed back even further . This suggests that the tendency to modify the environment in ways that are not totally functional in a materialistic sense (considering that the artists of 20 millennia ago may indeed have believed that these rock or cave paintings ensured their good treatment by the forces of nature) is deep-seated.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, in an effort to cover all cultures, all times, and all political perspectives, requires that any definition of art meet the criteria of applying to:
entities (artifacts or performances) intentionally endowed by their makers with a significant degree of aesthetic interest, often surpassing that of most everyday objects in virtually every known human culturesometimes[with] non-aesthetic ceremonial or religious or propagandistic functions new genres and art-forms develop, standards of taste evolve, understandings of aesthetic properties and aesthetic experience change. (Italics added for emphasis)
The criteria go on to require that a definition of art acknowledge that,
there are institutions in some but not all cultures which involve a focus on artifacts and performances having a high degree of aesthetic interest and lacking any practical, ceremonial, or religious use[and] such institutions sometimes classify entities apparently lacking aesthetic interest with entities having a high degree of aesthetic interest.
This last is a clear attempt to account for the sometimes inexplicable choices that museum curators make. Clearly, the definition of art has evolved drastically over time.
The Avant-garde defined
What has changed is the increasing velocity with which these two aspects of human life have changed, and how the process of change, itself, has acquired value in and of itself.
Whereas in cave paintings, we may not be able to distinguish one millennium from another, never mind one year from another, ever since the Renaissance, and especially since the advent of Impressionism, the speed with which art styles and approaches have changed has accelerated. Furthermore, since perhaps the Enlightenment, the old, the ancien, the former, the past, have all become terms of opprobrium in art. To some degree, this was a democratizing reaction to the elitist exclusivity of the Academie.
The Avant-Garde is one of the most recent and most dramatic expressions of this trend. Starting in the last decades of the 19th century, many artists intentionally set out to discard the past and all that went with it.
From the nonsense of Tristan Tzara, and Dadaism , to the most current and conceptual pieces , the aims and techniques of traditional Western art have been tossed out. The increasingly global and devastating wars that occurred in the same period must have been motivating factors in the rejection, as in Dadaism , of all meaning in art.
Ward points out that such art was connected neither to market forces or the old academic system. It was DIY. She also points out that the women associated with the early manifestations of the Avant-garde regarded their experiments with clothing as either art, or costumes, a reflection of the decreasing separation between fashion and art .
The Avant-garde, however, continues to reject the past, even its own past. This has the destructive effect of the mother devouring her young, or perhaps vice versa.
Is Fashion Art?
To assert that fashion is (or can become) the last bastion of the Avant-garde requires the redefinition of fashion as a form of art. Fashion, as noted earlier, shares with art its character of an essentially perennial indulgence. It can be said of both art and fashion that neither is necessary for physical survival of the species or the individual. And yet, in all cultures, there is some form of both art and fashion, no matter how simple, or accessible in technology, so it seems reasonable to infer that they are both somehow necessary for humans.
Fashion refers to and borrows from art regularly. This pattern of appropriation and quotation stretches from Worths portrait-influenced styles from the 1800s, inspired by his visits to museums, to the Mondrian-inspired color block mini-dresses of St. Laurent in the 1960s. More recently, we have seen the use of Byzantine motifs by Giovanni Versace .
However, the art world has moved away from the artisanal, and therefore relatively menial, role it occupied until well after the Renaissance, as evidenced by the frequent absence of signatures on earlier works of art.
In this movement away from that role, art has, for the most part, excluded fashion as a craft or trade, until very recently. Couture, after all is defined in plebeian terms as the business of making clothes.
Both fashion and art are status symbols, accessible only to those who have the wealth and the imprimatur of social acceptability (style, class, savvy) to indulge in them. Any doubt as to whether this long-time prejudice has been dissipated should be set aside.
As evidence, note the tone with which Wal-Mart heirs creating a pret-a-porter, instant museum, full of the best art, has been received by the art world and the public at large. Crystal Bridges Museum is in the American state of Arkansas, a state better known for the folk tune Arkansas Traveler than its high culture.
It may, as critics have conceded, made innovative use of space and be a showcase for much good American art. The attitude towards the patroness, her acquisition techniques, and the choices her insta-pour art collection includes, is one of dubious suspicion. The motif of new wealth trying to buy its way into either fashion or art circles is thus alive and well .
Fashion and art also share the characteristic that their most prominent and influential critics and arbiters are seldom themselves practitioners. Examples of these potentates in the fashion world include Anna Wintour, of Vogue, and Clement Greenberg, in the art world. Such critics have the literal power to make or break the career of a designer or an artist, based on little more than their verbal adeptness at articulating the mood of a body of work2.
However, in spite of this slender basis for judgment, the compliments or caviling of such critics (often very subjective in their choice of favorites) can shape the directions that artists and designers take in their future work.
Artists, not surprisingly, object to the tyranny of being forced to spend time and attention on achieving critical acclaim. However, there is little way to avoid this at the moment. Purchasers of cutting edge art often depend on the opinion and pronouncements of noted critics to validate what can be astonishingly expensive price tags.
Furthermore, these major expenditures purchase items that often have no apparent value. They often have little or no decorative value either, and in fact, many high end art purchases spend more time in art galleries than they ever do in anyones home. Thus, the art critic really is in control of the artists financial success, at least in the short term. Personal taste and pique can therefore acquire an outsized significance.3
Similarly, in the world of high fashion, prospective clothing or accessory purchasers are faced with a price tag that could easily underwrite the purchase of a boat or a second-hand car, for something that may actually look quite ugly. The item may be so difficult to clean and maintain that wearing it is impractical.
The positive pronouncements of critics can reassure them that this or that item is a good investment, although the lifespan of a fashion piece is measured in months rather than decades, for the most part. For couture customers, wearing an outfit older than a few months requires enormous confidence (or the excuse of early dementia).
Thus, for both fashion and art, seeking after profit, or at least financial survival (although the practitioners resent and may try to ignore it), is a central and troublesome issue. This notion sometimes clashes with the image of the unfettered creative genius, motivated only by the pressure of great ideas, which both fields cherish for themselves.
Another aspect shared by the fashion and art industries is their tendency to compare and critique what has gone before. There is an ongoing dialogue between the current and the past.
Art, at least since the Renaissance,4 tends to abandon as inadequate what has gone before, as not effective, expressive, realistic, or abstract enough. In fashion, each year; each season, in fact, constitutes a critique of the aesthetics of the body; the human physique is distorted, adorned, and utilized to show off sewing and cutting techniques, in new ways each time the lights come up on a runway.
Fashion also qualifies as art based solely on its physical properties. In the simplest of terms, the clothing article itself is a form of soft sculpture that requires the human form for completion of the work.
There is a parallel in the plastic arts, where avant-garde sculpture can be constructed of clothing, such as Claes Oldenburgs 1969 constructions that included stockings . The all-encompassing term under which fashion can be included, garments, can take form in a variety of media limited not only to textiles, but including garbage bags, neoprene, and flattened aluminum cans.
As further evidence of the permeable barrier between fashion and art, no less august an institution than the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City now possesses an entire costume department, as do a number of other major world-class museums. They mount exhibits of fashion items as thoroughly and lovingly curated as the most ancient artifacts or the most treasured examples of the fine arts, for example, featuring Schiaparelli and Prada . Other major museums globally now accord the same care to living fashion designers .
Fashion and art also occupy a space analogous in several ways to that space which Michel Foucault describes as a heterotopia. Although not directly parallel, there are interesting similarities. Fashion and art, indeed, seem to be absolutely different from all the sites that they reflect and speak about
For example, art is real, and reflects reality, even if it is aggressively conceptual and reflects only the materials of which it is made, even at the artists insistence, as was the wish and intent of, for example, Sol LeWitt . And yet the discourse around art inevitably refers to things that may never have been intended to imply.
Fashion, as well, deals with tangible items, but the purpose of the item, i.e., to clothe a body (create a garment), is often, if not almost always, subverted by the actual construction of the piece. It may not even be wearable as a garment outdoors, or without trained assistance, or by the vast majority of human bodies.
Both fashion and art, then, are to some degree at odds with themselves, creations that inspire ideas and discussion and have impacts beyond the gallery, the atelier, or the catwalk, although they do not actually do what they are explicitly created to do.
Thus, fashion can be considered an actual art form, but it has generally been denied this status given that it operates for the most part, in its creation, sale, and use, outside of art institutions, although parallel to it. This very exclusion, however, is what makes possible, in part, the opportunity for a revival of the Avant-garde in the world of fashion. This is because of the nature of the Avant-garde, a nature to be discussed in the next section
What is, or was, the Avant-garde?
In trying to nominate fashion as the avatar of the Avant-garde, it is necessary first to identify what distinguished the Avant-garde from any movements that came previously. It is also necessary to evaluate its aims. After all, it could be asserted that the Avant-garde deserves to fade from the world entirely.
The term avant-garde literally means advance guard, or those who patrol and scout ahead of the rest. The phrase carries with it a notion of deliberately moving beyond the main body of the crowd into the unknown, the untried, and the potentially dangerous. The art to which it was first applied was meant to shock, to undermine, to carve a new, perhaps better, alternative path for both art and society.
In the years leading up to the First World War and beyond, especially, there appeared a strong element of political critique, and even an anti-war warning in the practice of all the arts.
The world was seemingly headed heedlessly for disaster, and the tools of statecraft, governance, class structure, education, military strategy, diplomacy and everything else that people had depended on for centuries, were failing to prevent it.
The message of the Avant-garde was that all the old conventions were therefore useless and deserved to be left behind. The aim was nothing less than the transformation of art, and, by the way, society . Although many participants seem to have been themselves members of an intellectual elite, the need for increasing the dignity of common folk and items (typeface, for example) was emphasized in Avant-garde works .
However, the participants in the Avant-garde were using a new means of transforming society, less bloody than that which was applied in the 18th century to overthrow, for example, monarchy in France, and subsequently in most of Europe. Thus, art in the hands of the Avant-garde was hoped to be able to push or pull people in a new, hopefully positive direction without violence, except to the traditional values the movement hoped to supersede.
The elitism that designated the Academy as the only validator of arts 5 quality was a major target of the Avant-garde . A similar elitism that separated the fine artist from the craftsman or the amateur was another of these many targets of the Avant-garde.
The do-it-yourself performances, the ready-made artwork, and the use of such craft items as printing typeface fonts and interior design elements, that cropped up in the Avant-garde, for example, could usher in a flattening of the hierarchical distance between the average citizen and the fine artist.
At the same time, the commoditization of art was also a target of the Avant-garde. This is a persistent problem of this movement. It happened with the movement of Cubism, which seemed so drastic at first, but which relatively soon thereafter became the fodder of hotel lobby art.
As soon as a piece of work, a style, an approach, or an individual artist, no matter how out there, becomes accepted, even a little bit, it is no longer out there.
If the public, that public whose taste is suspect, and generally described as common, begins to actually like and appreciate something, it loses its credibility as revolutionary. If other artists begin to adopt whatever has been cutting edge, there is a tendency for the new to be diluted and its abrasive impact blunted and dulled.
The absolute nadir of ignominy for an innovator of the Avant-garde is when a radical idea, image, or technique is adopted by what some would call low-brow practitioners, or used in popular, profitable venues. As evidence of the perennial nature of this discussion, no less a practitioner and promoter of the Avant-garde, and a founder of Surrealism, Salvador Dali, was castigated by that other prominent Avant-gardiste, Andre Breton, for his commercialism . To cite one contemporary example, Piet Mondrian might be appalled to find that his rigidly abstract, cerebral, are now used freely (with his name, no less) in commercial doors and windows for suburban tract homes . This is far from a revolutionary usage, although it is, indeed, admirably democratic.
The Avant-gardes place in todays world
As can be seen from the above, the original impulses for the Avant-garde were to promote revolutionary transformation. Today, although there are plenty of people who are seeking transformation of their own society6, in the Western, developed world, there is a tendency for our tolerance of differing opinions and lifestyles to mute the effect of even the most radical creative gestures.
Has the impulse, the potency, and even the purpose, of the Avant-garde therefore disappeared? According to Gilles Lipovetsky, people in modern democratic societies are always prepared for change; consistency has become old hat. The systems of dominant ideas of the past no longer hold sway, having been swallowed up by frivolity.7 As Lipovetsky put it, people are, however, despite their urge to change the world, no longer inclined to die in great numbers for their ideas8
The reasons for this mixture of apparent apathy, and willingness to embrace change may have arisen from 200 years, and more, of the laissez-faire approach of classical liberalism, the resulting separation of government and religion, or even the rise of feminism and other civil rights struggles.
As noted earlier with respect to art and fashion, the pattern of acceleration of change is occurring throughout society. Certainly, society today is primed for instant gratification and novelty; anything so last month is as good as gone from the public mind. Change is as expected and desired now as sameness once was. In such an environment, how can a work of art generate any sort of impact if it obsolesces in a few days?
In spite of the Avant-gardes having, in a sense, come up against a seemingly insoluble self-destructive paradox9, does the Avant-garde still have validity? There still exist today, nonetheless, the same sorts of yearnings that impelled the original Avant-garde.
As expressed by the very contemporary Michel Foucault, What strikes me is the fact that in our society, art has become something which is related only to objects and not to individuals, or to life.
That art is something which is specialized or which is done by experts who are artists. But couldnt everyones life become a work of art? Why should the lamp or the house be an art object, but not our life? This is clearly a nearly identical dissatisfaction with art as an elite activity, in which everyone cannot or does not participate, as that expressed by the Avant-garde.
Fashions qualifications to be the proponent of the Avant-garde
Given that art has essentially burned itself out in the effort to abandon each innovation almost as soon as it becomes public, and has faced and accepted its inability to quickly change the world through shock and disgust, could fashion take up the charge? Fashion is uniquely fitted to express the Avant-garde because it always has been a carrier of message and content, it has no problems being sold in a large, free market, and it has been kinder to its antecedents.
Fashion re-creates itself each season. It attempts to, or purports to, capture what Karl Lagerfeld termed the mood of the moment . This essential feature of the fashion world is entirely consistent with the Avant-gardes insistence on constantly presenting something new. Of course this is what generates a following among a novelty-hungry public with discretionary income to spend.
Furthermore, fashion has been attempting to follow the same path of liberation from dependence on a small elite group that art has taken over the last several centuries. Up until the moment when there developed a true market for art, artists were dependent on patrons, whether these came from the aristocracy or from the merchant princes.
Peter Burger, quoted by Schulte-Sasse, identifies a historic shift caused by this severing of arts almost feudal relationship to patrons, to be supplanted by, anonymous, structural dependence on the market and its principles of profit maximization. Art became, in some respects, actually more elite.
By ignoring the commissioners who had determined who got visibility and who did not, the artists became their own arbiters. This created a sort of self-referential bubble that left out anyone who was not actually making art. This elevation of the artist is perceptible in the painting by Courbet titled Bonjour Monsieur Courbet (1854).
Only the artist is actually portrayed as a real person, obeying the laws of gravity with solidity and weight. The patron is more or less floating without impinging on the sunlight or the soil . Clement Greenberg actually suggested that, in an era of a diminishing cultured elite, artists deliberately pushed their own art well beyond the capacities of the public to appreciate it specifically to make it inaccessible to that same public at least the uneducated public.
The importance of the role of such critics (who may, with notable exceptions, neither make nor, perhaps, probably able to afford the art they critique) has not abated, at least not in their own minds. Consider the statement by Greenberg that, without experience enough to tell good abstract art from bad, no one deserves to be heard on the subject.
His audience, he maintains just a few lines earlier, was too lazy-minded to tell the difference between calendar art and a Rubens.10 A parallel example of this sort of unfortunate professional scorn for the great mass of the fashion public is found in the stylist who resigned over the use of normal-sized models.11
Additionally, fashion has been approaching ever closer to the role of political and social commentator. This role, embraced fully by the Avant-garde, has been popular for the subsequent decades of artists. Even in the relatively constrained environment of modern China, the capacity of art to comment politically is growing, as exemplified by the art of Xiuwen.12
Burger, as quoted by Schulte-Sasse, identifies this secular13 moment of readiness of the artist to make commentary, and of the audience to absorb and respond to this commentary as, the individual and psychological preconditions for the construction of an ideal society.
The third phase of the development of art is, according to Burger, as quoted in Schulte-Sasses, that it acknowledged and recognized its apparent inability to change the world. This is because the critical content of any work of art is undermined by the mode of reception. Burger suggests that this is due to art being separated from daily life, except for a privileged few.14
Fashion, happily, suffers less from this dilemma, since everyone wears something every day, something which either echoes, copies or contradicts the prevailing style. Additionally, everyone is always sending a message with their personal adornment, even in a nudist colony. The notion of fashion containing meaning just as the art of the Avant-garde was intended to do is an easy one for everyone, from anthropologists to school principals trying to prohibit gang colors, to job candidates attempting to dress for success, to affirm.
Additionally, fashion has never suffered the same degree of conflict over the entire capitalist system. In fact, it has benefitted immensely from the very liberal and democratic system that some proponents of the Avant-garde were hoping to eliminate .15
Fashion is already in a cycle of new forms replacing the old. It has less of the conflict over this process than art has had. This allows it to generate innovation with great efficiency.
Thus, fashion has the potential to carry the aims of the Avant-garde forward. Already, there has been a massive decentralization of the creative spark of fashion, via the internet. Young people generate ideas and share them widely without the slightest need for a house of fashion or a show. There is an existing formal structure for the dissemination and diffusion of products and messages well in place and a ready audience for them as well.
Case Study Viktor & Wolf
If we can perhaps agree that the aims of the Avant-garde retain value even nearly a century later, we must ask; who among fashion designers can be considered as a representative of an Avant-garde? Who among the literally thousands of creative people producing in the global fashion industry is carrying the torch for, or expressing the same impulses as those that impelled, the original avant-garde? Who could count as the avant-garde in fashion, and what is their expression of this movement?
Designers both with established roots and well-known names, as well as those with little track record have taken an avant-garde turn in their styling. Fashion houses such as Alexander McQueen, John Galliano, Jean Paul Gaultier, Maison Martin Margiela, and Christopher Kaneetc., come to mind.
All of these designers have produced both styles and shows that evoke the over-the-top silliness or shock of classic Dada stunts. They demonstrate what Evans calls, unexpectedness, ephemerality, and mortalitymasquerade, artifice, and play.
Evans describes the trend in these recent highly theatrical fashion shows and collections as mapping the modern. She sees them as profiting from the endemic estrangement of modern society, as well as the equally endemic eroticization of nearly everything to sell products, and the commoditization of sex, and the glorification of wealth.
For purposes of this project, the efforts of the design team of Viktor and Rolf will be examined.
The of Viktor & Rolf evokes the visual jokes of Elsa Schiaparelli, (for example, her lobster-adorned dresses). However, they take the notion of fashion and style as a form of art a bit further. At the same time, their technical skills are impeccable; such that any piece, no matter how bizarre in appearance, will inevitably demonstrate exquisite cutting and construction.
They moved to Paris in the late 1980s, and spent several years doing what they, themselves, describe as more art than fashion. Their work took up all the space in their tiny apartment, and it took them several years to get a foothold in fashion. They showed initially in art spaces. The work produced in these first years apparently reflected their loneliness and alienation in the midst of the City of Light.