Actors, Artifacts & Craft Pt. 2: High-Low Fashion

e·thos – The characteristic spirit of a culture, era, or community as seen in its beliefs and aspirations

Philip Treacy. London Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2013. The Royal Courts Of Justice. (Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)

Philip Treacy. London Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2013. The Royal Courts Of Justice. (Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)

Pedro Bell's Sun Ra

Parliament/Funkadelic artist Pedro Bell’s Sun Ra illustration

At London Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2013 designer Philip Treacy sent 25 black models down a catwalk to showcase his latest designs. Sun Ra immediately came to my mind, especially his scepter. About his show Treacy is reported to have said,

The show was a homage to the African woman and their sensibility to dress up. – The London Evening Standard.

Comments elsewhere that the show was “gimmicky” got me to thinking and others tweeting:

“Philip Treacy’s show was EPIC. Grace Jones, Lady Gaga and Michael Jackson’s clothes with amazing hats #Genius!” tweeted Adewole.

Anderson wrote: “Thank you Philip Treacy for using me for the past couple weeks and allowing me to have that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!”

I think it goes beyond dressing up. High fashion is commonly associated by regular folk in terms of being extravagant or impractical – think: Alexander McQueen (Lady Gaga), Comme des Garcons’ Rei Kawakubo and others.  Their clothing – more artform than wardrobe – express designers’ creativity, concept, and skill in ways that allow for freedom of expression. Minami Furukawa wrote about high fashion designers’ Sculptural Objects in 2010.

Philip Treacy. London Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2013. The Royal Courts Of Justice. (Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)

Philip Treacy. London Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2013. The Royal Courts Of Justice. (Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)

Is this Lada Gaga or Janelle Monae? Regarding the ‘sculptural object’ I introduced my younger sister to Sanford Biggers’s artwork – quilts, sculptures, etc.– and (impressed) she wrote back, “I see craft being capable of elevation to art form.  Craft lies at the crossroads of art form and art function.” Of course craft (technical skill) is relevant in high fashion but so is style. My research is concerned with actors (artists), artifacts (objects) and craft (skill), for example when referencing Sanford’s re-purposed quilts I’m wished I had asked him more questions about how he developed his craft (there’s still time, of course). Moving on to Philip Treacy I wonder what he was researching besides the crafting of objects (artifacts), perhaps it was “black art”. When interviewing Cauleen Smith for the Art21 blog I addressed this idea of black art:

Nettrice: Toni Morrison describes the elements of black art: (a) the ability of artists to use found objects; (b) the appearance of using found things; and (c) and the work must look effortless.  She states, It must look cool and easy.  If it makes you sweat, you haven’t done the work. How might her statement relate to your interpretations of existing work (artifacts) within African and African-diaspora culture – i.e as it relates to improvisation?

Cauleen: I guess, despite the fact that find Toni Morrison’s work and ideas profound and important to my work and development as an artist-person I’d love to see the original source for these ideas here, because there are some words in there that are so loaded and, to my mind, subjective, that I’m not sure I can wholly sign on to this as a way to talk about what I attempt to do.  What looks like “sweat” to her could look slick and machined to me.  Is slick the same as “cool”? Does the touch of the hand in a thing or a deliberately exposed flaw immediately render it overly labored and therefore not “easy” or under-labored suggesting that I haven’t “done the work?” I’m afraid that I’m ignorant of the qualifiers she uses for these terms and therefore uneasy with that track.  However, in some of my sketchbooks, I re-copy this list (below) of terms which seek to describe works and ideas that exist “in-between” what is central and what is marginal, known an unknown:

hybridity, transtemporal, collage, recycle, melange, appropriation, hotchpotch, leapfrog, the tether, the loop, synergy, hand-made, bricollage,  improvisation, mongrelisation, margin, void, syncretism, transculturation

I got the Toni Morrison quote from Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, i.e. as it relates to aspects of high and low culture in artistic expression from the black or African Diaspora. Much of Cauleen’s work centers on the important relationship between music and other everyday cultural forms – i.e. black art and Afrofuturism. Phillip Treacy, a middle-aged white man, is exploring how to elevate certain elements of these artforms. I explored this in Second Life in 2010.

Nettrice Gaskins. "Sun Ra Scepter," 2010. IBM Exhibition Space, Second Life.

Nettrice Gaskins. “Sun Ra Scepter,” 2010. IBM Exhibition Space, Second Life.

It is clear, even in Philip Treacy’s spring/summer collection that the ways in which race (as a marker and signifier) collude with culture and economic power in important ways. Where does black art fit in with the term “post-black(ness),” or new ways of looking at art and advocating for new ways of making? Perhaps the new black art is less about simulating individualization (old styles) and more about simulating fantasies or the stars. Afrofuturist Sun Ra is a great example of “low” fashion and improvisation that is highly stylized. Cauleen states,

(A)fro-futurism as a practice, as a way of making and thinking means more than just naming a piece after the Gemini Space probe or some such. For me afro-futurism centralizes formal considerations, structural considerations, and the stakes are in the praxis as much as in the language – if not more so. One of those practices, I believe,  is most definitely the mastery of improvisation.

Philip Treacy. London Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2013. The Royal Courts Of Justice. (Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)

Philip Treacy. London Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2013. The Royal Courts Of Justice. (Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)

Philip Treacy is mimicking ‘low’ culture and channeling various black artforms in his fashions. I think it was a successful showcase that leads to larger questions such as: Why there? Why now? What is the relationship between high and low art?

Philip Treacy. London Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2013. The Royal Courts Of Justice. (Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)

Philip Treacy. London Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2013. The Royal Courts Of Justice. (Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)

“Low art” is defined here as “Cultural forms that areconsidered to be comprehenable to the average person” which aims at any artform of popular culture (like pop music, folk art). “High art” is therefore considered to have some sort of special importance, to be understandable only to an “educated” and “sophisticated” elite. I don’t like the term high and low (art, culture) because it sets up a rigid dichotomy that does not leave room for an artist like Sun Ra. Thus, the interesting (powerful) aspects of black art are often made invisible or hidden within the specific artform. It makes Treacy’s fashions edgy to some and gimmicky to others.

Shows like Treacy’s is why I keep coming back to actors, artifacts and craft.

Research Notes:

  • Regarding the production process: Thomas Adorno states that, although industrial mass production always includes standardization, this is only true for promotion and distribution. Creation is still ‘individualistic’ in its social mode of production. Standards are established through successive imitation of “hits” (downloads, purchases, publications, etc.) and those standards are kept up by centralized agencies (music and media industries). If someone doesn’t follow the rule she’s simply excluded. But those exclusions also act as a kind of attraction for consumers and are therefore used very specifically by industries to simulate a world outside the business (which is of course part of the business). See: Paul Willis’ Profane Culture
  • Even improvisations which should be quite hard to put into schemes have become normalized “as to enable a whole terminology to be developed to express the standard devices of individualization.” (Adorno) Many of the reasons that makeup the basic difference between high and low art can be found here. As long as artists remain excluded or outside of industry it can be argued that it isn’t (or shouldn’t be) included in the field/domain/discipline, i.e. the art world with “A”. Thus, Philip Treacy’s fashions represent “pseudo-individualization” but are really not made for everyday people.
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