After having sought out frequent collaboration on projects and presentations during the 1990s, in the past few years art and fashion have been on edge as of old. Yet both disciplines have more in common that is sometimes thought, argues Domeniek Ruyters in this preview essay from the book And… And… And… by Alexander van Slobbe.
Immanuel Kant is supposed to have been one of the most important accessories before the fact. Especially his aesthetic theory, which explains that art is essentially about nothing but disinterested pleasure. Other factors that can be associated with a work of art, such as its representative, symbolic or informative value, its social dimension and tradability, are considered irrelevant to the determination of an aesthetic judgement, according to Kant’s theory.
Since Kant, at least the Kant of this aesthetic one-liner, it has been evident to the artist who wants to be taken seriously as an artist to take good note of one thing in particular: the work must not have a function. Function only diverts attention from what art is really about.
Kant’s thesis has regularly been up for revision. Variants and alternatives have been formulated based on new insights that sometimes claimed exactly the opposite, but Kant held his ground. No Marcel Duchamp, no Alexander Rodchenko, no Pierre Bourdieu, not even Yves Saint Laurent or Martin Margiela has ever been able to change that. Through the years, Kant has remained as a sort of benchmark for aesthetic judgement, even after it had become clear that the context of art and its social radius of action are of much more decisive importance in the passing of an aesthetic judgement.
The result is a deep suspicion of fashion in the world of art, even in 2009. Sometimes there are brief periods in which the suspicion is relaxed a bit and fashion is suddenly put forward as an edifying referent. Generally speaking, however, it is kept at a distance in the discourse that art likes to develop and apparently prefers to keep to itself. Fashion can be given a secondary role, as a clever representative of the quasi-dynamic culture, but it is more common in the circles of art for it to be relegated to the status of a short-winded fly-wheel, a commercially determined circus permeated by a superficial striving for effect.
This stigmatisation of fashion by the art world does not seem to be very conspicuous in the museums in the Netherlands. Viktor & Rolf have just begin a museum tour which has already brought them to the Centraal Museum; Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen is planning an exhibition on the relation between art and fashion for this autumn; and the Groninger Museum collects contemporary fashion, as do The Hague and Utrecht. All the same, this attention should not be regarded as a next step in the recognition of fashion by museums that commenced in the 1990s. It looks more like a retrospective echo, of a moment of mutual rapprochement between fashion and art that is already over. Anyone who follows art closely knows that fashion already became a complete non-issue in the artistic discourse about six years ago. It is absent from leading exhibitions, absent from the main art biennials and Documenta, and absent from the dominant art media, such as Artforum and Frieze, the two authoritative international art magazines from New York and London. These two magazines have not written about fashion for years, while numerous features are devoted to film directors and choreographers.
Art in Crisis
How different things were in the 1990s. In retrospect, we can state with confidence that art was in a major crisis at the time, after it had demolished its own bastion – the white cube and the corresponding ideology of Modernism – practically to the ground in the previous decade. After a voluntary isolation lasting many decades, art was suddenly desperately seeking new forms of display, free from the white cube, in the middle of society, to which it suddenly felt highly attracted. It sought a new public and new media to reach it. The most symbolic phenomenon of this crisis of identity was the rise of socially orientated art, which later came to be called relational aesthetics. This form of art, which manifested itself as a social interface, gave pride of place to the therapeutic dialogue between artists and their public. That dialogue was supposed to heal the wound that art assumed to be present among the estranged public. Only the keen observer could immediately see that the real patient was not the public that was crying out for art, but art itself which, delivered from its aesthetic isolation, had no idea of how to engage with the world.
This was the time when, for more or less similar motives, fashion was embraced by art. Art realised that it had something to learn from fashion. Seasoned as it was in an artistic existence outside the museum, fashion knew better than anyone else how to achieve visibility outside the protected artistic environment, in the limelight, in front of the camera and thus a large audience. Whereas art had previously merely reflected – preferably rather critically – on the mass media from its own white pedestal, now it suddenly became dependent on that same media for its own visibility, given the lack of the museum, which it now wanted to abandon. Instead of remaining aloof, art had to go and play on the media, and it was fashion who showed it how. One could even say that fashion had invented the media spectacle. It did not just speak the language of the media; it was the media – it set them in motion, dictated their rhythm, coloured their pages. Besides, it provided the corresponding conceptual framework, with such terms as trends and styling that have by now become completely accepted in common parlance.1
The consequences of these shifts in appreciation of the different artistic disciplines are impressive. In the 1990s, the designers (and besides fashion designers this applies also, though to a lesser extent, to architects, industrial designers and graphic designers) cast the artists down from their artistic throne and climbed up onto it themselves. Many people regarded them as the new King Midas of cultural life, familiar as they were with the complexity of the visual culture that they grasped down to the tiniest details and knew how to manipulate to their own advantage. The art media grew more and more explicit in publicising the success of the fashion designer. Even Metropolis M started to publish articles on fashion as of 1997. Pascale Gatzen contributed a visual essay, Viktor & Rolf graced the cover, Walter Van Beirendonck was portrayed, and Joke Robaard was interviewed on her photographs for Alexander van Slobbe.2
It is noteworthy how Alexander van Slobbe has kept a close eye on the rather agitated dynamism of the relation between art and fashion, albeit at a distance, at his own tempo, following his own development, and always, it must be said, a few steps ahead of the herd.
Before he threw himself into more commercial adventures with So in the mid-1990s, Van Slobbe was extremely interested in the crossover of art and fashion. Partly on the initiative of his consultant at the time, Guus Beumer, he covered the full range of fashion design, including its presentation and representation, for example during fashion shows and media expressions. The entire fashion business from design to presentation was examined critically all the time and tested for its conceptual breadth and depth. He was assisted in this by the artist Joke Robaard and designers like Herman Verkerk and Bart Guldemond. They created an artistic space in which the distinction between the disciplines seemed to have been entirely wiped out.3 Fashion and art were blended in a single discourse.
While to his own chagrin Van Slobbe was increasingly swallowed up in the late 1990s by the successful So label and felt increasingly thwarted as an artist by all of the obligations which that entailed, his economic success was the subject of endless admiration in the art world. In the mid-1990s extra-artistic practices with a certain economic payoff were rated very highly in the art world, which was fanatically engaged in orientating itself towards alternative distribution channels outside its own, mainly subsidised circuit. A typical example of this phenomenon was the series of lectures in Stroom in The Hague, where economists and scientists spoke on their creativity as if being the new artists. The success of So took on almost mythical proportions in the Netherlands, partly because no one knew exactly what was really going on. Just the fact that it was a genuine big label, a brand, with everything that goes with that, including a flagship store, was more than enough to talk about it in tones full of admiration.
The late nineties were the time that the flagship store was regarded as the distinction of the new era in which fashion came to set the tone as long as it lasted – it was the period in which all forms of art preferred to define themselves as split-offs of fashion, including the mother of all arts, architecture (Rem Koolhaas in particular has pointed out the fact that by now architecture too has appropriated the practice and even the techniques of fashion). In art magazines, the fashion stores with their spectacular designs (in the case of Van Slobbe it was the flagship store in Tokyo designed by Herman Verkerk) were presented as the successful alternative distribution centre for art, different from the empty and bare white gallery or the museum. The most explicit pioneer in the upgrading of the fashion store as the main new cultural centre was Rem Koolhaas with his Prada store, complete with podium, in New York (2001). Soon artists would be queuing up to design them – by now there is an impressive list of artists who have designed this kind of store, including the Dutch Germaine Kruip, who designed a store for Jil Sanders in New York, and the Belgian Jan De Cock, who did the same for Comme des Garçons in Tokyo.
Around 2002 or 2003, the campaign to get the art world to dance to the tune of the design economy came to a halt. Instead of envying the position of the designer (or cultuproducer, and all the other trendy terms that were circulating just before the end of the millennium), visual artists in the new century decided to entrench themselves again in the white cube, or rather, the ruins that remain of it.4 Silence above spectacle, art seems to have reasoned, meditation above action.
The U-turn came around 2003, when the call was suddenly heard for the first time for a scrutiny and critique of the interdisciplinary project that had been going full steam ahead for some eight years. It was concluded that the blurring of the boundaries between the disciplines did not necessarily offer a guarantee of quality, either in terms of art or of design. Critical voices were raised about a crossover that began to display more and more commercial characteristics.5
At that moment Van Slobbe had already turned his back on the crossover of fashion and art for some time, at least so it seemed. After the sale of So, he had devoted himself entirely to designing clothes – irrespective of any other interest, including the fashion industry. Just as in the early 1990s, he proved once again to have been a few steps ahead of the herd. After the interdisciplinary dialogue of the 1990s, the last few years seem to have been characterised by a disciplining of the arts. Specialisation and craftsmanship are held in high esteem and are promoted on all sides. Craftsmanship is seen as the response to the levelling effect of globalisation and the related industrialisation of the economy. This cult of handicraft does not just have an economic background, as can be seen from the almost contradictory concepts of luxury and social capital (the latter being the terminology used by its most recent advocate, Richard Sennett, author of the book The Craftsman, who refers to the economically valuable achievements of the craftsmanly working class), but also has a cultural dimension.6 It is common to fall back on local traditions, materials and techniques that reinforce identity and are assigned a heavier social weight. The cult of handicraft is thus perfectly in line with the repositioning of local culture, which has been high on the international political and socio-cultural agenda since 2001.
Van Slobbe, who already combined conceptualism with handicraft production in his earliest designs, provided a content for the revival of craftsmanship with the restart of the women’s fashion label Orson+Bodil, experimenting in his new collections with extraordinarily labour-intensive detailing done by hand, and, perhaps more explicitly, with his recent interpretations of traditional costume. The effect of the renewed disciplining of culture can be seen in the art world in a wave of traditional, often very precisely made work (even etching has come back into fashion).
In art, however, what Sennett calls ‘tacit knowledge’ is nevertheless primarily an object of study rather than a practice. Fashion goes a step further and seems to be also interested in the activation of Sennett’s social capital. It invests directly in and provides an impulse to handicraft.
Of course it may seem ironic that, after the divorce between art and fashion a few years ago, and the ostentatious Neo-Kantian espousal of a more autonomous position by art, their mutual relation should become so visible. They are both, each from its own perspective, engaged in formulating more or less the same answer to the challenges raised by society. Van Slobbe has spotted the connection and made it publicly visible in the exhibition Gejaagd door de wind (Gone with the Wind) in the Zuiderzeemuseum in Enkhuizen. This exhibition, curated by Van Slobbe together with Francisco van Benthum, featured both fashion designers and artists in a new attempt to give costume a content. Perhaps it is too early to speak of the imminence of a period of a new rapprochement between art and fashion, but it certainly seems to have been a first step in that direction.
Domeniek Ruyters is Editor in Chief of METROPOLIS M
In the spring of 2010, the Centraal Museum Utrecht is presenting an exhibition on Alexander van Slobbe.
Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, The Art of Fashion: Installing Allusions, 19 September 2009 – 10 January 2010
The above essay is included in: And… And… And… by Alexander
van Slobbe, Valiz Amsterdam, 2009. ISBN: 978-90-78088-31-8, Deneuve Cultural Projects, Alexander van Slobbe, Guus Beumer, Marjon Beumer (ed.), with contributions by Guus Beumer, Daniël Bouw, John de Greef, Takeji Hirakawa, Christophe Mollet, Florence Müller, Domeniek Ruyters, Louise Schouwenberg and José Teunissen. Design by Mevis & Van Deursen.
The book, which is being published on November 9, 2009, was supported by the Netherlands Foundation for the Visual Arts, Design and Architecture, SNS Reaal Fund and the Stokroos Foundation.
Translation: Peter Mason
2. Pascale Gatzen, visual essay METROPOLIS M (1997) 2, p. 42–43; Viktor & Rolf, cover and article METROPOLIS M (1997) 2, p. 41–44; Walter Van Beirendonck, METROPOLIS M (1998) 4, p. 36–41; Joke Robaard, METROPOLIS M (2000) 1, p. 22–26.
3. Nanda van den Berg, Alexander van Slobbe, Harderwijk 2008.
4. Simon Ford and Anthony Davies described the new artistry in the article ‘Art Futures’, in Art Monthly (1999), p. 223; also in METROPOLIS M (2000) 2, p. 14–17.
5. Domeniek Ruyters, ‘Het interdisciplinaire drama’, and Louise Schouwenberg, ‘Een lekke vaas is nog geen kunstwerk’, in METROPOLIS M (2003) 1, p. 10–18.
6. Richard Sennett, The Craftsman, London 2008.