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Thursday, Dec 7, 2006

Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal had a story about Italy’s attempts to ban too-thin models from Milan’s fashion events:


“We believe we can favor models with a sunny, Mediterranean image, not fragile young women,” Mr. Boselli [the head of the National Chamber for Italian Fashion, an industry group] said in an interview. “Optimistic-looking models are in line with Italian fashion.”


This group has no actual authority and is reacting preemptively to the recent death of model Ana Carolina Reston from anorexia, so some cynicism as to what difference this will make in the long run may be warranted—industry groups don’t exactly have much incentive to enforce their voluntary guidelines; usually these announcements are meant to generate news stories (like this one) and disseminate the vague idea that the industry cares and is in the process of changing for the better. Whether or not anything actually changes will probably be determined by whether or not the sort of people who buy expensive clothes and send fashion ideas trickling down the trend chain hold them accountable. The article concludes with some taste-makers from American fashion magazines saying reasonable things.


If the movement does gather momentum, it could change the ways fashion houses design the clothes and looks that define their image world-wide. Some experts say it would actually bring looks more in line with what women associate with real, glamorous lifestyles. “I don’t think that the public at large takes that many cues these days from the world of high fashion,” says Sally Singer, fashion news and features editor at Vogue. “They’re looking at celebrities and Hollywood—what’s cool for the public is filtered more through the celebrity lens these days. People buy fashion off the backs of famous people wearing them, not what a 14-year-old Eastern European model is wearing.” Tom Julian, senior vice president and director of trends at McCann Erickson, says it does “add fuel to the fire” that Italy is drafting this charter. “If discussion of this topic continues in a global sense, it will challenge the American marketplace to rethink this—we could see a visual shift from perfect models and aspirational lifestyles to more reality-based imaging,” he says.


That would be nice, but let’s face it, fashion is not about “reality-based” anything. And if you remove aspiration from the fashion industry, nothing would be left—the whole industry revolves around manufacturing aspiration and distinction. Otherwise we’d all be wearing sensible shoes and comfortable, loose-fitting garments. Fashion is primarily a vehicle for vicarious fantasy, for aspirational daydreams about leisure, impracticality, luxury, and indulgence. It’s about impossibility, and right now thin models connote that (at the ultimate price of their own health) the way fat models probably connoted an impossible plentitude to Rubens’s patrons. The discussion going on is likely a distraction, while business in fashionland will go on as usual. It seems that post-production techniques can be used on photos to make them evoke the impossible without anyone having to starve themselves; but using women with actually impossible physiques is where the industry embraces an ethos of authenticity to underwrite the frivolity of the rest of the enterprise. The models suffer to provide that germ of reality upon which the rest of us can build the fantasies.


 


 


 


 


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Thursday, Dec 7, 2006

Responding to a Wired article about Google’s potentially unprofitable purchase of YouTube, Matt Yglesias forecasts the post-profit future of the culture industry.


Peer-production of digital media probably will produce a fair quantity of awesome popular stuff lurking amidst the vast pool of dreck. And well-designed services will let the awesome stuff rise to the top and the dreck fade to the background, rendering those services awesome and popular. But—and here’s the rub—having something awesome and popular just may not prove to be especially lucrative. In the past, a popular television show or a popular album or a popular film or a popular distribution channel guaranteed you vast sums of money. In the future, that just may not be the case. The very most popular things will generate some income, enough to live off of and continue financing new projects, but not the sort of gigantic windfalls associated with 20th century media hits. And lots of other things—including reasonably popular ones—will only generate trivial levels of income. And they’ll continue to be made. Made by people who think its fun, or who derive some benefit from their work other than direct monetary income.


In other words, making stuff will come to be its own reward, which is what aesthetic purists who deplore artists’ “selling out” have long yearned for. And the money once made in performing the onerous editing/filtering function will be all but eliminated by distributing it throughout social networks, with the collective shouting the best material to the top.


I find this argument appealing because it gets at how the ease of Internet distribution undermines old, safe assumptions about the profit motive. When distributing goods was difficult, one could safely assume that only those with big money at stake would bother. Thus you could assume that the main point of doing anything at a larger-than-hobby scale, even cultural production, was to make money—if you were reaching out to a larger audience than your immediate circle, it was because you sought profits. The Internet, however, lets you seek an audience without your having to make much of a financial investment at all, which pushes the pursuit of social recognition much higher on the scale of recognized and accepted motives for making stuff. Consequently it’s much easier to assume, as Yglesias does, that the reason why someone made, say, a mashup of Mary Poppins to make it into a horror-film trailer, is because they want people to notice the cool thing they did, not because they expected to get paid. This seems to me a good thing: better to strive for adulation directly through creative intellectual work rather than through the imperfect proxy of money. And better to assume of people that they just wanted to make and/or share something they appreciated rather than simply trying to come up with a “creative” way of getting cash. (This shift in motive attribution could almost be enough to redeem the calculated pursuit of hipsterdom. But it can’t redeem “cool hunters” who are essentially poaching the creative spirit and seeking to assimiilate it to moneymaking entirely.) This aligns our incentives more toward meaningful work rather than well-paying drudgery. (Of course, that drudgery still needs to be done, but it could perhaps be better balanced with the stuff we do that we and others recognize as meaningful, expressive, etc.) The Internet thus extends the strategy of having a day job to pay the bills while working the rest of the time on one’s real passion to a vaster audience then those in major cities, to which the underground economy of social recognition was once largely relegated.


One of Yglesias’s commenters puts this all more succinctly: “It becomes a social good to make the economy less important to the individual, in that additional hours of leisure not only please the individual but also make the individual more likely to produce uncompensated value for society.”


But this doesn’t make superstars go away or make potential superstars of us all, Warhol notwithstanding. The ease of distribution sharpens the need to manufacture distinction between commercial and non-commercial art. Commercial art now must make a much bigger show of the capital invested in it (whether through technical proficiency and effects or advertising or massive scale distribution) to justify our paying for it or reporting on it if we are not genuinely enthusiastic. Such investment makes that stuff the universal culture (what we must know to be part of our zeitgeist), and the people involved in it become the superstars who can demand the millions, and they soak up the all the money that once trickled out to the middlebrow makers of moderately popular stuff in the past, the stuff that’s been subsumed by well-made amateur material.


Update: At the Economist blog, some skepticism about the future of user-generated content, based on a recent report from http://www.trendwatching.com/briefing/. “Trendwatching lists, in its beguilingly breathless pamphlet, a bunch of other ways in which the production of user-generated content is starting to look less like a community service and more like a talent contest in which the winners expect to get prizes, preferably in cash. ” If that’s so, that’s pretty depressing, because it totally undermines my fantasy delineated above about people’s motives shifting from money to social recognition, or to put that another way, the possibility of decoupling social recognition from cash rewards. The conspiracy theorist in me wants to argue that media corporations, et al, will put ideological pressure on us all to prefer cash to community because it sustains their power and control (they select winners, they dole out the cash, they maintain the cultural filters, they reap the profits) in the face of Internet-driven amateur production and distribution (I’m tempted to call it democratic.) And the Economist blogger, for one, is delighted: “As a salaried content-provider I start to feel a tiny bit better about my prospects for the first time since I heard the words “Web 2.0.”


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Thursday, Dec 7, 2006

The Kids in the Hall Megaset [(A&E - $235.00]


In the talent triumvirate of sketch comedy, the Kids always tend to place third, behind the power of Monty Python and their own Canadian cousins, SCTV. Far more inventive and entertaining than the rest of their late ‘80s counterparts, Dave Foley, Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney, and Scott Thompson had that unknown “X” factor, a quality that propelled them past the routine skit kickers. Now their entire output—five years, 101 episodes and countless classic moments - can be had in a single, supplement-loaded box set. Witness their hilariously humble beginnings, their misguided move to CBS Latenight, their eventual decision to ditch the show, and the moment when they “buried” the act forever. While their post-Kids careers have been subdued at best, a collection like this guarantees their consist placement in the top of humor’s hierarchy. [Amazon]



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Thursday, Dec 7, 2006

Fresh Fruits Postcards [Phaidon Press - $14.95]


J-pop devotees, tween fashionistas, photographers, and novice cultural anthropologists will enjoy these funny “Fresh Fruit” 5 x 7 postcards of high quality print good enough for framing, if one is so inclined.  These cards are an offshoot of Fruits, a zine aimed at Tokyo suburban street fashion.  The images by award-winning photographer Shoichi Aoki capture kids ranging from the adorably cute (17-year-old, pierce lipped Hitomi, sitting knock-kneed on steps for her picture) to just darned silly (19-year-old Maitun dressed up Little Orphan Annie style, complete with an eye-piercingly vibrant wig).  Indeed, the “models” range from 12 to 19-years-old, and their delightful, sometimes bizaare sense of style is clearly captured with a joy as bright as their colorful clothing.  The reverse side provides the model’s first name and information about her / his favorite designer (just in case you’re wondering where you might get your hands on those fat, bright, cartoony-looking sneakers Suguru is wearing), as well as information about inspirations and crazes that spark these outfits. Aoki’s work provides a refreshing look at youth sans that nasty, soft porn gaze ala American Apparel, and its refreshing.  Word has it this funny fashion from Japan is spreading.  Maybe it’ll knock out the indie slacker look that’s dominated our youth for far too long.  Whether that’s an improvement or not on what you see on the streets is for you to decide. [Amazon]


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Thursday, Dec 7, 2006

Dazed and Confused: The Criterion Collection [Criterion - $39.95]


Dazed and Confused is a perfect movie. It flawlessly captures the spirit of the ‘70s while arguing for a clear universality in the high school experience. It is a film that expertly illustrates that clichéd concept called ‘coming of age’ while wrapping the usual elements in the era’s cultural make-up within the typical teen dynamic of sex, drugs and rock and roll, all in furtherance of the adolescent art of maturation. Perhaps writer/director Richard Linklater said it best when he commented about wanting the movie to feel “like a camera had just dropped down in the middle” of this specific day at a typical Texas high school. Thanks to the inclusion of a true profusion of added content (commentaries, documentaries) what we end up with is a true motion picture masterwork. [Amazon]



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