Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 

Latest Posts

Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Thursday, Apr 27, 2006

I’ve long been afflicted with a kind of reverse snobbery about clothes, inclined to boast about how cheaply I got something at Savers or Value Village, or to flaunt the fact I got my pants at Kmart, or to proclaim proudly my plans to reduce my wardrobe to a uniform, what I like call the Mormon missionary look—short-sleeve off-white button-down shirt, tan khaki pants, brown shoes; or light-blue button-down, gray pants and black shoes. I have items in regular rotation that I’ve owned since Bush I’s administration, and I’d be happy to freeze my closet in its current state and continue to wear these same clothes forever. I pretend to be baffled by any notion that wearing clothes can be anything other than utilitarian and aspire to a perfectly authentic existence entirely free of fashion.


Of course, I’m affected by fashion in more ways than I can even admit to myself, and one of the reasons I hate being photographed is an effort to prevent there being a documentary record of the incremental ways my style has changed. And my feelings about the subject aren’t driven by a sense of superiority or any kind of contempt for frivolity or anything like that; it’s driven by stark fear, fear of people like Dov Charney, the impresario responsible for American Apparel, profiled in this largely entertaining article from the NYT Magazine. Here’s someone who lives entirely in the surface world of style, of snap judgments based on inexpressible and seemingly arbitrary gradations of charisma and hipness.


What Charney is seeking is an elusive quality he can refer to only as “style.” When you have it, it’s immediately evident; you’re “on point.” Among other things, people with style are good at sussing out other people with style, and Charney counts on a small style council to keep him apprised of good locations for his stores, to scout models and to help him know when and how to introduce new clothing items or modify existing ones.



In practice this means identifying this type: “In an updated 21st-century way, the American Apparel ideal is Charney’s Young Metropolitan Adult, the hottie (male or female) from the ‘hood, whom you might see walking down the street, at the local coffee shop or working behind the counter at an American Apparel store.” Charney calls them Young Metropolitan Adults. I tend to call them hipsters, or something with expletives in it, because these people when they infiltrate a neighborhood you like to go or live in, make you uncomfortable there. They ruin the spontaneity of life by making spontaneity seem like a packaged product. They operate as if they are always on display, always being evaluated by the fashion police, the cool hunters Charney hires. Whether conscious of it or not, they serve to make others feel like losers (if not merely old and irrelevant); this gives them their own social purpose and value. Though you might be going about your business blissfully unaware of yourself, the presence of these YMAs make you feel like you are suddenly being scrutinized as well, they remind you of the essentially arbitrary unfairness of social judgment and how difficult it is to escape it and how it can really ruin your life despite being plainly unjust. (Is this injustice merely the inevitable fact of aging and mortality? Perhaps. But there are elder hipsters too.)


Think of those creepy ads American Apparel runs—they are seductive and wholly repellent at the same time. Both smug and sleazy, the ads present hormonal youth as something strictly cynical and exploitational—as though youth itself were created by marketing wizards. The world pictured is both preposterously intimate and totally exclusionary; you’ll never be on that ratty couch with that sweaty girl in guy’s underwear even though her expression beckons you—or is that mockery? Who wants to be like these people? Who finds these people benign?


In my nightmares, the world is run by people like this, a fashion gestapo who decide who is in and out of society. Style becomes some kind of predestination, and culture is a quasi-Calvinistic realm where one must constantly display the grace you secretly hope God has granted you, which would make your grace then unquestionable. One must forever work hard to seem effortlessly natural—to me this is the ultimate in anxiety, a spiraling abyss of self-analysis and shame and pretension and phoniness and endless humiliation. To guys like Charney and his youth goon squad, this is utopia.


Charney seems to believe that the style he markets—the article’s author calls it “pervy”—is an expression of the liberating energy of the next generation that, just like the Boomers had, will change everything. At the end of the article Charney offers this manifesto: “This is the way the adult generation is going to live. They’re not preoccupied by monogamy. Exciting things can happen. They’re mobile; they can travel; they’re willing to take chances; they’re open-minded and ready for change. That’s what the boomers presented for America, and that’s what this new generation presents for us. I want to be in business with them.” For this generation, as Charney imagines them in his ads anyway, everything seems to boil down to a sexualized offhandedness—“Oh, I’m in my underwear? Whatever. Want to have a threesome?”—that is supposed to pass for progressiveness.


My fear of fashion in general, which often wants to pass along the timeless rituals of sexual attraction as innovative novelty, as something that young people have a monopoly over, stems from this. Fashion relies on youth to enchant its wares with the allure of the impossible, with a desire that is unquenchable and ever-renewable—we can’t ever be young again or remain that way, but fashion continues to promise access to youth while configuring youth as superficial and sexual and at the same time entirely complete, itself without desire. Fashion is the means by which the old try to revenge themselves on the young, by turning young people into “youthfulness” and encouraging them to think of themselves as being without desire, as being sexual automatons. I want no part of that generational warfare, but when l’m confronted with fashion I start to feel like I’m already a casualty.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Wednesday, Apr 26, 2006

Following up a previous posting about how the government is considering a way to divide the Net into have’s and have-not’s, there’s something you can do to make your voice heard about this.


From MoveOn.org: “Congress is now pushing a law that would end the free and open Internet as we know it. Internet providers like AT&T and Verizon are lobbying Congress hard to gut Network Neutrality, the Internet’s First Amendment. Net Neutrality prevents AT&T from choosing which websites open most easily for you based on which site pays AT&T more. So Amazon doesn’t have to outbid Barnes & Noble for the right to work more properly on your computer.”


Save the Internet


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Wednesday, Apr 26, 2006

Art critic Dave Hickey has some tonic things to say about the market for art in Air Guitar, but he comes across sounding like the Milton Friedman of the art world as he insists that “institutional” public-sponsored art is always perverted by the lack of incentives in the bureaucrats involved, who in Hickeys opinion risk nothing of their own in making the “bets” on art they make. For Hickey—and here’s where I agree with him wholeheartedly—the value of art lies not in some intrinsic quality of the work itself but in what Hickey calls the “constituencies” they generate, that is, the people who keep the work current and in discussion by investing time and money into it, into circulating it, distributing it, understanding it and so on. Artworks are “frivolous objects or entities with no intrinsic value that acquire value only through a complex process of socialization during which some are empowered by an ongoing sequence of private, mercantile, journalistic and institutional investments that are irrevocably extrinsic to them and any intention they might embody.” A work is not good because the artist loves beauty or wants to save the world or has a cutting critique of bourgeois subjectivism; a work is good because more and more people develop an interest in keeping it alive in the world. Art is a means by which a social discussion is conducted about what we value as beautiful and useless, for its own sake—a referendum on Adolf Loos’s detested ornament.


Works can thus fail they way businesses do, though not by failing to make a profit; the art world equivalent is a work’s “failing to sustain a visible level of commitment and socialization.” Hickey thinks failed works—unloved, unheralded—masquerade as successful ones thanks to the efforts of bureaucrats involved with publicly-funded art, who stifle change and recognition of failure to preserve their own power to patronize. In Hickey’s essays these “bean counters” are generally the forces of evil, the people who hate life, those who do things for phony reasons and sap the vitality from all creative endeavor to preserve the status quo. He wants it both ways really, wants to praise the democratic virtues of regular Joes, and see art’s value arbitrated by the marketplace of public opinion. But these same regular Joes are often the bureaucrats, the status-quo-loving status seekers, the “looky-loos” who have no judgment of their own and rely on institutions to tell them things are worth their time. Hickey divides the world into these spectators and “participants”—an exalted species of true artist, outsiders who truly invest themselves in making and doing things for their own sake in the face of established authority, who get by on their wits instead of taking jobs from the institutions out to tame art. In a typical inversion, Hickey suggests artists “sell out” not by becoming popular, but by aspiring to become high art, to reach museums and establishment protection and critical prestige. If not for those patronage institutions, the best artists would need to live by their wits, make the proper market-demanded adjustments, be responsive to the demands of the consumer, and truly great art would have to become commercially successful instead of becoming decadent and insular in its sheltered world of bureaucratic support. If only the state would stop interfering with art, we’d see true efficiency! Art dealers would replace curators, and museums would be replaced by art stores, and art lovers would be forced to put their money where their mouth is, and we’d see who really cared about its value. Instead we are on a Hayekian Road to Philistinism. You get the sense that if Hickey had his way, you wouldn’t be allowed to be a free rider (that perpetual free-market economic bugaboo) in the world of art appreciation anymore thanks to the largess of some government bureaucrat. You couldn’t be an aesthetic freeloader anymore, benefiting from art welfare. You’d need your own skin in the art game. People with nothing to risk—money or social reputation or cultural capital—shouldn’t be thinking about art anyway, right? That’s what democracy really means, right?


“I have gradually come to distrust the very idea of high art in a democracy,” Hickey writes. “Democracies, I fear, must content themselves with commercial popular art that informs the culture and non-commercial academic art that critiques it.” This seems a perverse notion of democracy, that expels critique and limits the dreams of the best of its number to the highest aspirations of its least ambitious member. The reason why people like Adorno denounce popular art and call it culture-industry product is not because they in their elitism hate ordinary people and have a knee-jerk revulsion for anything that the masses like; it’s because they see that least-common-denominator product as an institutional imposition that reduces democratic people to “masses”. Such art, masquerading as democratic, actually betrays democracy. It produces the looky-loos Hickey resents. It discourages participation and presumes people will always prefer passivity as the road of least resistance. Commercial art, when it organizes itself as an industry, aspires to control its consumers, manage its customers, make their demands predictable. It leverages its control over the marketplace to force choices on consumers that are to the benefit of industry and the long-term planning it relies on to maximize profit. Adorno, et. al., accept that the market has the potential to be just another institution, like the academy or the state, when its incentives are manipulated to become another instrument of oppression.


The “participants” Hickey idealizes seek to evade all those oppressive institutions; that’s why artists don’t want to become “commercial.” TWhen they enter the market, they don’t embrace the market because it’s healthy or right or inevitable—in fact they subvert the market’s rationality, its very principles, by making it purposely inefficient, small-scale, unresponsive, unprofitable or barely profitable. They try to make the art business survive in a way no other business would; this is why they remain on the outside, on the fringe, in Hickey’s “underground empire” of commerce, of little bookstores and record shops and so on. They wage their own little war against the market by trying to adapt it to principles that don’t suit it, human principles that seek to invest value in the things they love rather than the things they can control and exploit.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Wednesday, Apr 26, 2006

I have never been able to understand why cheap clothes are more likely to have gaudy or unnecessary ornament, while expensive clothes tends to be austere, or in fashion-copy terms, “timeless.” In the same way bottled water is often more expensive than sugar water, plain clothes are more expensive than the clown clothes you see at H&M and Charlotte Russe and other stores dedicated to disposable fashion. Is it planned obsolescence in cheap clothes, or is it that they are aesthetically worthless at the same time they become functionally useless? Is it a distinction derived from social capital, that allows those with expensive taste to appreciate minimalistic design, or that those with social capital don’t need to indulge in ornamental displays to make their identity felt, to communicate a sense of personality?


All of these reasons are suggested in architect Adolf Loos outrageous 1908 manifesto “Ornament and Crime,” an essay designed to infuriate fine artists, as it suggests they are decadent if not infantile, stuck in a primitive state of mental development. “The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from objects of daily use,” Loos declares, flatly rejecting the idea that lack of ornament implies an ascetic self-denial—and then proceeds to insult anyone who might disagree. For those who ornament their bodies with tattoos, he declares, “The modern man who tattoos himself is a criminal or a degenerate. There are prisons where 80 percent of the inmates bear tattoos. Those who are tattooed but not are not imprisoned are latent criminals or degenerate aristocrats” (or post-collegiate hipsters). Of those who like to dress up, he wonders how they can stand to “walk about in red velvet trousers with gold braids like monkeys at a fair.” Of the impulse to paint, he explains that “Erotic excess” drives painters to make their marks on canvas, the way caveman marked walls and vandals graffiti lavatories. Those who look to the past in nostalgia to revive the accoutrements of past luxuries, he says “impede the cultural development of nations and humanity itself,” and are thus “criminals.” In response to the fallacy that planned obsolescence in fashion creates more work and thus propels the economy, he suggests that the Austrian empire be burned to the ground every so often so it could be the most prosperous nation in the world.


Loos accuses ornament of being a drag on the economy, wasting labor and artificially inflating the cost of things while adding no utility, subscribing to a pretty narrow utilitarian view of things and presuming a kind of rationality that we would probably fell straitened by. He compares ornamentation to “lighting cigarettes with banknotes.” It seems to me that the best way to relate to Loos now is to imagine him railing against the crowd of pseudo-artists and hipsters whose main art is the presentation of themselves. Behind much of Loos critique is the idea that ornament is a debased form of personal self-expression, a desperate form of self-promotion that taints all artistic practice, reducing it all to advertisements for oneself. Loos critique becomes specifically grounded in class; he claims that the lower classes need ornament “because they have no other means of expressing their full potential,” whereas aristocrats have legitimate culture—Beethoven’s 9th and so on. According to Loos the aristocrat’s “individuality is so strong that it can no longer be expressed in terms of clothing. The lack of ornament is a sign of intellectual power.” What this really means is that aristocrats have earned the liberty from having to make displays of their power; they’ve achieved a kind of hegemony whereby their natural practice—allegedly “unornamented”—seems like the pure, unfettered way to do things, the expression of intellect being used without distraction.


Rather than reflect some evolution toward perfect humanity that the higher orders have achieved, deornamentation is simply a matter of amassing cultural capital; our culture continues to place greater value on the subtler pleasures that require a grounding in education and leisure time over the more straightforward pleasures that require no such preparation.  Reading Loos, it becomes clear that class provides the definition for what ornament is to him—it is those very markers of class difference, the rhinestones on the shirt or the tinted windows in a car or the tacky lawn ornaments in a yard. A lack of ornament is an attempt to make one’s taste invisible, and in a sense omnipresent, omnipotent.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Tuesday, Apr 25, 2006

Reading a headline like this probably won’t elicit much sympathy from anyone other than a scribe: Black Crowes deny a journo a free ticket.  It does bring up a few interesting issues though.


Now on PopMatters
PM Picks
Announcements

© 1999-2014 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters.com™ and PopMatters™ are trademarks
of PopMatters Media, Inc.

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.