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Is authenticity born in recessions?

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Wednesday, Apr 29, 2009

First, I saw this PSFK item that posited a link between the economic downturn and the reutrn of some grunge-fashion tropes.


Ripped stockings, boots, and short babydoll dresses (in floral and solids) are being donned by women, while boys are sporting the ubiquitous flannel button down and tights pants…. One theory on why these trends are re-emerging is that perhaps in times of economic instability youth prefer to dress down out of modesty and solidarity with those experiencing hardship, as opposed to showing off an opulent style, which is prevalent during boom times. This idea isn’t that far-fetched in that grunge fashion as we know it grew to popularity during the recessions of the early ‘90s, and that the king of all British fashion movements, punk, was in theory started as a social reaction and act of rebellion as opposed to merely a fashion statement. While for some time trend watchers have predicted the demise of heavily branded logo apparel, it seems that conspicuous consumption has truly become gauche in the fashion world.



  
I am highly skeptical that this is an expression of “solidarity” or a rejection of brands and conspicuous consumption. Fashion can’t really be a medium for solidarity—it is inherently about differentiation and stratification, about making sure one is perpetually insecure about one’s fashionability or ultimately one’s status. And if I was poor, and some trust-funded kid in Bushwick let it be known that they were wearing purposely shredded clothes in my honor, I doubt that I would feel flattered or recognized. I’d probably feel condescended to, if not utterly effaced. That said, it may be an attempt to capture an ephemeral social mood in one’s clothing, an attempt to be timely and at the same time reinforce fashion’s supposed vitality and relevance.


If fashion can be made to seem “relevant,” than so can narcissism, thereby redeeming all the energy spent fretting about the currency of one’s look. At that point both fashion and one’s own carefully groomed and signfied identity take on an all-important air of authenticity, seeming to connote something deeper than the ability to predict and track trends. Adhering to fashion, participating in it, for a fleeting moment becomes a way of simultaneously expressing subversiveness, the real, the truth—about oneself, about the world. In better times, the “truth” is irrelevant, valueless, unnecessary to fashion, which can revert to its more natural function of connoting that special frivolity that comes with purging the accursed share.


Incidentally (speaking of narcissism), in 1992, I was hardly a doctrinaire flannel-wearer, but I certainly listened to the music that would be labeled later as grunge. It never would have occurred to me to consider its relation to the economic climate at the time. I had no idea about the recession at all. Back then I was young and took for granted the notion that economics and art were separate, autonomous spheres—good music was kept unpopular by some conspiracy of bad taste and ignorance. I was dismayed then was the idea that bands like Nirvana were going mainstream, creating the reified category of “alternative” and ending the viability of the crypto-rebellious subject position I had stake out for myself in college. (It involved wearing a leather motorcycle jacket, going to City Gardens a lot, and donating plasma to buy CDs.) I had thought I was outside fashion, but fashion trends sort of engulfed me—perhaps I was always already breathing inside its bubble—perhaps I still am.


Then, I read this Peter Schjeldahl essay about an exhibit of early 1980s “Pictures art” at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, including Barbara Kruger, David Salle, Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman, etc.—artists that he says “demonstrate the limits of critical knowingness as an artistic strategy.” He regards them as also consciously responding to down economic times (which seems more plausible than the argument about fashion): “Born of recessionary, disenchanted times, Pictures art shared menacingly cynical attitudes toward mainstream culture with punk rock, in night-life venues, and with deconstructionist lucubration, in academe. It yawed between those poles: sardonic burlesque and stilted critique.”


In other words, it was among the first recognizably postmodern art movements, and it foreshadowed the whole idea of a stable “alternative” culture that could be something other than hermetically avant-garde. Here we see taunting political gestures presented with no corresponding belief that the audience will be inspired to do anything about things; instead viewers will be permitted a smug satisfaction of having “gotten it” and escaped being one of the clueless folks who make perpetuate mainstream culture’s oppressiveness. This sort of art creates the possibility of unifying an audience around the idea of indifferent resistance. This group of would-be rebels are always conscious of the impotence of their pastures, but rather than lament it, they find it affirming, guaranteeing as it does their outsider status, their transcending ordinariness. It’s a short leap from this sort of ironic aesthetic to the constant self-consciousness that fashion and technology have also conspired to induce.


In general, these two items have prompted me to wonder: Do recessions provide the appropriate, or perhaps requisite, climate for manufacturing authenticity? And by authenticity, I mean not a measure of how true to oneself one may have been as an artist but an aesthetic quality that connotes subversive cynicism without verging into actual revolutionary politics or anything else remotely practical. If so, is that because it is functioning as a valve for unrest that might otherwise find political expression or contribute to populist ferment? Do culture producers, artists, and their agents instinctively recognize the market potential of pseudo-subversive art during downturns, art which also happens to allow discontent to find social expression in a harmless way? It’s probably not calculated. But downturns seem like the time when, for example, having the image of being a “band with no image” is a successful strategy. Authenticity is manufactured along those lines, to redeem the culture industry of its frivolity in more buoyant times.

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