Unpacking the Fashion/Art Divide: Some Reflections

One of many photos circulating this past summer showing Christina Eastwood
destroying an Hermes Birkin bag (at least we were lead to believe it was a real Birkin).
Is burning a Birkin a work of performance art? This was a question posed to me by a student over the summer when news and photos leaked onto the internet implicating Christina Eastwood (daughter of Clint Eastwood) as the perpetrator of what many thought was a criminal act—deliberately destroying one of the most prized objects of consumer desire, some say a work of art itself, the much coveted Hermes Birkin handbag. Upon closer inspection, it turned out that Eastwood’s boyfriend, photographer Tyler Shields, had created the project as a kind of working commentary on the consumer obsessed culture around elite designer handbags as art object commodities. On the one hand, I was indeed impressed and thought that this would certainly fall under the category of engaged art. But later, when further news leaked about Eastwood’s upcoming reality show, I became more skeptical about the motivations behind the project.

NARS released a special collection of Andy Warhol
eyeshadows and accompanying cosmetics with the consent
and support of the Andy Warhol Foundation
(photo courtesy: tmagazine)

A few months later, another question emerged about the collaboration between the Andy Warhol Foundation and cosmetics giant NARS set to coincide with the opening of a huge Warhol show at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. What can we make of Warhol’s artworks superimposed in pigment for sale as cosmetics? Indeed, the project seems perfectly suited to Warhol’s legacy as the master of the multiple. As one news release explained further “"For Warhol, makeup was an arrow in the quiver one could use to embody his democratic approach to beauty best embodied in his own words when he said, 'If everybody's not a beauty, then nobody is,'" Still, there is clearly a disconnect between the world of contemporary art with its precious and unique art objects and the world of fashion merchandising with its notions of the infinite copy. In this sense, the massive block sculpture of red Yves Saint Laurent lipstick by artist Fabrice Hyber, currently on exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, perhaps comes closer to a traditional notion of art.

Fabrice Hyber, Rouge Pur Couture No 1 (2012)
(photo courtesy: styleblazer.com)
It is all so very confusing, perplexing, and fascinating, and leads me to the following question: At what point does a cosmetic or fashion item become legitimized as art, and through what means do we unpack the uneasy connections between the worlds of art and fashion? Are we in fact looking at active examples where the separated realms of determining discourse are exposed as artificially separate

Take as another recent episode Lady Gaga and the much anticipated launch of her perfume Fame (marketed as the world’s first black perfume that sprays clear-- what you see is not what you get-- get it?). The official launch took place in September at the Guggenheim Museum in New York as a carefully executed work of performance art called “Sleeping With Gaga.” After the screening of a Steven Klein directed short film, the audience was invited to engage with a sleeping Gaga inside a massive Fame perfume bottle—many were seen on the video documenting the event reaching in and touching her body in attempts to wake her from a deep slumber. Exhibition goers from among the elite of the art, fashion, and celebrity worlds co-mingled in the spectacle, including among others Yoko Ono, Marc Jacobs, and Lindsay Lohan.

It is also hard not to raise an eyebrow when Brad Pitt puts on his best 'serious' artist face and lends his acting abilities and persona (as a true patron of the arts-- remember how he helped hype Documenta?) to promote Chanel No. 5 perfume. I'm sure you've heard about it-- it was all over the news this week. There was something both absurd and awkward, but also ironically perfect, in the attempt to cast Pitt in the minimalist aesthetic frame that Coco Chanel and the brand have become known for. In the days since the launch, many spoofs of the ad have surfaced—most notably on Saturday Night Live this weekend, where they poke fun at how the discourses of art are used to sell items ranging from designer perfume to fast food and condoms— further revealing a recognition of the ongoing tensions between the overlapping worlds of art and fashion. For Chanel’s part, the company has attempted to manage and uphold the legacy of Coco Chanel through a series of carefully crafted and 'artful' film vignettes reminding people about the avant-garde legacy that frames the fashion house’s rich history.

As a result of all of these examples and a number of others I have blogged about over the past year, I’ve been thinking a great deal more about the intersection of art and fashion, and it seems that I am not alone. Most recently I have noticed an increased attention to the complicated entanglements of these two highly policed realms of discourse and also to the large gap in understanding and theory that has marginalized the conversations and research on this rich topic area. Two particular books that have caught my interest, both published this spring, reveal just how complex and historically well-established the links between artists, fashion designers, and the institutions that help support them truly are. Adam Geczy and Vicki Karaminas’s edited volume of essays, Fashion and Art, is perhaps one of the most significant attempts to cover an entire range of theory while complicating notions of exhibition, the avant-garde gesture, performance and conceptualism, among others. In a similar vein, Alison Bancroft’s book Fashion and Psychoanalysis: Styling the Self, approaches the intersection of fashion and art through the lens of psychoanalytic theory, arguing that the problems of subjectivity and finding coherence for the fragmented self are played out through the world of fashion-- on a grand and communal scale, and on an individuated and highly personal level. Both studies take into consideration the rich tradition of fashion photography, haute couture, and gay subculture to further illuminate points of overlapping discourse. My prediction is that this is only the beginning of a more engaged discussion that is well overdue and of interest to a large cross-disciplinary audience.  

Further Reading:

Bancroft, Alison. Fashion and Psychoanalysis: Styling theSelf. IB Tauris, 2012.

Breward, Christopher. Fashion (Oxford History of Art Series). Oxford University Press, 2003.

Geczy, Adam and Vicki Karaminas, eds. Fashion and Art. Berg Publishers, 2012.