Art and Abercrombie: Lowered Standards for Abysmal Times

The headline, “Royal Academy woos new audience from the Abercrombie and Fitch generation” caught my eye in the Torygraph this morning.  In a move designed to attract younger audiences to its halls, the nearly 250-year-old British institution has decided to take a more ill-mannered approach to increasing patronage.  An upcoming exhibition will encourage visitors to lie down, touch works of art, and otherwise “interact” with the objects on display – all while drinking.  The chief executive of the Royal Academy noted that the wing where this bacchanal will take place is located “opposite Abercrombie and Fitch and I think it has the potential to attract a rather different and younger audience. And we’re programming this building in order to do just that.”

The Royal Academy of Arts was founded in 1768 by a group of men and women who successfully petitioned King George III for approval to create an institution dedicated to the study and promotion of art and design in Britain.  Charter members included the prominent 18th century painters Sir Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, and Benjamin West.  Its location on Piccadilly, then and now one of the most famous and fashionable streets in London, ensured that society would come and engage with the membership for exhibitions, lectures, and courses.

However in recent years the Royal Academy has increasingly seemed a bit senile, even downright hostile, with respect to the promotion of standards in art.  There is much artifice and little actual art in the types of shows it mounts.  Perhaps the most well-known example from recent years, the infamous “Sensation” exhibition which first opened in London in 1997 and subsequently traveled to New York back in 1999, featured an image of the Virgin Mary surrounded by a collage of female genitalia and adorned with a piece of elephant poo.  One wonders at the selection process that determined this rather déclassé object was found to be worthy of examination, let alone exhibition.

Yet the shift away from the encouragement of actual artistic standards to the celebration of a kind of underdeveloped sense of self-worth is not only a critical aspect of the contemporary art world, at least as pushed by the Royal Academy in recent years, it is also reflected in that often most mundane of tasks, purchasing clothes.  The idea of reaching out to an audience of retail shoppers, and encouraging that audience to behave poorly on one’s premises, may at first seem rather odd for an art institution.  Yet if art was once meant to be inspirational, and is now mainly self-referential, then the aforementioned Abercrombie and Fitch is a perfect example of how a parallel lowering of standards has taken place in much of the rag trade.

The customer whom the once-venerable Abercrombie – founded in 1892 – originally hoped to draw in through its doors possessed some degree of education, leisure time, and disposable income.  They wanted to engage in deer hunting, fly fishing, and other outdoor activities, and sought out the very best clothing and equipment for doing so.  It is hard to imagine today, but the company that now sells fake gym jerseys originally fitted out the well-known and well-to-do among the American haute bourgeoisie with the kind of outdoor clothing that would have looked perfectly at home at Downtown Abbey.  U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt was a regular customer  for example, and the company outfitted Charles Lindbergh for his famous solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927.  The customer who shopped at Abercombie and Fitch back in its heyday expected that he was going to walk out of the shop properly dressed for any pursuit, and that if needed he could be educated by the staff on hand as to how to engage in that pursuit well.

Today, Abercrombie and Fitch markets its cheaply-made, Asian-import clothing to the young, and to those who want to pretend that they still are young.  There is something decidedly creepy about their shops, which so often seem to speak not to the individuality of the customer, but rather to the fantasies of the proprietor.  Their dark, poorly-lit stores are so heavily perfumed with an atmosphere and odor reminiscent of a high school locker room, that passers-by ought to be issued with gas masks so as not to be overcome by the fumes escaping from the premises.  The print ads, catalogs, and billboards the company creates sexually objectify unknown young models for the delectation of the public, who oftentimes are not actually wearing the clothes they are allegedly trying to sell.  Sometimes not even the models themselves are shown, but rather suggestively cropped images of their body parts are displayed.

Perhaps then the shift to recognize that the Abercrombie and Fitch customer of today is the art patron of tomorrow is a more shrewd move than it first appears.  The Royal Academy has long abandoned any real claim to being a true art academy, after all.  I have often observed in these pages that its celebrated Professor of Drawing, British artist Tracy Emin, cannot actually draw, for example.  And indeed, I am not the only one who thinks so, see, e.g. Harry Mount’s recent post.

If many of the prominent artists running things at the Royal Academy are not actually capable of producing good art, but are given a platform by which to spread their gospel of underachievement, it is hardly surprising that the customer base that institution would seek to draw upon consists of those incapable of understanding why hypersexualization of the young has an equally negative impact on the culture. There is a natural fit between the vapid and the vacuous here, rooted in another “v”: vanity.  Clearly there is no aspiration in either of these institutions, academy or shop, to better oneself in an attempt to rise above one’s more bestial impulses.  Rather, self-expression (whatever that is), baseness and incontinence are celebrated; diligence, modesty, and self-control are banished.

If this seems too sweeping a generalization with respect to either of these bodies, gentle reader, bear in mind that the real issue here is not whether I have been painting with too broad a brush, so to speak, in a single blog post.  Rather, we ought to be asking ourselves whether we have so whitewashed over these types of observations so as to not even bother to consider them.  The last few decades have shown us what the effects of a self-obsessed culture, which imposes few standards of any kind upon its members, will bring to the world at large.  Whether it is in the arts or in commerce, lowering our expectations and our standards has served not to make things better, but rather to encourage a general embrace of mediocrity at best, and the institutionalization of plain ignorance, at worst.

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Entrance to Abercrombie and Fitch, across from the Royal Academy, London

Count Castiglione on Confident Clothing

The other evening I attended a Christmas party thrown by some very good friends, in the neighborhood where I live.  As it was to be a cocktails and canapes sort of thing, I wore a gunmetal sharkskin suit with a subtle sheen – not the blindingly reflective sort which seems to appear quite frequently on the red carpet these days – and a black angora turtleneck.  Several people commented on how much they liked both the suit, and the combination of wearing it with a turtleneck rather than with shirt and tie.  However in truth, it really was not that unusual a combination: this was something that would not have been out of place in the Art Deco period, or the Mad Men era, for example.

If you pay attention to clothes, one of the things you will come to appreciate over time is that there has been far less variety over the past century than there was in the centuries which came before it.  For example, this season retailers such as Ralph Lauren and Zara are selling cloche hats, tweed coats with fur collars, and velvet suits right out of the Edwardian era.  This is thanks in part to the popularity of the British television series “Downton Abbey”.  Coincidentally, the same thing happened back in the 1970’s, when other British shows set in the late Victorian/Edwardian period, like the original “Upstairs, Downstairs”, “The Duchess of Duke Street”, and “The Pallisers” saga, influenced clothing retailers both in Europe and America.

However as we watch ladies’ hemlines go up and down, it is true that men’s clothing generally does not go through the same amount of radical alterations, apart from the wardrobes of those who are victims of fashion.  Men’s duds get tighter or looser, more constructed or more de-constructed, depending on the aesthetics of the time, but not much else changes.  Many of the articles of clothing your grandfather might have worn you could still wear today, and look just as stylish as he did then.

The reason I think this is important to recognize is that, at least among the men, it is a sign of maturity to come to appreciate what suits you, rather than buying into the fever for trendiness which seems to have a death-grip on our society, from politics and religion (or anti-religion), to art and architecture, to gadgetry and clothing.  One of the things which differentiates the man who knows himself, from the boy who is still trying to be what he thinks others want him to be, is to be found in the clothing choices he makes.  This was as true during the Renaissance as it is today.

Count Baldassare Castiglione, the always well-dressed patron of this blog, writes in his Book of the Courtier that we cannot judge a man strictly by his dress.  However, we cannot completely discount dress, either, for it tells us something about the personality of the man himself.  “I do not say,” he writes, “that fixed opinions of men’s worth are to be formed only in this way, or that they are not better known by their words and acts than by their dress: but I do say that dress is no bad index of the wearer’s taste, although it may sometimes be wrong; and not only this, but all ways and manners, as well as acts and words, are an indication of the qualities of the man in whom they are seen.”

That passage from Castiglione gives us the opportunity to reflect a bit on our own choices, and how we look at ourselves.  For example, personally I have never been particularly interested in sports, and at my very jock-oriented high school I was often left on my own – writing, reading, listening to punk/alternative music, and so on while others ran about.  Thus sports-inspired clothing, like a varsity-style jacket or letter sweater, would be a rather awkward and uncomfortable choice for me, not necessarily because it would fit poorly, but because it would not match who I am, my experiences, and so on.

Whereas in contrast to trying to dress like I was on a team or captain of a squad, wearing a leather jacket over a shirt and tie is something I have done since I was a teen, and I return to it regularly whether it is in fashion or not.  It is actually rather an old idea, as we can see in the illustration from 1930’s Finland below: a mixture of modern and traditional, without necessarily being predictable.  Perhaps that describes me rather well, also, and it is why I feel so comfortable in it, whereas on someone else it would look decidedly uncomfortable.

For most of us men, we have to dress a certain way at certain times: dark suits for court or funerals, tuxedos to balls, that sort of thing.  There are many times when we do not have a lot of variety, for we are looking to be considered both dependable and in line with the men who came before us.  However where men are in situations where they can actually choose what they want to wear, there is in fact plenty of room to maneuver between the extremes of peacock and dormouse.  Castiglione throughout his commentary on dress in the Book of the Courtier points out that man should have the confidence to try things out, and see if they suit him, while at the same time avoiding the overly bright and garish.

As the Count so clearly understood five centuries ago, clothes do not exactly make the man: the monk is no less holy if his habit is new, than if it is old and worn.  However when men do have choices about what to wear, blending into the background is not always such a good idea.  If you are both comfortable and looking your best, chances are your words and your actions are going to match that level of confidence.  And that confidence is more likely to bring about a better result in your interactions with others, on many levels.

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Bow tie and leather jacket combo in Finland (c. 1935)

On Art, Architecture, and Snazzy Suits

I have stated on this blog many times that one of the great merits of both social and new media is the ability to connect people in the hope of some good thing coming out of it.  While it is true that many of us may not be in a position to put what we like to do ahead of what we need to do, by making an effort to reach out to others we may be able to make use of our talents, abilities, and interests in ways which our day-to-day lives do not always permit.  I do not work in the fields of art and architecture, for example, and yet I have been able to build upon my knowledge of and enthusiasm for these fields as a result of the possibilities afforded by the increasingly connected world in which we live.  I want to take this opportunity to encourage you to do the same, gentle reader, by giving you some examples from some of my own experiences of how you might go about doing so as well.

Yesterday in the mail I received copies of a catalogue from a new exhibition at the venerable Fortnum & Mason, on Piccadilly in London, who as you may know have been the grocers to the British Royal Family for many years.  They were sent by my friend Rupert Alexander, a hugely talented English artist whose work appears in the exhibition, because in the section on his work the catalogue  quotes from an essay he commissioned me to write about his painting for his website.  It was an odd thing, realizing that the Queen may very well have read some of my writing – or perhaps Kate or Camilla – when they visited the exhibition recently.

Rupert and I initially connected because I saw a piece about him in The Telegraph online, and I wanted to convey my appreciation for his work. I found him online via an internet search, I emailed him, and he replied: simple as that.  We slowly started talking back and forth about his work, our respective points of view on art, sending each other links, and so on.  Eventually, we got to meet in person when he and his wife spent their honeymoon in the United States, and both proved to be as lovely in person as they were online.  Today our connection continues, and in the note which accompanied the catalogues he sent, he let me know that he had enjoyed listening to my recent appearances on SQPN’s “Catholic Weekend” podcast – which he listened to, by the way, even though he himself is not a Catholic.  The point is, both of us made an effort to connect using new media and social media, and the end result is, I daresay, a positive one.

You cannot always guarantee, of course, that the result will be positive, for just because you reach out to someone on Twitter or Facebook, or via e-mail and the like, they may not necessarily respond, or they may do little more than give you a cursory acknowledgement.  I have met a number of people both in real life and via online media who seem unable to figure out how to go about reaching out to people, how to follow up once they have done so, and what to do if their efforts are not successful.  Allow me to give you an example of how I usually go about starting this process of investigation.

Thanks to my friend Eric Wind over at the National Civic Art Society, I learnt this week of an art project taking shape in the Tuscan city of Pisa.  Luca Battini, a young Italian artist, is undertaking the interior decoration of the monastic church of St. Vito, which he will cover with an enormous, 1,700 square-foot Renaissance-style fresco depicting the life of the city’s patron saint, St. Ranierus.  It is estimated that the painting will take at least three years to complete.

As you can imagine, if you are a regular reader of these pages, I found this an intriguing bit of news.  I did an internet search and found Maestro Battini’s blog which, while not updated frequently, he or his assistants clearly do maintain as they are able.   In scrolling through the archived posts, I noticed that last year he completed a portrait of Pope Benedict XVI, which he personally presented to His Holiness.  The technical skill employed is accomplished and slick, without however being a “look at me” sort of production, and the end result is a very pleasant, but unsentimental image of the Pontiff.

I have written to Signore Battini using the email addresses I found on his blog, briefly telling him about how much I enjoyed learning about his work, that I would be doing a blog post in which I mentioned him, and that I would follow up and send him a link to the post.  Now the ball is in his court.  He may write me back, as Rupert did, or he may not, as was the case with George Shaw, who was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in contemporary art last year and whom I attempted to contact via the gallery that represents him.  And even if Sr. Battini does write me back, there is no guarantee that we will have anything further to say to one another.

The point is, one must make an attempt, or one will never know.  Most human beings experience some degree of shyness or awkwardness at times, which is only natural.  And no doubt many find the idea of sending a message to a total stranger to be somewhat off-putting, particularly if that stranger is someone better-known than we are.  However whether famous or ordinary, the method should be the same.

In my experience, the best thing to do is be brief, and to the point.  Explain why you are contacting them, open the door to the possibility of a reply, such as by asking a question or indicating that you will be sending some follow-up information that may prove to be of use to them, and then thank them for their time.  If they do respond, do not use email or tweet #2 to spill out everything about who you are and why you are worth getting to know.  The vast majority of productive relationships are formed through a slow build of revelation of shared views and experiences, rather than a sudden explosion of information on either side.

However, even as we keep in mind that using new and social media to reach out to others does not mean the recipient of your communication must befriend you, by the same token nor do you have to befriend everyone you want to contact, if there is no real basis for further communication.  For example, recently I caught a bit of a 50’s-60’s style musical group performing on television, and rather liked the (admittedly flashy) suits they were wearing.  I found their website and e-mail address, wrote a brief email complimenting them on their talents and asking who made their suits.  One of the members e-mailed me back with the information, for which I thanked him, and that was that.  I do not anticipate any further contact, since I do not enjoy that style of music, even if it requires good vocal skills and a finely-tuned ear.

These few examples will hopefully encourage you to try to do the same thing, when you feel compelled to reach out to someone else online.  Taking advantage of the opportunities provided by the internet, through a combination of using both new and social media, can prove rewarding on many levels.  However the first step is perhaps the most difficult: recognizing your own humility, while simultaneously overcoming the fear of rejection.   You may not always make a new friend or contact, or obtain the answer to a question you have, but you will never know unless you try.

Italian artist Luca Battini at work