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