Why the Devil Wears Prada

In the brilliant Ernst Lubitsch film “Ninotchka” (1938) the title character – wonderfully played by Greta Garbo in perhaps the finest part of her legendary career – is a dyed-in-the-wool Communist sent from Moscow to Paris, to help negotiate a deal on behalf of the Soviet Union. She is initially stunned and appalled by the bourgeois world around her, though by the film’s end she has embraced it. In a very memorable scene when she first arrives at the grand hotel where she will be staying, she passes a window display for the hotel’s boutique, and pauses before an outlandishly shaped, sculptural-looking object. Ninotchka is informed that the object is in fact a lady’s hat. Shaking her head in disgust, she remarks, “How can such a civilization survive which permits their women to put things like that on their heads? It won’t be long now comrades.”

In a somewhat different vein, on Monday evening I dropped into a recently-opened shop in Georgetown on my way up the hill to the home of a fellow blogger (where we spent a convivial evening on the back porch with some non-blogging friends discussing various and sundry matters.) The shopgirl whom I was chatting with as I examined the selection on offer grabbed my arm and said, “I have a Prada suit that would look *great* on you.” Giving a sly smile, I remarked, “I’m sure it would. But I don’t wear designers who sponsor communism.”

Admittedly the comment as regards myself borders on the immodest, but that regarding my rejection of a particular label is based on a long-time awareness of the machinations of said label’s head designer. Miuccia Prada is well-known among the cognoscenti in the design world as a communist and an active promoter of left-wing social and political policies, a fact which may be lost on many Americans who purchase her wares. Given my distaste for communism, I have never owned anything designed by her, nor would I accept anything designed by her as a gift, such is the extent of my admitted and fully-embraced prejudice. This aside from the fact that her menswear consists of utterly putrid, predominantly androgynous garments, which are really just clothes for genetic males who look like unattractive women with a penchant for copying “From Russia with Love” villain Rosa Klebb’s style.

Britain’s The Independent not long ago described Sig.ra Prada’s output as being full of “irony and sheer brains”, as she employs thread and needle to make fun of the bourgeoisie:

At the root of her work, like the theme of a symphony to which it constantly returns, is the conservatism and restraint that are so typical of bourgeois Milan and so at odds with the world’s image of Italy, and which she absorbed with her mother’s minestrone. But this conservatism is constantly punctured and subverted, rudely shoved aside and cruelly mocked, by a whole mad world of motley influences and by an almost childish compulsion to do what everybody says you mustn’t and what nobody expects.

Those familiar with Whit Stillman’s film “Metropolitan” may recall the scene in which the character of Charlie Black (Taylor Nichols) talks about his disappointment with Spanish director Luis Buñuel’s 1972 film “Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie” (“The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”). Charlie, a member of a group which he has christened the “UHB” or “Urban Haute-Bourgeoisie”, describes how excited he was on hearing of the film’s title, and his subsequent disappointment upon actually seeing the movie. “I thought, ‘Finally! someone’s going to tell the truth about the bourgeoisie!’ But it’s hard to imagine a less fair or accurate portrait.”

Of course Charlie is not aware that, as is typical of many Leftists with the leisure to pursue such ends, Buñuel himself was no proletarian: he came from a decidedly wealthy background, and heartily enjoyed being around wealthy people. And for someone who is supposedly so ironic, so biting in her criticism of the bourgeois, in mocking the bourgeoisie Sig.ra Prada is also, even more ironically mocking herself. She is nothing if not a woman of comfortably middle-class origin supported by a decidedly upper-class income. Like other dowdy, aging baby boomers who criticize traditional ideals, she fails to perceive her own hypocrisy in supporting Marxist ideology on the one hand, while simultaneously flogging her goods with the other – at ridiculously inflated prices, natch – in order to increase her own wealth. Indeed, Sig.ra Prada has now appeared on Forbes’ list of the world’s richest people for many years.

The response from the Left, of course, is that Sig.ra Prada, Buñuel and others like them very much recognize their own hypocrisy, but they are more than happy to take the resources of those whom they perceive as perpetrators of the evils of mankind, and use those resources to promote their supposedly more moral or liberating projects, causes and beliefs. In so doing however, they prove themselves to be no different from the people whose views and methods they claim to despise. They may not believe in the God of the Bible, but they worship themselves through self-promotion; they may pay their workers a living wage, but they would never eschew staying in grand hotels, let alone live in a shared, modest apartment with any of them. (Where would they keep the Château Margaux they laid down two summers ago?)

As Leon Trotsky writes in his 1938 screed, “Their Morals and Ours”, not long after founding the Fourth Communist International and his falling out with what for lack of a better term we can call mainstream communism:

Among the liberals and radicals there are not a few individuals who have assimilated the methods of the materialist interpretation of events and who consider themselves Marxists. This does not hinder them, however, from remaining bourgeois journalists, professors or politicians. A Bolshevik is inconceivable, of course, without the materialist method, in the sphere of morality too. But this method serves him not solely for the interpretation of events but rather for the creation of a revolutionary party of the proletariat. It is impossible to accomplish this task without complete independence from the bourgeoisie and their morality. Yet bourgeois public opinion actually now reigns in full sway over the official workers’ movement.

So much, Trotsky seems to be saying, for the champagne socialist.

I do not mean to suggest that we should always avoid, by our purchases, supporting the work of those whose views differ from our own. That would not only be ridiculously impractical, but decidedly narrow-minded. My personal rejection of the work of Sig.ra Prada is merely a personal affectation, based on my deep antipathy toward both her views and how her aesthetic is informed by them. What I do – most emphatically – mean to suggest, however, is that the educated courtier engage in some very practical exercise of their own powers of discernment. Said discerning gentleman or lady ought to consider exactly what it is that they are buying into, with their purchase of clothing, media, and the like, irrespective of its popularity.

Charles Baudelaire – a man who as a result of his own tumultuous personal life knew whereof he spoke – famously remarked that the greatest trick Satan ever pulled was to convince the world that he does not exist. With greater discernment, we can perceive an infernal hand in many places in our world today – in the way we treat one another, yes, but also and perhaps more subtlety in our entertainments and the way in which we live and even dress. The Devil is very much among us – and I definitely believe he wears Prada.

Ninotchka (Greta Garbo) considers a very curious hat.

Abstract Expressionism: Co-opting the Left

It will come as no surprise to regular readers of these virtual pages that The Courtier is not a fan of the work of many abstract expressionists such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, etc. Even if, as a well-known architect commented to him recently, The Courtier can manage to engage in an act of Christian charity when reviewing an exhibition of the work of this type of painting, this does not mean he wants this garbage hanging on his walls. They are little more than a reminder of the breakdown of standards in education, culture, and the development of good taste in favor of pulling over something on an uneducated public. They may be art, and The Courtier grants a broad definition to the term “art”, but they are generally rather bad art.

This is not to say that all of what may loosely be referred to in layman’s terms as “modern” art is rejected out of hand by this scrivener. Among others, The Courtier often enjoys and appreciates the work of Piet Mondrian, Roy Lichtenstein, and Richard Estes. In their work, different though these painters are from one another, there is a sense of practice, careful study, and attention to detail that goes into the completed piece – elements which are missing from much of abstract expressionism.

Having said this, The Courtier in fact owns and displays at the manse two rather large canvases in a semi-abstract-expressionist style by a contemporary Hong Kong artist. One is a reinterpretation of Cezanne’s “The Bathers”, and the other a portrait of The Courtier himself. So let it not be said that The Courtier’s home or office is filled with reproductions of 16th century Spanish altarpieces, as enjoyable as such a collection would be, in part. The development of one’s taste or style is dependent upon numerous factors, and in the case of this writer, the taste is often Catholic with a capital “C”, but also catholic with a lower-case “c”.

Yet the devotion paid to the work of the abstract expressionists in the 1950s, and their subsequent influence on the decline of art in general, is something which has always seemed to be utterly unfathomable to The Courtier. Why is it that painters such as Pollock came to be embraced by this country (and others), despite their obvious lack of ability? Perhaps politics had something to do with it, even if they themselves were as much confused about what they stood for as the art they produced. In The Courtier’s view however, if you are going to be a communist, then BE one, rather than whinging about.

Diego Rivera, for example – who in the opinion of The Courtier was far less talented a painter than his long-suffering wife Frida Kahlo – was a very open, muscular communist, both in his personal life and in his work. The same cannot be said, in this reviewer’s opinion, of many of the abstract expressionists, whose blobs and daubs are as intentionally amorphous as their views. There is nothing more unpalatable to The Courtier than having to see the work of someone who cannot stand up for something they claim to believe in in a well thought-out and creative way, even if The Courtier completely disagrees with their point of view.

Of course, many may not be aware of the fact that one of the reasons for the ascendancy of painters such as Pollock was in fact a deliberate scheme by – of all things – the very right-wing Central Intelligence Agency here in Washington. Many among my Lefty readers may be shocked to learn that numerous exhibitions which took place to promote abstract expressionism at institutions such as The Tate in London or at MoMA in New York City, were nothing less than propaganda efforts conducted, not for Left-wing political movements, but on behalf of the CIA. As the leftists of the art world applauded The Rockefellers and The Whitneys for collecting and promoting the work of these artists, they had no idea that theirs was a part of a carefully designed policy initiative to show the rest of the world that, compared to the Soviets (and their cartoonish “Soviet realist” art), Americans were a progressive, free-thinking people – and the stranger the art, the better.

This unwitting co-opting of Left-wing artists, writers, and thinkers by the CIA in collusion with tastemaker millionaire art collectors seems like something fantastic out of an episode of “Spooks” (or “MI-5” as it is known in the States), and yet it proved enormously effective. The argument can be made that the reason one sees the work of these painters on the walls of major museums in the United States and abroad today is because the Right-wing elements of the American security services and the wealthy individuals who backed them thought that these artworks – often created by people who were either communists or had communist/socialist sympathies – were to appear there in order to FIGHT communism. This occurred even though many of these artists and those who championed their work in the pages of art magazines were themselves sometimes radical Leftists, but the American government – even in the McCarthy era – reckoned that these folks could easily be kept under control.

This effort was nothing new, of course: get enough influential people to agree to something, and suddenly it becomes widely accepted. The radical theory transitions to become proven fact: the Emperor has clothes. Fortunately, if one is not duped by the opinions of others into seeing clothes where there are none, one can remain above the fray – so to speak – and know, no matter what the majority of others may say to the contrary, that the fellow is starkers. To maintain this position requires a certain independence and single-mindedness in thinking, though not to the point of intractability.

Is all “modern” art bad because it is not always representational? No. Is all “modern” art good because it hangs in a museum and you have been taught that it is good art? No. Those who reject all of modern art are just as guilty of a lack of discernment as those who embrace all of it with open arms.

Yet as much as those of us who reject work such as abstract expressionism are criticized for being cultural Philistines, the tables need to be turned. Those who raise such charges need to be asked: do you like these paintings because you genuinely like them, or do you in fact like them because you were brought up to believe – by your teachers, art museums, your parents, celebrities, films, etc. – that in fact they are good paintings? Were you able to discern how and why they were good works of art on your own, through testing and seeing for yourself, or was that something which came to you as a result of the influence of others? In other words: are you speaking for yourself, or are you, in fact, aping a line that was written for you decades ago?

As The Courtier has no doubt where his own taste lies, he will leave it to the reader to question his own.

Pollock making his art – but for whom?

>A Regrettable Anniversary

>Today is the 60th Anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China by Chairman Mao, and to celebrate the millions of murders, tortures, and repressions of everything from art to religion to speech perpetrated by this disaster of human history, some seem to be falling all over themselves to mark the occasion. “China Celebrates 60 Years of Achievement Under Communist Rule” proclaims the dreadful Voice of America – a voice which has not spoken for Americans in quite some time. “China has showcased its military capabilities, as well as its economic and social progress,” VOA notes, “in a huge parade to mark the 60th anniversary of the Communist state.” There is not a single mention in the article about what that state has done to its citizens and neighbors over the last sixty years of Communist rule.

Meantime New York City’s iconic Empire State Building, whose spire is often lit in colors to reflect special occasions, last evening was illuminated with the colors of the PRC flag, the light switch being thrown by the Chinese Consul. Even the left-leaning Huffington Post, in a piece by their Managing Blog Editor David Flumenbaum, questions whether this was such a brilliant idea: “No matter who is responsible for the Empire State Building ‘going Communist,’ as some have put it, when the spire glows China’s red and yellow, New York City, defined by its most iconic structure, will be giving Mao, Communism, and the People’s Republic of China a big pat on the back.”

Statues of Buddha being burned in China during the Cultural Revolution