Friday, August 24, 2007

Esthetics and Commercialism

On my recent trip to China, as I perused the stack of magazines I'd brought with me, I happened upon Virginia Postrel's article Dress Sense.  I have been a fan of Postrel since she was editor at Reason, and have been enthusiastically watching her break into mainstream journalism. I ripped out the article as I do with all the articles I find compelling, folded it up and put it in my briefcase, not quite knowing what I'd write, but knowing there was something interesting in the article.

The article makes the case that fashion is museum worthy, as a form of art. Not just from a historical perspective, but from a design and beauty perspective. What I found fascinating was her description of how fashion, specifically commercial fashion of the last century, is eschewed by museums as unworthy of display.

Behind the criticism of fashion as an artistic medium is a highly ideological prejudice: against markets, against consumers, against the dynamism of Western commercial society. The debate is not about art but about culture and economics. Critics who decry fashion collections are less troubled by the prescribed costumes of dynastic China or the aristocratic dress of baroque France than by the past century’s clothes. With its fluctuating forms and needless decoration, fashion epitomizes the supposedly unproductive waste that inspired 20th-century technocrats to dream of central planning. It exists for no good reason. But that’s practically a definition of art.

Her case takes this argument on, and this is what I love about Postrel. She sees the intersection of esthetics and business as a good thing. Business is not some grubby corrupter of high art, but rather the enabler or creater of a broader audience for it. Her phenomenal book The Substance of Style, which overviews the proliferation of esthetic design in  popular culture (think iPod, Crate & Barrel, etc.) specifically makes the case that it is the innovations in manufacturing, distribution, and resultant rising income levels, that have created an "esthetic abundance" of selection available to the average consumer. That mass customization enables the proliferation of personal esthetic choice.

And so rather than the everyday trying to "wedding crash" the province of high art, we have artistic elements making their way into the everyday, with capitalism creating the opportunity for this to happen. And when one looks at history, one can see that this has always been so; that the commercial in art has enabled it to exist and to flourish. Michealangelo was paid to paint the Cistine Chapel. Some of the best artwork of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was also commissioned work. I think of Maxfield Parrish  whose paintings were prominent on the covers of magazines such as Collier's, Scribner's, and Century, and also on calendars. Or Hollywood photographer George Hurrell, whom Postrel highlighted in her Atlantic article Starlight and Shadow who created the lighting techniques that gave 1940's Hollywood it's glamour. People who created art to be appreciated and viewed by someone so much that they were willing to pay money for the opportunity. This is the highest expression of the value of a work of art, as described by Ayn Rand in T he Romantic Manifesto; the highest expression of the desire and need of man to bring his view of the world into full, conscious, concrete focus.

Art is a concretization of metaphysics. Art brings man's concepts to the perceptual level of his consciousness and allows him to grasp them directly, as it they were percepts.

This is the psycho-epistemological function of art and the reason of its importance in man's life (and the crux of the Objectivist esthetics).

Just as language converts abstractions into the psycho-epistemological equivalent of concretes, into a manageable number of specific units-.-so art converts man's metaphysical abstractions into the equivalent of concretes, into specific entities open to man's direct perception. The claim that "art is a universal language" is not an empty metaphor, it is literally true—in the sense of the psycho-epistemological function performed by art.

The insertion of artistic elements into the everyday has value, and those who do it, and those willing to pay for it are the good. And so why shouldn't a gown be considered for it's artistic beauty? Is it not in reality, as Postrel so aptly characterizes, a sculpture, three-dimensional and made all the more ephemeral by the fact that it is designed over the framework of the human body, and to be seen in motion, and to be touched? Compared to the piles of garbage and canvases of painted blobs that pass for art in today's "Modern Art" museums, and exhibition of 20th century fashion would be a welcome addition to any museum.

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