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25 September 2006

Great letter in this weekend's NYT Magazine, responding to James Traub's atrocious bohemianism-and-gentrification article. Don't have the letter handy, but the gist of it was that Traub, and the Times in its depiction of New York arts culture, had defined bohemianism and avant-garde culture as a variety of hipsterism that is fairly mainstream and commercialized, or at the very least not 'outsider' or 'oppositional'. Not that, for example, I'm a big fan of freegans; but if you want to find outsiders, they're out there . . . and pretending that makers of limited-edition t-shirts are the last remaining rebels disservices the public sphere. It's a journalistic betrayal.

Thinking about this reminded me of the original question about Le Tigre and commercial sponsorship of emerging indie/outsider artists, and helped crystallize my feelings about that: i/o artists, especially new ones, don't have to exist in opposition to the status quo -- though they often do, and it's a good thing -- but we like to imagine they are, in some way, outsiders, and not just because nobody's yet opened the door to the vault, but because it's who they are. And perhaps it's inevitable that they'll be embraced, join the club, support a new status quo that they've helped to create -- and that's not a bad thing -- but it's necessary that they start out somewhere else, a mental and cultural space that doesn't accept the fundamental assumptions of mainstream social reality. Which isn't to say we want art made by aliens or raving madmen -- just that Picasso would not have become Picasso if he'd been painting Absolut ads and wearing couture shirts at twenty-three.

Answer to the original question, written in response to a friend's question:

So the question about Le Tigre and fashion and artists got lost in the heat of the web updating, and I wanted to try and answer it, because it seems important. It's okay to have a strongly held belief and not understand completely why, but I feel obligated to try and understand it. If this ends up being a bit confused, it's because I'm a bit confused, and there's lots of reasons, all mixed up with each other . . . and if I come of sounding like a fundamentalist, a secular Bible-thumper, *tell me*, cause that's not what I want to be. . . .

To me, it relies very much on association being an active thing -- if a band is attached to Le Tigre, the band is in some way promoting Le Tigre, and supporting their actions and what they stand for.

There's the obvious question of whether Le Tigre uses sustainable materials put together by well-treated workers. But there's more to it than this. If American Apparel sponsors a band, I'll feel the same way. Why is this?

In part, I guess, because American Apparel sells itself in a way that I disapprove of. Not precisely by objectifying teenagers -- I don't like that, but it's not necessarily an evil thing. American Apparel -- through the language of its images, its promotions -- buys into, or tacitly accepts, a warped system of human relationships. Despite its better labor practices, AA still feels like a socially conscious incarnation of Abercrombie & Fitch . . . part of a culture of aquisition, of treating people as means to ends rather ends, of being fundamentally unreflective. A world of reality TV.

In terms of clothing, the necessary corollary is fashion, as opposed to style: our 'second skin' being turned into a uniform, assembled under the coercion of companies and authorities, instead of personal taste. Fashion Week ought to be called Style Week; by fashion I mean the clothes that different groups of people wear . . . and it's hard to say exactly why this bugs me. Part of it is an instinctive distrust of all herd mentalities. I also don't like the underlying premise that identity is something that can be purchased -- that, indeed, *ought* to be purchased, and regularly updated, in order to fit in.

It's also about the loss of the individual. Having a brand on your chest, even a small tasteful logo, does this, if only by a little bit. (Again, it's not like this is some horrible evil thing -- I mean, my shorts have a Champion logo, but I don't leave part of my soul at the YMCA.) But a person on the stage, wearing something given as a commercial promotion, *branded*, is in some way less an individual, making his or her own choices, than a fusion of person and corporation.

An artist, and indeed every person, expresses themselves in many ways, clothing being one of them. Artists we expect to express themselves more purely and fully; I want their clothing, and my own, to mean something -- even nothing, so long as it's *them*, and not a commercial. Of course, what if the artist *likes* a Le Tigre shirt? The cut and the color? That's trickier. Perhaps it's not such a bad thing. But it still bothers me that Le Tigre is pushing it . . .

. . . and that has to do with the scene itself. Fine, hipsterism is mainstream, or at least a main current. I still like to think that scenes and subcultures embody something spontaneous, something that can grow without being packaged and sold back to us, that they can take root and grow in a space that isn't commercial. Not a space that isn't economic -- people buy and sell things, we try to make a living, that's fine. But not in a disembodied way. And Le Tigre -- Diesel and D&G and all the companies that sponsor new artists -- are by their presence proscribing the space itself, the mental space in which it all takes place. It limits what is conceptually possible; it's the cultural end of a colonization of consciousness, arriving on new shores to plant the flag of 21st century consumer life and all the habits of thought (and politics and power) that go with it.

Not that people at a Diesel-sponsored show aren't going to go out and have fun and fall in love and get in fights and do all the transcendent things that people do, wherever we are . . . but it just bugs me. Somehow, if I was living in London in 1966, when Syd Barrett was at his creative peak, when he was going places with his guitar that nobody had ever been, it would have meant less had he been pimped out in Pierre Cardin. If the beam of dawn's light at his last great show had hit a silver Adidas logo rather than his mirrored strat, he would have been diminished.