Black Fashion – Vogue and the Oil Spill

by Justin

There’s a fine line between opportunistic exploitation and timely, topical art. It isn’t very hard to be inciting and controversial in the interest of generating an audience – you don’t need to look past GOP campaigns and demagogues. But sometimes controversy emerges because the artist tapped smartly into the pulse of something unspoken and framed it just right to make people uncomfortable. It’s rare and wonderful when art (and journalism) does that.

This entry into the debate comes courtesy of Vogue Italia, pouncing on the BP oil spill catastrophe and marrying the harrowing imagery of a ruined coastline with high fashion. I personally appreciate how layered my immediate reaction was – I couldn’t condemn, endorse, or dismiss the spread right out the gate. That, at least, suggests that photographer Steven Meisel‘s work isn’t completely any one thing. It is absolutely morbid, and the use of inky feathers and a model coughing up water plants the shoot comfortably in the realm of the grotesque. But it’s also kind of beautiful if you’re down with the darker side of things.

The reactions have been as polarized as you might expect and as passionate as Meisel’s track record might suggest. First, the immediate positive impact: awareness. Who can say if the world of high fashion batted its magnificent eyelashes at the Gulf disaster? The shoot may generate curiosity and disgust among a particular slice of the world’s elite, and that’s potentially a great thing. The photography is fierce enough that I don’t believe it trivializes the disaster at the same time that it highlights it. And beyond the merits of the Vogue stage, bigthink.com articulated something admirable:

By putting a beautiful woman in the position of a bird, Meisel shortens the chain reaction between wildlife and humanity and gives us a clearer picture of what’s really at stake when we talk about the BP spill.

A lot of the reactions have invoked an evidently long-standing discussion about whether or not fashion really constitutes art, or if (as could be argued in this instance) it’s an extreme glamorization of excess and indulgence. I think that’s an absurd general debate. Of course fashion can be art. Are the costumes involved in stage productions or films art? Does the framing of an accepted medium make all the difference? Just because its made for the consumption of the wealthy doesn’t deny it any merit. If some incredibly rich patron commissioned a beautiful painting and only displayed it to his equally rich friends does that negate the beauty of the work? Come on. I do wonder if the spread is really designed to sell a product (even the magazine itself), as it seems too intense to really market the clothing. I could absolutely be wrong though, and this could be a more pure moment of opportunism than my untrained eyes can recognize.

Newsweek’s blog will aim you at a number of raging reactions from fashion blogs, but the post itself opens with a false distinction: artistic or offensive? As though something can’t be both.

I don’t know where I land on this. I’m into how uncomfortable it makes me, and in a perverse way I appreciate that this an extremely excessive industry commenting on (exploiting?) an even more excessive behemoth. It’s weirdly appropriate. Here’s the closing from the blog over at Limite Magazine, that by and large echoes my current sentiments:

Outlets like the Miami New Times and Fast Company both fall in the negative camp, the former saying, “Fashion in the past few decades has started to confuse itself with serious art” and “most times when they do they have little to say beyond glamorizing the aesthetic of tragedy.” As far as we’re concerned, we give major kudos to Vogue Italia for being a major fashion publication addressing the issue.

UPDATE:

There’s a more in depth discussion with an out-of-control comment thread right here, which includes interesting bits about one of the necklaces being from an eco-designer using waste from the Gulf of Mexico.

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