Postmodern thinking: "a fancy way of applying commercial values to art"

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Fri Oct 20 18:22:14 MDT 2000

NY Times, Oct. 20, 2000
Giorgio Armani: Where Ego Sashays in Style


Historical amnesia, intellectual pretension, cronyism, promotion, delusion,
sycophancy, bribery, betrayal, all wrapped up in press releases passed off
as journalism: these are some of the lubricants that make the wheels of
fashion turn. If you enjoy the fashion spectacle, you wouldn't want to miss
one treacherous moment. In the Eastern spirit of the Armani show, you could
even say that such ugliness makes the beauty possible. In any case, it's
not against the law.

Museums, however, are not commercial institutions, even if they sometimes
behave otherwise. Museums may, of course, be swayed by intellectual
fashions. This is not in itself objectionable, or even avoidable. The
British Museum has reconsidered its display of the Elgin Marbles several
times over the years, and the evolution of taste illustrated by these
alterations is itself of cultural interest. Intellectual fashion may be
healthy for a living cultural institution. The values of commercial
fashion, however, are not. Commercial fashion, like any business, depends
on smoothness: on greasing the wheels of designers, their investors, the
fashion press, celebrity clients and retail advertisers. The credibility of
museums depends on traction: on their ability to resist the smoothness of
the market system.

Museums don't need that traction to get publicity, attract crowds and even
put on worthwhile shows. Without it, however, there's nothing particularly
special about them apart from the cachet of their names. I could live
without the cachet. If traction isn't available, I'll settle for candor. I
would prefer it if the Guggenheim came out and said: "We need the money! We
want to fix up the Dogana in Venice and we need $15 million! You got a
problem with that?" This would at least be an ethical stance, if not a
noble one.

This is where the Armani show's theme of self-absorption becomes a metaphor
for the predicament of many cultural institutions today.

Those who want to import fashion values into the art world don't get up in
the morning and ask themselves, "What can I do today to sabotage
civilization?" In the overlapping worlds of fashion and contemporary art,
there is no shortage of pret-à-porter rationalizations for conflicts of
interest. Many of them are rooted in the Romantic myth that formal training
and conventional morality are the enemies of creativity and truth. We're
free! Down with the old walls! We're breaking through!

(Never mind that today's free spirits are aching to get into the
institutions that the Romantics were trying to get out of.)

Then there's the Specialness factor. What some may see as intellectual
corruption is in fact to be seen as enlightened obedience to a higher
calling of profound cultural value, which critics, benighted fools, are
unable to discern. Don't worry. Trust us. In the future, the truth will be
revealed. Postmodern thinking is very Special in this sense. It is a fancy
way of applying commercial values to art.

The truth is that we'll never know whether, without his eight-figure
pledge, the Guggenheim would have mounted a retrospective on the work of
Giorgio Armani. Just as we'll never know whether the Metropolitan Museum
would have presented a show of Cartier jewels without financial support
from the House of Cartier. Or whether the Museum of Modern Art would have
devoted a show to a Ferrari without support from Ferrari. Or whether the
Brooklyn Museum of Art would have presented "Sensation" without a check
from Charles Saatchi.

The artists will never know, either, and neither will the institutions, for
that matter. That's the way narcissism works. I doubt this will ruin Mr.
Armani's day. Unlike Mr. Wilson's mannequins, the designer appears to have
a head on his shoulders. Narcissism is his business. Enlightenment is a
cultural institution's stock in trade. The light fades where delusion rules.

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Louis Proyect
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