How you can learn to stop worrying and understand fashion is visual arts
Anytime I have to explain my arts practice and mention I use garment as a way of communicating my ideas there is a hesitation for some to see garment and / or fashion as a relevant arts practice or want to separate it from being associated with art. What bothers me about this is instead of discussing the ideas that drive my work or anything interesting like that I have to spend time validating fashion as an arts practice. Instead of contemplating that anything has the potential to be used as art sometimes people fall into a trap where they only associate credible arts practice to practices traditionally viewed as art. This is my personal view from someone with an arts education and not a citation filled essay.
(Work from my 2012 exhibition - The In-between.)
I guess what I want to provide here is a bridge for those who can’t comprehend how garment can be art. Now this stirs up a lot of different reactions from me and as someone who has background of both fashion and visual arts I want to ask why on earth it wouldn’t be considered art. But I see problematic attitudes occurring within the arts industry on what art is or can be.
It is not exclusive to these but goes a little something like this
Fashion is fashion not art
Ceramics is craft not art
Textiles is craft not art
Performance is theatre not art
Architecture is buildings not art
Graphic design is not art
What is occurring here is a limited view of what can be or is art. These notions regarding these art practices stem from historical and cultural understanding associated to these ways of making. Anytime something is also functional, has a commercial application, has a history of being associated as a women’s activity, or cannot be comprehended as contained entirely by the white walls of a gallery there is a tendency to disregard the value of a practice as art. Regardless even if the creative outcomes of these practices embody the same aesthetic, conceptual, theoretical and critical concerns as art. What does this leave us with? Painting, sculpture, drawing, and printmaking?
Why are these things art and not the others? Because art schools tell us these are the important ones? Because historically galleries have contained work from established artist that are constructed through these practices? Well, painting, sculpture, drawing and printmaking can also be functional, commercial, made by women, and exist outside of art galleries (gasp!!!)
As my focus here is fashion lets get back to that. I guess the main thing I hear is that fashion is not art because of its commercial applications - art also exists and is reproduced and sold in mass quantities. Recently I visited an Ai Wei Wei exhibition at the NGV in Melbourne and they were selling hundreds of reproductions of the flip off series as magnets, tea towels, scarfs, coasters – did this devalue the work? This is another whole discussion but I wanted to provide an example of the difference between art and a reproduction of it. It’s the same way I’m not asking you to consider clothing in Top Shop as art any more than I’m asking you to contribute the same value to a magnet I got from the gift shop to the original photograph exhibited in the gallery. This opens up a discussions on context and reproduction but I digress. I just wanted to provide an example that demonstrates art is not untouched by mass production any more than anything else.
(Above is a from Rei Kawakubo's body meets dress collection)
Art and fashion both have the potential to communicate ideas, concepts, and values. Fashion is valuable to us as an art form because it enables a direct relationship between the body and these ideas. Roland Barthe once wrote that fashion could communicate ideas based on the media it was interpreted through. So once photographed or filmed in a contextual situation the ideas and intent were established.
What needs to be considered that a fashion practice uses garment in the same manner that sculpture or painting or photography does. It alters our silhouette, it assumes and stands in for our body parameters, it communicates narratives and conveys ideas through form, shape, colour, textures and image. It can reveal, conceal, extend, reduce, enlarge, bind, release, and replicate the body form. All of these alter the way we see the body. It constructs a visual language that enables us to view the body as powerful, weak, alluring, repulsive, abstract, formless, defined and so on. It can convey a narrative or new understanding of the body. It can exist on and off the body.
There are many articles, written much better than this, that demonstrate fashion is an art practice. But, as I sit here next to on of my works in progress, a dress covered in resin cast nipples, I want you to rethink any former associations of fashion (or textiles, ceramics, etc) not as a valid arts practice. I want you to consider the meaning and intend behind any creative work before you slot it into old, predefined categories.
(Examples of garment from Leigh Bowery.