Published in print June 2017
The American Dream was not always red, white and blue. The 60s and 70s were a time when one could look in the mirror and choose to either see ruin or the rainbow. Marked by the Civil Rights Movement, anti-Vietnam War protests and the dominance of Rock n’ Roll, American youths squinted their eyes at the Man and questioned the real prerogatives of their constitution. As conformity and consumerism casted long, dark shadows on their formative years of growing up, they breathed life into the phenomenon of DIY (Do It Yourself) and became their own promise “of liberty and justice for all.”
The Museum of Arts and Design in New York City presented and homage to the flames of the fire, flaunting the studded and crocheted creations of championed visionaries against a backdrop of equally inspired wallpapers, paisley prints all inclusive. The fourth and fifth floors of the museum were transformed to reflect the spirit of a generation now in their 40s and 50s, the Baby Boomers, Generation X. The exhibition is titled, Counter-Culture: Handmade fashion in American counterculture and it will run until August 20th, 2017. While passersby’s may glance at psychedelic-inspired, patchwork coats, necklaces turned talismans with the aid of rabbit and monkey fur and thrifted jeans turned gems and shake their heads, waving off just another case of teen spirit, it is important to note that this is not a just a clothing exhibit. It is an understanding of how a prayer for self-expression was answered by clothing. Here, fashion is both the catalyst and the conduit.
The wall panels introducing the exhibit read like an educated friend could have penned talk of self-reliance, a way to break free from the status quo and “an emancipatory vision of arts as melded as life”. Split up into five sections, the work on display at the exhibition explored running themes central to fashion and youth culture today. These include race, gender, consciousness, religion, drug use and “utopian idealism”. While everything looks straight out of a hippie’s wardrobe, it is important to remember that the flag of revolution looks different to each revolutionary.
These themes resonate with us even though technology and time seemingly divide their generation from ours. Self-expression in today’s cultural landscape has taken on a whole new meaning. The pressures of social conformity are now based on Instagram likes and the number of followers you have validates your individuality. We are each a brand, we sell ourselves through social media in the form of cultural capital and await for technology to tell us if we should love ourselves or if we should take that photo down, not enough likes? Not good enough. For many youths growing up is now a matter of managing self-doubt, to be an individual is to invite eyes, unwanted and wanted, some with loving ganders and others with damn bad intentions. Once dictated by age, “youth” is now a matter of self-love and not just self-expression, but honest self-expression. To be able to express oneself honestly today is freedom.
Thinking specifically about clothing, while we may not necessarily be tie-dyeing our own shirts, crocheting rainbows onto floor-length denim skirts or consuming LSD regularly, we are experiencing a time when creativity is in high-demand. It has been said that the eyes are the windows to the soul, but here, it is instead clothing. So often associated with materialism and waste, these pieces of clothing know no association to the latter and instead have been enshrined as art for what they meant to those who wore them. There seems to be somewhat of a transformative power that these garments possess as they were able to create community and tell a story for therein lies the power of the people.
Just as clothing has always been a powerful signifier of the individual, you can’t talk about fashion without talking about style. Pulling another adage from the devil in Prada, clothing trends come and go but style is forever, we are able to take an even deeper look at the notion of fashion as an extension of the self. If fashion is the method, style is the message. Whether you are making conscious decisions about your wardrobe or not, each day we get dressed in what we feel comfortable in and again, that definition of “comfort” hinges on the subjective. I could be comfortable in sweats and a hoodie and my best friend could be most comfortable in some Jimmy Choo’s and a sequin dress. There are so many layers to fashion, it is function, it is expression, it is comfort and finding one’s style has always been a coming of age story in and of itself. The clothing on display in the exhibit is just that, a story about a generation growing up. We can appreciate it today because these notions of finding oneself and being able to express that self are so central to the human experience that they can’t but help to be considered: art.
The mere mention of his name instills reverence and fandom in the hearts of humanity. Perhaps the first to immortalize and live the idea of artist as icon, Andy Warhol was a visionary who found freedom and success in artistic expression during a time when the air in New York City was rife with dissent. The cultural tides churned to reveal the avant-garde and the phenomenon we know to be “pop-culture” would soon surface.
Paying homage to the artist, the Skarstedt gallery held an exhibition earlier this year in Warhol’s name featuring a series of five of his final self-portraits titled Andy Warhol: Self-Portraits (Fright Wigs). The works were completed less than a year before his death in 1986 thus rendering them with a certain immediacy to his legacy. There is a certain sense of shock value that the exhibition demands. When you enter the first floor of the gallery, located but a block away from Central Park where the first blooms of spring were on display, you are greeted by a single canvas bearing Warhol’s visage in all of its gauntly glory. His head is adorned by a green, “fright wig” and his body cloaked by a black turtleneck. His expression is vapid but concurrently haunting, poised in the definition of transfixion.
In order to make sense of the exhibition, it is important to note that one, this body of work, commissioned by Anthony d’Offay, is the only exhibition in Warhol’s career that focuses on self-portraiture. Two, the themes and beliefs that dominate Warhol’s career revolve around the universality and accessibility of art. Warhol’s contribution to our understanding of art to be “for everyone” is taken for granted though it has paved the way for social phenomenons like Instagram. While we each use Instagram for different purposes, documentary, personal, promotional or artistic, it is nonetheless a testimony to a certain performance of the self. Society has not rehearsed this role but its character develops daily. This isn’t broadway, this is the age of the internet and millennials are the stars.
It is hard not to think of this series of self-portraits as the beginning of selfie culture. Don’t be too quick to scoff as Warhol too had his fair share of insecurity, according to an article from the New Yorker, he had his nose sanded at one point. It was Warhol after all who brought pop-art to the limelight through his experimentation with color, popularization of consumer goods like the Campbell’s soup cans and psychedelically inspired images of stars like Marilyn Monroe. He begged to ask the question, “what is art?” and answered in ways that knocked the lofty definition of this form of expression off of its high horse.
The selfie allows the individual to share with the world the version of themselves that they want the world to see. It is a matter of confidence, of seeing and being seen and controlling judgment.Young people, or those savvy enough to wield a smartphone have again become transfixed by the power of immortalizing an ideal version of the self through art. The difference being the youth today may not see the latter to be art but instead, validation. In today’s world we are able to fight insecurity with “likes”. The individual has as many attempts to capture themselves as “beautiful” as permitted by the storage on their smart phones. Art has entered an entirely new realm that borders on vanity and now that art is “for everyone” we find ourselves now begging for boundaries, for definition, for rigidity and structure.
Would Warhol be pleased? The answer perhaps lies with the only text on display in the exhibit. It’s a quote from Warhol himself dating back to 1967, it reads, “if you want to know all about Andy Warhol just look at the surface: of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.” The message decoded is a bit counter-intuitive if taken verbatim, we like to imagine that there is more to someone than the surface, that the presentation of the self is but just that: a show. Yet, therein lies the rub, as a generation so focused on presentation we have to know that there is depth to be found when one ventures to find it. To take Warhol’s quote literally would be to succumb to the antithesis of art itself.