Tutor profile: Caitlin D.
Explore the origins of a fashion movement within music culture.
What would Sid Vicious think if he saw the ragged clothes he wore on the pages of Vogue? From 1975 to 1978, Vicious and his band, the Sex Pistols based their look, music, and ideology on the punk lifestyle—a rejection of mainstream values and practices. Vogue is more than just a magazine for fashion advice; it is an international powerhouse, the dictator of style and it alone decides the status quo of what’s in and what’s out. When this anti-establishment style finally caught the eye of trendsetters, it put the punk’s message on a worldwide platform; but by making it popular, the fashion world strips the punk aesthetic of its original intent. “We were all extremely ugly people. We were outcasts, unwanted,” stated John Lydon, also known as Johnny Rotten, when talking about the members of the Sex Pistols. In their few years of performing, the Sex Pistols exaggerated their outsider status through their fashion. Their obnoxious style was unpleasant. Their ripped, paint stained, (sometimes even intentionally bloodstained) garments kept together with safety pins were horrifying to the “normal” citizen who used fashion as a way to blend in. They utilized these do-it-yourself styles and accessories to translate their financial status, anger, violence, and sexual deviancy in an exaggerated visual way. It would have been unseemly for Grace Mirabella, editor-in-chief during the 1970’s to put punk fashion on the pages of American Vogue. Now fashion enthusiasts covet it. In celebration of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute’s exhibit Punk: Chaos to Couture, Vogue created a fashion editorial, titled “Rebel Yell”, featuring models wearing both vintage and contemporary punk ensembles in the May 2013 issue. The first image (fig. 1) shows a model in a 1976 design by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, owners of the 1970’s London punk fashion haven SEX, which was later renamed Seditionaries. While this picture honors punk fashion, it forces it out of its intended setting: the streets and music clubs. Punk fashion was worn by youths rebelling against mainstream culture, not fashion models. Inspired by past styles of the mods, the skinheads, and the teddy boys, the punks used their style to give themselves a visual voice within British society. When talking about his influences, Lydon stated, “I was very impressed looking at the teddy boys on the street corner. Their audacious colors and sheer toughness. They demanded you to pay attention to them. And if you did, it’d be, “What the fuck are you looking at?’” While it would have been easy to ignore the punk concerts and records, it was hard for the bourgeois to turn its eyes away from the brightly colored spiked hair and confrontational graphic tees the punks wore on the street. Their clothes became their instrument to directly combat the mainstream since punk music was widely unheard due to its outsider nature. The Sex Pistols were so inappropriate to England’s polite standards, they never garnered commercial success. Since it took decades for their music to become widely popular, their fashion was the easiest way for the seventies’ mainstream to know about their movement. Their shocking disregard became apparent on the streets of London. Once printed and bound in these glossy magazines, the punk aesthetic becomes conventional, inauthentic, and conformist. The Vogue editorial reveals that the punk style had transformed from low-life street style, to high fashion status coming with a retail price tag to match. The picture is ironic because the punk philosophy stemmed from ideas of anti-consumerism, yet the picture is meant for readers to wish for and then buy punk fashion. This causes the punk style to lose its authenticity. In the 1970’s, the punk movement was an authentic artistic expression. According to music theorist, Keir Keightley, art must be “direct and honest, uncorrupted by commerce, trendiness, derivativeness, a lack of inspiration and so on” in order to be defined as authentic. The Sex Pistols represented the punk’s predicament—imprisoned in an undesirable social status. As music journalist, Jon Savage describes, “The group [was] caught in an impossible double-bind: intelligent in a working-class culture which did not value intelligence, yet unable to leave that culture because of lack of opportunity.” The Sex Pistol’s raw view of society translated in their music and dress gave the working-class youth an art form they could identify with. The harsh tones of Johnny Rotten’s voice and the simplistic music behind it (due to the fact that band members did not have much musical training) accentuate punk’s emphasis on authenticity. It was not about virtuosity or gracefulness, but about directly communicating their message. The Sex Pistols’ confrontational and forthright lyrics echo in punk fashion. In the same way that political lyrics such as “God Save the Queen / The fascist regime” from “God Save the Queen” and “’Cause I wanna be Anarchy / It’s the only way to be” from “Anarchy in the U.K.” confront British society, the Sex Pistols’ clothing made of traditional English tartans and plaids ripped and held together with safety pins undermines England’s tradition. Johnny Rotten even describes once wearing trash bags put on street corners by the government, which directly relates to the lyrics “We’re the flowers in the dustbin” from God Save the Queen. He and the Sex Pistols wanted to visually and vocally express how they as working class individuals were unable to prosper in Britain’s political and economic system. While some music critics view fashion styles associated with rock as “artifices” and therefore inauthentic, the Sex Pistol’s style enhanced their ability create an “imaginary world” of rebellion. Their style reiterated their status in society and how the upper-classes viewed the working poor. “For them fashion was politics, a way of seeing the world. When allied to music it became something even more powerful” states Savage. For example, in the same way that their song “Pretty Vacant” mocks the working classes ignorance, the Sex Pistols way of dressing satirizes their lack of means. Punk had the ability to form a bond among the working class of the 1970’s and influence the artistic creations of future designers. The Sex Pistols represented a contemporary social predicament, emotionally resonated with its represented social class, and created a political voice for it. Like past bands such as the Beatles, Jefferson Airplane and MC5 or singers such as Elvis and Bob Dylan, the Sex Pistols’ music and style resonated with youth’s rebellious and experimental nature. As Legs McNeil co-founder of Punk Magazine, stated that punk “was about real freedom, personal freedom. It was also about doing anything that’s gonna offend a grown-up.” These artists’ music and style caused intense affect in fans which led to social epidemics like “the Craze” for Elvis and “Beatlemania” for the Beatles, putting mainstream values in danger. While punk never intended to become mainstream, the fact that it did highlights its emotional power to resonate with individuals struggling with their place in society. The “Fuck you…we’re still doing it” attitude of the Sex Pistols and punks influences artists, protestors, and everyday citizens to create their own anti-conformist looks and ideas. Curator of the Punk: Chaos to Couture exhibit, Andrew Bolton even realized the conflict between punk fashion and couture. He stated, “Although punk’s democracy stands in opposition to fashions autocracy, designers continue to appropriate punk’s visual vocabulary to capture its youthful rebelliousness and aggressive forcefulness.” The image on the last few pages of the punk inspired editorial in the May 2013 issue of Vogue shows a 2008 punk-inspired gown by Alexander McQueen. As a misunderstood artist who grew up in a working-class English household hiding his homosexuality, McQueen used his designs to make his audience rethink mainstream high fashion. His design features the cover to the Sex Pistols’ album God Save the Queen. The ensemble is not a riff or a copy of 1970’s punk fashion, but rather a tribute to the profound voice the punks and the Sex Pistols gave to those who were unable to be heard in society. While the modern listener and rebel may not be able to resonate with songs and fashion revolting against 1970’s British politics, they can listen to or look at the Sex Pistols and adapt their mentality and aesthetic to modern society. McQueen’s gown certainly illustrates Punk’s influence and the soundness of their ideas, but its homage to the movement creates an inauthentic punk ensemble. Though punk style is still visually provocative, it loses its authenticity with the hefty price tag. The do-it-yourself aesthetic of punk made it accessible to the kids it was created by and for—kids with limited financial means. When a 1976 SEX / Seditionaries muslin t-shirt costs upwards of $300 and a punk inspired McQueen gown costs at least $10,000, the punk style not only becomes consumerist, it becomes elitist. Thus, the 21st century’s corruption of commerce mars the authenticity of the punk style.
Subject: Film and Theater
Compare and Contrast two experimental films from the 20th century.
In response to the corporate liberalism and the intense order of Post-War American life, artists and critics sought a creative expression that challenged this valued stability by embracing spontaneity, disorder, confusion, and absurdity. “We need less perfect but more free films. If only our younger film-makers—I have no hopes for the old generation would really break loose, completely loose, out of themselves, wildly, anarchically!” stated Jonas Mekas in 1959. Jonas Mekas was a critic and filmmaker who advocated for the avant-garde cinema. Robert Frank and Andy Warhol were two experimental filmmakers who explored how film could express meaning while rejecting the formalities of mainstream cinema. Mekas praised both Robert Frank’s 1959, Pull My Daisy (his first film) and Andy Warhol’s 1966 Chelsea Girls for their ability to successfully reclaim and optimize film as a medium. Looking at these two films by Frank and Warhol in dialogue with one another reveals not only how these film move past mainstream cinema’s techniques to expound meaning, but also the limitations of film as a medium. About fifty years after the birth of Hollywood cinema, Jonas Mekas created the New American Cinema Group in the 1960’s to celebrate and promote films whose aesthetic agendas resisted and challenged the sleek, commercial nature of West-Coast cinema. Mekas advocated for a spontaneous style of film that did not rely on “a series of plots, facts, still-lives, moving collages and pastiches” in the manner of Hollywood films which he described as “morally corrupt, aesthetically obsolete, thematically superficial, [and] temperamentally boring.” Both Frank and Warhol created cinematic art that follow the unconventional style Mekas advocated. Frank’s Pull My Daisy is a short film that shows Beat Generation members, such as Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, improvising a plotline where a husband’s bohemian friends crash his wife’s dinner party for the bishop. Jack Kerouac narrates the film, and though he technically improvised the narration, the story is an adaptation of an unproduced play by Kerouac. Chelsea Girls by Andy Warhol is a collection of twelve short films shown in split screen. The various reels, showed in random pairs during screenings, follow women living in the Chelsea Hotel. While there is basic narrative structures to both films, they rely on the unconstrained absurdity of the bohemian lifestyles they record to drive the film’s plot—or lack-there-of—forward. Unlike Hollywood films, which obscure the filmmaker or artist’s hand, Frank and Warhol as filmmakers feel present within the film and the films themselves are self-conscious of their medium. Mekas wrote, “Nobody seems to realize that the quality of photography in cinema is as important as its content, its ideas, its actors. It is photography that is the midwife, that carries life from the street to the screen, and it depends on photography whether this life will arrive on the screen still alive.” Both Frank and Warhol used a “documentary” or “home-video” aesthetic in their films. This cinematography style coupled with the spontaneous actions filmed cause the works to feel more real, more intimate, and more immediate than the contemporary elaborate Hollywood movies, which typically relied on stiff scripts and studio protocol. While Frank and Warhol chose two different types of cinematographic observation—Frank active and Warhol passive—their cinematography styles recall what Mekas terms “transplanting life.” Frank followed his friends around an apartment and zoomed in on what fascinated him. Warhol placed the camera on a tripod and let the subjects move in and out of the frame. Both filmmakers allowed life to happen around them without their direction, which enabled them to document an unadulterated image of reality. The spontaneous nature of the two films gives them the unrefined but animated quality for which Mekas advocates. “We don’t want false, polished, slick films—we prefer them rough, unpolished, but alive” stated Mekas’ New American Cinema Group in their “First Statement of the New American Cinema Group” in 1961. Pull My Daisy used Kerouac’s play as a skeleton script or prompt that established boundaries within the production, but enabled Frank and the actors to play with various ideas. The fabricated story is improvised, yet feels authentic because of its cinematography. The malleable structure which lent itself to the exploration and revelations of the filming process caused Pull My Daisy to be a work James Agee, a film critic and screenwriter, described as not a “[documentary] but [a work] of pure fiction, played against, and into, and in collaboration with unrehearsed and uninvented reality.” The sense of spontaneity is furthered by Kerouac’s spur-of-the-moment narration style. Unlike Pull My Daisy, Warhol’s Chelsea Girls is not fictional but documentary. The film stemmed from Warhol’s idea to film his friends who lived in the Chelsea Hotel. These women play themselves and perform their everyday habits. He films them taking drugs, having sex, talking, etc. There are two sources of spontaneity within the film. The first is the subjects themselves and their personalities. For the most part, it seems as if the subjects he films have forgotten the camera’s presence for they act uninhibitedly. This spontaneity is subtle compared to that of the film’s presentation. Chelsea Girls is made up of twelve reels of footage. Projectionists were given little instructions beyond presenting two-reels on a split screen. Thus, every time a theater showed Chelsea Girls it was a unique presentation because of the couplings, their timing, and their dialogue. While the spontaneity of these two films likens them to contemporary art movements such as Abstract Expressionism, New Poetry, and spontaneous prose, it also raises questions about the nature and subsequent limitations of film as a medium. Frank’s Pull My Daisy is a film of the now and then—the now of viewing and the then of filming. The then and now are highlighted by Kerouac’s narration, which guides the viewers through the film. Since the film was shot without sound, like many home videos at the time, Kerouac’s narration resembles how a family member would describe his home video to relatives. The spontaneity of Kerouac’s description places him in the present, while he retells the events of the past. His personal engagement lies somewhere in-between. Thus, there is a temporal consciousness within the film and its storytelling, which affirms “cinema’s ability to render an experience of the present-as-past.” While film can replay reality, there will always be a disconnect between the world on screen and the reality within the audience. The exhibition of Warhol’s Chelsea Girls further complicated the relationship between the film and the audience. While the film has a structure, it lacks a specific narrative timing and sequence due to its unplanned presentation. If we consider the exhibition of the film reels as the present and the film images as the past, like Pull My Daisy, Chelsea Girls creates a present-as-past experience. However, its temporal consciousness is less focused on how film relays time through narrative or storytelling, and more so on how timing within a film and the cinema as a setting affects the audience. Chelsea Girls is technically a documentary that reveals the subculture of the Chelsea Hotel; yet the subject of the film is not the women Warhol films, but rather the audience who observes them in the theater. Mike Getz the manager of Cinema Theater in Los Angeles stated, “[Warhol] breaks down certain cliché experiences having to do with going to the movies. No matter what your response is, you will find some mystery in it – something completely different from your reaction to a Hollywood movie or even a foreign film.” Through controversial and confrontational subject matter, Warhol provokes the viewers to react in a way that questions film and the cinema and how American society values these two mediums within its cultural matrix. Ironically, “[Warhol’s] challenge to the medium serves ultimately to assure its legitimacy.” By challenging the ideas of cinema and straying from the ways of Hollywood, these two filmmakers sought a “revaluation of the aesthetic standards obtaining both among film-makers and audiences and for thorough revision of the prevalent attitude to the function of cinema.” However, while these two films successfully augmented the aesthetic of cinema, they failed to change the public’s perception of experimental film. While avant-garde film critics praised Pull My Daisy, it was not widely seen by the public. Disparate to any other avant-garde film at the time, Chelsea Girls was a commercial success and played at several theaters in New York City and the U.S. Nonetheless, according to film writer, Gregory Battcock “It is dismaying to see how critics attuned to the productions of Hollywood, to conventional narrative in cinema, have thoroughly managed to miss the point [of Chelsea Girls].” The two films’ inability to resonate with the public widely in the way the filmmakers intended, further points to the limitations of film as a medium which the public has preconceived notions of and expectations for from none other than Hollywood.
Subject: Art History
Analyze how Gustave Caillebotte's portraits of men challenge traditional nineteenth century ideals of masculinity.
Gustave Caillebotte’s famous Floor Scrapers of 1875 (Fig. 6) focuses on the working body as three men perform the grueling chore of stripping a hardwood floor of varnish. In accord with Duranty’s writing on portraiture which states, “A back should reveal temperament, age, and social position,” Caillebotte painted his subjects with careful observation and intricate detail. The realism of the scene as well as the backbreaking, hunched position of the workers is reminiscent of Jean-François Millet’s painting The Gleaners from 1857 (Fig. 7). Both paintings show working class individuals who rely on their body’s repetitive movement to complete onerous tasks in both urban and rural settings. Unlike Falgière’s boxers whose muscular bodies are rugged and powerful, the floor scrapers are muscular yet lean and lanky. Tamar Garb points out in his essay, “Masculinity, Muscularity, and Modernity,” that there was a difference between the muscles developed through exercise and the muscles developed through labor. The bourgeois developed strong, strapping bodies through sports of leisure, such as rowing, which created a rounder muscle compared to the sinewy muscles developed through exhausting tasks. Caillebotte hides the workers faces, which are intently staring at the floor beneath them, forcing the viewer to focus on the workers’ body language rather than expression. Caillebotte also strips the workers of their shirts accurately portraying “the way these robust fellows work, unabashedly putting aside any encumbering outfit, leaving only the most indispensable clothing.” According to Kenneth Clark in his book The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form, “To be naked is to be deprived of our clothes, and the word implies some of the embarrassment most of us feel in that condition. The word ‘nude,’ on the other hand, carries, in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtone.” While there are accounts that attest to Caillebotte’s admiration and study of the working class, the workmen’s semi-exposed bodies take on a sense humiliation when regarded through a realist perspective of the bourgeois. The bourgeois man’s body was cloaked head-to-toe. Compared to the modern-dressed bourgeois men working at the stock exchange in Edgar Degas’ Portrait à la Bourse from 1879 (Fig. 8), the floor scrapers’ bare sweaty bodies seem unrefined. The shame associated with their undress categorizes them as naked, rather than nude. Caillebotte’s realist rendering of these undressed workers was radical to the eyes of his bourgeois audience. “Do nude, but do beautiful nudes, or don’t do them at all!” stated one critic in reaction to Caillebotte’s scene. However, Caillebotte’s painting cannot be considered a nude. The nude is not a real human, but a design in which the human body’s natural characteristics such as wrinkles, moles, and imperfections are removed. The “cannon of perfection” associated with the nude influences artists to depict the naked body as a composition of “simple units” that have “a clear relationship” to one another. In contrast, the naked body is a complex form with parts and masses that connect without an obvious relationship to other parts. Thus, while the nude is balanced and confident, the naked is disconcerting and humble. The genre of the nude also rarely depicted men. Fourteen years after the creation of Caillebotte’s Floor Scrapers, British artist Hamo Thornycroft created the bronze sculpture, The Mower (Fig. 9). Similar to the Floor Scrapers, the subject of The Mower is half naked. The poems and letters by Thornycroft’s friend Edmund Gosse reveal the love and sexual desire felt by Gosse toward Thornycroft. The erotic undertones of Thornycroft’s The Mower, supports the historical assumption of the artist’s homosexuality. While the male’s muscles cohere to the purposeful and active attributes of masculinity, his curved pose and akimbo left-arm effeminizes the figure that seductively stares into the distance. The Mower was the first life-sized sculpture of a working class figure in modern Europe. According to Michael Hatt in his essay “Near and Far: homoeroticism, labor and Hamo Thorcroft’s Mower,” “The material realities of working-class manhood were veiled by the seductive surface of the sexualized labourer. For the sensitive bourgeois, it was often the physical masculinity of the working man which was erotic.” Consequently, there is an implicit homoeroticism in the artworks by Falgière, Caillebotte, and Thornycroft, which display muscular working class bodies to be admired by bourgeois men. Similar to the clothing of the bourgeois which reinforces their masculinity, the muscular definition of these three working-class figures empowers their virility; yet their naked bodies simultaneously make them vulnerable to the scrutiny of the upper-class. Caillebotte complicated the depiction of the naked male by painting a middle-class man toweling off in Man at his Bath, 1884 (Fig. 10). The private moment of the bath was a common scene in Impressionist art, however artists such as Degas and Renoir painted only women bathers (Fig. 11). Similar to Thornycroft’s The Mower, the Man at his Bath is a life-size portrait, which creates the provocative illusion that the male is undressed in front of the viewer. The male figure’s backside is completely exposed in a modern setting and lacking accessories symbolizing repute (i.e. swords, cloaks, jewelry, etc). According to Garb, the “demands for naturalism denied [the naked male’s body] the classicizing and idealizing protective sheath which had made of it the symbol of a spiritual as well as a physical beauty.” While the figure’s body is strong and sturdy, highlighting his masculinity, there are nuances of homoeroticism. The main focus of the painting is the man’s clenched buttocks. While the man’s scrotum is slightly visible, the viewer concentrates on the butt, which is associated with feminine sexuality since it is penetrable. Gay theorist Guy Hocquenghem states, “Seen from behind we are all women.” Further, the crumpled clothes on the ground, reminiscent of his Nude on a Couch from 1880 (Fig. 12), create a feeling of intimacy and promiscuity. The untidy interior Man at His Bath produces a relaxed atmosphere unconcerned with performing social formalities. The bourgeois man, unadorned by expensive clothing or contrived demeanor, has a traditionally masculine body with defined muscles, yet he is defenseless as he stands in front of the viewer naked. Caillebotte’s portraits of men reveal the complexity of mid-nineteenth-century masculinity. He depicts his men with a nuanced masculinity filled with contradictions that questions the relationship between the individual, his masculinity, and his sexuality. His paintings also challenges the sexuality of the male observer. Caillebotte, whose work was generally unknown during his lifetime, painted scenes with homoerotic tones during a time when homosexuality became increasingly feared as a threat to modern society. However, these tones of homosexuality are inexplicit, revealed through subtle details. His painting gave men with homosexual desires the ability to admire the body of a strong, masculine man in a way that was culturally acceptable—viewing art in a gallery. At the same time, Caillebotte’s paintings tricked heterosexual men into partaking in homosexual reflection. This idea supports Féré’s claim that modernity and civilization instigates homosexuality, since high art, like nightclubs or bars, could arouse inverse sexual arousal. The formalities of painting, like the trappings of masculinity, kept homosexuality incognito. On the surface Caillebotte’s canvases are paintings with experimental techniques and perspectives. However, once analyzed the interiority of the scene, like that of a man in a portrait, is unveiled.
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