PRINT April 2001

Lev Manovich

AS DOT-COM MANIA SUBSIDES—and the market deflates along with it—we find ourselves in need of a little optimism. After all, we’ve embarked on a new millennium! We must imagine ourselves anew! Unfortunately, visual art can’t help us out much here, since it largely abandoned the old goal of representing the human form some hundred years back.
Enter fashion. Fashion’s everything contemporary art’s not: It cares about beauty; it’s mindful of its history—over centuries, not just days; it’s more semiotically layered than the most complex Photoshop composite; and it has one ever-present constraint—the human figure. Constraints make for great clothes (and great art!); in coping with the body, with all its limitations, the art of fashion can’t help but get inventive. Of course, cinema is also an art of the human figure, but its representations tend to be rather realist, limited to the dull strictures of life as it’s actually lived. In contrast, fashion—or at least its avant-garde wing—stands for futurism and fantasy: What else can a human being look like? What might have happened if Darwinian evolution had taken a few different steps—or leaps—along the way? We don’t have to wait until scientists start splicing our DNA to point us on the path not taken—season after season, fashion’s there to reinvent us.

Lev Manovich is the author of The Language of New Media, forthcoming from MIT Press this spring. A new-media artist, critic, and theorist, he teaches in the Visual Arts Department at the University of California, San Diego.