PRINT December 2008

Isabelle Graw

WITH A SUMMER COLLECTION that applied clichéd markers of painting (drips, splashes, areas off leaking color) to shoes and clothes, Yves Saint Laurent designer Stefano Pilati once again proved himself a worthy successor to his house’s great namesake, to whom France bid farewell this year with a state funeral. In that country Saint Laurent is seen as the most important artist since Picasso—a striking demonstration of the ultimate victory fashion has won over the fine arts in Paris, where fashion seems not only to have stolen the idea of modern art but also to have an ever-expanding cultural impact (unlike contemporary art). Indeed, if Saint Laurent’s relationship with art was throughout his life one of immediate and respectful appropriation of an artist’s work (e.g., the “Mondrian” day dress of 1965), Pilati instead draws on a repertoire of established motifs associated with “modern art,” which, it seems at first glance, he seeks to infiltrate. The best piece in his collection, a spacious canvas tote bag named “Raspail”—after an elegant boulevard in the immediate vicinity of YSL’s boutiques in Paris—presents itself as an Abstract Expressionist painting, fusing the visual languages of Clyfford Still and Morris Louis. Still’s signature fraying edges and perennially stark segmentation of the painting into zones of different color (in addition to his valorization of the unpainted surface) meet Louis’s stain technique and the resulting impression that the canvas is saturated with paint. One might say that the border separating the painterly from the decorative—and Clement Greenberg already felt half a century ago that it was fatally unstable—here proves blurry. But what constitutes the particular strength of “Raspail,” to my mind, is the fact that it takes the structural proximity of luxury goods and artworks to its logical extreme while also openly exploiting the cliché of art in fashion in order to insist on the fundamental differences between them.

Does that mean that this bag manages to be art? Far from it. This “painting” leaves no doubt about its actually being a bag. If luxury goods have sought in recent years to emulate the singular aura that works of art enjoy—with waiting lists for It Bags everywhere, for instance, and with customized handbags—a wide gulf still separates them from art’s incomparably higher symbolic value. Ever since eighteenth-century aesthetics invented the modern concept of art, “art” as such has been associated with an intellectual capacity luxury goods can only dream of. No collector of jewelry or expensive accessories could ever attain the sort of status enjoyed by the art collector.

Nevertheless, art and luxury products have much in common. Both are of great symbolic value; both afford their owners prestige; both are regarded as “experience goods” that promise memorable moments of aesthetic and social pleasure; both are not primarily defined by their usevalue. After all, no one goes out and gets the It Bag of the day because she absolutely needs a new bag. That artistic practices are likewise irreducible to external purposes is true even of those—from Productivism to Conceptual art—that lay claim to a social function—i.e., utility—and, as it were, posit their own purposes. Once they are marketed (if not sooner), they too face the erosion of use-value in favor of exchange-value that Guy Debord diagnosed in 1967 as a symptom of our “overdeveloped commodity economy,” in which use-value is not the driving force of either production or consumption.

Still, the overlap between luxury goods and artworks is not merely a matter of theory but increasingly also one of practical reality, since their respective audiences are now the same as well. People who buy contemporary art are usually members of the same class that betrays a weakness for luxury goods. When the art market booms, the luxury-goods sector also does well—that is how it has been since the sixteenth century. But the expansion of the art market has tightened the association between these two fields, as the financial crisis may well make incontrovertibly apparent. A compelling illustration of the closing of the circle can be found in the example of François Pinault, in whose hands all the strings of the art and luxury industries come together. He is not only the proud owner of an auction house (Christie’s) but also the founder of one of the most powerful business and fashion empires (PPR Group), a holding company—now led by his son, François-Henri—whose subsidiaries include fashion businesses such as Gucci, Bottega Veneta, and, as it happens, YSL. In addition, Pinault has built a large collection of contemporary art and acquired the Palazzo Grassi in Venice for the sole purpose of displaying it. He personally stands to benefit from this convergence of his two interests: Part of the money he spends on art will in all likelihood flow back into his corporation. Affluent artists and dealers, after all, are among the most enthusiastic consumers of designer fashion.

Fashion and art circulate through the same channels. This materialist perspective on art and luxury is also made manifest in “Raspail.” The canvas that provides the fabric of its being emphasizes the affinity between bags and paintings. And while the handle, dyed red, identifies it as a bag, it also signals the portability that, among other factors, allowed the painted canvas to become the most commercially successful artistic format. Both handbag and canvas owe their appeal not only to the belief system surrounding Painting with a capital P but also to considerations of mobility. Yet whereas the handbag is still defined by a residual immediate utility, no one takes his or her paintings for a demonstrative walk. Nor can paintings be worn on the body. “Raspail” makes up for this structural deficit by seeming to offer an Abstract Expressionist painting in the manageable dimensions of a bag. But, again, “Raspail” doesn’t claim to be an artwork. It is a fashion object that addresses the circuit of reciprocal desire between the spheres of fashion and art.

The significance of “Raspail” is only amplified by the fact that this year a number of big fashion labels—ranging from Louis Vuitton to Puma—strove to appropriate art’s historically hard-earned special status by commissioning visual artists (Richard Prince, John Armleder) to design their bags. Yet in comparison with “Raspail,” these attempts to confer artistic nobility on a bag invariably seem a little forced, even desperate. They too obviously bear the mark of the exaggerated hopes and expectations of everyone involved: on the one hand, the fashion label striving for a symbolic prominence comparable to that of the visual arts; on the other, the artist, fashion’s willing collaborator, lured by the promise of a net profit—in popularity, celebrity, cash, and glamour. “Raspail” seems to have shed such sorry aspirations, as it is the fashion designer himself who takes up the language of art, posing as an artist to make it clear that fashion is an activity of a different kind, with a different tradition. This may well be why it looks that much cooler. With this bag, fashion has painted fashion’s own image of art, conceding from the outset that this image is inevitably a cliché. By drawing on a visual language that fashion has already pillaged a number of times (the 2008 YSL collection also featured a pair of Pollock-esque men’s shoes, named “Jackson,” with multicolored splashes of paint), “Raspail” reproduces the naive enthusiasm for art and the notion of emphatic creativity in evidence everywhere in the world of fashion while also gently poking fun at them. The bag is a literal interweaving of the “work of art” and the “luxury product”—an interweaving, however, revealed on closer inspection to rest on the conscious deployment of misunderstandings, mutual projections, and differences barely hidden beneath the surface. Yet even if it is knowingly undermining itself, this bag cannot but profit from the symbolic value of the aura of art. Ultimately, however, it is by leaving no doubt about not being art while posing as art that “Raspail” becomes more than mere fashion.

Isabelle Graw is a Berlin-based critic and a founding editor of Texte Zur Kunst.

Translated from German by Gerrit Jackson.