In the early 2000s, just below Sunset Boulevard, a restaurant/nightspot place opened. It was called Les Deux Cafe, for a few years it was one of those cultural hotspots that emerge and that are, for a while, the centre of ‘action’ in the life of a city. It was hip and definitely a place to be ‘seen’ but it was also friendly and unassuming at the same time. Even the space itself was unique, a bohemian bricolage of spaces, comprised of an existing commercial building, a recycled craftsman house and a Provence garden built on what was once a parking lot. It was opened by Michèle Lamy, a visionary French woman, a most unique human being really. She began her career as a lawyer, was mentored by the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, was involved in the ‘68 protests in Paris, created a fashion line, and a restaurant, a club, a jewelry line, married designer Rick Owens, on and on. She is a force to be reckoned with, a woman with a singular vision about creativity, about life in general. Inspired by the Masai and other nomadic cultures she has developed her own way of being a 21st century nomad. I’ve attached a short podcast from the Business of Fashion podcast where she talks a bit about her life and her take on what it means to be creative and lead an iconoclastic life like hers.
“A grain of madness is the best of art.”
I should go on record and say that I love every film the artist Julian Schnabel has made. Basquiat and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly are two of my all-time favourite films by anyone. I think it is his own artistic eye that makes his work so appealing to me. His paintings have always stirred me and I find myself in similar emotional territory when I watch his films.
His latest is At Eternity’s Gate, a story about the end of Vincent Van Gogh’s life. It advances a controversial theory that his death was caused by mischief rather than suicide, but whatever ones position on his demise might be, it is hard to find much to critique in this deeply emotional and eloquent homage to V. v.Gogh.
“This is a film about painting and a painter and their relationship to infinity. It is told by a painter. It contains what I felt were essential moments in his life; this is not the official history - it’s my version. One that I hope could make you closer to him.” Julian Schnabel.
Willem Dafoe plays the artist with his usual intensity and passion (he was nominated for an Oscar for his performance). There are moments when he makes Van Gogh eerily similar to his portrayal of Jesus in The Temptation of Christ, and there is a bit of a hagiographic use of the camera at times, but it isn’t cloying or sentimental.
This is a film that takes art and artists seriously and etched into the visuals and the story are references to artistic process and meaning. Schnabel does a wonderful job of telling the story of Van Gogh’s tragic last years, it is quite a dreamlike and meandery telling at times but it works with the films focus in Vincents mental state and general struggle in life. Schnabel also infuses the film with great visuals that give glimpses of the world seen through Van Gogh’s eyes. The locations were in and around Arles where Van Gogh painted and lived and this adds to the overall beauty and melancholy ache of the film. The film tackles Van Gogh’s disturbed mental condition well and doesn’t whitewash the negative ramifications of its effects on his relationship with the local community.
As I said, the circumstances of the artists death are drawn from a somewhat controversial book written in 2012, by Steven Naifah and Gregory White Smith. I think it will be up to each viewer to decided for themselves about the veracity of the claim about the manner of his death, but this doesn’t affect the film at all, at least it didn’t for me.
The film has a beautiful and melancholy solo piano soundtrack by Tatiana Lisovskaya, which adds to the melancholy and dreamlike beauty of both the artist and the film.
A new show of works by Tracey Emin just opened at White Cube in Bermondsey.
Emin burst onto the art scene as part of the Saatchi sponsored, Sensation show, which introduced the world to a group of emerging British artists in the 90s (Hirst, Gavin Turk, Marc Quinn, Sarah Lucas et. al.). She was bold brash and scandalous, putting her actual bed on display, complete with all the detritus surrounding it, like used condoms, cigarettes, empty alcohol bottles. It generated one of those Duschampian “is it art?” moments. She followed up with a tent embroidered with the names of everyone she had slept with up to that point, friends, relatives lovers. She has since become a mainstay of the global art scene and a much loved public figure who can be counted on for brutal honesty, self-revelation and politically incorrect opinions about anything and everything.
The latest works, gathered together under the tile of A Fortnight of Tears, are classic Emin. It’s virtually impossible to separate the artists from her work, she herself refers to her paintings as her children and has described her creativity as a moment of conception. It’s a large show, featuring drawings, paintings, iPhone photos, neon sculptures and huge bronzes. It’s a moving exhibit, Emin’s work is visceral and riddled with the complex emotions of human existence. Love, anguish and pain haunt both her and her pieces. a gallery called the Ashes Room contains images of the casket holding her mother’s remains and self-portraits of Emin, it’s a room where grief holds sway and it’s hard not to cry when you encounter the works in spite of the crowds surrounding. Another room is called Insomnia and features huge prints of iPhone selfies Emin took of her struggle with sleep, they are confrontive images, devoid of any attempt at filtering out the ravages of life and sleeplessness.
This is art as self-examination, it is intensely personal and subjective and that’s what makes it so universally accessible, she gives voice to our own sense of grief, loss, joy and hope. Her well-documented rape and abortions, her odes to motherhood and sex all feature here as you might expect and she continues her long artistic relationship with image the combination of image and text and her love of translating words into neon. She scratches, she scrawls, she writes, she wails and she casts her feelings onto canvas, out of neon and into bronze and it is beautiful to see.
The latest release in Polity book’s Theory Redux series is called The Second Coming, written by one of my favourite Italian philosophers, Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi. The series, edited by Laurent de Sutter, brings some of the world’s most radical thinkers together in an engaging series of books that explore the edges of contemporary philosophy and social theory in accessible and engaging ways.
Berardi teaches the social history of communication at the Accademia di bella Arti in Milan, and has a long pedigree in leftist politics and activism in Italy stretching back to the late 1960s. he has released a number of books over the past couple of years, most of which have circled around the impact of technology and capitalism on work and workers in the 21st Century.
Taking the theological concept of the apocalypse as a starting point, Berardi explores the chaos surrounding us-political folly, economic craziness, technological reconfigurations and ecological disasters. We live in times of dramatic change according to Berardi, but rather than seeing those changes as change for the better, every change seems to make matters worse, and worse than that, we seem incapable of believing that the world could be changed for the better. Nothing can save us, but that should not cause us despair, if the world is dead then space is opened up for a new world to emerge.
The Second Coming of the title is another theological notion Berardi employs, but it is not in service of the divine, but rather an argument for the second coming of Communism. A lifelong Marxist, it is not surprising that Berrardi would see something in that ideological world that offers hope for the current state of affairs, but he goes to great lengths to separate what he means by his version of Communism from the form that emerged a hundred years ago and took root in Russia. Berardi is aware of the challenge of using the word communism, noting its largely negative connotations in the minds of most, but rather than find a new term he seeks to redefine and re-contextualize not only the word but the ideas for the 21st century. His is not some nostalgic, zombie-Marxism, but something entirely different,
“The way out of the labyrinth is emancipation from the superstition of salaried labour, and I’m calling this emancipation ‘Communism’ : memes provoking a reset of our expectations. In my parlance, the word ‘communism’ is the trigger for a process of memetic disentanglement of the possibility that is inscribed in the network of the general intellect.
When I say ‘Communism’, I use this word to refer to the meme that has to be created, engineered and set in motion on the post-apocalyptic scene.”
Memes are important for Berardi, they represent a sign of our transition from the alphabetical world to immersion in the infosphere.
Beyond his own argument for the return of Communism, albeit in an entirely different form, the argument supporting this thesis is that we need to start thinking again, and that our lack of thinking is perhaps the reason we are in all this trouble in the first place. Interestingly he argues against political action and for a ‘reshuffling of the general intellect’,
“Capitalism is not a natural given; it is made insurmountable y our inability to imagine. We can’t imagine Communism, only because our imagination is trapped by cynicism.”
Regardless of one’s feelings about communism, this book will challenge conventional thinking about the current state of affairs, and if an apocalypse is coming, i’ll take Berardi’s advice any day over the status quo.
I’ve been reading a lot about technology lately. It’s hard to avoid the triumphalist tone that is often set by those who see technology as the arbiter of human flourishing, who think that the closer our ties with digital technology the greater our chance of overcoming human limitations might be. The overcoming of human limitation is an integral part of technology. As Marshall McLuhan noted, technologies allow us to extend ourselves beyond our limits; with a telephone you can hear and speak further, with a television see further etc. With digital technologies we are entering the realm of the post-human and seeing the collapse of boundaries between the human and the machine and increasingly coming face to face with the potential and possibility of AI-artifical intelligence. There is a giddiness that accompanies many of the pronouncements about technology and its capabilities that sometimes worries me a little. I am far from a Luddite, I just worry that we are not asking the right kinds of questions about the implications of many of these ideas that are already intruding into our world. I came across the above TEDtalk around the same time that I received my latest missive from the musician Nick Cave. I subscribe to The Red Hand Files, and receive occasional notes from Cave in response to questions he is asked by fans. It is a glimpse into his thinking on a wide range of topics. The most recent missive concerned, the very topic discussed in the Ted video, the potential for AI to create great music.
My suggestion is to watch the video and then read the note from Cave, which I am posting below,
“In Yuval Noah Harari’s new book 21 Lessons for the 21stCentury, he writes that Artificial Intelligence, with its limitless potential and connectedness, will ultimately render many humans redundant in the work place. This sounds entirely feasible. However, he goes on to say that AI will be able to write better songs than humans can. He says, and excuse my simplistic summation, that we listen to songs to make us feel certain things and that in the future AI will simply be able to map the individual mind and create songs tailored exclusively to our own particular mental algorithms, that can make us feel, with far more intensity and precision, whatever it is we want to feel. If we are feeling sad and want to feel happy we simply listen to our bespoke AI happy song and the job will be done.
But, I am not sure that this is all songs do. Of course, we go to songs to make us feel something – happy, sad, sexy, homesick, excited or whatever - but this is not all a song does. What a great song makes us feel is a sense of awe. There is a reason for this. A sense of awe is almost exclusively predicated on our limitations as human beings. It is entirely to do with our audacity as humans to reach beyond our potential.
It is perfectly conceivable that AI could produce a song as good as Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, for example, and that it ticked all the boxes required to make us feel what a song like that should make us feel – in this case, excited and rebellious, let’s say. It is also feasible that AI could produce a song that makes us feel these same feelings, but more intensely than any human songwriter could do.
But, I don’t feel that when we listen to Smells Like Teen Spirit it is only the song that we are listening to. It feels to me, that what we are actually listening to is a withdrawn and alienated young man’s journey out of the small American town of Aberdeen – a young man who by any measure was a walking bundle of dysfunction and human limitation – a young man who had the temerity to howl his particular pain into a microphone and in doing so, by way of the heavens, reach into the hearts of a generation. We are also listening to Iggy Pop walk across his audience’s hands and smear himself in peanut butter whilst singing 1970. We are listening to Beethoven compose the Ninth Symphony while almost totally deaf. We are listening to Prince, that tiny cluster of purple atoms, singing in the pouring rain at the Super Bowl and blowing everyone’s minds. We are listening to Nina Simone stuff all her rage and disappointment into the most tender of love songs. We are listening to Paganini continue to play his Stradivarius as the strings snapped. We are listening to Jimi Hendrix kneel and set fire to his own instrument.
What we are actually listening to is human limitation and the audacity to transcend it. Artificial Intelligence, for all its unlimited potential, simply doesn’t have this capacity. How could it? And this is the essence of transcendence. If we have limitless potential then what is there to transcend? And therefore what is the purpose of the imagination at all. Music has the ability to touch the celestial sphere with the tips of its fingers and the awe and wonder we feel is in the desperate temerity of the reach, not just the outcome. Where is the transcendent splendour in unlimited potential? So to answer your question, Peter, AI would have the capacity to write a good song, but not a great one. It lacks the nerve.”
Assume Form is the latest release from James Blake. Assuming material form is very much the driving idea behind this latest project. “The plan is to become reachable, to assume material form, to leave my head and join the world,” is what Blake said in an interview with iTunes regarding the genesis of his fourth album. What that means is that Blake’s new work is probably his most accessible to a wider audience. The stuttering hip-hop beats, combined with electronic wizardry and R+B vocals is still the core of his work, but this time, things are smoothed out a little and accompanied by layers of vocals and strings and collaborations with other artists. I’m sure that for some ardent fans committed to Blake’s particular kind of fractured musicality, Assume Form might feel too accessible, too mainstream, but I think it is a stunning step forward for an artist whose creative edge refuses to bow to peer pressure. Blake’s work in and with hip-hop has long been regarded as one of the potential futures of that particular genre’s leading edge, and while he doesn’t step back from those influences on this project, they are somewhat muted in and in the service of something else, something other. Songs flood into gorgeous orchestral moments, swirling choral vocals, some auto-tuned, some not, classic strings and orchestration lift songs into unexpected major chord crescendoes.
This coming into view, assuming material form and joining the world, is not only present in the songs, it is present on the album cover which pictures Blake probably m ore clearly than he has ever been seen before.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about contemporary portraiture and the habit of blurring faces that seems common of late, and here we have the opposite move-a coming into view, into focus, a new clarity. It would seem that Blake’s album heralds a new and clearer focus for him, hopefully that will be true for the rest of us.
“the performance of everyday life as mediated by the smartphone depends on a vast and elaborate infrastructure that is ordinarily invisible to us.” Adam Greenfield
I’ve been reading a fascinating book by Adam Greenfield called, Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life. It’s a book that digs deep into life in the Network Age and explores the complex relations we have with everyday technologies. The smartphone, as you would imagine, figures heavily in the book, Greenfield writes about the subtle ways in which we are immersed in a whole new sense of subjectivity—as Marshal Mcluhan said many decades ago, technology changes who we are, or rather who we perceive our selves to be in relation to self, others and the world around us.
Now I’m sure I am coming late to this, but when Greenfield turns his attention to biometric sensors, he mentioned an organization called Quantified Self. It was established in 2007 by Kevin Kelley of Wired magazine and Gary Wolf. The OS practices life-logging or self-tracking, capitalizing on the emerging world of measuring data that is available to us-everything from counting steps to monitoring ovulation. The mission of the organization seems fairly innocuous,
Our mission is to support new discoveries about ourselves and our communities that are grounded in accurate observation and enlivened by a spirit of friendship.
Far be it from me to pass any judgment on this, it is a purely personal decision to utilize available technologies in this manner, but I admit that something about this measuring has always made me uneasy. The Fitbit/AppleWatch craze of measuring steps, heart-rate etc. is something that leaves me cold to be honest.
I think it is the notion of measuring performance that irks me. Counting steps turns a walk into exercise and then into a goal and a performance and I feel as though something is being taken away by this constant measuring that goes on now-whether it is counting calories, or steps and so on. I think the larger issue that I’m concerned about is the normalizing of this way of living. According to Greenfield, what is not asked is what this information about the self is being mobilized for and how it came to be that measuring our lives in this manner came about in the first place. As I have already said, I think it’s fine for a group of people to be into this, but it feels as though we are being steered in this direction as more and more technologies emerge that offer more complex measuring techniques.
“Against the backdrop of late capitalism, the rise of wearable biometric monitoring can only be understood as a disciplinary power traversing the body itself and all its flows.”
It’s the capitalist component in all of this that concerns me. Our technologies are offered to us within the stream of consumer-capitalism and what seems to be seldom considered in all of this talk of technology is the implications of economic systems driving this. Data is collected from us, this is the exchange we make in return for access. This data is also leveraged and sold on to other economic interests and most of the time we are unaware of that. This new subjectivity, the mediated self, the digital self, the quantified self, whatever we might call it, exists within a labyrinth of relations, with vested economic interests and agendas.
I do not wish to rail against technology as much as ask us to take a minute to ‘listen between the clouds,’ to take a moment to think about what is happening to us and with us as life becomes more and more enmeshed in networks.
I’d be really interested in any of your thoughts on this, so feel free to comment back.
(God 1, 2014 George Condo)
I have spent the better part of more than three decades exploring the world of the divine, the realm of the sacred and notions about faith, belief and God. Like many people my view of God has changed a lot over the years, although I am not sure I was ever entirely convinced, it just came with the territory of religion so I embraced concepts that were handed to me without much reflection. But it didn’t take long for that decision to become problematic in my life as I tried to reconcile things that I was feeling, thinking and experiencing with ideas that seemed a bit hard to hold onto and made very little sense to me, even when I was embedded in a much more conservative and bounded religious environment.
“I don’t believe in an Interventionist God,” when I heard those words, the opening line from Into My Arms by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, in 1997, I was searching for language to help me give voice to the shifting ideas inside me that I wanted to express. I didn’t believe in an interventionist God, that was a place to begin. I took those words and began to create a new language to talk about the divine. I’d been reading some Death of God theology (Altizer, Vahanian), and some more progressive theological voices and I had also begun an exploration into deconstructionist philosophy, but I felt the need to voice things in a more approachable way as I was doing a lot of speaking in community settings. I’d also started to teach theology and cultural stuff whilst doing a PhD but wanted to translate a lot of things into a more accessible vocabulary as I was interacting with people coming from fairly evangelical and non-denominational backgrounds who tended to react negatively when things were couched in certain language structures.
My views about God have continued to shift. I realized that the notion of a supernatural, metaphysical God was never of much interest to me, my journey into religion borne out of an interest in the humanistic, materialist aspects of the life of Christ, but it took me a while to give that shape and expression.
This past week, more words about all of this came via Nick Cave. I subscribe to a things called Red Hand Files which is a digital space where Cave responds to questions from some of his fans. This reply was in response to a few questions, all of which in someway asked about Cave’s views about God. I thought I would post the whole thing here and let you read it for yourself rather than quoting or paraphrasing it.
Dear Ali, Maggie, João and Peter and the many people who have asked similar God related questions.
I’ve been circling around the idea of God for decades. It’s been a slow creep around the periphery of His Majesty, pen in hand, trying to write God alive. Sometimes, I think, I have almost succeeded. The more I become willing to open my mind to the unknown, my imagination to the impossible and my heart to the notion of the divine, the more God becomes apparent. I think we get what we are willing to believe, and that our experience of the world extends exactly to the limits of our interest and credence. I am interested in the idea of possibility and uncertainty. Possibility, by its very nature, extends beyond provable facts, and uncertainty propels us forward. I try to meet the world with an open and curious mind, insisting on nothing other than the freedom to look beyond what we think we know. Does God exist? I don’t have any evidence either way, but I am not sure that is the right question. For me, the question is what it means to believe. The thing is, against all my better judgement, I find it impossible not to believe, or at the very least not to be engaged in the inquiry of such a thing, which in a way is the same thing. My life is dominated by the notion of God, whether it is His presence or His absence. I am a believer – in both God’s presence and His absence. I am a believer in the inquiry itself, more so than the result of that inquiry. As an extension of this belief, my songs are questions, rarely answers.
In the end, with all respect, I haven’t the stomach for atheism and its insistence on what we know. It feels like a dead end to me, unhelpful and bad for the business of writing. I share many of the problems that atheists have toward religion – the dogma, the extremism, the hypocrisy, the concept of revelation with its many attendant horrors – I am just at variance with the often self-satisfied certainty that accompanies the idea that God does not exist. It is simply not in my nature. I have, for better or for worse, a predisposition toward perverse and contradictory thinking. Perhaps this is something of a curse, but the idea of uncertainty, of not knowing, is the creative engine that drives everything I do. I may well be living a delusion, I don’t know, but it is a serviceable one that greatly improves my life, both creatively and otherwise.
So, do I believe in God? Well, I act like I do, for my own greater good. Does God exist? Maybe, I don’t know. Right now, God is a work in progress.
There are many things in this short response that I connect with. Like Cave I often find myself between the twin poles of possibility and uncertainty and I agree with him that uncertainty is a great key to unlock one’s imagination and creativity. I also tire very quickly of the atheist argument,. Recently, the comedian Marc Maron said that given the choice he would prefer lunch with a reasonable Christian over a vegan atheist, and I understand (no offense to vegans, hahaha). I’m also fairly committed to the inquiry, to the questions, and the process of questioning, rather than the answers.
At this stage in my life I don’t believe in God, at least not the supernaturalist being most often described as such. I’m open, but I live with the idea that Christ, and Christianity, is about the end of ideas about that kind of God, not a testament to His existence. But I am, at the same time, haunted by the idea of that God, religious stuff runs deep and doesn’t depart quickly when turned away from. So my life is still marked by inquiry, by question, by possibility, but I swim in the waters of uncertainty, not looking for answers, but trying to keep the questions alive.
Next year I have a book coming out that explores some of these ideas more formally. i wrote it with a friend, it’s called, The Aesthetics of A/Theism, I’ll let you know the release date when I have it.
“There are three kinds of people in the world. Those who see; those who see when they are shown; and those who will never see.” Amy Cappellazzo
The Price of Everything is a sobering, sometimes sad and enthralling documentary about the art world, focused primarily on the highs and lows of the art market. if you ever wondered about the relationship between art and commerce this film will give you a brutal introduction to the fickle nature of art as investment and the challenge of being an artist in such a world. The quote at the top of this post made by Sotheby’s Fine Arts Chair, pretty much sums up the reality that the film tries to address. In a world where investors, hedge-fund managers, artists, dealers and collectors craft a value-driven world and ascribe worth to physical objects in an often cynical manner.
The film addresses the disparities and challenges of being in an artist in a world like this, because, as the documentary shows, not everyone gets to reap the rewards of having their work sell for millions or increase in value. It is arbitrary and cynical and market-driven. The film charts the explosion of the contemporary art market back to 1973, when New York Yellow Taxi magnate, Robert Scull auctioned off his collection. This seminal moment changed the art market for ever.
The ‘artistic’ device in the film is a tenuous comparison between the heady successes of Jeff Koons against the obscurity of Larry Poons, whose success in the art market peaked in the 1970s when he created a series of wildly popular dot paintings. His humble circumstances and honest musings about the purpose of art over against the concerns of markets and investors provide some of the film’s most tender moments. of course, It’s a cinematic device, but Poons is a perfect. “The only defence against fate is colour,” he declares as the camera pans his large, panoramic, abstract pieces.
Art critic, Jerry Saltz, also has some great moments of commentary. never one to shy away from an opinion (check out his instagram: @jerrysaltz). The film briefly shows a clip of Jackson Pollock creating one of his famous drip paintings. Saltz says,
“When he finished his first drip painting, he asked his wife, “Is this a painting?” He made something that may not even fit in the very large category we call art. What many people don’t know is that Pollock only dripped for about forty-eight months. I would ask of any artist or cynic, “If you invented fire,” which Pollock did, “Are you strong enough to stop making fire and go back to hell? 48 months later, go back to hell and try to make something new again. how many people have done that?””
It’s a compelling critique against making art purely for the market and that notion is gently referenced by a couple of up and coming artists who are wrestling with the prospect of what they will do with their creative process if their success with a particular approach would be threatened by their embrace of some new process or practice.
Art and commerce have been in cahoots for centuries. What is new today is art as investment, the purchasing of art like real estate; something to roll over and make a profit on, and the increasing disappearance of art into private collections as museums cannot compete with private money for available works.
It’s both disappointing and fascinating to watch this film. Nothing it tells you is really that new, but the way it is told and, the way in which the inner workings of the contemporary art market are exposed, makes this really worth watching. The Price of Everything is filled with fascinating characters from all sides of the art world and in spite of the revealed ugliness of a value-driven, cynically capitalist and consumerist world it portrays, it manages to deliver a homage to the creative process of making art, which is always a good thing
“Transgression reveals what Christianity attempts to conceal, namely that “the sacred and the forbidden are one, and that the sacred can be reached through the violence of a broken taboo.” Dominic Pettman
I am interested in fashion. I always have been. I used to get in trouble at school for uniform violations all the time; a checked shirt instead of white or grey, the occasional coloured socks, the wrong shoes, hair too long, then too short. One of my earliest jobs was after school and at weekends working in the stockroom of one of the only men’s clothiers in the town I grew up in. I buy fashion magazines all the time, even when I’m broke, and there is nothing I like more than visiting clothing stores and checking things out.
The past few years have seen some interesting developments in the fashion world. The latest perhaps being the appointment of Virgil Abloh, former Kanye West collaborator and creator of the Off-White streetwear label, as creative director of Louis Vuitton. Not only is he the first African-American to head up a major french fashion house, he’s also comes from the world of streetwear and is a DJ. He is part of a re-defining of the fashion industry that is underway right now.
But it’s Gucci and its creative director Alessandro Michele that has really captured my attention the past couple of years. If there are any lessons to be learned from the world of fashion as it negotiates the current times, I think Gucci might be the place to be looking. As someone recently wrote, “while other brands are developing apps, Gucci is busy writing a new OS.”
It all began with Michele. Appointed to the position seemingly out of nowhere (he was not widely know although he had worked at Gucci for a number of years in different positions) he almost immediately set about re-positioning the company. A decision was made from the beginning to give Michele complete creative control and the business side of things was set-up to serve that end. This has allowed for a complete and quite radical overhaul of the entire brand in a few short years.
What the brand has managed to so is reach millennials whose relationship to consumerism is very different than the focus of traditional luxury brands. Luxury goods focus on high quality craftsmanship and exclusivity, two values that millennials and under 35s in general have little interest in responding to. Rather than buy things for status they tend to buy to please themselves and are much more interested in things like passion and authenticity (a troubling word, I think it’s a bit of a misnomer, believability might be better but I will save that for later). Things like sustainability, company transparency, ethical manufacturing matter, which again, luxury brands have been slow to respond to. Fashion is fundamentally wasteful which hasn’t helped in gaining environmentally minded consumers in the past.
So Gucci put creativity at the centre of the brand, created a new set of values built around sustainability, respect, empowerment and inclusivity and then took a whole new approach to the market. They have also brought answered the demands of the digital economy in a way no other company has and become the best-performing digital luxury fashion brand. They have done that by choosing a strategy that honours the brand integrity and focuses on the channel second, or to put it another way, they are not driven by the tyranny of digital platforms but by the vision of the company.
You may be aware of the huge market in counterfeit luxury goods-fake clothing and bags that bear company logos but are really cheap knock-offs. Well, Gucci decided to absorb those fake things into the brand. Canada’s GucciGhost created a capsule line with Michele. Dapper Dan the Brooklyn tailor who created memorable outfits at the height of hip-hop out of fake luxury brand fabrics became a partner in another venture with the company. The company even produced a series of t-shirts with the misspelt Guccy name that is often found adorning knock-off products. The energy of the transgressive was absorbed into the ethos of the real company. All of this transformation essentially came out of nowhere and took everyone in fashion by surprise.
I have been giving all of this a lot of thought with regard to the worlds that I inhabit in my working life, the world of theological innovation and practice for instance. Without pushing the analogy too far, Christianity, the Church, is a bit like a stagnant fashion brand, constantly trying to find the latest trend to capture the imagination of the public. But it always feels tired and repetitious, a bit like lipstick on a pig, the same thing underneath but hopefully we are drawn away by some surface glitz.
Gucci was caught up in a cycle just like that. Fashion has traditionally run on seasons: fall, summer, winter, cruise, spring, each new season bringing a new collection. Michele has abandoned that approach and created a more integrated, holistic model, blending seasons, shows and markets into a new permutation. If you like he has abandoned the petit recits of the postmodern in favour of a new type of meta-narrative, a post-postmodern story that is broad, inclusive, and beholden to none of the old ideas that have driven fashion for a long time. It is not a static, authoritative modern meta-narrative, but rather an evolving, open-ended space where a story is built upon season after season in order to create a changing space where ideas can live, be amended, adjusted, and added to. Each time there is a new Gucci collection, it builds on what has come before. It is not that the clothes don’t change in terms of look etc., it is deeper than that, the message isn’t just in the clothes, it is in the space that Michele is creating through the company. In a recent article in Tank magazine Michele is quoted as saying, “The revolutionary thing is that you can be Gucci even if you don’t buy one part of the collection,” in other words, it’s about a way of looking at life as much as it is about what clothes you wear.
What does it mean to be Gucci? Well, there is no single answer to that, it is many things, but ultimately it means that it is to engage in a process of self-realization, not necessarily through the clothes and accessories but through the very ideas the company is offering up. Gucci sees the conventional wisdom of the fashion industry and goes in the opposite direction, abandoning all attempts to reclaim the past as a future model.
It’s not so much a revolution of fashion as an insurrection. Michele and Gucci president Marco Bizzarri, are not engaged in a power struggle with other brands, they are crafting their own market space by radically reconfiguring how they do fashion. The heart of this insurrection is built around transgression, whether it be embracing the transgressive world of fake luxury or by transgressing fashion’s concrete rules in favour of new approaches which liberate the company from the tyranny of a world that no longer works. Foucault wrote that transgression is an “affirmative gesture that must be liberated from the scandalous or subversive,” something Gucci has managed to do with great success.
Christianity would seem to be committed to the opposite of the transgressive, but I think that what has been missing or lost in the shuffle somewhere is the very transgressive nature of the Christian story. “The transgressive rejects stable codes in order to clear an ideological space; a space for action, experimentation, chance, freedom, mobility. it seeks to explode orthodox notions of coherence and consistency,” so says the cultural theorist Dominic Pettman. In a transgressive environment contradictions might be reconciled and if not they are fused together in a sort of wild clash of celebration (one look at the clashes that come together in Gucci’s fashion demonstrates a fabricated version of this—it shouldn’t work, but it does).
The take-away for me is that there is a need for an insurrectionist, transgressive take on Christianity that relieves itself from the tyranny, from the hostage, of business as usual, or the tendency to look backwards in order to find a way forward, and instead creates a space for a different experiential encounter and the possibility of re-formulation. What does that look like? Like everything you’ve ever seen and nothing you’ve ever seen before. How is it done? Well we have to start where we are and build out from there, or as Picasso says, “Go and do the things you can’t, that is how you get to do them.” We’ll talk more about this soon.