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Visions of the 1 % at Fashion Week

Tired of war, refugees, and Donald Trump?  Take heart: Fashion Week is here.  But although we might want diversion, escape, or vicarious indulgence of wretched excess, even the fashion shows are saying something about the news.  One of the themes this year is that wealth is here to stay.

OK, that may be one of the themes every year, but what’s interesting is that the designers are tuned in to how the 1% will continue to rule.  So far this year, there are at least two serious options.  One uses the theme of a new feudalism.

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This couture gown from Valentino took 1,300 hours to make.  1300 hours, and it still gets a lot of mileage from bare skin.  Maria Grazia Chiuri suggested that the show represented “diversity, and freedom, and the chance to express yourself.”  True enough, and certainly so if compared to ISIS.  But actually the look is going in the same direction as the Islamic State: back into a premodern world.

I see a woman waking in an ancient courtyard.  She might be a queen or a courtesan, and there aren’t too many other options.  Her bare feet, flowing gown, and jeweled hair evoke movie images of Greece or Rome, and the bare feet and shoulders suggest a warm environment–whether in a past Mediterranean world or one remade by global warming.  Like the model she is, she is likely to be doing what she is  told: making an entrance to play her role, or an exit to meet her fate.

The dress is too expensive for most of us but the image suggests a common destiny: a world that is devolving–changing, despite all its technological prowess–back into a time of extremes and inequities, hoarding and scarcity, nobles and peasants.  Many TV shows, movies, video games, novels, and other arts are exploring this vision.  They are obvious acts of imagination, but they are representations of real tendencies in modern societies around the globe.

And they can be wrong.  Not, however, because something like a reasonable social contract and shared prosperity will be restored.  The fashion shows present another alternative, one that is just a bit retro, uncannily so.

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In this tableau, the future is already here and it looks a lot like a modern past.  Posh, preppy, call it what you will: the 1 % rule look as they have before, although perhaps even more explicitly entitled and insolent.  The image also suggests that race and sexuality can be easily appropriated (as they always were) to reinforce class domination.  But I digress.  This is not the time to denigrate what progress has occured; not when the image is reminding us that nonetheless we might be slipping back into a social order made for the few and the very few.

As Scott Fitzgerald knew when he wrote The Great Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Photographs by Miquel Medina/AFP-Getty Images and Kevin Tachman for Michael Kors.

Cross-posted at Reading the Pictures.

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The Lesson of the Snowstorm

A resident shovels snow away from the entrance to his home in Union City, New Jersey, across the Hudson River from Midtown Manhattan, after the second-biggest winter storm in New York history, January 24, 2016. REUTERS/Rickey Rogers TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RTX23SDE

This is the photo that keeps coming up in the papers and the slide shows.  “A resident shovels snow from the entrance to his home in Union City, New Jersey, across the Hudson River from Midtown Manhattan, after the second-biggest winter storm in New York history, on January 24, 2016.”  That’s the caption, just in case you were wondering about the who, what, where, and when.  But that isn’t saying much.

Snowstorm photographs can’t avoid being stock images: whatever they are, you’ve seen them before.  This one is no exception, so novelty is not part of the appeal.  Nor is it a particularly striking photograph.  Whatever its features, I can think in every case of photos that displayed each one more directly: the undulations of white softness draping the furniture of the world, the gentle play of light and shadow on snow, the trees heavy with their winter foliage, the monster drifts, the daunting task of digging out. . . .  This photo has them all, but each quality is stacked up with the others, and they seem to subtract from one another rather than produce a cumulative effect.  So it really is an aftermath photo: emphasizing not the massive, magical inundation but instead the individuated labor of clearing a way back to the familiar routines of ordinary life.  And yet it is in its own way captivating.  Why?

The answer, I think, is that it provides a gentle reminder of just how good life can be.  Can be: not in every case.  That snowstorm will have caused car wrecks, heart attacks, and other bad news, and eventually we’ll be told how the costs for snow removal and lost business will run to the millions or billions.  But there is another story that won’t be told, except perhaps through this photograph.

If a snowstorm is your big problem this week, you’re doing fine.  If you have to shovel snow but can walk back into a warm brick brownstone where the heat is always on, where water always flows sure and clean at the turn of your hand, where you can look up and down the street and see everyone else having the same amenities. . . . . That is the good life.

The photo shows one kind of abundance–the unusually large covering of snow–to say something about another kind of abundance.  What covers reveals.  The snow temporarily removes all the cars, mailboxes, and much else from view, but we know that they are there.  It features a man working with a blade on a stick, but we know that is the closest he gets to experiencing primitive scarcity and vulnerability.  By showing how much can be temporarily stopped, it reminds us how much activity and prosperity are taken for granted.

And there is more.  As the snow also slows us down, it reminds us how we allow some of our riches to diminish others.  We have so much that we may forget to stop and marvel at the beauty of the world.  A snowstorm is beautiful, but so is a cloudy day.  It’s wonderful to curl up with a cup of coffee on an unexpected day off and look across a glistening landscape, and it’s wonderful to take a moment amid the morning rush any other day.

Come to think of it, that’s something you can do any time you look at a photograph like this one.  And others as well.

Photograph by Rickey Rogers/Reuters.

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Emoting with Panache at the Democratic Debate

Hillary and Bernie

There will be lots of photos from Sunday’s debate between the Democratic Party presidential candidates.  I get a kick out of this one of Hilary and Bernie both letting it rip at the same time.  We’ve posted regularly at this blog on how politics is a performance art–and how that can be a good thing for democratic politics.  Of course, it also can be a bad thing, but this year it’s no secret that the demagoguery is all on the other side of the street.

So there are at least two reasons to like this photo: because it provides a comic reminder that political performances can be simply amusing rather than hideous examples of bad speech, and because it suggests that oratorical demonstrativeness really may add something to democratic deliberation.

To accept either argument, you have to grant me one thing: that these are two policy wonks who already have demonstrated exactly how debaters should speak: by answering most of the questions directly, demonstrating broad and deep knowledge of governance, addressing important problems and real needs facing the electorate, building coalitions while answering, and doing all this articulately, with concision, wit, and moments of eloquence.  None of this denies that they also have dodged questions, answered with obvious strategic intention, and been adept at spin and spin control.  But if you know anything about how reasonable speech is supposed to work, whether on in a meeting or a public forum, they you can’t do much better than go to school on these two.

Which is why it’s a hoot that they also look like a comedy team on Saturday Night Live.  “Come on people–I WANT YOU TO CARE, DAMN IT!”  And “Wheee!  Look at me!  Aren’t we having fun?”  Completely different and completely the same; opposites and complements; raging seriousness and silly enjoyment side by side.  Together they capture what is in fact a deep tension within our political culture: too much entertainment or too much principled rigidity can each be a bad thing.  A well-functioning democracy needs some of each: at the least, it needs to appeal to ordinary people and get competing interests to work together, and in response to serious issues on behalf of our best values.  And it needs political leaders who can do that, and audiences who can appreciate what is required.

Needless to say, there is some irony in the photo as well.  Bernie Sanders is the one who is labeled an ideologue, while Hillary Clinton has a reputation for pandering.  Surely there could be other photographs of them switching roles: something they should be able to do, frankly.  And we can be confident that will, because of the emotional panache that is evident in this photo.

“Emoting” is a common answer in crossword puzzles.  The clues include “orating,” “acting,” and variations thereof such as “making a speech.”  That simple equation of public speaking and a theatrical performance actually captures an important truth.  We need our leaders to emote on stage–sometimes to communicate what really matters, and sometimes simply to provide a good show.  What they say and everything else matters, too, but let’s take a moment to see what is there to be seen.  One public art has captured another.

Democracy needs them both: both seriousness and humor, and both photojournalism and oratory.

And who knows?  Maybe even both Hilary and Bernie.

Photograph by Randall Hill/Reuters.

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