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Boxing the Bourgeois

Establishing a foothold in the world of art and design isn't easy, but watching your career become exiled to Siberia certainly is. A pair of new posts this week explore what happens when épater le bourgeois goes horribly wrong.

We've referenced the concept of “épater le bourgeois” a few times around here over the years, but for those unfamailar with the term, let's let Roger Kimball explain:

It’s a lot of fun being an artist these days. Only a tiny percentage makes any money, but there is a big consolation prize in the form of attitude. Back in the late 19th century, many aspiring French artists were out to “épater le bourgeois.” The great problem going forward was that almost all artists were themselves part of the much-maligned group, the bourgeoisie. How, then, to amaze and startle oneself?

Early in the last century, Marcel Duchamp pioneered the two main strategies: the boring and the bizarre. To the first category belongs such “ready-mades” as “In Advance of the Broken Arm,” a “work” that consists of an ordinary snow shovel which, because Duchamp had the wit (or was it only the effrontery?) to exhibit it in an art gallery, suddenly achieved the transfiguring nimbus of Art with a capital “A.”

Duchamp’s second innovation aimed not to anesthetize viewers but to shock them. “Fountain,” an ordinary urinal displaced from the bathroom to the exhibition hall, was the founding gesture of that large gift to perpetual adolescents.

We’re much more sophisticated — at least, we’re much coarser — nowadays, so we are no longer shocked by the exhibition of a plumbing fixture. But in its time “Fountain” was every bit as shocking as (e.g.) Andres Serrano’s photograph of a crucifix submerged in urine.

There were plenty of titters, and probably other, less agreeable, sounds when Duchamp pulled his pranks, but what a large opening he created for those coming after him!

Of course, these days, there's no traditional bourgeois left to shock, and to build on Roger's comments above, with a century of repetition behind it, épater le bourgeois is better described in Yiddish than French. It's shtick, and I dare say that most of us on the right are long-since immune to these techniques. And these days, it's the art world itself that's far more bourgeois than bohemian these days, to borrow David Brooks' bobo formulation. (QED.)

First up a look at how to do it the horribly wrong way. Found via the Manolo, Linda Grant of the Guardian describes how former Christian Dior designer John Galliano epatered himself right out of the business:

According to fashion journalist Melanie Rickey, of the Fashion Editor at Large blog and Grazia, for years the industry has pushed Galliano to greater and greater extremes: “All everyone has ever wanted from John is transgressive fashion, and to use his excessive ideas to sell nice handbags and perfumes,” she says. And once you are set on a path to break taboos, it is almost impossible to find new ideas. So how on earth do you shock, when you have already exhausted S&M dungeons for ideas for haute couture? The great taboo in France and Germany is antisemitism. On this ground Jews were murdered or transported to be murdered. Watching the video of Galliano slumped alone at his bar table hurling insults at a woman who evidently asked why he didn’t make clothes that all women could wear, he spits out rage. She is ugly, he loves Hitler, he invokes the gas chambers. It’s a toxic mix of hate-speech, of racism and misogyny. How is it possible to go further than this?

If you are breaker of taboos, then antisemitism is only another taboo, no different from any other. It’s the saying of the unsayable. It has become the last frontier for those demanding freedom of speech, for whom everything, even the Holocaust, is fair game. Is Galliano an actual antisemite who hates Jews? Who knows what passes through his mind, but by invoking the name of Hitler and gloating about the gas chambers, he is only doing what others have always paid him to do: shock.

It’s Galliano’s fortune and misfortune to have been named as a genius. He wants to go to the S&M clubs of the Parisian underworld and bring back chains and put it over a black leather bag and call the bag Bondage? Why not? Who would dare tell him that he has no idea what he is talking about when he says he loves Hitler, or that there is something the matter with abusing women in bars? Around him are innumerable yes men and women, bowing to his great thoughts.

Which highlights how old and boxed-in the game of épater le bourgeois has become, and how tired and exhausted those who wish to practice it seem these days.

And speaking of boxed-in, here's how to do it right -- or at least, from the right. But first, some background. As Tom Wolfe wrote in The Painted Word back in 1975, an artist who hope to make a name for himself had to abandon whatever pretenses he had towards developing his own style, hop a Greyhound from Ohio or Iowa to the Village, and begin what Wolfe described as the "Apache Dance:"

During the 1960s this entire process by which le monde, the culturati, scout bohemia and tap the young artist for Success was acted out in the most graphic way. Early each spring, two emissaries from the Museum of Modern Art, Alfred Barr and Dorothy Miller, would head downtown from the Museum on West Fifty-third Street, down to Saint Marks Place, Little Italy, Broome Street and environs, and tour the loft studios of known artists and unknowns alike, looking at everything, talking to one and all, trying to get a line on what was new and significant in order to put together a show in the fall . . . and, well, I mean, my God—from the moment the two of them stepped out on Fifty-third Street to grab a cab, some sort of boho radar began to record their sortie . . . They’re coming! . . . And rolling across Lower Manhattan, like the Cosmic Pulse of the theosophists, would be a unitary heartbeat:

Pick me pick me pick me pick me pick me pick me pick me . . . O damnable Uptown!

By all means, deny it if asked!—what one knows, in one’s cheating heart, and what one says are two different things! So it was that the art mating ritual developed early in the century—in Paris, in Rome, in London, Berlin, Munich, Vienna, and, not too long afterward, in New York. As we’ve just seen, the ritual has two phases:

(1) The Boho Dance, in which the artist shows his stuff within the circles, coteries, movements, isms, of the home neighborhood, bohemia itself, as if he doesn’t care about anything else; as if, in fact, he has a knife in his teeth against the fashionable world uptown.

(2) The Consummation, in which culturati from that very same world, le monde, scout the various new movements and new artists of bohemia, select those who seem the most exciting, original, important, by whatever standards—and shower them with all the rewards of celebrity.

By the First World War the process was already like what in the Paris clip joints of the day was known as an apache dance. The artist was like t he female in t he act, stamping her feet, yelling defiance one moment, feigning indifference the next, resisting the advances of her pursuer with absolute contempt . . . more thrashing about . . . more rake-a-cheek fury . . . more yelling and carrying on . . . until finally with one last mighty and marvelously ambiguous shriek—pain! ecstasy!—she submits . . . Paff paff paff paff paff. . . How you do it, my boy! . . . and the house lights rise and Everyone, tout le monde, applauds . . . The artist’s payoff in this ritual is obvious enough. He stands to gain precisely what Freud says are the goals of the artist: fame, money, and beautiful lovers. But what about le monde, the culturati, the social members of the act? What’s in it for them? Part of their reward is t he ancient and semi-sacred status of Benefactor of the Arts. The arts have always been a doorway into Society, and in the largest cities today the arts—the museum boards, arts councils, fund drives, openings, parties, committee meetings—have completely replaced the churches in this respect. But there is more!

There is, but you get the gist. (You can read more from an excerpt of Wolfe's The Painted Word online at Wolfe's Website.) But woe betide the artist who shines a light upon the whimsies and peccadilloes of his benefactors or his peers. Remember, you're in the club -- the rest of the world outside is fair game, but never your fellow club members.