To the uninitiated, art exists in a dimension far removed from the practicality of commerce. It’s regarded primarily as something delightful to be consumed, like discovering a pleasant truffle in the forest. At best, it’s seen as a clever diversion or as an expression of social idiosyncracies, stereotypes, and moods. How it arrives and the commercial dynamics that allow it to exist are usually a mystery to outsiders. Maybe at the furthest parameters of conventional thought, “difficult” art is seen as entertainment that requires a certain cultivation, like fugusashi, conceptualism, or butoh. But no matter how exotic or demanding, the economic mechanics of art remain obscure.
As Orson Welles once put it, “I don’t know anything about art, but I know what I like,” which is all that’s usually required to keep a fandom activated, MFA programs solvent, and industries afloat. It’s the pleasure principle: people instinctively know what moves them, what will stimulate them, and therefore what they’re willing to consume. “Follow that instinct,” says Penguin Random House, Artforum, Broadway, Paramount, Prada, “and pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”
A consumer might watch a documentary on a famous conductor or or take a gallery tour or attend a poetry reading, but the entertainment value of a piece of art to most people will usually be measured in terms of cleverness, immersive distractibility, or more cynically, through metrics of social proof. Art, especially when it emerges from pop-culture, seems to live in the end user regardless of its depth or historicity—not necessarily because it must be junk food or empty escapism, but because it can’t exist in a vacuum. Art requires community and it’s expensive to make.
As Stanley Fish argued in 1976, art (text) takes meaning primarily through the circumstances of its delivery, which is to say, through an interpretive community. And though reader-response remains controversial, the durability and social significance of art has always seemed to depend on how it can be commodified, marketed, and received, essentially on the consumer as its final critic. In this sense, fashion—as a performance, as a business, as a layered expression of desire—seems more honest and more transparent than other art forms. Fashion is wearable art. It emerges from interpretive communities and returns to them. It’s made to be sold, but it’s also made to be performed. It’s a noun and a verb, a commodity and a statement.
No other art is as tightly connected to the term, “industry,” in our language. Movies come close. But with the advent of streaming and the inertia of risk-averse, post-pandemic Hollywood, auteur cinema and the nebulous “art film” seem to have receded even further from popular consciousness in favor of more viable reboots, sequels, and franchises that will never die; though, we often wish they would. By contrast, the fashion industry doesn’t give the impression that it needs to hide behind rarefied atmospheres, nostalgic callbacks, or esoteric pretensions. It just needs to keep going.
In 1939, when Coco Chanel closed her store because she felt that World War Two had made high fashion socially inappropriate, she put over 4,000 women our of work. And she was hated roundly for it, perhaps even more than for her very public relationship with prominent Nazi Hans Günther von Dincklage. It seems her original sin, at least in the eyes of the French, wasn’t in her politics but in her dismissal of fashion.
No matter what’s going on in the world, fashion demands attention. It’s integral to human society. Diana Vreeland is famous for declaring, “It helps you get down the stairs. It helps you get up in the morning. It’s a way of life. Without it, you’re nobody.” Or, as Miranda Priestly says to Andy Sachs in The Devil Wears Prada, “You think this has nothing to do with you. Let’s talk for a moment about that awful blue sweater you’re wearing. Cameron Diaz wore a dress that color on the cover of Runway. The same shade of blue quickly appeared in eight other designers’ collections, then went to the secondary designers, the department store labels, and to some lovely Old Navy, where you no doubt found it. That blue is worth many millions of dollars and countless jobs.”
The general public rarely thinks of this—the logistics of design and fashion merchandising, the essential causality that brings a brilliant work of art to Cameron Diaz or an awful sweater to Old Navy. Outsiders normally have no idea about the unbelievable convergences of time, money, natural resources, manufacturing capacities, political and economic opportunities, technical skills, life experiences, and visionary insights that go into the process of fashion. That is, except for in one circumstance: the ubiquitous fashion show, which, if done well, can be a doorway to that floating world.