Art dresses itself in fashion's clothes

July 17, 1998

A PICTURE in Paris Vogue earlier this year showed a model in a dress by Christian Dior Haute Couture with the caption: "Comme un Jeff Koons, une porcelaine kitsch."

The dress and model were supposed to remind readers of a work by contemporary artist Jeff Koons, based on 19th-century popular versions of 18th-century fine porcelains, which were modelled on the idea of French courtesans dressing up as milkmaids.

It is an example of how art and fashion are bound together, says Robert Radford, lecturer at Southampton University's Winchester School of Art, where he is researching such links.

"The image has remained permanent, but the meanings are constantly in flux in complex and ironic ways," Mr Radford says.

His research taps into a trend. The Barbican Centre in London has an exhibition examining the artist Andy Warhol and links with glamour, style and fashion. The Hayward Gallery will hold an exhibition on art and fashion in the autumn.

Mr Radford argues that people respond to art like they respond to other aspects of modern life, instinctively and subtly. If you go into a shop and see a jumper you want to buy, you want it because you just "know" it is the jumper for you. You would not dream of getting any other, he says.

Similarly, people make fine distinctions between types of art experienced intuitively rather than intellectually. Mr Radford argues that this is because no area of contemporary experience is free of the desire for change, be it intellectual ideas, fashion or politics. The rise of mass communications has accelerated the need for flux, which has filled the vacuum left by intellectual movements stressing permanence and certainty.

People have been reluctant to acknowledge fashion's dominance, Mr Radford says, because they have not wanted to confront either the idea of a potential void or of the "frivolity" needed to fill it. "Art, as much as almost every other public discourse, is suffused with the mode of fashion and the idea of ephemerality," he says.

Today's influential movement of Young British Artists is wrongly criticised on the basis of a failure to appeal to certain levels of "authenticity", Radford says.

"Young British Artists have achieved notice precisely because they are very efficient readers of the fashion mode. I am not saying they are doing it in any careerist manner, but they are from the generation that does not feel constrained by idealism. They are an authentic representation of their times, while the public as a whole still expects art to deal with serious, permanent ideas."

Art and fashion will be one of the topics discussed at next year's annual conference of art historians held at Winchester School of Art in the spring.

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