Culture, metaphorically speaking, is the air we breathe. It determines my ‘state of mind’ and by extension the activities that issue forth from such a mind-state. It suggests the workings of a ‘total mind’ over and above the individual mind. Nicholas A Christakis, a researcher, sociologist and Professor of Social and Natural Sciences at Yale University, goes to the extent of calling it the first form of artificial intelligence. It indicates the ways in which we are programmed to behave by virtue of the values and ideals of the social networks within which we are embedded. Not only do we influence the behaviors of others, we are also influenced by them.
Yet, as the world we inhabit today is growing increasingly complex, causing us to grow our networks rapidly and exponentially, the strength of the networks is actually weakening. The wider our social network seems to grow, the weaker becomes the adhesive power of cultural ideals, which often get diluted by the infusion of new ideas. A strong common cultural ground is lost and we find ourselves floating perpetually in an endless space of ambiguity. We find ourselves drifting between diverse cultural groups. The culture of our families is different from the culture of the organizations we work for, whose culture may be different from the culture of the spiritual institutions we may be a part of, whose culture may be at complete variance from the culture of the ‘school group’, ‘the beer-lovers group’ or the ‘marathoners group’ I may have on my Whatsapp chats. Increased connectivity has led to a decreased sense of identity- a case of belonging everywhere and by virtue of that, belonging nowhere in particular. We’re becoming increasingly okay with difference, consuming freely of what we may have earlier denied ourselves and in the bargain, becoming more and more susceptible to unchecked influence. Standards of behavior have not only fallen, but also any mention of them, has come to be seen as being prudish and too ‘tradition-oriented’. We suspect that any reckoning of the standards of beauty and good taste will stand in the way of true and fearless experimentation and therefore our progress towards new ideas. Ideas have come to replace ideals. The (artificial) ideal-based intelligence of culture has been disrupted and taken over by the artificial, idea-based intelligence of big data and algorithm-based design. The unprecedented exposure that a rapidly growing media and highly addictive technology-driven social platforms have given us, have undeniably corrupted our minds, our senses and our tastes.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the world of art and in the sensitive mind of the artist. The first amongst us to feel, see and sense, the artist cannot help but make visible all that lies hidden deep within our disturbed psyches. Scatological art, brutalized body images, the objectification of women, the unaesthetic and intentionally disturbing political statements, the heady mix of violence and glamour-today we’ve seen all there is to see and even more. This increasing abstraction of art, its disinterest in the cultivation of tastes and the resultant lack of a connection it has with the people at large- is evidence of the growing chasm between the heart and the mind. We’re increasingly feeling we have no one to talk to, no one interested in listening to us and no one to offer us a beautiful response to the confusions we feel. We are inundated with images, objects and stories but clueless about how we should make sense of it all. We’re consuming indiscriminately and it’s no secret, that whatever we consume, in turn consumes us. Normalized attitudes towards sexual violence and abuse, anxiety about the body, the absence of a clear sense of direction, a weak conscience and the absence of a moral compass- all of these are sicknesses of the postmodern human mind. The lack of organization in the total mind, is also the lack of an organizing principle in the individual mind.
Where art has resigned itself to simply being the expresser of angst, design has stepped in to address the needs of the public. Design is filling in a vacuum left behind by the disinterested and disengaged artist. However, with the world of art shrugging off its ‘privilege’ of creating and arbitrating taste- we have to that extent been deprived of good sense and good taste in design. Also, in a free democratic world, good taste and what constitutes it, is often decided by the lowest common denominator. It’s in response to this reality, that I feel fashion design students who see themselves as primarily ‘artists’- can either be a problem or contrastingly, be a valuable asset. Fashion designers who feel that they are artists, invariably imitate and effect the behavioral traits of the stereotypical artist- being disconnected and disinterested with the world, being very interested in highly conceptual ideas and considering it ‘prudish’ and ‘irrelevant’ to be concerned about good taste. What they often miss, is that fashion by definition, is the adoption of a clothing style by a group of people. Fashion is fashion only when there is a consensus about its ‘good taste’ or about its appropriateness. It’s not just the ‘statement piece’ worn by one model on the runway or in a photo-shoot. However, as an ‘artistic fashion designer’, with a fundamental interest in the aesthetic presentation of the self, she can contribute meaningfully to any of the ‘fields’ or ‘social networks’ she finds herself in. She can understand herself to be a creator and curator of taste. Fashion has the power to be the cultural adhesive that can bind us together and make us reclaim our identity. It can make us connect, it can speak of common values and it can be a great arbitrator of taste. Through clothing we may communicate and share what we consider to be good, appropriate, ethical, meaningful, beautiful and true.
The need for aesthetic resolution is essential to human creative life. Without aesthetics, we are somehow not complete, not whole and not true. While a fashion design student in her search for authenticity, may begin with a love affair with art and its conceptual power, she must gradually move on and transition into the world where things are found, felt, needed and made. A real and lasting relationship with materials, processes, people, their hopes and dreams- is what will give her direction and purpose in a constantly shifting world. Not only must the designer express herself as an artist, she must also take on the mantle of augmenting the life around her with richer meaning.
Image source: Vetements, Fall 2016 collection