May 15, 2013

On being an artist vs looking like an artist

Last month I attended a neat gallery opening and talk by Austin Kleon, a writer and artist best known for his Newspaper Blackout poetry. During his presentation, he pointed out a slide of himself working in his studio wearing cargo shorts. He stopped his rehearsed lecture for a moment and kind of off-handedly mentioned a pet theory he had about how some artists are really concerned with looking like artists, while others actually don't care so much what they look like so long as they actually create like artists. Cargo shorts, he said, seemed to catch a lot of grief but they were really utilitarian. And he stated he'd like to have utility over fashion.

Bill Cunningham at work...
I was reminded of this recently when I watched the documentary Bill Cunningham New York. Mr. Cunningham is a fashion photographer in New York who records both street wear and high society fashion. He is fascinating for a bunch of reasons, but one thing that sticks out the most to me is how he has pared many aspects of his life down to sheer simplicity so he can just do his job well. He lives simply, eats simply and, most importantly for this discussion, dresses simply. He wears essentially the same khaki pants and blue work smock every day. It is utilitarian and practical. The other result is that it is idiosyncratic. It is his "look."

I was reminded of others who have really individual "looks" with an emphasis on utility... like the Bauhaus designer Lazlo Moholy-Nagy in his coveralls. Or fashion journalist Angelo Flaccavento in his ever-present high-water baggy pants, tight jacket, glasses and pen in breast pocket. I admire both men for being kind of no-nonsense and craftman-like in how they did/do their jobs as well as how they dress for their jobs. What strikes me about them both is that the thought seemed to be first, "what do I do," not "what should I look like I do." The thing is, they also look like what they do, you know, authentically.  

Lazlo Moholy-Nagy

Angelo Flaccavento
I like blue button-up shirts and wide-leg pants. I don't think about it much, but it is my look and for what I do most (write plays, perform improv, draw) it works as a sort of uniform. I don't particularly look like an artist. But I make art, so...

Maybe there is a romantic ideal of how artists are supposed to dress. Maybe the media and fashion industries have co-opted what real artists wear (and wore in the past) and have given us back a stylized idea of it and mass produced it for optimum sales.

Artists, in particular, seem to fall prey to the marketing of what they should look like. I'm not sure accountants have that problem. or carpenters. Or plumbers.

I know a few really fashionable, hip, trendy folks who also happen to make great art, but they are a stark minority compared to the many more hipster-ish fashionistas who talk a good game, but, when it comes down to it, don't produce.

Either way, this kind of thing has been on my mind lately. 

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