One of my favorite public spaces in Vienna is the MuseumsQuartier (MQ). This is a large complex downtown housing several museums, theatre stages, cultural and artistic initiatives, curiosity shops, as well as cafés and bars. Its main courtyard is dominated by huge furniture elements in different colors available for short rest periods or lounging. It is a very pluralistic type of a place—some are there for the culture, others for the fun, many for both, tourists and locals alike, and even when crowded it is peaceful.
The two main museums at MQ are the Leopold Museum and MUMOK, the Museum of Modern Art. They dominate the complex with their modern architecture, one in white, the other in black. Both are worth a visit, not only for their permanent and special exhibitions, but also for their architecture.
Modern museums are very different from museums housed in older buildings, of which Vienna has also a lot on display. Old museum buildings have often striking facades from times past and imperial, but once inside, their space collapses. The opposite is the case of modern museums which may be severe on the outside, almost uninviting, but generous and open on the inside. It is strange but true—modern museums are nowadays the ideal places for taking a walk.
This summer MQ features fashion. The program was launched last week with the opening of the exhibition ‘Reflecting Fashion’ at MUMOK. Valerie Steele, Director of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, and editor of Fashion Theory, gave an interesting talk on the interface between fashion and art—is fashion art or even Art?
This is not one of those yes/no questions since A/art is a multi-dimensional notion with flexible boundaries. But as with L/literature, and the question as to what the latter subsumes, what is at issue is the interplay between cultural and commercial value. Moreover, fashion is a particularly interesting category given its origins as a craft: long before there was fashion there was dressmaking and dressmaking is bound to survive all fashions.
Why is the question interesting?
Questions about definitions are always questions about boundaries, and boundaries have to do with processes of inclusion and exclusion.
The crowd of hundred or so that came together to listen to Valerie Steele’s lecture were for the most part people from the fashion industry and academia, who had evidently given some thought on how they dressed, even, or especially, when dressing casually. This underscores what the French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu claims about both arts and fashion, and taste more generally, namely that it is about drawing distinctions.
The market knows how to capitalize on this all too human drive, and fashion, like the arts, can thankfully profit out of it. Yet there is also an existential dimension in this that should not be underestimated. If I dress in order to stand out, then I am also setting myself apart from something (or someone) else. But if I assert difference, where do I then stand? The risk inherent in creative production—whether in the arts or in fashion—is at the core of what art is all about.
In one of the exhibition rooms one comes across a quotation from Utopia by Thomas More—a book from 1516 about the ideal of communal living. In the island of Utopia everyone supposedly wears the same clothes, without any distinctions other than those absolutely necessary for telling men and women apart. Utopia is not a place for fashion. No wonder communism and other forms of totalitarianism do not work.