Fashion houses are the new art patrons of our time. That would be fine, if only they would show the boldness they bring to bags and rags when they collect art. Instead, they follow the rules of the art world, conform to its set taste and dully imitate last year’s look.
This month, the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris unveils a new hang of its contemporary art collection – the third since it opened less than a year ago. Prada has just opened its spectacular “art city” in Milan, while Paris also has the comparatively venerable Cartier Foundation. Meanwhile, the hottest “art exhibition” in London is Alexander McQueen at the V&A.
There’s nothing wrong with art embracing fashion and vice versa – in principle. Haute couture is (almost literally) at the cutting edge of modern culture. McQueen deserves his recognition as an artist. As Andy Warhol observed when he was putting on an exhibition in Milan in the 1980s, where are today’s Leonardos and Michelangelos? They’re in fashion, like: “Armani … and the other Italian designers.” He exaggerated, but it is true that in the postmodern world, fashion combines elements of concept and craft in ways that often outdo contemporary art.
My grouch is this: why do fashion houses merely follow art world tastes and add to corporate tedium? Why don’t they set new fashions when they collect art? After all that is meant to be their skill. The Louis Vuitton Foundation has very dull, conformist taste in art. A dazzling building by Frank Gehry plays host to excellent temporary exhibitions. But stroll through its several floors of quirkily shaped galleries to see the Louis Vuitton art collection and ennui creeps on you. This collection is a bland, predictable, heartless hoovering up of today’s most rated artists, from Tacita Dean to Thomas Hirschhorn. Dean’s image of an ancient English tree in the collection is very eloquent, but it is from a widely exhibited body of work, so it feels like catch-up.
It is in fact a very imitative art collection, reflecting the dictates of curators and biennales rather than any original insight. All the art is good but none of it is a surprise. It has a by-numbers feel, as if someone had gone to MoMA or Tate Modern and said, “I’ll have what they’re having”.
Similarly Fondazione Prada’s opening exhibits include Robert Gober and Louise Bourgeois, names so deeply respectable they practically have starched collars. As with the pop stars who suck up to Marina Abramović, I can’t help thinking these fashion brands suffer from a “cultural cringe” that makes them crave art-world acceptance. More cynically, a nice art portfolio adds a bit of class to any business brand, a lesson that faceless companies such as E.on learned long ago, with its extensive collection of Gerhard Richters, Otto Dixes and Ellsworth Kellys, all on show in their lobby/gallery in Germany.
These fashion houses already have an aesthetic that is perfectly attuned to the dull side of the art world. The sophisticated good taste of Prada is a favoured art world look – practically its uniform, to match the standard black Mercedes.
The recipe for a more creative relationship between fashion and art would be for less “tasteful” designers to get involved. I’d like to see a really kitsch art gallery opened by Dolce and Gabbana, for instance. The most characterful contributions by a fashion legend to the art world have been made by punk heroine Vivienne Westwood. Instead of championing the latest hip artist to be pumped up by curators, Westwood enthusiastically supports a very unfashionable cause – London’s Wallace Collection with its paintings by Fragonard and Watteau. Prada may have art-world cred, but Westwood has real style – rococo style even. Fashion must follow its heart as she does, if it wants to say something that matters about art.
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