Another stormy fashion week, where tinder for the controversy fire came from the YSL Fall 17 IDOL preview campaign, shot by Inez Van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin under the creative helm of Anthony Vaccarello. The ARPP's (French advertising self-regulatory organization) hair was ruffled, receiving 120 complaints about the images to date. Raphaëlle Rémy-Leleu, from women's group Osez le féminisme! said the photos "ticks all the sexist boxes. The women are objectified, hyper sexualised and put in submissive positions."
Image @ysl Instagram
Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object -- and most particularly an object of vision: a sight - John Berger, Ways of Seeing 1972
So what? It's only fashion, images, art, visual dialogue between human beings. The triviality. Run along.
But something has changed in our collective dialogue about art that supersedes the subject, and I'm not sure what to make of it. The Twitter wars, media and social media commentary as a whole seem to be getting a bit Fight Club, and I don't like it. There was the Moonlight review and the ensuing Twitter rumpus. Poor weary critics had to put up with Wolfgang's hairy bottom in his "self-satisfied" new work at The Tate, discombobulated by the intimacy, and so it goes on; artists being treated like annoying toddlers who need to pipe down a bit.
One notable response to this kind of criticism came from the YSL photographer which led me to think that we've all lost the plot a bit. Her work, featuring model Fernanda Oliveira for YSL, follows just two years after another YSL ad starring model Kiki Willems was banned in the U.K. over concerns that she was "unhealthily thin." I first saw the work on the YSL insta feed, and kept scrolling. Didn't register. Maybe I've seen similar images of women wearing fishnets and heeled roller skates, or of models so thin bending over stools like their hair weighs so much that they need support from a random wooden object. Reports rolled in from France showing protestors lobbing "sexiste" stickers on the shop posters. And even then I wasn't jolted out of my scrolling anesthesia? What did wake me up, was the photographer's response to the protests on her Instagram feed:
"LOVE THAT PICTURE. I want it clear. The first time I saw it, I loved it. it is a strong image, beautiful and weird in a way that has become too uncommon in Fashion. Then I learned that some others hate it. It is their absolute right. But when it turned into a story where it should be banned because it was " degrading to women and inciting rape" I became both angry and worried. I don't want to live in a society where some think their opinion is better and what is against their opinion should be against the law. That's how totalitarianism stars. Women's rights is a very sensitive topic at the moment and I understand the tension but, unfortunately, there are much more important reasons to be angry than a willing model in a fashion photo shoot. To me, it is more degrading to pay a woman less than a man for the same job. What are we gonna do about this? It is more degrading to let politicians, mostly white old males, to decide what to do with OUR bodies. Look at how Trump is trying to destroy funding for abortions and birth-control in one of the biggest and more advanced countries. That is what I am worried about, not pictures. I am also angry at all those PC nazis, professionally offended people who are joining forces with fundamentalists from any sides who want to decide what a "good woman" or a " good feminist" should be. I increasingly fear being out because my dress choices doesn't fit an increasingly intolerant society. It should not be the case in 2017 in Paris. I should be supported by feminists not shamed. Feminism is a very simple thing: it means that every woman should have choices, made choice without being judged. You want to wear short skirts or pose for Saint Laurent? Great. You choose to wear a hijab? Equally great. Everyone is talking about diversity, it would be great if it applied to female choices." @inezandvinoodh Instagram
I know it's always been like this really, Tracey Emin's bed, Hirst's cow, Richard Billingham's parents, what Lena Dunham's saying, there has always something for rookie critics to moan about and for artists to roar back too - but recently the cycle of negativity between influencer and audience seems relentlessly fervent, in times when we need bringing together. And Inez is right in that, it's precisely because we are in emotionally turbulent times, our heckles rise along with our sensitivities, and we rally against pictures that may not have dented our consciousness in easier times.
My Instagram friends thought the images were out dated, and mirrored some media opinion that they are simply irrelevant, Showstudio reiterated a similar response to the catwalk show, fair enough. Many were afraid to comment publicly, and let's not forget we're talking about fashion pictures! As a whole folk were bored. But I was niggled, not by the images, but by the general aggressive sentiment on social media these days, from critics, and in this case from a photographer whose work I so admire, including her support for female creatives on the platform she co-founded Girlgaze, where their manifesto is a good one "...we are pushing back against the cultural projections and traditional gender roles imposed upon girls from the outside world, media and culture." This manifesto is about more than photography, it's asking society to re-asses its projection of women. This focus, and the rhetoric in the Instagram post seemed at odds.
"Pop culture shapes our ideas of what is normal and what our dreams can be and what our roles are. Politics, of course, decides how the power and the money in the country is distributed. Both are equally important, and each affects the other." - Gloria Steinem
Of course global politics are more important than clothes and images, but the contribution of art and its effect on social consciousness can not be underestimated.
Are our creatives unwittingly orchestrating 'controversial' images and tough talk, as an unconscious means to express confidence in uncertain times?
According to Inez's followers, the objectification is in the eye of the jaded beholder. It's your fault if you don't like them, so there. There seemed to be little sitting on the fence. You took your side, threw your grenade of words and closed your ears. I find that troubling. On other platforms I've seen this happen too, on feminist sites, in mothers networking debates, within political groups rendering activists like Owen Jones to step away from social media. My love for open discourse online is slipping away with the social climbing agenda that feeds the commentators. The argument goes round and round, and comes back to intent. It's clear to me that this particular photographer's life work is to empower and celebrate women. This roar is possibly nothing more than a bruised ego, fine, and so we move on.
One site that seems to rise above all this is the mother-daughter team being StyleLikeU. Elisa Goodkind and Lily Mandelbaum created a video series called What Lies Beneath. It's a space, "profiling style influencers from all backgrounds, who defy the cookie cutter looks of today's fashion magazines." With guests like Jemima Kirke, talking openly about their experiences with their own bodies in relation to those around them, it's a much needed nurturing hub. Equally the infamous Man Repeller, carries followers interest with fashion along with their own bumpy journey, in a way that's generous and humour filled - it's successful because it listens - to other women:
"From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another" John Berger, Ways of Seeing
Post criticism, the ranters are acting out public self-soothing, chucking civil expression out of the pram, when their comfort blanket (praise) is taken away. If they sat back, they would realise that they want the same thing as their detractors - to be listened to.