Like a lot of things, it’s probably Andy Warhol’s fault. Via a fairly straightforward chain of cause and effect, you could argue that his art led to Vice publishing an ‘arty’ fashion shoot of re-enactments of female writers in the act of committing suicide. Poor Andy.
After all, Warhol taught us to repetitiously aestheticise horror, to make ‘arty’ images in hysterical colour, statements about shocking events and objects such as guns, electric chairs, and car crashes. He questioned and blurred the distinction between art and commerce, and created Fordist production lines to keep the Andy Warhol branded objects coming. And finally, he taught us that being shocked or outraged at such images was deeply uncool, and that we should all drift through life as deeply stoned flaneurs.
The makers of Vice are not great artists, however, or even mediocre ones. They are just vapid d-bags who use the traditions and aesthetics of this kind of art to sell cardigans. They are hardly alone in commercialising and ‘artifying’ shock. The Face made heroin chic the thing, Dolce & Gabbana did a gang rape shoot, and then, of course, there’s designer Mugatu’s Derelicte collection, which he describes as ‘a fashion, a way of life inspired by the very homeless, the vagrants, the crack whores’. Oh, hang on, that’s from Zoolander.
But Vice has certainly amplified and routinised the ‘shocking’ fashion shoot. They previously set one shoot in the London riots, where cute chicks in sturdy knits and Dr Martens pondered the balaclava as a fashion choice while listlessly handling protest signs. Another was themed around menstruation, and featured numerous pictures of hot sad chicks with bloody crotches, seemingly unaware of the haemofest occurring in their underpants and beyond. Let’s not act too surprised. Vice advertises its Tumblr with a picture of a model with her rack on a keyboard, wearing only a bikini top (as you do), with the caption ‘making you smarter while giving you a boner’. This may seem like a hard ask for some of us that don’t have boners to get, but that’s all part of the joke. For a moment here, Vice is styling itself as a mainstream lad’s magazine like Ralph, while in fact pitching itself elsewhere. In fact, Vice would like to sell a cool and ironic lifestyle to both men and women, some of whom will just have to be content with their ladyboners.
The feminist website Jezebel was not happy with Vice for the suicide fashion shoot, with Jenna Sauers writing, ‘It’s almost breathtakingly tasteless. Suicide is not a fashion statement.’ But the problem with this photo shoot is not that it is tasteless, but rather that it is tasteful. It’s really pretty. And completely free of either blood or tears. According to some of Jezebel’s readers, this would make the pictures fine, as long as they were labelled ‘art’. @MyPrettyFloralbonnet writes: ‘In a purely artistic context these could be incredibly moving (if painful) portraits. Some of the photos are really striking.’
Art, schmart. If we saw these images in an art gallery we would think that they were offensively banal. These are no more ‘art’ than generically filtered fauxtographs of hot girls doing … whatever. You can install ‘arty’ as an app now (thanks Instagram). Michelle Dean in the New York Magazine got it right when she called the Vice photo shoot ‘terrible work’ and ‘not particularly shocking or revealing’, with the models, settings and clothes ‘bland, anesthetized, boring’. But what is deeply fucking annoying about this Vice spread is that it has ‘made over’ the bumpy bodies and minds of the likes of Sylvia Plath and Dorothy Parker into clean and proper models with nice hair, poreless, flawless skin and detached facial expressions suggestive of an absent interior life.
Vice eventually pulled the suicide spread, with the following condescending and slippery apology: ‘This Vice photoshoot imagines those quiet moments in a way that is both disquieting but eerily beautiful. Some might find this shoot distasteful, and I am not one to disagree, so I apologize if it offends – but time and these women’s words has written their deaths into history.’ Elsewhere, Vice says, ‘Our main goal is to create artful images, with the fashion message following, rather than leading.’ Apparently this is called critical framing.
Oh! We feel so stupid now. We didn’t get that this was a critical, edgy and arty homage to these great women. Its so lucky that they have such talented writers on staff that they could come up with the following homage to Sylvia Plath:
SYLVIA PLATH, 30
Died: February 11, 1963
Cause of death: carbon-monoxide poisoning
Issa dress, Morgenthal Frederics glasses, Jenni Kayne shoes
The minimal poetics of this juxtaposition are so much better than Plath’s own words:
She has folded
Them back into her body as petals
Of a rose close when the garden
Stiffens and odors bleed
From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower.
(We’re being sarcastic here, rather than ironic. We’re old fashioned like that.)
Despite Vice’s use of the conceits of the ‘avant-garde’, it is actually not doing anything that different from many on the internet. In fact, you could think of Vice as just being a very pretty troll site. At the moment, the online world seems to encourage (or at least give a platform for) new levels of symbolic cruelty. Not only do we get trollers writing down all the nasty little things that pop into their heads, vilifying anyone or anything, we also are subjected to a stream of memes and images from websites – of which Vice is only one – that seem to exist pretty much entirely to make fun of fat bodies, skinny bodies, strange fashions, slutty women, bogan men, the poor, the mentally ill and the ugly. The pithy cruelty of bluntcards gives us lots of pre-coffee lulz.
As the internet, and our society at large, is unprecedentedly image-based, the people targeted are ones who are visually deviant. In the new cruelty, the people are grist for our momentary lulz as we push our slightly less deviant bodies through another hard day in front of our laptops. It is as if the internet has allowed the democratisation of American Psycho-style sociopathy.
Those of us on the Left – or those of us who want to appear or to be ethical citizens of the virtual realm – fall into a particular form of passive politics in our engagement with the online. We indulge in a little light clictivism before breakfast, we have little ragegasms on comments streams of Jezebel or Destroy the Joint or Overland about whatever, we spread and make memes from a million, million interchangeable hallmarks available on mememaker. IRW, such as it is, we buy wristbands for causes and make rainbow crossings and wear edgy, politically themed T-shirts. Sincerity has become no more than a platitudinous stock image. As Helen Razer has recently said, ‘The ‘Left’ now hungers for symbols of cultural identity and spurns the idea of class. Or, indeed, of material conditions.’
But drawing a dichotomy between the material and the symbolic, the real and the virtual, all seems a bit 1990s. We are now living in symbol-saturated environment, a place where it’d be hard to find a street which didn’t contain more images of humans than real humans. Does this mean that we have become more adept at separating the two?
Maybe. . . not. . . always. For example, in Vice’s Garbage Girls fashion shoot, hot, clean dishevelled girls were photographed in their (their?) trashed-out bedrooms. It’s all very cutting edge. The comments, less so.
‘Imagine the hipster dorks that would fuck a girl on top of all that trash,’ says one.
‘I think anyone would fuck those bitches,’ says another.
‘It’s called chronic depression, assholes. And possibly other mood/developmental disorders too,’ says a third.
‘Dirty ass canadian bitches ! wtf ! this shit is so sad , these girls are future hoarders . this isn’t art, it’s a pictorial documentary on mental illness. this is sadder to look at then heroin chic,’ says a fourth.
But this was a fashion shoot, yeah? So you don’t need to worry about the model’s mental health, or speculate about their sex lives, because it’s all just pretend. That the commenters on the Vice website don’t pick up on this artifice doesn’t mean (necessarily) that they are exceptionally stupid. Instead, it reflects that Vice is deliberately worrying at the border between the staged and the real, between high art and documentary realism. They do this to cash in on the cultural capital created when you label something art without dooming yourself to poverty by actually being an artist. This sort of transgressive category fucking is so cool right now.
Except that Vice isn’t transgressing, and would never transgress the three pillars of late consumer capitalism: that it is a girl’s moral duty to be hot, that only hot people should have images made of them, and that buying products make you cool.
Artists and activists who work more effectively on such boundaries challenge all these ideas, albeit with limited success. Photographers such as Diane Arbus and Nan Goldin did their work to make the lives and happenings of trauma, outsiderness and the workings of strange bodies pretty, an aesthetic that, as the Vice shoot shows, has by now become familiar. There was a sincerely challenging aspect to both Arbus’s and Goldin’s practice that revealed how mismatched the dominant view of how people (and women in particular) look and what they do is from what most people look like and do. But that has been determinedly erased by mainstream fashion culture. Goldin herself is now working with the fashion industry, doing shoots for luxury brands like Dior and Jimmy Chu. Diane Arbus is, of course, dead at her own hand, an event that she did not photograph.
More recently, Haley Morris-Cafiero’s beautiful images of her own determinedly unglamorous fat body in public spaces that are hostile to that body are challenging on an ideological level. But the public, online reaction to her work is not only dicky – ‘They’re not looking at you because you’re fat, they’re looking at you because you’re ugly!’; ‘If I were there, I would not only look at you but punch you’ – but ignores the fact these images are art, rather than documentary or activism. In a recent interview with Jackie Wykes, Morris-Cafiero said: ‘Whereas the media is making the images public, to me they still belong in the gallery; they’re for publication and gallery exhibition and not fodder for media.’
But the nature of the internet collapses the differentiation between gallery and not-gallery, and so no contextual framework is guaranteed. The democratisation of the ability to make ‘beautiful’, ‘arty’ images means that the codification of an image as art as it makes its way across the internet cannot be guaranteed. Perhaps this is why someone like the original garbage girl Tracey Emin spurned images of herself in her art, when troubling our ideas of beauty and normativity, and calling into question the notion of the ‘clean and proper body’. Emin’s work ‘My Bed’, shortlisted for the 1999 Turner Prize, was a bed in which abject human waste, dirt and specifically traces of the leaky feminine are the stand-in for the artist’s body. Tracey is Trash.
The work outraged conservative critics, some railing against the death of beauty in contemporary art, revealing a deep fear of the destabilising nature of ugliness, of the ostentation of the ugly, standing in the way of those who crave a ‘pure beauty’. For example, pompous fuckhead Roger Scruton said in the Daily Mail: ‘What we look at, listen to and read affects us in the deepest part of our being. Once we start to celebrate ugliness, then we become ugly, too.’ But Emin’s work, by speaking to Kristeva’s notions of the abject and the monstrous feminine, by triggering discomfort and anxiety, and by presenting a threat to the normative public body, merely pointed out that we were all pretty ugly anyway, we’re all falling-apart, we’re all leaky and only ever a semblance of a well-put-together body.
And that’s no bad thing. But it is a horror movie for individuals invested in the consensual complicity of a system that depends on the existence of an abject that is always the Other, described by Kristeva as an ‘external menace from which one wants to keep oneself at a distance’. Irony, humiliation, vilification are all ways to distance ourselves from that horror – even the one that lurks within.
Tracy Emin is now a celebrity, and as such she no longer has any control over her image, as it is freely circulated. Consequently, her own bodily ‘ugliness’ is judged with that the ultimate thermometer of hotness, the cock. For example, in the forum DataLounge, which offers a place to ‘get your fix of gay gossip, news and pointless bitchery’, people ask ‘Is Tracey Emin the ugliest women in the UK?’, the answer to which is, in equal measure, ‘yes’, ‘I wouldn’t fuck that’ and the more eloquent and direct ‘cum’ and ‘jizz’.
It is here that this garbage girl of High Art pays for her sins against normativity. Her dirty work makes her a dirty girl, and worse than that, an ugly girl, and even worse than that, an ugly, dirty, celebrity girl.
Vice has been called a ‘Hipublican’ publication, for its mashing together of conservative politics with hipster aesthetics. But what is freakier than the idea of conservatives ‘passing’ as counter-cultural is that Vice doesn’t have any politics at all. It may just be doing this stuff to troll us left-wingers, because that’s easy and fun, and so they can add to the malevolent orgasm of bottom-of-the-barrel free speech and posturing that passes as commentary on large swathes of the internet.
Nonetheless, although Vice is certainly morally and politically vapid, it does believes in one thing: the importance of hotness. As such, they have an imperative to erase all ugly bodies in their quest to spread their very, very dull idea of beauty.
So are images of suicide, in general, a problem? No: it’s the Vice images, in particular, that are a problem. These images, in their erasure of any hint of messy, ugly, living and dying women, allow a kind of not-talking about suicide. They allow us to not-see Sylvia’s cherry-red face, or the cyanotic blue hue of a strangulation, or the broken body and caved-in skull of a self-defenestration. The problem with these images is that they also allow us to not-see a meaningful representation of the moments before the act, which for these women were probably not ‘quiet’ or ‘eerily beautiful’ but filled with terror and desperation at the dissolution of identity. The problem with these images is their use of the suicide act – which, if nothing else, is a sincere one – to sell the insincere transience of coolness, a consensual hallucination of infallible, almost Stepford-like autonomy. The problem with these images is that they feed off contemporary internet culture that loves a ‘shocking’ idea, but steers clear of a genuinely challenging aesthetic.
If you can imagine an image where we get to see a person’s face at the moment that she becomes, not a hot mess, but just a human mess – the mess that is us all – then it seems possible that there is an aesthetic antidote to the unpalatable ‘Hipublican’ mash-up of emptiness and loathing pouring out of Vice. In the face of such images, we may even manage to muster empathy. For a moment we might find that all our coolness falls away and we no longer care whether we are as hot, as fuckable, and as hate-filled as Vice would have us be.