Treason of clerks

Czech opaline glass bead stack

More massive than these, even.

In each year’s September ritual, standing in line at the supermarket, five years ago, I hoisted a copy of the big Vogue Fashion Week issue.

The customer in line in front of me wore a ethereal lilac cotton tiered skirt paired with a top in a hard blue, black and white geometric pattern.

The first pages I flipped to were a four-page layout promoting the concept of football motifs as fashion assets. Just, no.  Expensively produced ad urging women to spend top dollar on outfits with big numbers and sullen team colors. Maybe it was seeing the ad just after that brutal blouse/ floaty skirt combination, whose colors weren’t on speaking terms. I went into a spiral of eye grief. As an art jewelry merchant, I was dismayed to see that most of the models in the editorial section of the magazine wore no necklaces, not even ugly ones, — not even with V-neck or deep decolletage necklines that could have used the visual break.

One spread showed an annoyed-looking young woman with duellist’s eyes, posing in a series of expensive-looking locations, wearing graceless clothing and large shoes, her hair raked back into an upright ponytail. Rather than being glorified, her youth and beauty were put into the service of an inexplicable vision of ugliness.

I have weathered sparse fashion eras before–which I define as a dearth of good-looking, easily available art jewelry and clothing– but I really thought in 2014 we had hit rock bottom. Five years past my eye grief moment, experience shows me that curiosity about why things happen make things endurable.

The world moves on. It is possible that for various lifestyle, political, and economic reasons, fashionable women have no wish to wear jewelry which suggests sumptuousness, art, art history, or the richness and colors of nature. The Belle Epoque rested on a solid financial cushion produced by a backdrop of colonial oppression and colonialism. The 1950’s made even thin women wear girdles, and all women wear high heeled shoes so it wasn’t an unmitigated paradise of costume jewelry.

Also, it’s impossible to want what you don’t see. The internet places a visual treasury in our hands, but if you don’t know what to ask for, names such as Miriam Haskell (fl. 1930’s -1960’s) or Stephen Dweck (ca. 1990) mean nothing.

Yes I’m writing this essay on a screen. The visual and physical world, human presence, is ignored almost to an anchoritic degree. If something beautiful is not on a screen,  it is deemed worthless, whether it be sunlight on healthy living beings, or an opaline glass bead, or a flower, or a bead shaped like a flower,  or so it seems in my more paranoid moments.

The unrivalled ability of search engines to answer questions and find beauty is useless without having any idea what to ask for. Many students these days are denied standard-issue education in the visual arts, for some reason I cannot fathom, so how can they ask for names and images they never heard of?

A desert is forming: self-reinforcing visual sterility, ignorance of ignorance.

Jittery, patterned fabrics in harsh colors unkind to all complexions suggest the formation of an esthetic based on digital imagery rather than the older standard of beauty based on nature as inspiration. The women’s football clothing ad may have been a fluke but it suggests an ‘if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’ resignation. Or maybe the NFL was trying to shore up business that year, spent big bucks on advertising, who cares how anything looks?

When colors are quantified into approved yearly color groups (which to my eyes always look like the same set of colors under different names, but it could just be my screen) set by a company I used to know as a color ink matching service for offset printing, a vacancy at the top is suggested.

There is an old term for the acts of literate thinkers who failed to provide help to their illiterate brethren when it was in their power: trahison des clercs, or treason of clerks. (‘Clerk’ was the going term for the literate in general, when they were in the minority.) I believe that humans have a thirst for beauty and personal presence during their brief lives which is being denied for various spurious reasons such as ‘edginess’ by designers who have the potential to do better.

I would love to be proved wrong, or to prove myself wrong.

One thought on “Treason of clerks

  1. RE: being proved wrong about any of this, not sure proof is available. I’m sure that when modern life became too demanding to continue the traditional proficiency in ancient languages, there was hue and cry of philistinism running rampant, as we old-timers now assert about generations with only manga, anime and video games for visual traditions, and the oncoming wave of 3-dimensional objects only generated by 3-d printers. For those of us who struggled through the visual bumps and pot holes of the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and so on, it’s startling to consider that this may’ve been the last gasps of a latter day Belle Epoque, when we considered beauty antithetical to digitization—future generations may only have digitized ‘beauty’…It’s late and I’m grumpy….

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