Fake of Facsimile: Part 14: Sampling: “All these things belong together”

Marc Jacobs (MJ), the New York Fashion Designer, released a “music video” a year ago, in September 2016, to prepare the public for his Autumn collection.  It starred an unusual mixture of representatives of music and movie celebrity: Cara Delevigne, Courtney Love, Marilyn Manson, Missy Elliott, St Vincent, Sissy Spacek, Susan Sarandon, and the whole thing was “produced” by Hype Williams, a “videographer”, and a huge presence in that world.

I’m sorry that I think the entire three minutes is a mess, and can hardly sustain a second viewing.  I also have trouble believing that it will sell a single item of clothing…  To go even further, I also find the music both flat and uninspired… given the time and money and effort that went into this promotional video, surely something of slightly more interest could have been cobbled together.  As it happens, the next video foregrounded on YouTube was a 90-second promotion for “Alexander Wang” (who “interned for Marc Jacobs”[i]) with music by Skrillex; again, I have to admit these are only names to me, but I’d advise moving on to the Wang effort immediately, which seems inspired and life-fulfulling by comparison with the longer MJ production.[ii]

There is a more complete discussion of the “concept” defining the MJ video in a Billboard Style Issue,[iii] with even Billboard describing the “cast” as a “chic motley group”.  If you read the magazine account (where the stills, in my opinion, are far more arresting that the video), you will learn:

“In my mind, there is some kind of ­nonlinear connection between all of these people,” says Jacobs. “They’re not one thing. They’re connected because you felt within a certain moment that all these things belong together. There is no rule like, ‘That doesn’t make sense with that.’ It does if you say so.”

We shall be returning to this point later in my Fake or Facsimile (ForF) series, but once again I cannot help but be struck by the “virtual” allusion to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), or, at least popular interpretations of Eliot’s Modernist poem.  Ezra Pound who mercilessly edited the poem and cut the manuscript draft down by more than half would repudiate the suggestion that the poem is “nonlinear”,[iv] but for most readers there is a problem initially, at least, in discovering how “all these things belong together”.  Perhaps this 1922 Modernist masterpiece might never have caught on in the absence of Pound’s ruthless pruning.  Eliot certainly conceded Pound’s superior skill.  Eliot (citing Dante) famously dedicated his poem to Pound as “the better craftsman” (il miglior fabbro).  Ezra Pound, Eliot agreed, had transformed The Waste Land “from a jumble of good and bad passages into a poem”.[v]

In that spirit, I would like to be allowed to commend the very modest 30 seconds of the Louis Vuitton (LV) video puffing Jeff Koons’ Masters Collection (with music by Jesse Rose & Trozé: “Chocolate: Milk Version”).  This LV/Jeff Koons (JK) collaboration seems to me to have achieved the standard of a video masterpiece by comparison with the MJ effort, since it manifestly avoids assembling a messy “jumble of good and bad passages”—even if the music, in my opinion, succeeds in trivializing the ingenuity at work in the LV video.

Another virtually incomprehensible (to me) development in contemporary music is the exercise called “sampling”, which seems to be a version of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land appropriation method now transformed into a full-blown music technique.  As it happens, Alexander Wang’s choice of Skrillex for the soundtrack to his promotional video was inspired: according to Tyler Searle on ListVerse, “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” by Skrillex is #9 in the list of “10 Incredibly Popular Samples”.[vi]

Mr Searle explained “artists have turned to the past to find lasting pieces of music that can be reworked.  Some producers find ways to take a great song and twist it something entirely new.”  If you replace the words “music” and “song” (with art and picture) from this discussion of sampling, one has a “virtual” description of what the LV/JK Masters Collection of handbags (with reproductions of da Vinci, Rubens and van Gogh) is trying to achieve.  Jeff Koons has quite literally taken the Mona Lisa and “twisted” her into something new.

The promotional interview with JK that LV has also posted on its website is quite instructional (while, additionally, allowing the viewer to have an intimate peek at the handbags that JK has created).  In his interview, JK makes a number of points (which do accord with The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones’ enthusiasm for the LV/JK collaboration): viz. JK is “bravely educating” by choosing these designs.  And Jones’ assessment concludes: “Now Koons is sharing the art he most loves.”[vii]

All of this coincides absolutely with what JK says[viii] about the LV Masters Handbags.  For instance:

I would hope that when somebody walks down the street with this [handbag], that what they are doing is … they are really celebrating humanity… I believe these bags are art.

Since preparing Part 10 of this series [The Mona Lisa Handbag], I have had the privilege of a close encounter with an actual LV/JK/ML handbag, from which three bits of fundamental intelligence have been retrieved.  In the case of the Mona Lisa model, at least, the reproduction of the Louvre painting extends to, and includes, the bottom of the handbag, which I have to admit is rather effective: by this enhanced employment of the handbag’s surface, more of the ML painting is made available for the enjoyment of the da Vinci aficionado.  Secondly, Jonathan Jones has correctly emphasized the “educational” moment in the LV/JK Masters collection.  While the outside surface of the handbag is treated canvas, the inside, in carefully crafted leather, includes three written elements: a short discussion of Leonardo the artist; an introduction to the ML as a painting; a biography of JK himself.  I am, of course, glad to learn that when the art lover, carting the handbag around, is required to fish for her house keys or iPhone, there will be a moment to ponder again a critique of what has become the world’s most famous painting!  Devoted as I am to all forms of ForF research, I was not, however, able to study the scholarly entries reproduced on the inside of the handbag for fuller critique: that privilege is reserved for those who are (in their passion for more detailed investigation into art history) prepared to invest $4,000 USD (plus sales tax) of their research budget, so as to acquire the (scholarly) verbal insights offered as part of the package of the LV/JK/ML handbag.

[envira-gallery id=”397″]

The various LV/JK videos which the LV website makes available (viz. the film, the interview, and a “360° Inside Jeff Koons’ Studio”) actually make a very appealing and intelligent case for the positive features of the LV/JK collaboration, and therefore are highly recommended by me.  JK also emerges from them as an attractive and engaged spokesman for the Collection.

One point the JK makes particularly convincingly is with respect to the famous LV monogram: “… and working with the monogram … I had the idea to reduce it somewhat, and by reducing it in a way it is actually amplifying it…”  A simple example of “less is more”, but also an indication of the shrewd “design” principles by which this world-famous contemporary artist has enhanced the LV brand.

These comments do not seem out of place when we are considering the rubrics of musical sampling, where the contemporary inspiration is provided by iconic statements from the past, now reworked for the audience of the present. As described, this is precisely what JK believes he had done for LV in designing his Masters Collection.

The Skrillex example of “sampling” mentioned above (“Scary Monsters…”) seems to be largely a set of variations on a single theme from the past: namely, a YouTube video entitled “Fast Cup Stacking, Oh my God!” This uploaded video clip lasts for 1 minute and 16 seconds: in order to maintain your cultural equilibrium, I strongly urge you to stop watching after the first 16 seconds, by which point everything of value, and of utility, for Skrillex will already have been revealed.  There is a practical economy in reading the kind of criticism that is being offered in this series: since I have invested the necessary time and energy in sifting through the various internet “offerings”, you, the reader, may proceed by way of summaries and tips, thus preserving for yourselves the otherwise enervating hours involved in “surfing the web”.

A much more extreme (and Eliot-like) example of “sampling” is provided by the artistic pioneer known as “Girl Talk”, aka Gregg Michael Gillis, whose All Day “studio album” contains “overlapping samples of 372 songs by other artists” (according to Wikipedia).  This doesn’t quite match the 434 lines of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, but it does seem to have the effect of beating Eliot at his own game.  Fast Company has provided access to “an annotated guide” to the All Day album, which suggests 300+ direct “outtakes” (including Missy Elliott by the way).[ix]  Depending on your capacity for appropriating verbal vulgarity, I might again firmly advise a “sampling” rather than a wholesale immersion in this signature album.

An unfriendly criticism of this Fake or Facsimile series might suggest that the author has dabbled in a little bit of “sampling” of his own.  A more truculent critique might even suggest that this series is captured most effectively within the routines of the musical “mash-up”,[x] or the mosaic composition of a Modernist poem or artistic collage.  I don’t deny this, nor do I deny how my series “appropriates” the work of other correspondents and pundits… but I am going to craft my defence—very carefully and very precisely—with the expert witness testimony included in the Marc Jacobs file.  A New York Times column by Guy Trebay puts the pivotal question very effectively: “Is it possible that the people who call Marc Jacobs an idea thief have never heard of sampling?”[xi]  Trebay suggests that, since “we inhabit an age of image saturation and appropriation” (even at the time of writing: 15 years ago in 2002!), sampling, appropriation and mash-ups belong within “the key chapters on postmodernism”.  In just the same vein, Rachel Corbett advises that, for at least the last 20 years, “appropriation and ‘sampling’ were becoming mainstream across a range of art forms”.[xii]  Therefore, it is suggested that legal discussions surrounding “fair use” and copyright need to be framed within the context of the “transformative” aspects of the “reworking” of already existing fashions, images, photographs, tunes, jokes and ideas.

The Guy Trebay question posed in The New York Times has the additional advantage of being fitted out with a headline which is an exemplary précis of its content; viz. “Familiar, but Not: Marc Jacobs and the Borrower’s Art”.  It would be hard to give a more succinct account of the issues and the difficulties surrounding this question of appropriation, than by repeating (or appropriating) the first three words of the Times title: “Familiar, but Not”.

We keep referring the reader back to the pioneering achievements of Andy Warhol—whose influence is everywhere at work in this series.  Had Andy chosen to place his signature on an American dollar bill, that would not be prized simply as a convenient place for him to have signed his autograph.  By this very bestowing of his signature on an ordinary (and everyday) object, Andy Warhol would actually have transformed such a dollar bill into a work of art in itself, worthy of museum display: achieved by the mere fact of his giving that example of currency his artistic seal.  We shall return to this question, when we tackle the question (later in ForF) of what it means both to “Replicate and Authenticate”.

For now, it is not unreasonable to require the reader to spend just a few moments thinking about the modern discipline of hermeneutics—a highfalutin word for an idea everyone recognizes: viz. that there is an art (or a science) involved in any work of interpretation.  The origins of hermeneutics reside in the exact requirements of Biblical interpretation: if the Bible is to be received as a sacred text, then everyone has an interest in knowing precisely what it says.  The violent disagreements about what the Bible actually teaches would seem to indicate that only a disciplined study of its contents will enable any reader to avoid falling into fundamental (and fundamentalist) errors.  But, what is true of the Bible, is also true, in principle, of all the texts we read, even—perhaps even especially—the laws enacted by our various legislatures.  The laws, framed on our behalf, and by which we are meant to govern our lives, are supposed to be clear, but they seem to require a lot of very expensive (and sometimes jargon-laden) interpretation.

The need for disciplined and rigorous interpretation becomes obvious to anyone attempting to read an epic, a novel, a poem or a play in translation.  The most immediate exercise which illuminates the problem is to study (even just) two translations of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, for instance, side by side.  Sometimes when reading different translations of any particular Greek tragedy, the reader forms the impression of reading two (or more) quite different plays.  Every word, every sentence and every scene in superior translations involve a decision of how best to convey the sense of the “original” or source text that one is hoping to render for the reader in a foreign language.  In short, any translator has to be a practitioner of hermeneutics, a true appropriation artist who creates something brand-new in another modern language, whenever setting to the task at hand.  Thus the translator is attempting fully to appropriate an “original” composition, while simultaneously bringing something to life that has never existed before.

An extreme example of this principle has been provided by Jorge Luis Borges (as early as 1939) in a story (translated into English) as “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”, in which some chapters of the great Cervantes’ novel are supposedly being re-created “word for word” into contemporary Spanish writing.[xiii]  A placing of the original and the modern compositions side-by-side would incline their reader to the illusion that the 17th-Century novel and the “extracts” in the 20th-Century “recreation” were, in fact, completely identical.  But one point that is obviously being asserted by this juxtaposition is that the Spanish languages of the 17th and 20th Centuries are so far removed from one another, that these are, now, understood as two quite different “takes” relating to a single source.[xiv]  This is not a simple reproduction, at least in this very primitive sense that the 20th-Century version (by Pierre Menard) involved the author’s choosing to maintain the anachronisms of a form of Spanish three centuries in the past.  Luis Borges’ fiction represents Menard as sacrificing “variations to the ‘original’ text”, so that his composition is neither copying nor “a mechanical transcription of the original”; what he intends is “to produce a few pages which would coincide—word for word and line for line—with those of Miguel de Cervantes.”[xv].  Menard, who is a French Symbolist, has offered up his “sleepless nights to repeating an already extant book in an alien tongue”; which Menard can only do by adopting a deliberately “archaic style”.[xvi]

This re-imagining of Cervantes is then, for Menard, a volitional undertaking and definitively not a kind of photocopying.  As George Steiner, in his study of translation (After Babel), declares: “To produce a text verbally identical with the original (to make of translation a perfect transcription) is difficult past human imaging.”  One of the key principles under which I operate, as a tutor, at the University of King’s College, is summed up beautifully in a three-word phrase: within the history of ideas, there is: “No identical repetition.”[xvii]

Preceding according to parameters already set out in this series, it seems natural to recover the designer insights provided by the Parisian fashion consortium known as Maison Martin Margiela (MMM) [ForF Part 13].  The fashion creations of MMM seem both prêt-à-porter and ready-to-hand for this series.  Since 1994, this French establishment has been advancing its Replica concept, which was eventually enlarged to include its “Artisanal” Collection in 2006, still under the direction of Martin Margiela himself.[xviii]

The chief factors at work here are the employment of “recycled and deconstructed” material in the provision of an “avant-garde visual identity” and fashion.  What’s more, the MMM Replica concept is built around fashion that has stood “the test of time” so that these garments “are as relevant for today as they will be tomorrow.”  And “each replica piece comes with a special tag listing Style description, Provenance, and Period.”[xix]  In other words, each separate item of clothing coming from MMM is treated the same way in which art galleries treat canvases in their priceless collections: to the side of each painting or print, we expect to find a tag which indicates the title, the name of the artist, and date of the painting, and a history of acquisition or of current location of ownership, if the masterpiece being described is currently on loan to the gallery.

Of particular interest to ForF is the “Artisanal Line”, where garments are apparently given: “a second life whilst respecting and maintaining the traces of the passage of time and use.”[xx]  This all sounds quite miraculous and suggests again how replicas can apparently be enjoyed every bit as much as the original.

Vogue is completely on board with this reverential self-assessment on the part of MMM; e.g.:

  • 1: Martin Margiela (MM) established his fashion brand by taking “found materials and remnants”[xxi] so that he “could rework and revitalize” whatever came to hand… all “very object trouvé in spirit”[xxii] we are informed …
  • 2: The “signature” of MMM consists in “reclaiming vintage clothes… and reworking them by hand into new pieces”[xxiii] … propelling us “into the world of one offs” which go “against the grain…”[xxiv]
  • 2: So “slipcovers of sofas, seventies leather chairs, pieces of rug, curtains, and car seats (complete with seat belts)” have been “transformed into jackets, trousers, skirts”[xxv] as radical examples of how MM reworks and revitalizes…
  • 4: The exceptional achievement of MM is his “romantic linking of the rawness of the street and the reverence for the beauty of the past”[xxvi]
  • 5: MM was an explorer “of what artisanal haute couture can mean in the twenty-first century” & MMM allows us “to visit the past while also making sure there is a return ticket back to the here and now”; permitting us “to marvel at audacious beauty”, while at the same time giving us an opportunity just to “sit there and revel in the moment”[xxvii]
  • 6: And finally, and most significantly for ForF, what one looks for, what one expects, when MM unveils a new collection: “disparate elements coming together to make a satisfying whole”.[xxviii] That summarizes precisely what was missing in the MJ video with which we began this discussion.

If the reader takes the 6+ points on board concerning MM listed above, one might come to the conclusion that the work of ForF is now completely finished.  The Replica concept introduced by MM includes insights into rawness, recalling, reclaiming, recovery, recycling, reconstruction, relevance, reliability, resonance, respect, reverence, reworking, revitalization, revival and Romanticism.  It is, therefore, the most perfect retrieval and restoration of all that is retro … what more can I possibly add?

Well, fortunately, for me MM has not been in charge of MMM since at least 2009, and it seems that this year MMM has taken a significant (and literal) misstep or instep: viz. the $1,425 USD (plus applicable taxes) that the brand is charging for its Margiela “Future Destroyed High-Top Sneaker, White/Yellow”, described as having been subject to determined “deconstruction” with “heavy distressing”.[xxix]

Here are your fashion options, since the Neiman Marcus website (as of August 9th, 2017) indicates this “must-have” avant-garde footware is already sold out:

  • 1: Pull those old, ripped, soiled and ragged trainers out from the back of your closet, and after “re-fragrancing” with Dr Scholl’s or Odor Eaters, then wear with pride. [Hot Tip: experimentation proves that fresh kitty litter is extremely serviceable because of its “great deordorizing properties”.[xxx]]
  • 2: Visit your local thrift shop as soon as possible. Then same as above, but all the manuals recommend the re-fragancing procedures be doubled.
  • 3: Immediately purchase a brand new set of designer trainers, and place in front of your dog for professional distressing. Please, remember to provide ample encouragement, since your canine distresser may think his or her work is done after just a single session; obviously the forefront of fashion requires a little more devotion and discipline than that. Patiently explain to your beloved K-9 that tenacious distressing adds a value in excess of $500 USD to the list price of MMM “Future” sneaker (non-deconstructed, non-distressed).[xxxi]
  • 4: Collect designer trainers from your community and neighbourhood; explain the professional commitment that your resident “pit bull” will exercise in transforming their routine, off-the-shelf trainers into a statement the reveals the height of fashion. Please confirm your complete commitment to the Hollywood disclaimer: “No animals were harmed…” and your total opposition to all forms of canine exploitation.
  • 5: If your available resources do not permit any of the options listed above; go barefoot,[xxxii] and pray that this “distressed” high-top sneaker fashion passes well before Thanksgiving.

The author of this blog has now formed an interim judgment that the “disparate parts” of the “Future Destroyed High-Top Sneaker” have not, in fact, come “together to make a satisfying whole”, and therefore the essential work of ForF will continue.

Next time: Facebook Sunflowers

__________________________________________________________________

[i] Vogue (Runway): “Alexander Wang”

[ii] The Marc Jacobs/Hype Williams September 2016 video is both puffed and available on the Time (Newsfeed) website, September 8th, 2016 (Cady Lang): “Watch Missy Elliott and Susan Sarandon get down in Marc Jacob’s clubby new music Video.”  I am not absolutely sure what this means, but the Time headline seems to me to be promoting something banal, as if it were, in fact, highly original, highly entertaining, and noteworthy.  The video is being “applauded” for its employment of “diversity when it comes to age, gender, and race”.  Reader, please make your own judgment, but the fact that its heart is in the right place does not ensure (by itself) that the video is an artistic success; nor does it really offer any grounds for purchasing Mark Jacobs “threads”.

[iii] Billboard Style Issue, September 8th, 2016 (Donna Bulseco): “Marc Jacobs & St. Vincent talk about his … Fall Fashion Campaign…”

[iv] Ezra Pound cut the number of lines in The Waste Land down to 434, from a manuscript version of nearly 1,000.  In a letter to T.S, Eliot, dated “24 Saturnus An I” (for the rest of us: January 24th, 1921), Pound announces his verdict on the poem: “The thing now runs from April…. to shantih without [a] break.  That is 19 pages, and let us say the longest poem in the English langwidge (sic)…”  See: The Letters of T.S. Eliot, Volume I: 1898-1922, edited by Valerie Eliot.  San Diego/London: Harcourt Brace, 1988; 497.

[v] See: “Ezra Pound and the making of Modernism” by George Bornstein in The Cambridge Companion to Ezra Pound, edited by Ira B. Nadel, Cambridge University Press: 1999; pp. 22-42; here p. 34.

[vi] ListVerse.com, April 20th, 2012 (Tyler Searle): “10 Incredibly Popular Samples”

[vii] The Guardian, April 12th, 2017 (Jonathan Jones): “Jeff Koons’ Louis Vuitton Bags: A joyous Art History Lesson”

[viii] LouisVuitton.com: Masters: “The Story”: Interview

[ix] Fast Company, November 11th, 2014 (Tyler Hayes): “Name that Tune: 300+ Girl Talk Samples…”

[x] And, yes, there really is a scholarly volume entitled: The Routledge Companion to Remix Studies, edited by Eduardo Nava et al.  New York: Routledge, 2015.  The vocabulary of “mash-ups” is explored in the contribution by Scott H. Church: “A Rhetoric of Remix”; pp. 43-53; Girl Talk’s “studio album” All Day is discussed on p. 48.

[xi] The New York Times, May 28th, 2002 (Guy Trebay): “Familiar, but Not: Marc Jacobs and the Borrower’s Art”

[xii] The Art Newspaper “Art Market News”, October 1st, 2015 (Rachel Corbett): “Double Vision: The Grey Area of Artistic Appropriation”; this commentary on the “leeway for artists to reuse pre-existing materials” discusses both Richard Prince and Jeff Koons.

[xiii] The celebrated George Steiner has called this Borges’ fiction: “the most acute, most concentrated commentary anyone has offered on the business of translation.”  After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation.  Oxford University Press, 1976; p. 70

[xiv] Cf. Michael Wood (Princeton), “Borges and Theory” in The Cambridge Companion to Jorge Luis Borges, edited by Edwin Williamson pp. 29-42; here pp. 37-38.

[xv] Jorge Luis Borges, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” in Labyrinths: Selected Stories & Other Writing, edited by Donald A. Yates & James E. Irby.  New York: New Directions, 1964; pp. 36-44; here pp. 39 & 41

[xvi] Ibid. p. 43

[xvii] As summarized by Dr Wayne J. Hankey in a Foundation Year Programme lecture on Neo-Plationism at the University of King’s College in Halifax.

[xviii] Maison Margiela (Paris) website: “La Maison”

[xix] The Maison Martin Margiela Reference Guide, November 14th, 2012 on thirdlooks.com

[xx] Testimony provided to retailers by Maison Margiela; e.g. Song, Praterstraße, Vienna

[xxi] Vogue (Runway), July 3rd, 2013 (Mark Holgate): “Maison Martin Margiela: Artisanal Fall 2013 Couture”

[xxii] Vogue (Runway), July 5th, 2012 (Mark Holgate): “Maison Martin Margiela: Artisanal Fall 2012 Couture”

[xxiii] Vogue (Runway), July 3rd, 2012 (Nicole Phelps): “Fall 2012 Couture: Maison Margiela”

[xxiv] Mark Holgate, July 3rd, 2013: op. cit.

[xxv] Vogue (Runway), March 2nd, 2006 (Sarah Mower): “Fall 2006 Ready-to-Wear: Maison Margiela”

[xxvi] Mark Holgate, July 5th, 2012: op. cit.

[xxvii] Mark Holgate, July 3rd, 2013: op. cit.

[xxviii] Mark Holgate, July 5th, 2012: op. cit.

[xxix] NeimanMarcus.com: Maison Margiela: MM’s “distinctive vision is as relevant as ever…”

[xxx] Wiki~How to do anything: “Freshen Shoes” [Part 2:] Chemically

[xxxi] teenVogue (Shopping), May 8th, 2017 (Avery Matera): “Maison Margiela Destroyed Sneakers prompt Internet Reaction”

[xxxii] Cited as the best option in a “tweet” by Zezuru & attached to the teenVogue article by Avery Matera: op. cit.

Please follow me: