Have We Lost Our Buttons?

Every house should have its button box. I suspect one time every house did. Spare buttons were very much part of the mending culture, when recycling in the craft of use was not so much a principle of sustainability as a common sense practice. But their omnipresence in past domestic life  is also the reason why they’re a good subject for commodity history. 

In The Button Box the English historian Lynn Knight starts from her family’s button collection, passed down three generations, to tell the story of women in the 20th century. Buttons are peripheral things and yet they often outlast the garments they once adorned. Which means they can function as repositories of history – when given proper attention. Knight writes lively history through humble haberdashery.

Take Knight’s great-aunt Eva’s gauntlets for instance. Starting from the buttons, you can’t but admire the chocolate colour and the buttonholes, gusset and cuffs edged in caramel-coloured leather. In the early 1920s such gauntlets were associated with the well-off sporting woman’s wardrobe, well out of the reach of the working-class likes of Eva. But within a few years they were a popular choice for daywear, in particular when women dressed up to go shopping. Or, with one button reference, Knight enables us to feel the relief that the First World War was finally over and the special delight that consuming held then.

When they’re individually named, you probably pay more attention not to lose your (flapper) buttons.

Through Eva’s one-bar buttoned post-war shoes, we also get to imagine the accompanying stockings that came in vivid colours – with colour becoming the shorthand of modernity. And with the colourful stockings also appeared the garter buttons decorated with the flapper’s stylized faces – an attractive, wide-eyed Betty Boop-like creature.

That these were indeed exciting, modern times, Knight further illustrates with reference to the so-called flapper vote. Following the partial enfranchisement ten years earlier of women aged 30 and over, if they had a household qualification, 1928 saw the extension of the franchise to women aged 21. But Dame Millicent Fawcett, founder member of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, was not too pleased by the phrase: “Why call them flappers? Why call them girls?” The route to full emancipation of the admired “modern young woman” was still a long way off.

Knight takes us on an ingenious tour of domestic and social history over the last century or so. A jet button prompts thoughts over the elaborate rituals of mourning. A linen button, made to survive the mangle, brings into focus the working-class matrons who once patronized her great grandparents’ haberdashery shop. A Land Army button allows her to mention the Second World War – and so on. In sum, Knight lets buttons and by extension clothes speak as emblems of self-expression, social class and the attempts to escape it. This is fashion approached as a true cultural force and material history in the best of the storytelling tradition.

When do we think of the obvious fact that pearl buttons are made of shells?

The boring black-and-white illustrations at the beginning of each chapter don’t do the wealth of stories in this book justice. It would be nice to see a fully illustrated version that shows the original buttons, the corresponding clothes and all the other objects Knight refers to. More information on the then domestic and working conditions of textile workers could inspire reflection on the human cost of fashion now. And what about a list that helps readers to date their own button collection?

My very own button box, with a very young Baudouin (without glasses!), then Duke of Brabant, later fifth King of the Belgians (1951-1993).
I wonder what stories its contents (including my latest acquisitions on the right in the picture) could tell.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m a crafter. I like objects and materials.            I think they can speak to us, as the many recent commodity histories demonstrate. But I also like reflection. So, when humble buttons can exemplify the past, what can our relation with “stuff” more generally        tell us about our lives now?

According to the cultural trend watcher James Wallman, consumerism no longer holds delight. People are actually suffering from stuff in a process that he’s baptized “stuffocation”. His starting observation is that, instead of feeling enriched by the things we own, we feel stifled by their accumulation. In the terms of this post: we may have lost our buttons – simply by having too many. Stuff clutters up our homes, it causes stress and it’s bad for the planet. Stuffocation then is the material equivalent of the obesity epidemic.

Put in such terms, the solution is simple: reduce your material possessions or at least the value you attach to them. Through true-life stories Wallman presents three radical solutions: minimalism, “the simple life” and “the medium chill”. In a nutshell, minimalists live with as few objects as possible, “simple lifers” take Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854) as their lifestyle bible, and with the motto “take it easy”, the medium chiller turns away from material success to a slower, gentler and more human way of living.

The common characteristic of these alternatives is that they react to the dominant value system and measure achievement differently. Yet Wallman doesn’t think any of them will replace materialism. Few people know for instance that after only two years, Thoreau gave up voluntary simplicity and returned to the modern world, arguing that he had “several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one”. The point is not only that simple living is not very stimulating, it’s also all but simple to live without modern conveniences. The medium chill, according to the trend watcher, doesn’t feel aspirational enough and it does not provide people to indicate their status: that’s why it won’t appeal to most people. And the same goes for minimalism.

How do minimalists celebrate National Lost Sock Memorial Day (May 9)?

I’m intrigued by these stories, especially the minimalist obsession with numbers, as in: “I possess only 33 items”. I can’t get my head around this. When I look around me, just in the small space where I’m writing this, – no, I’m not even going to begin counting. Curiously, minimalists are very competitive: who can do with the least items? Part of the discussion then becomes what categories to use: are socks for instance to be counted separately, in pairs or as one single genre?

Wallman admits to 39 pairs of socks himself. More importantly, he addresses the issues material culture has come to define for most of us, such as identity, status and meaning. Returning for a moment to the clothes Lynn Knight describes through their buttons, the strength of her account is precisely that it identifies very clearly the relation between even humble objects and life-defining issues. Wallman also doesn’t condemn the relation: it’s simply what we’ve become accustomed to. His point is on the contrary that the issues are real: they’re deeply human needs and any alternative value system will need to satisfy them.

The trend watcher names experience as the next answer to our needs for identity and status. As the appeal of more stuff wanes, people are turning to experiences, like running a marathon, having a barbecue in the park or simply spending time with loved ones. This is not something you can have and hold: the 21th-century quest for the good life connects identity, meaning, status and happiness with something rather intangible that you do. And Wallman sees “experiental society” in practice today: experientalists take more holidays, go to increasingly popular festivals, spend more time (and money) on extravagant outdoor activities.

A great deal of the book is spent explaining how this urge for experience is compatible with the current economic system. Obviously not all businesses will survive. But as we’ve already seen the shift from goods to services, the system will now increasingly provide experiences. And to Wallman this is undeniably a good thing: the planet will suffer less, we will suffer less – and the human needs of identity and meaning will still be met. Everybody happy.

There’re a few shortcuts though. What the author describes very clearly is that the definition of the good life changes over time, relating to circumstances of scarcity or indeed abundance, to reflections about the state of our planet and so on. I take this to understand that there’s a lot of room to exercize our critical judgement – and act upon it. TINA-thoughts are not appropriate, this is a case for agency. But Wallman stays very much within the current frame.

Experience may indeed be the next big thing. But it’s not accidental that Wallman’s examples are almost exclusively outdoors – things to do rather than to be, with obvious consequences for consumerism, in terms of both materials and services to be provided to the experientalists. This then is still very much the framework of economic growth, or just another phase in the capitalist system.

Wallman claims some improvements, such as the fact that experiences are much more difficult to compare than, say, cars. That may be so but what if there is little or no intrinsic motivation to explore the Cambodian island of Koh Rong for instance, but only the desire to show off on social media? What if this is just a shift, away from the object but with the same aim: to distract us from important life issues?

It’s of course true that material accumulation for the sake of it offers very few people stable answers to their deeply felt needs. As mentioned earlier, the very feeling of being cheated out of satisfaction is indeed the driving force of the current economic and cultural system. And increasing numbers of people look for more meaningful lives. But does that mean we have to abandon the objects altogether – and turn uncritically to another promise of salvation and bliss? What if we haven’t lost our buttons at all, but simply paid them not enough attention?

In yet another Button Box the reader is encouraged to remember important people in her life, treasure her memories and in particular, tell stories. Debut author Janet Sever Hull has understood an important lesson: many people may need objects to connect with their inner needs and indeed, with other people. She invites the reader “to think of at least three things right off the top of your head which hold special memories for you and your family”. It may be the dinner table, or the family cookie jar, or indeed the button box, passed on from one generation to the next.

Obviously, it’s not necessarily the material value that makes an object special to us. As these button books show, it’s the stories they inspire that offer identity and meaning. The question then may become whether we allow objects to speak? Or are we too busy living our busy lives, suffering indeed from stuffocation, with no time to clear up, let alone tell or listen to the stories? Perhaps we should understand memories as some kind of experience too. But the stories evoked here require no conspicuous consumption. And the outdoors doesn’t feature either.

More generally, if we’re really looking to meet deeply human needs, I would claim it important to look indoors as well. To creative experiences, in crafts for instance. To the values of craftsmanship, such as attention, respect and patience. The intrinsic motivation to create. The inherently human desire to make – and to do it well. The effort to exercize our critical judgement and act upon it. The connection between head and hands. The kairos experience. And the value of stillness, the time creativity asks to be recognized and felt – or to let it bubble up from        our deeply buried selves.

The Button Art Museum clearly hasn’t lost its buttons: its boards on Pinterest provide ample inspiration. The experience of beauty creates space to be. And I believe that above all the ability for stillness is required in order to define better our quest for the good life.

This simple button inspiration can be.
But it can also be the stuff of fairytales.
Feel free to daydream,
When you experience simply being, your buttons will remain with you.

The Battle of the Colours

Funny how even a shop called ‘Blue Earth’ turns all red.
Moodboard Fall 2017

This Fall the streets will turn red. Already the shops in the high street show clothes in all hues of red. It makes me happy. It’ll bring warmth and colour in those many grey days we have around here. If people dare to wear it, of course. For some people find red threatening. The power the colour carries also means that about the first advice about professional attire is not to wear red, out of fear to attract hostility and aggression. In fact, that colour interpretation relates to that other Fall. Confused? Read on, all will become clear.

According to my favourite colour expert, Michel Pastoureau, the history of colour is always the history of the society in which it features. In this sense colour – and indeed its manifestations in fashion – is not superficial at all: it offers elements to understand society better. And one of the reasons why I like Pastoureau so much is that he always includes illustrations of materiality and craftsmanship to make the point.

This booklet offers a good summary of all Pastoureau’s ‘colour books’.

Pastoureau’s work is complex and detailed. I can heartily recommend all his books: they’re full of fascinating stories and delightful insights. Let me share a few with you.

Nowadays about 75% of Westerners name blue as their favourite colour. To make us understand how remarkable this is, Pastoureau goes to great lengths to demonstrate that for most of human history it was red that was most preferred. The battle of the colours will take place later, let’s stay for a while with the supremacy of red. 

Think of the caverns of Altamira for instance: they’re Unesco heritage because of the 150 drawings they contain, estimated to be some 15.000 years old and mostly in reds. 

Also Unesco heritage: the amazing wall paintings in Pompeii (80BC) where the intense red greatly contributes to the powerful experience. Almost in passing Pastoureau points out that, contrary to what many think, the garments, the private houses but also the temples and the sculptures within were, in classical times, full of colour.

The first dyes were vegetal, including ochres, which turn colour when burnt, and the popular madder.  The latter is a plant that carries the pigment in its roots. Which begs the question how humans got the idea to go searching underground for tinctorial matter? 

Over the centuries animal colourings were added such as kermes and the New World cochineal, the story of which has been wonderfully written by the American historian Amy Butler GreenfieldIn the middle of the 18th century an estimated 350 ton per annum of cochineal was exported to Europe, providing Spain which had the monopoly, with a revenue which almost equalled that of silver. 

The New World cochineal lives on cacti, only the female yields the dye (1777).

It goes without saying that garments dyed with cochineal were very expensive and thus became a symbol of power and luxury.

Pastoureau gives the materiality of colour a great deal of attention: he tells the stories of the successive chemical and technological advances in the craftsmanship involved. And he offers, to our contemporary eyes, surprising illustrations of that materiality. 

For centuries brides at the countryside for instance would wear red, not of the cochineal variety of course – which was too expensive and also forbidden for ‘ordinary folk’, but the local dyers mastered the red vegetal and animal pigments the best. Red was in other words a good material choice for a radiating bride.

Dyeing was a labour-intensive, intricate activity (Barthélemy l’Anglais & Jean Corbechon, Le Livre des propriétés des choses, 1482). On the right both bride and groom wear red: their festive attire accentuates the significance of the sacrament of matrimony (detail Rogier van der Weyden, The Seven Sacraments Altarpiece, c.1470).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I also like the story of Louis XIV’s brother who allegedly introduced high heels at the 17th-century French court. The idea was to make up for the short posture of both brothers, which failed utterly because the new trend was taken up swiftly by all courtiers. Fascinatingly the heels were bright red – on the outside, which provides historical support to the failure of contemporary designer Christian Louboutin to obtain trademark protection for his signature red-lacquered soles.

Both at his marriage and when he was 63 and in full royal gear, Louis XIV sired red-heeled shoes (Antoine Dieu, Marriage of Louis of France and Marie-Adélaïde of Savoye, 1678; above right detail after Hyancinthe Rigaud).

In comparison, the Louboutin red seems conservative.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Much less light-minded is the Church’s use of colour. In fact, the original Bible hardly contains colour references. It’s only over the centuries and across translations, especially in the vernacular languages, that the Bible becomes increasingly more colourful – in itself an illustration of how colour testifies of changes in society.

These changes resulted in an ambitious colour symbolism that from the 5th century onwards exercized its influence in many domains of religious life (liturgy and costume for instance), social practises (garments, ceremonies, heraldic arms and insignia) and artistic and literary creation. And that for about a millenium. That’s powerful cultural heritage indeed.

With regard to the colour that concerns us here most, the Christian symbolism was founded on two principal references, namely blood and fire. And each was considered in both its good and bad aspects.

Blood in its positive connotation is of course the symbol of life. Even more specifically, it’s Christ giving his blood who has saved mankind, thereby warranting eternal life. In his footsteps followed the Church’s martyrs who accentuated the promise of salvation and the community of believers. This red sanctifies, fertilizes and unites. It’s also the colour of the very powerful Christian concept of caritas.

Both the so-called mystic press on the left and the Lamb of God above illustrate the growing symbolism attached to the blood of Christ (French miniature, 14th-15th century; detail Jan Van Eyck, The Ghent Altarpiece, 1427-9).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But inevitably blood is also associated with violence and impurity. That’s why crime, sin and above all revolt against God were depicted in reds. Hangmen and torturers often wore red garments which had, of course, the additional advantage that their ‘activities’ were not too visible. In more general terms red became the colour of control, inhibition and sanctioning: think of a “red list”, the red pen used to correct exams, the “red line” not to be crossed. Red thus became very much associated with power and authority – which is also why the colour became the exclusive privilege of society’s elites, religious, political and economic.

It’s no coincidence that the guilds’ coats of arms were predominantly red (Ghent, 1524). The power of heraldic red continues to play even now, with 75% of the current UN members having red in their flag.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beside blood, it’s fire that features prominently in the Church’s colour symbolism. Biblical divine interventions are often accompanied by fire, as in the case of God speaking through a burning bush to Abraham who’s about to sacrifice his son Isaac. The most powerful image in this respect are the fiery tongues of Pentecost. Here we have divine love that regenerates, purifies and fortifies. Hence also the association with more mundane manifestations of seduction and love, remember the wedding dresses. Alas, fire is not always benign. Undoubtedly the strongest reference in the medieval mind is Hell, with the Devil as the personalization of temptation and evil. In that sense it wasn’t surprising that heretics were burnt – with no hope for salvation.

The two dimensions of fire in Christian symbolism: on the left the fiery tongues bringing regeneration on Pentecost (Hunterian Psalter, c.1165-70), above eternal damnation for heretics (Chronicle From the Creation of the World until 1384).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In sum, these four interdependent dimensions constructed a powerful symbolism that coloured the High Middle Ages very red indeed. But things were about to change.

A first crack in the red supremacy came from an unexpected rival: blue. The Romans disliked it, interpreting it as the colour of the barbarians. In the medieval West, it hardly features socially or artistically and it carried no religious or symbolic connotations.

Note the same bright blue for the Virgin’s coat and the sky. Interestingly, the angels are both blue (on the earth) and red (circling God in heaven) (Nativity, in Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, c.1415).

This raises the question whether the promotion of blue was prompted by technical advances, newly discovered pigments for instance or better ways of mastering the dyes. Pastoureau argues that the ideological mutations preceded the chemical ones: it was the association with the Virgin Mary that set kings, later all nobility, to adopt blue. 

Hitherto depicted in sombre colours, referring to her bereavement, Mary gradually sires a blue coat – which also becomes more bright and luminous. And that brighter blue, miniature artists use to paint the sky, which was black or golden before. This is also the period which saw the construction of the Gothic cathedrals with their famous blue stained windows.

The ideological promotion of blue through the Virgin, queen of the heavens, had some serious material consequences too. Blue upstarts so to speak broke through the dyeing guild’s monopoly and set up their own, rivalling organizations. Severely affected in their economic activities, the red dyers resorted to moral warfare to protect their position. Pastoureau tells of two instances where the red dyeing guild tried to convince their stained windows colleagues to represent the devil in blue – in an attempt to discredit the colour altogether. They failed.

I found one example with both red and blue devils. It’s probably not surprising that this Last Judgement (c.1500) adorns St Mary’s, Fairford. Being one of the so-called wool churches, it’s a testament to the wealth of the wool trade in the Cotswolds region. The stunning windows are 
the only surviving set of medieval stained glass in England. I think the blue devil above rather cute but that must be my wicked modern mind.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Red’s downfall continued with new sumptuary laws and sartorial decrees that the civil authorities increasingly promulgated in the 14th and 15th centuries. The purpose was threefold: economic, moral and social. These laws and regulations fought against luxurious and thus unproductive spending. They also condemned new fashions which were considered frivolous, indecent, scandalous even. And above all they aimed to reinforce the boundaries between the different social classes so that all, in their appearance and ways of life, would remain in their stations.

The Reformation of the 16th century concluded the case. Not surprisingly in view of the powerful symbolism set out above, red to the Reformers represented the Papist Church against the many corruptions of which they so ardently fought. Red thus lost its positive connotations and became exclusively negative. Most particularly, red became associated with sin, pure and simple.

Being banned from Paradise was not a pleasant experience (Ulm Münster, 1461).

And this is where the other Fall comes into the picture. When Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Wisdom, it’s the sanctioning red angel who expulses them from Paradise. But with original sin also originated the need for garments. The fact that we wear clothes, is a continued testimony of our inherent sinfulness. Fashion is not only superficial and frivolous, it’s proof that we humans are flawed. It’s therefore right and proper for clothes not to express status, let alone pride: they must contribute to our awareness that we need to be modest and humble. The Reformers had much less faith in salvation or charity, the perspectives were bleak. Hence a much muted down colour palette, if not dominantly black.

Compare these two Holy Families: on the left the Protestant Rembrandt
uses a very muted palette (1634), the Counter Reformation diplomat Rubens (above) paints his colours as bright as can be and even includes a frivolous parrot (c.1614).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Although in reaction the Counter Reformation re-enforced red in all its splendour, in more ordinary circumstances the West has actually adopted the more neutral palette of the Reformation. The dark colours that are dominant in office surroundings for instance still refer to a work ethic that since Max Weber is related to Protestantism. Pastoureau concludes more generally that red has almost entirely been banned out of our daily lives, including the public sphere. 

This conclusion struck me to the point that I went out to test it in my home city. And indeed, there is surprisingly little red in Ghent (I’m discounting the reddish bricks and roofs, and publicity signs). And where it is present, it refers to the authority of the Church, and by extension to the old civic powers. Interestingly the positive connotations are in the majority: who wants to see it, finds evidence of divine and mundane love, charity and the power of the city. The references to violence and revolt are much more muted.

Without the truck you might miss the muted red in the roof windows of the Cathedral,
the Beguinage church tower is already somewhat more obvious,
in the Counter Reformation charity building there is no more holding back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The bright red gate of the medieval belfry reminds us of the value of the city’s freedom.
 The so-called Dulle Griet (1431) was moved to Ghent to fight the Spanish. The impressive canon, stretching over 5 m and weighing more than 12 ton, now stars mostly and predictably in selfies. 
The fire reference in the streets is benign: in case of emergency the water supply will be easily found.

 

The least you can say is that the much-discussed circulation plan, recently introduced to give pedestrians and cyclists more space, brightens up the city centre.

The only modern exception, where red was relatively recently introduced in the public domain, are the sea, rail and land traffic systems. Here too though the reference is old, with the red indicating control and inhibition.
Why green was introduced, is unclear: the symbolic contrast red/green is unprecedented historically. Some (in the book unnamed) countries contrast red and blue – which is a surprising reference to the battle of the angels and the devils. In Japan they use green but call it blue.

A postbox in front of my favourite building in Ghent: the Castle of the Counts.

There is the material suggestion (also not in the book) that red is simply very striking to our eyes. This might explain why telephone boxes (now extinct on the Belgian streets) used to be red. We still have the red post boxes (but not in the author’s France).

Because Pastoureau pays so much attention to materiality, I don’t think he would disagree. But his conclusion is much more powerful: although red is no longer the preferred colour in the West, it remains the strongest colour symbolically. That’s why red still provokes such strong emotions. With reference to the historic symbolism we understand better why that is so. And it’s fun to adopt a different mindset and observe the battle of the colours.

Where once was the entrance to the red light district, the Ghent artist Jan Van Imschoot painted several scenes of the local history (2000).
Detail of the wall painting: seductive red stockings.

So, do wear red clothes this Fall and decide whether you’re creating your own private Counter Reformation, or simply want to add more blood and fire to your life – in the positive meaning of spirit, charity and love, obviously.

And on a wall very close to where I live, what should always be the final word.

The Craft of Use

We’re not materialistic enough. Now here’s a challenging thesis. And it’s convincingly argued by Kate Fletcher, Professor of Sustainability, Design and Fashion at the University of the Arts in London. Bear with me, an incident in a different branch of the arts introduces the theme beautifully.

A strange debate recently in Belgium centred around the question whether or not it’s acceptable to destroy a piece of art – and on what grounds that can be judged.

Tuymans, The Swamp. Photo Karel Hemerijckx.

The internationally renowned artist Luc Tuymans made the floor painting The Swamp for a cultural happening at the end of which the painting would be burned. With the explicit approval of the artist, of course. But the manager of a poverty organisation objected because the painting had an esteemed market value of half to one million euros. After lots of to-and-fro-ing, the painting was not burnt but hacked into pieces. The full destruction will eventually take place out of public sight.

The point seems to be that we cannot deal with transience: intentionally planning that things change, or indeed disappear, meets resistance. But what’s demonstrated most is how we, collectively, are completely stuck in a consumption society – and we no longer understand its implications. The manager interprets art purely in monetary terms. Tuymans himself manages the market very skillfully by creating scarcity of his work. In other words, all parties in the debate are strongly embedded in the consumption ideology of our times. Yet it can be safely assumed that the manager cherishes other values. And the artist claims a kind of sanctuary, a space where different values reign.

This space is where Kate Fletcher situates her work on the Craft of Use. In fact she’s far more ambitious than Tuymans: the point is not so much to create a sanctuary and in the rest of the space continue to go along with the dominant values, but rather to explore already existing practices and ideas and see how far they will get us in the definition and realization of a radically different system.

Fletcher’s focus is on fashion. And what is so wonderful about her project is that it not only aims to reshape the way we think about fashion but also firmly places it in a much broader discussion on sustainability and the good life. I said it was ambitious.

Fashion is the poster-industry of consumer materialism, frivolous and superficial, hence rather easy to dismiss. Yet Fletcher insists on fashion as a true cultural force, in the sense both that it’s the carrier of the dominant values of our society and that it has the potential to act as a vehicle for true, deep change. Fashion fuses fundamental human needs, the provision of livelihoods, creative expression, social processes, the material dimensions of well-being and pleasure. On the downside, it fully illustrates the dominance of market thinking and the inability of efficiency improvements to outrun the negative effects of economic growth on labour conditions and climate change.

At the heart of The Craft of Use lies a very simple idea of change: pay heed to the tending and wearing of clothes, favour their use as much as their creation. And in so doing adopt a more ecological idea of fashion that recognizes what happens outside the market as rich, powerful and valuable. The subtitle makes it plain: this is the search for “post-growth fashion”. There we have it: the point is to change the entire system.

We’re all “locked-in” into dominant ways of thinking about fashion, about economics and society.  We find it normal to engage with fashion by exchanging money for product. We chase the thrill of a new purchase, only to feel deflated at home where the satisfaction rate rarely holds out. We also expect the clothes to look dated or even fall apart in six months. We don’t hesitate about discarding rather than adapting or repairing – and so we consume again. And the ever growing volumes at an ever increasing pace neutralize the ecological efforts of the fashion industry.

And how do we feel when discarded clothes become art? Monika Droste, Transfixed Clothes (1981), Collection of the Wallonie-Brussels Federation.

To return to the challenging thesis at the beginning of this post: much in the same vein that the Dutch designer Christien Meindertsma argues for the knowledge about the origin of raw materials, Fletcher claims we’re not materialistic enough because we don’t really care about the materials or indeed the garments. If we had respect and appreciation for the intrinsic material qualities of things, we would treat them differently – with attention and care. But consumer society suggests that it can fulfill our needs, for symbolic value for instance or social meaning. Hence the continuous replacement purchases. In that dynamic the clothes’ materiality, their intrinsic qualities aren’t relevant. To the industry the post-purchase lives of garments are equally irrelevant: the sooner it can seduce us to consume again, the better. 

This to Fletcher is the crux of the system: if the focus continues to lie with the product, we’re reduced to being – and remaining passive consumers. We hardly exercise our judgement. It’s hard for instance to get any information about the conditions in which the garments are manufactured. We let ourselves be distracted so that we also don’t evaluate our own needs and how they relate to consumption. We don’t actively engage with things. We don’t exercise our awareness. And thus neglect the development of our sensitivity to ethical responsibility.

When in other words consumption is such a powerful force, and it generates passivity in fashion activities, it also spreads that attitude to other domains. And we no longer see what its effects are: we’re discouraged to exercise our judgement in other areas of life too, we fail to identify our real needs, we feel powerless to act in the world. We’ve interiorized the idea that the market defines value – there is no alternative. Which also means that ideas or practices that cannot be marketed, have no value – remember the Tuymans debate.

Fletcher argues that we must resist this dominant ideology. We cannot accept that our lives are assessed by the market alone. Our aspirations and the simple (and not so simple) things that enrich our lives, the engagement with others for instance, do not connect with the economic logic of continuous growth. We thus urgently need an alternative discourse, both to solve the problems of sustainability and to realize a qualitative interpretation of human well-being.

If this sounds like a major task, Fletcher doesn’t deny it is. But she offers us the concept of use as a simple way in. For keeping garments in active use can involve something as simple as approaching a piece with attention and imagination. It’s inconspicuous consumption. It’s appreciating resources in greater detail, stretching them qualitatively and quantitatively, approaching them creatively, folding them into others’ lives, infusing them with human warmth, memory and storytelling. 

Research has revealed that the post-purchase life of a garment is the biggest source of both individual satisfaction and environmental impact. This is why use must be at the centre of post-growth fashion. 

Craft of use refers to a set of practical skills, knowledge and ideas associated with using clothes. They’re little noticed and within the current fashion system little prized. What Fletcher and her team do in the book, is bring together stories and portrait photography that illustrate and value the practice of use. And the main point is that there are already many “alternative dress codes” out there: people buy secondhand, they share use or transfer clothes between generations, they mend their garments, “open and adjust” them, cherish the patina of use, etc.

This is what satisfaction with use looks like.

Let me share my two favourites from the book. One person suggests that with a new dress you should also be able to buy an extra piece of fabric, so you could adjust the garment to your own wishes. Showing her own favourite eveningdress, the woman in the photograph on the right tells the inspiring story of a woman in her eighties who at some point had decided not to buy any more clothes. She’s worn out the rest of her wardrobe and now only wears eveningwear.

What the book illustrates above all, is that many people already have, in their own ‘ordinary’ way, broken through the dominant economic system. They listen to their own needs and preferences, they use their awareness and judgement and bring them into the world. They’ve thus become agents in their own interpretation and practice of fashion.

Fletcher insists that the designing process itself must include users’ wisdom and produce more flexible products. Interestingly, at the end of World War II, the Make Do & Mend movement already inspired material resourcefulness with army blankets. Half a century later the A-Poc project presented the fascinatingly flexible design of Issey Miyake (1998). 

This is disruptive stuff. Once beyond-the-market activity is included to stretch the definition of fashion, the power balance shifts. Production becomes only one part of the system, existing market priorities lose their dominance in favour of alternative networks that favour non-utilitarian, non-economic values.

Use is resourceful and satisfying. It infuses the system of fashion with different goals such as self-reliance, diversity and quality. To use is to act, to forge a more engaged future of our own choosing and in so doing provide us with an opportunity to develop the capacity and skills to navigate our own route not just through our fashion choices, but also through life: we become the makers of alternative routes. Consumers become citizens who bring to the fore different interpretations of identity, agency and the good life.

What I find most fascinating is that this is about ‘ordinary’ people. It’s not grand theory: it’s practical wisdom gleaned from individual, subjective lives. Its practitioners may not even be aware of it but they fulfill a pioneering role – which can inspire us, precisely because it’s so much in reach of us all. What’s more, this “clothing competence” can equally spread out and support growth in our character for instance and in our choices as citizen. Stories of “material resourcefulness” thus become tiny lessons of change – in the various domains of life.

Fletcher makes the association with craftivism which is an explicitly political approach. Obviously, there’s also a strong reference to the ideas, practices and values of craftsmanship such as I have been presenting in this blog. Or to summarize the whole argument really simply: after a garment is sold, the user is in charge. Fletcher calls all of us to use that power. The idea and practice of use is a path to approach not only fashion but life itself differently.

Let me conclude with two practices of my own. Fletcher insists that she “present[s] the practices of garment use not as a neatly packaged ‘how to’ list for using things well and with satisfaction, but as rich ground, as compost, in which ideas and practices of use can be cultivated.” With her, “I leave it up to you to care for what grows here, to train it in different directions, to enjoy its blossom, to cross-pollinate its flowers with new ideas, to eat its fruit, share it with others and replant its seed in new and different ground.”

My sister knitted one jumper in her life. And when it was finished, she didn’t like it – and gave it to me. Years later moths liked it very much.
What I could save, got recycled into a festive attire for a new member in my sister’s happy bear collection.

 

 

Note the buttons above left, the zip on the right and the fringes in the foreground, each belonging to a different secondhand skirt. 
I very much hope I can wear this new trinity in my eighties.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Textile Travels

Travelling is what many of us do this time of year. It’s a period to relax and fill those depleted sources of energy. We can of course also use the time to reflect on our lives, to imagine how to improve them – and what action might be needed to achieve that. And why not combine things and reflect on travel itself?

Let’s start with a quirky novelette written by James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851), the favourite author for generations of Americans and best known for his historical romance The Last of the Mohicans (1826).

In the Autobiography (1843) it’s a Pocket Handkerchief that travels through contemporary society. The object’s “clairvoyance” or “magnetic induction” enables it to know the thoughts and feelings of the humans in its neighbourhood. The handkerchief tells its own story and comments on events in France and America. We learn about its time growing in the Normandy flax fields and all the actions that result in high quality linen, including embroidery and lace embellishment. Because the author makes it travel across the Atlantic ocean, he can use the handkerchief as a lens to compare the manners of the old and new worlds.

Cooper in a pensive, probably gloomy mood (New York).

Cooper was essentially preoccupied with social stability. He also believed society had to grow through three stages: after the frontier stage America had now entered the second stage where “the struggles for place” became so predominant that people abandoned important principles such as equality and good fellowship in favour of the influence of “mere money”. Rather than evolving towards the third stage of ordered society Cooper feared that America was being taken over by self-interest. Chaos and the destruction of liberty might ensue. 

Hence the scathing satire in which an exquisite handkerchief is paid a pittance in revolutionary Paris but creates “a general buzz” at a New York party where the nouveaux riches gawk over “the first hundred-dollar pocket handkerchief that had then appeared in their circles; and had I been a Polish count, with two sets of moustaches, I could not have been more flattered and ‘entertained’.”

The handkerchief serves well as a symbol of the changing social conditions, especially in America. Cooper condemns the effects of early consumerism and its selfish struggle for social status: he considers the increasingly materialistic climate detrimental to sounder values such as harmonious social relations and civic engagement.  

With its Atlantic travels the handkerchief also enables the author to consider both sides of the economic spectrum and equally condemn the capitalist exploitation of the workers: “Those who live on the frivolities of mankind, or, what is the same thing, their luxuries, have two sets of victims to plunder – the consumer, and the real producer, or the operative. This is true where men are employed, but much truer in the case of females.”

In short, through the narrative voice of a handkerchief we see the ideal of an ordered society being disrupted by the globalizing of production, distribution and consumption.  

Considered as the first ‘commodity novel’, the Autobiography may well be the precursor of what is called commodity historiography. In order to offer a different perspective on world history, historians have been using the focal point of a single commodity, such as sugar and coal, to explore the origins and the vicissitudes of globalization.

A fine example is Empire of Cotton (2015) by the Harvard historian Sven Beckert. He argues that cotton is the first real globalizer in the sense that its commercialization made the world in which we live today.

Beckert makes at least three important arguments. First, the global network of cotton growers, harvesters, spinners, weavers, merchants and manufacturers was the first grand act of economic globalization in the history of the world. The very idea of the global marketplace is the result of the enduring demand for cotton.

Second, violence is an intrinsic part of the early capitalist development which Beckert therefore renames “war capitalism”. This also means that from the start there was no question of so-called “free enterprise”: the capitalist system received powerful support from the modern states – with the building of the necessary infrastructure (canals, railways, etc.), military practices, secure financial instruments (credit, insurance), and a legal framework (e.g. intellectual property). In sum, capitalism is, as the historian puts it, “joined at the hip” with state power.

Third, the increasingly global character of capitalism depends on the continuously growing prolitarization of countrysides around the world. Subsistence communities, with a variety of crops and local exchange systems, are increasingly replaced with wage labour in monocultures. This entails an immense loss in diversity, in terms of both ecosystems and local cultures. People lose their productive independence and are at the same time reduced, however imperfect the circumstances are, to become global consumers.

We use cotton every day. But how many Western consumers would recognize this as a cotton field?
Or know that this plant seemingly overwhelmed by snow is in fact a cotton flower?

Already between 1000 and 1700 cotton was the most important productive sector. Today around 350 million people across the globe are involved in its manufacturing industry.

In between lies a relatively short period in which the British East India Company bought fine cotton textiles in India, that were sold in Africa in exchange for slaves, who then were transported to the Western hemisphere to work on the American sugar and cotton fields to supply the European markets.

Cotton was thus at the core of the Atlantic trade triangle. When by the end of the 18th century British technological innovations enabled domestic production, slave labour was no longer essential to the further development of capitalism and was replaced with wage labour. Today there are virtually no regions left that do not participate, however imperfectly, in the global system. The continuing quest for ever cheaper sources of materials and labour also embodies disturbing inequality.

The power of Beckert’s account is above all that it raises our awareness. Textile has always travelled. And the particular and changing nature of its travels reveals a lot about how the world we live in came into being. Also, the global economy is not a recent creation. And its development is not a natural but a politically promoted process. It’s thus not because contemporary large corporations have emancipated from the state, that there is no alternative. For the state has to a large extent voluntarily withdrawn from the economic sphere. And that is no natural process either: as with the support of early capitalism, it’s the result of political and ideological choices. This also implies there are alternatives – if there is political will. For our own part of the world it seems likely that an alternative stance to political economy will be developed within the European Union, rather than the individual nation states.

At a more individual level Beckert strengthens recent awareness for the circumstances in which textiles (and other consumer goods) are produced. Fast fashion relies on labour conditions that don’t vary much from the early days of the Industrial Revolution. The advantage of this so-called information age is that we know of the often deplorable lives of the wage labourers who enable our consumer behaviour. Add to this a heightened awareness for the ecological consequences of both those productive conditions and the global textile travels – and there may be room for individual agency.

To make that room more visible, and enlarge it, is at the core of the work of the Dutch designer Christien Meindertsma. She’s one of those designers who’s not so much interested in products but in processes: she researches the raw materials, people and techniques involved in the various stages of production. Striking is that she doesn’t talk explicitly about sustainability. According to Meindertsma it’s transparency that will lead to “better products”. She wants to foster more respect and care: if people know “the story” behind a product, they will connect with it and value it differently – which will also make them different consumers.

The flax ‘rotting’ on its lot (Flevopolder, Gz 59-West) as part of the intricate harvesting process.

When Meindertsma was commissioned to work with a traditional rope maker, she tried for a year and a half to discover where his raw materials came from. Flabbergasted that she couldn’t find any answers, she redefined the entire project: in close collaboration with one of the few remaining flax farmers she documented the process of flax production in the Netherlands from start to finish. Eventually she had the chance to buy the lot’s harvest – and to her own hilarity ended up with over 10 tons of flax. 

Part of it has become the raw material for beautiful, unbleached damask table linen. And Meindertsma remains close to her mission of transparency. Her designs themselves make sense: they’re based on the plant, the layout of the actual field and segments of the complex harvesting process.

Here’s a designer at work who uses design to explain something that she considers important. She doesn’t lecture people. But she offers a different way of looking at things, of asking relevant questions. Why for instance are some producers so reluctant to reveal the origin of their raw materials? What is the sense (and the cost) of making textile travel around the globe? And will making the productive processes visible change our interpretation of consumption and thus our sense of agency?

Texture, the Museum of Flax and River Lys in Kortrijk, West Flanders, is a delightful example of how deep respect for craftsmanship, regional textile traditions and entrepreneurship can be combined with innovative technological displays and awareness of the contemporary visitor’s interests and expectations. In TEXLAB the museum offers its history and collection as inspiration for new creations.

The Linen Thread Company’s building, now home to Texture, was turned into a dovecote in the early years of the First World War.

Meindertsma’s project for TEXLAB beautifully links the history of the museum building with her own interest in travelling textiles. In 1914-15 hundreds of travel pigeons were locked up in the building by the German occupier out of fear that they would transfer delicate information.

 

Meindertsma returned 200 pigeons to the museum, in tufted linen this time, manufactured with her own flax by one of the last yarn spinners left in Flanders, filled with flax seeds and sewn together by Texture’s volunteers.

And the designer pursued the travel theme further: below the pigeon wall the global travels of different linen variants are visualized, for instance from Belgium to China and back again. 


 

 

 

 

 

Meindertsma explores the possibility of “transparent” products. But wonders herself whether such production, in bulk and at affordable prices, is feasible. She continues to hope that telling the story behind consumer products can make a difference. But her sense of urgency seems to grow. In her recent installation for the inaugurating exhibition of the renewed London Design Museum, Meindertsma presented colourful heaps of fibre originating from 1000 discarded woollen jumpers, thus visualizing the senselessness of throwaway fashion. 

In conclusion then, textile travels can accompany us towards higher awareness. We may want to think about the origin and history of the raw materials of products that often, almost thoughlessly, get thrown away. We may want to think about our own consumer behaviour and how to align that more with the good life, both for ourselves and for the “operatives”, both male and female. James Fenimore Cooper, Sven Beckert and Christien Meindertsma each narrow our focus to a single object or raw material and offer it as a lens to see more clearly the global scale of consumer products and its implications. All three are critical of contemporary practices, the underlying system and its guiding principles. It would be nonsensical to expect from them quick and or easy solutions. They do demonstrate that disruption and globalization are man-made phenomena that are susceptible to human agency, collective and individual. They also confirm the omnipresence of textiles and their connection not just to commerce but to politics and culture as well. And to urgent underlying issues that reflect the state of the world.

Craft Agency

Everyone in Flanders knows Bokrijk: it’s a popular school destination from the 1970s onwards. And very boring I remember it too. The Provincial Open Air Museum presented a stilted version of the past, with old farms and chapels for instance transported from their original settings, and loads of old utensils and machines that breathed dust and irrelevance.

Something has changed between the traditional clog workshop and the Bokrijk 
presentation at the latest edition of the Interior Biënnale Kortijk (2016).

 

 

 

 

 

Textile is not very prominent in Bokrijk but Flemish fashion designer Tim Van Steenbergen will experiment next year on this restored loom (Photo Bart Dewaele).

It took some time, which is okay when we all want things to slow down, but Bokrijk is increasingly transforming into a social laboratory where the relevance of cultural heritage is clarified and where cross-pollination projects with a multitude of partners feature prominently. The Museum presents an ambitious programme that enables the past to say something relevant about today – and the future. Contemporary craftsmanship is at the core of this programme, with its capacity, among others, to make us think about mass production.

I’m delighted that craftsmanship gains an increasingly prominent position in societal discussions. There’s of course the danger that this is a hipster trend, soon to be obliterated by another. I think craftsmanship deserves better. To follow Bokrijk’s lead, to think about mass production equally means thinking about its effect on the climate, about the way we relate to objects and ultimately to one another. For if we define ourselves exclusively as consumers, there is no human connection, bar competition in the upcoming sales perhaps. Consumers don’t think about the circumstances in which objects are made, the often miserable lives of their makers and the total absence of appreciation for their expertise. Consumption itself is seldom fulfilling and it casually robs its practioners from their agency.

The question then becomes how we can anchor craftsmanship solidly into the debate about society and keep it sustainably relevant. And whether what we could call craft agents can help us think differently about objects, meaningful human (inter)action and the good life.

Craftspeople come in all shapes and sizes. I picked two radically different examples to explore the point: the students of the Master in Textile Design at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts (KASK, Ghent) and, first, a 19th-century Norfolk fisherman.

There’s nothing hip or trendy about John Craske (1881-1946). In fact, very little is known of his life. And it’s to the English biographer Julia Blackburn’s merit that she threads together what little she could find of what most would see as an ordinary, insignificant life.

Yet John Craske managed, it seems, to survive through his craftswork – literally. When he became ill in 1917 and was pronounced, in the subtle language of the time, “imbecile”, his sea life was over. Having been born into a poor, for generations seafaring family, this was a financial debacle. It also turned out to be a mental disaster: when he wasn’t in what he himself called ” a stuporous state”, Craske desperately longed for the sea. The family doctor recommended that Craske went to live by the water, because “only the sea can save him”. When that wasn’t possible, Craske created his own solution: he recreated the sea, painting on any surface he could find. Later, when he could no longer stand for any length of time, he took to embroidering seascapes, sea related scenes and ultimately, based on the reports on the wireless, the Evacuation of Dunkirk. 

  Postcard painting (The Duigan Collection)
A rare boot at rest: Craske mostly & most realistically depicted storms. And included prominently his signature.

 

 

 

 

 

Rescue at sea

& detailed embroideries of his former livelihood.

 

 

 

Craske’s death prevented him from finishing the Evacuation of Dunkirk (NUA Gallery, Norwich). The embroidery is over 3,3m wide & 64 cm high.
Detail of the action at Dunkirk.

Threads is a delicate book. While Blackburn rescues Craske’s life from obscurity, she also weaves through her own, very personal stories. There is little definition whether Craske’s work is art rather than craft, nor a conclusive judgment whether his life was ultimately meaningful through his work. If anything, the storytelling is kind and compassionate. 

The loose ends of the Dunkirk embroidery.

And by quoting from her notebooks and reporting searches that yielded nothing, Blackburn shows the messiness behind the biographer’s own craft. To expose such loose treads is to invite a slower pace and the acceptance that not all efforts yield result. Life is sometimes messy, as the reverse sides of Craske’s embroideries equally show. Interweaving his pictures with her writing, the story becomes a meditation on resilience and creativity. And how craftsmanship can pull us through illness, immobility and hardship. 

Put differently, we’re shown different types of agency, nothing with grand impact but powerful nonetheless. This can inspire us with regard to the power of the imagination in what is too easily seen as an ordinary life. This is about patience and mercy. About the consolation of art/craft. About attention to small detail and an open mind, ready to learn and apply unknown techniques to depict what’s in one’s eye’s mind. John Craske impacted immensely on his life because despite serious financial and mental hardship he refused to submit his agency. 

I very much hope the Textile Design students and alumni at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts (KASK, Ghent) don’t need to experience such hardship in order to master their craft. They have in any case the glorious space of the Ghent Design Museum where ‘Plain / Purl. 10 Years of Textile Design KASK’ now shows. The subtitle of the exhibition ‘Textile between Art and Design’ makes explicit the tension Blackburn mostly left unmentioned: it invites ideas of debate, controversy, dissent and contrast.

The accompanying catalogue explains that Textile Design in Ghent has very much at its core the students’ own investigation. They’re actively encouraged to research, experiment and practice through the varied textile landscape. This also implies that KASK puts a high value on maintaining a certain distance from the direct demands of the workplace and society. Its higher education programme is clearly envisaged as a sanctuary with ample space for theoretical contextualization, critical reflection and research. But it’s no ivory tower: interdisciplinary experiments and collaborations are very much encouraged, there is an acute awareness of textile’s climatic and social impact, contemporary questions summon innovative disruption.

Two untitled works by Louise Bourgeois (2008), presiding over Sophie Schreinemacher’s experiments with wood & rope (2016).

All this has found its expression in the exhibition. Functional design and visual art join side by side, in a non-hierarchical way, as are the young, experienced, student and internationally known makers. Visitors are encouraged to touch some of the works and thus get connected and engaged themselves.

But the most telling aspect of the exhibition is the fact that many of the works on display are not finished products. They’re experiments, encounters at the crossing of different disciplines, illustrations of a particular stage in the research process.

They’re presented in a collage or in a row, not so much to suggest uniform design but rather a shared philosophy of an open mind. Of agency to impact on materials and techniques. On objects, people and society.

These are clearly other craft agents than was John Craske. Yet they also practice creativity to deal with life. With its messiness perhaps. With the fact that there’s too little mercy, too little attention to detail or circumstances. That pressing societal questions need an answer but also time – so as to cut loose superficial trends and embroider a real, sustained alliance with so-called ordinary lives. To find, with patience and resilience, the right perspective on meaningfulness. 

Fien Embrechts, Embroidery on latex (2008)
Britt De Groot, Research Laser Cutting (2011)
Bettie Boersma, Finding Form for Perspectives (2016)
Hella Jongerius & Jongeriuslab Bovist, Vitra (2016)

This seat with Alice and the rabit running late, sits at the heart of the Design museum, now transformed into a place of time slowing down, of encounter and exploration. The core of textile craftsmanship has in the exhibition become an open space to connect and feel the fabrics.

Textile is very much alive. Its crafts agents featured here show us how it’s embedded a myriad of concepts, values and practices that remain powerful and relevant today. If we manage to feature craftsmanship more prominently into the debates and practices of society, we may not find a hipster Wonderland but contribute to the co-creation of the good life. 

 

This is the Craske’s smallest surviving painting: the ship’s red sail is a single brush stroke. Who would argue that Craske’s aspiring to peace of mind and fullfilment can no longer inspire?

Make Haste Slowly

We all have a relationship with time. A difficult relationship, mostly. To inspire us to think differently or at least with more differentiation about time, there is (among others) the Dutch philosopher Joke J. Hermsen. Recently Hermsen supplemented her time-work with an excellent essay entitled Melancholia of the Unrest (accompanying the Dutch Month of Philosophy 2017) and with Kairos Castle, a delightful exhibition at the Castle of Gaasbeek, near Brussels.

 

In Greek mythology Chronos is the god of the practical, measurable (clock) time, of which we never have enough (or so we think). His grandson Kairos is much less known and according to Hermsen the god who deserves our attention, now more than ever. Kairos is the god of “the opportune moment”: if we are sufficiently open to him, Kairos can break the clock time for us and create a different experience of time. This “Kairotic moment” is a sort of interval, “in between” time (the term is Hannah Arendts’, one of Hermsen’s philosophical heroes), that holds unexpected insights and new possibilities.

Kairos is mostly represented with one lock of hair: attention and good timing are primordial to grab the opportunity when it presents itself. Which is why a sense of restfulness, awareness of oneself, openness to the world and a preparedness to wait are so important. These are not qualities contemporary society treasures: the exhibition offers a rare and delightful opportunity to practice.

The many layers of the Castle of Gaasbeek (building started 777 years ago!) make it a perfect location to experience time differently, to explore different layers of time.

Kairos Castle is Hermsen’s argument put into practice: let’s create more time for stillness, for reflection and consideration, for attention and concentration. And the exhibition makes this literal: you can of course choose to pass by unseen (among others) the five long videos – or you stop, sit and get drawn into a different world, a different time. And when you find yourself in that different time, you’ll experience an interval between looking and understanding. Perhaps art first alienates before there’s recognition. Perhaps you don’t even understand what you’re seeing: there’s a hitch, a faltering, a necessary delay of judgment. And it’s exactly that “in between” that accommodates new thoughts, forgotten memories perhaps, a different insight. The general idea is that artful suspension of clock time frees the mind, as if it empties itself of clutter and gets ready to think and feel differently.

Are we stuck in Chronos, or can we draw our own time? (Maarten Baas, Grandfather’s Clock)
Recognize the book from which this ‘Nouvelle croyance III’  (Georgia Russel) is made? Erasmus above would have approved of the initial alienation.
The empty harnass suggests space for new thoughts & action (Antony Gromley, DOMAIN XCV, 2014).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Susanna Hertrich’s Chrono-Shredder.

Kairos Castle is meant to bring us into an intermezzo in the time regime of grandfather Chronos, so that we can practice opening up to the strong qualitative moment that inspires insight and or change. I’m happy to say it worked for me: time was “shredded” while I visited the exhibition. I had no idea of the clock time when I came out. And it was a great experience.

But in fact the exhibition represents only half of Hermsen’s argument: if we stop there, we’ve missed her point – for where is the action? Ideally, I would have come out of the castle and grabbed Kairos’ hair lock. To do what exactly? 

“Alles op sijnen tijd – Tout à temps”: Hermsen transposes this crucial adage from the Castle’s kitchen to society in general.

In fact, Gaasbeek Castle contains the ultimate answer: the adage “All in Time” on the kitchen chimney refers literally to the different layers of time. And that includes time for action – which must always be preceded by time for reflection. The point is thus not so much to escape time as to master it differently so that new things become possible. 

Here Hermsen aligns herself with the Dutch humanist Erasmus (1466-1536) who advocated Kairos to princes whose rashness or sloth could ruin nations. Note that time’s mastery concerns both quick and no action: at all times it’s a question of identifying the “tempus legitimum” with circumspection and sagacity. In Erasmus’ words this becomes “Festina lente”, or “Make haste slowly”: select the right moment, take your time to consider carefully whether it is indeed the right moment – and only then act, courageously and swiftly. 

Yet the question remains: what does a philosopher, whose task is essentially to think about the good life, mean by action? Why is the part on agency so crucial to Hermsen’s argument?

Hermsen has often argued that the true Kairotic moment carries the promise of change. If all is well, it enables us to act when the time is right. But in her latest essay Hermsen examines the world and concludes (with many others of course) that all is not well. People are restless and people are melancholy. The philosopher shows great awareness for how this affects people individually but here she presents a collective viewpoint: Melancholia of the Unrest is Hermsen’s most political book so far.

There have been the elections in the United States, the Netherlands, France and, still to come, Germany. There’s the Brexit. There’s individualization, globalization, digitalization, climate change, economic and social disruption. There’re the humanitarian disasters whether in the context of migration, terrorist attacks or war and famine. I think we all agree that “times are a-changin”.

Hermsen isn’t satisfied though to ascertain what seems obvious. She presses us towards the poignant question of how we as a society seem to have lost the capacity to deal with things not going the way we expect them to, with disappointment and loss – with change.

And her own answer is disconcertingly simple: it’s neoliberal market thinking. It promotes far reaching levels of technocracy. It puts people under high pressure to perform and rejects ‘non productive’ behaviour, including suspension and nuance of judgment. It breaks down structures that in the past supported a sense of community and collective engagement. In sum, it assesses everything, all the time and exclusively, on its consumption value.

In such a system which additionally holds the individual responsible for virtually everything, qualities such as simple friendliness or a caring attitude crumble because they’re not market relevant – not to speak of more complex values such as solidarity or citizenship. We’ve all been reduced to “hyper consumers”. And who doesn’t know people who feel exhausted, alienated, emotionally and morally empty? These people also see no reason nor have the strength to imagine the future differently: this is yet another version of the TINA-syndrome. So people are scared. And fear further isolates them, heightens their feelings of vulnerability, powerlessness and depression. Neoliberalism in short undermines resilience and the possibility of agency. 

Hermsen’s definition of the societal malaise is eeringly recognizable. Yet she takes her own role as agent seriously and points us towards a clarification. For if melancholy is the problem, it can be the solution too. If we stop navel-gazing into our own confused times, we discover that melancholy is part of the human condition. Even a child can experience melancholy. And often a sense of transience and dissatisfaction is a precondition to creativity. Other times and other cultures too can inspire us to turn melancholy into reflection and creative imagination, and when the time is right, into action.

There is in other words no need to fear melancholy itself. But we must find a more diverse, richer way of dealing with it. More specifically, Hermsen’s aim is to steer away from melancholy’s “pathological” version that pushes us collectively towards depression. It’s the “healthy” version that we need to strengthen. Slowing down doesn’t have the purpose of acting less but better. If we can create space for feelings of confusion and loss, we may learn to acknowledge them to ourselves and express them to others. We may even recognize them in others – and thus create a common ground in which feelings of connection, empathy and solidarity can grow. And if we can put our powers together we may find creative ways to turn change for the better. 

This is of course Kairos. What others call disruptive times, Hermsen sees as society reaching a tipping point. Hence the urgency of her argument. Hence her insistence on stimulating as many conditions as possible so that we are capable of grabbing the lock of hair – and live a better life.

The Babel confusions by Maarten Van Valckenborch (ca. 1600) & Dani Karavan, Haritz-Slit (2014) contrast with ‘Love’ by George Meertens (2010).

We need to do this collectively. For a society to draw power from critical times, it needs to steer away from confusion and fear and find a common language, values and ideals. It needs connecting stories. Perhaps above all it needs time – a different kind of time that enables us to think slowly before we undertake swift action. Hermsen believes that art can bring about Kairotic time. Because the temporary suspension of judgment, needed to appreciate art, can (also) inspire kindness and love and thus break through the neoliberal mechanisms. And so we are back to the power of art in Kairos Castle.

Hermsen also emphasizes the importance of education in order for society not to slither towards depression. Evidently rejecting the current priorities (here too) with utility and efficiency, she strongly advocates the so-called soft values – that will allow young people to build resilience and hold faith in agency in a world full of complexity, diversity and change. A possible third solution, which Hermsen mentions in passing, is travel as opposed to tourism.

I agree with most of Hermsen’s arguments. Of course it’s a good idea to incorporate the values of Kairos and more generally what in English is so beautifully called a liberal education in, for instance, the reforms being planned in the Flemish educational system. There can’t be too much counterweight to the utility thinking that continues to emphasize the direct match between education and the workplace. And forgets the common truth that two third of the present toddlers will have jobs that do not exist yet. We need to invest in the future, of course.

But it’s important to address the present as well – and seize the right moment for the greatest possible impact. The problem is that most people Hermsen wants to help, do not read her books, do not go to exhibitions like Kairos Castle and have already gone through the educational system – to no avail, apparently. So what to do? Should we give them up?

I suggest another ‘channel’ through which to reach a broad segment of the population, namely work. Many of the people who’re past the educational system are scared into feelings of emptiness and powerlessness because the forces of globalization and disruption seem too large for them. Depression is already the leading cause of ill health and disability worldwide, with an increase of more than 18% between 2005 and 2015 according to the World Health Organization. That sounds like the conditions for hasty action to me. But the omnipresent TINA-thinking offers no way out. And the current predominant political rhetoric makes large groups of people susceptible to polarization – which only increases their isolation and alienation.   

Yet there are alternatives. In an earlier post I pointed out that disruption can also employ the current transit phase of society to change things for the better. Organizations that are committed to social innovation focus on human needs and the power of communities. Often there is also a clear sense of urgency about bringing back meaning and dignity into work. More generally an alternative attitude towards work, whether in social or commercial enterprises, is one of the most promising paths towards a better life for many. As I summarized before, this includes trust, flexibility for individual talents, room for growth and agency.

Since I started looking into meaningful work, I’m astounded about how widespread its principles and benefits are known and acknowledged. The critical question then becomes why, despite some very successful examples – and the continuing rise of individual cases of depression and burn-out, there is so little agency. Perhaps Hermsen is right after all: perhaps we first need much, much more investment in the right conditions. I hope with her that Kairos’ time will arrive soon. Go and experience Kairos Castle, your time runs out on June 18!

May this blog’s invitation come from the only work (alas) that contains textile: Kairos Castle is expecting you (Pipilotti Rist, Expecting, 2001).

 

Express the Century

We tend to think we live in exceptional times, with unprecedented and thus frightening phenomena such as economic disruption. History and literature can help us think differently. Take Au Bonheur des Dames for instance. Published in 1883, it talks about fabrics and clothes, about human relations – and about progress and disruption. The book is part of a grand writing programme, Les Rougon-Macquart, with which the French author Emile Zola aimed to address modernity.
In the 11th novel of the series, The Ladies’ Paradise or The Ladies’ Delight (the translations sound different, I’m not sure why “happiness” wouldn’t do), the scene is modern commerce.

To be sure, the novel enfolds the reader in delightful descriptions of clothes and fabrics in all their splendid variety. Set to paint the novelty of a Parisian department store, the rhythm, balance and detail of the many descriptive passages successfully evoke a highly attractive drapery world. It’s impressive how Zola transports the reader by ‘mere words’ into a world of colour and texture, the rich textile language is certainly one of the reasons that make reading this book worthwhile. Consider the following sentence: “Littering the counters were the fancy silks – watered silks, satins, velvets, looking like beds of mown flowers, a whole harvest of delicate and precious materials.” You can see the textile abundance, can’t you?

The fabric riches delights but what really awes me, is the centrality of modernity in the book. The Ladies’ Delight’s owner, Octave Mouret, is the personification of innovative business methods and the economic potential of progress. He’s unashamedly obsessed with continual growth and expansion. In his own words, “he was a man of his own time. Really, people would have to be deformed, they must have something wrong with their brains and limbs to refuse to work in an age which offered so many possibilities, when the whole century was pressing forward into the future.” Zola himself was most explicit about the purpose of his novel:

“What I want to do in The Ladies’ Paradise, is write the poem of modern activitity. Hence, a complete shift of philosophy: no more pessimism, first of all. Don’t conclude with the stupidity and sadness of life. Instead, conclude with its continual labour, the power and gaiety that comes from this productivity. In a word, go along with the century, express the century, with is a century of action and conquest, of effort in every direction.”

This sounds like a hymn to modern economics, a celebration of the entrepreneurial spirit – that aims to ‘invect’ all its readers with the same modern, progressive attitude. In fact, The Ladies’ Paradise is a more ambiguous symbol of progress.

The model for Zola’s Ladies’ Delight was Au Bon Marché, the first grand magazin in Paris and the largest in the world before 1914. The new department stores which sprang up all over the city lay the basis for commercial capitalism and mass consumer society (although in reality they were of course long limited to the upper middle classes). The grand architecture, great attention to window and shop displays, fixed prices, advertisements and sales, all these innovations colluded to establish the grand magazin as a new temple of commerce. 

Contemporary illustration of the grand architecture of the grand magazins.

In fact, Zola repeatedly depicts the shop as a “cathedral” with a “church-like atmosphere”. Zola thus evokes a new kind of devotion, one that elevates the emerging consumerism to a new ritual, a cult even. The machine-imagery, which the author employs even more frequently, conjures up both the “monstrous” as the beneficiary characteristics of progress.

With the arrival of the department stores the Parisian textile retail world was shocked into English and American economic methods. With an estimated 100.000 traditional shops closed and the loss of work for thousands of artisans and their families, this is economic disruption on a “monstrous” scale indeed. In the novel it’s Monsieur Baudu, himself owner of a small drapery shop right opposite The Ladies’ Delight, who expresses the resistance against the innovation: “Do you think it’s right that a simple draper’s shop should start selling everything under the sun? In the old days, when trade was trade, drapery meant materials, and nothing else. Nowadays their only aim is to expand their business at the expense of their neighbours and to eat everything up…” Baudu in Zola’s depiction belongs to a disappearing world, he simply doesn’t understand that the world has changed. But his analysis is rather accurate – and universal. Replace “drapery” with any other kind of business and I’m sure you recognize very contemporary practices.

On a more positive side, the department store gave women a transitional social, quasi-public space that did not affect their respectability. No wonder they were delighted. But such aspects of modern urban life threatened patriarchal authority – which responded with new systems of control and manipulation. Not only was the aim to “awake new desires in her weak flesh”, the grand magazin drew women into temptation, seduction, overspending and – and this was a new phenomenon – kleptomania. “Get the women,” Mouret was convinced, “and you sell the world!” With ample descriptions of women succumbing as planned, Zola also points to the social disruption: full-blown consumerism came into being through the mobilization of the illusions of freedom, fulfillment and “the public’s well-being”.

It is Denise, niece of Monsieur Baudu and subject of Mouret’s affection, who voices Zola’s own dubiety most scrupulously:

“Was it really true then that death must fertilize the world, that the struggle for life propelled people towards the charnel-house of eternal destruction? […] Yes, it was the necessary sacrifice; every revolution demanded its victims […] the inexorable workings of life require the seed of death for its continual renewal. She no longer fought against it; she accepted this law of the struggle; but her woman’s heart was filled with compassion […] for the whole of suffering humanity.”

It’s significant that Zola turns to the organic language of life, growth and death to conclude his judgment on economic disruption. It allows him to express his empathy for “the painful birth pangs of each new generation” while at the same time embracing and advocating modernity.

We are many generations farther. And we too are surrounded by disruption. Zola expressed his own century yet remains relevant for our own. He can for instance make us aware of the fact that economic disruption also disrupts social systems – and that its perception of exciting modernity suppresses that fact. The Amazons, Googles and Ubers of our own time are often embraced as champions of innovation but it’s unclear whether all their users are aware of the simultaneous subversion of our social security system that is based on solidarity – including the fair payment of taxes.

Or to give a more local example: the Neutral Syndicat for Independent Entrepreneurs has launched a campaign to encourage local shopping “before it’s too late!”. In the last five years 7000 independent shops have closed in Belgium, a decline of 9%. Many lament this decline and blame it for the failure of what is called the social fabric of society. Call me suspicious but many of these plaintiffs are probably not consistent and don’t shop independently. Presumably they aren’t even aware of the fact that they themselves can support the social fabric in many ways – like helping a neighbour now and then, being courteous in traffic or more generally treating people with respect. To put it differently, the economic and social systems are of course connected but they also have their own dynamic. It’s important to examine the connections, think about which parts we want to salvage – and act to do so.

Zola also points to another aspect of disruption: change is intrinsic to modernity. Think of the “restlessness” Ignace Devisch talks about and Peter Frankopan’s globalization: change is a fact of life – which also means it doesn’t in itself have good or bad implications. As Zola put it: there is action “in every direction”. He himself realized the danger of sinking into pessismism yet decided to “go along with the century”. There may be a twinge of determinism in his account but above all he wants to emphasize the possibilities of modernity. The point thus is to accept change as given and think about which direction we want “to press forward into the future”. Change in short presents us an opportunity to think about the good life.

The American philosopher Susan Neiman also sees us “in transit” and recommends philosophy to guide our thoughts about that good life. And to my delight (I’m an Enlightenment historian after all), she goes even further back in time than Zola: because the 18th-century Enlightenment was committed to understanding the world in order to improve it, it can inspire us to achieve our own, 21th-century “growing up”.

The starting point for Neiman’s account is Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s (1712-1778) claim that “we were made to be men; laws and society have plunged us once more into childhood.” More specifically the French philosopher introduces the idea of false needs and shows how the systems we live in work against our growing up. For the American philosopher it’s above all the omnipresence of trivial products that keep us too busy making silly choices to remember that the adult ones are made by others. As we saw earlier, Blaise Pascal would call this divertissement: we allow ourselves to be distracted in order not to have to cope with the hard facts of life. Neiman rather talks about immaturity.

With consumer goods as focus of our culture, we have created (or acquiesced in) a society of permanent adolescents. According to Neiman consumerism diverts us to the point that we have also internalized what she calls “TINA fundamentalism”: when we go along with the ideological claim that there is no alternative, we also accept the world as it is. Hence no need to think for yourself, let alone act.

It is the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)
who inspires Neiman to an alternative, more attractive model of adulthood. With his 1784 essay Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment Kant aimed to express his own time – which was very much characterized by change and disruption. His conclusion is clear – and still very powerful:

Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, but lack of resolution and courage to use it without guidance from another. The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere Aude! [Dare to be wise!] Have the courage to use your own understanding.”

Kant’s recipe for adulthood is in fact very simple: we must think for ourselves. When we are courageous enough to trust our own judgment, we know that the world is not how it ought to be. The next step in Kant’s call for courage is agency: we must act upon our judgment – to make the world more in line with it. This is not naive utopianism: Kant mentions “the horizon”, Octave Mouret would say “the future”, that must be the point of direction for our efforts – and one which we must accept we’ll never reach. In between the resignation that nothing can be done and exaggerated optimism that everything is possible, lies Kant’s concept of adulthood. Both our experience of the world and our ideals make claims upon us and the balance between them can only be permanently precarious. To acknowledge all that and continue the endeavour nonetheless, that‘s maturity. 

As Neiman acknowledges, this is not the recipe for an easy life. Consumerism’s call is strong, our judgment may be weak, imbalance will very much be part of the experience. But life is forgiving – if we let it: there is always a chance to try again. And trying in a truly adult way means having the courage to act upon our beliefs. And thus change the world, in whatever small way. Viewed in this way adulthood is exciting precisely because it’s demanding. Or, as I argued before, courage is not beyond us.

Neiman also acknowledges that Kant’s recipe of thinking for ourselves, the expression of his century, is rather vague. But it’s equally still relevant for our age. And it cannot be more specific without violating the message itself. She herself points to the three domains of learning, travelling and work in order to enlarge our minds and improve our judgment. The latter is also Neiman’s ultimate argument to persuade people “to grow up”: judgment is an ability that normally requires age to improve. In sum: keep practicing, you will get better.

This is also the summary of craftsmanship – which Neiman mentions in passing as an alternative for consumerism. I think it worthwhile to stress in more detail the potential of that alternative. Craftsmanship cultivates slow time, delayed gratification and an appreciation of quality, among many other benefits. It also distinguishes the crafts(wo)man as the author of their products which in turn fosters properties such as dignity, respect and connectedness.

All these qualities are relevant when we consider the notion of meaningful work. They’re also important to guide our thoughts on the good life. For when we too search for an expression of our century we have the choice whether we do that in terms of doom and gloom – or turn to more positive models to “press us forward into the future”. 

For the sceptical reader it’s worth highlighting one ‘sector’ that already focuses on the positive potential of change, namely social innovation. The collective term classifies innovative efforts that are geared towards new forms of work and cooperation, towards a sustainable future. Organizations and enterprises that commit themselves to social innovation take society, large or small, as their focus in both ends and means. They are in other words ethically driven: they develop the capacity to address social needs that traditional policy or companies seem increasingly unable to tackle, they empower individuals and groups and they demonstrate a willingness to change social relations.

Such organizations thus also disrupt but they do so with the firm commitment to use the transit phase of society to change things for the better. They focus on human needs, on the power of communities and on the urgency to bring back a sense of dignity in work activities. To me they are the hopeful expression of our century: they look to our collective future and they inspire and practice agency to give it direction.

The range of social innovative initiatives is, thankfully, wide and varied. Let me conclude with just one textile example, spotted at the Fair Fashion Fest organized last October by the Museum of Industrial Archeology and Textile (MIAT) in Ghent. The Fest inspired me because it brought together so many different, often local, examples of social innovation in practice.

My favourite is Carpet of Life, a fair design brand based in Ghent. The idea is simple and very attractive: people take clothes that have an emotional meaning to them – and shred them into rags. They choose a pattern. And the women of M’hamid, a small oasis town in Southern Morocco, knot the rags into a beautiful carpet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is recycling of a higher order. It starts from the acknowledgement that clothes can have an emotional value: here no dogmatic condemnation of consumerism but focus on what adds meaning to our lives. There is the important empowerment of craftswomen who experience the valuation of their skills, providing them with meaningful work to support themselves and their communities. Instead of victims, they thus become participants in globalization.  At the same time they become the preservers and innovators of their cultural heritage. And diversity enriches ours for the delightful end results enhance our lives with meaningful beauty.

I covet such a carpet of the good life. And cherish the hope that this and other such social disruptive initiatives will indeed come to be the dominant expression of our century.