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Baudelaire, Fashion, and Time

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At a time when Louis Vuitton is parading their models in the walls of their future "foundation for art", at a time when fashion flirts with museums, it is more prescient than ever to re-read the author of "Flowers of evil" that once changed our eyes.

A month before the long-awaited opening of the Louis Vuitton Foundation for contemporary art, set for October 27th, the Paris fashion house of the same name had chosen the internet as the chief method of display for their new collection. A simple marketing trick or a malicious way of emphasizing the ever deeper, even dangerous, affinities between the two domains? For some time now, fashion has become accustomed to taking shelter behind the rather convenient pretext of "modernity". A bit like contemporary art's position as both art and speech on art. More than ever, fashion has become a privileged way to inhabit the present. Its raison d'être is the air of time that passes through it, straight out of the turmoil of social life. It allows one to get rid of codes inherited from the past, while constantly manipulating and détourning them.

Definitions in fashion are in constant flux - they trend, seeking an authenticity and legitimation which only they can create for themselves. But what is really left of this relationship to the present, at a time like ours when styles are recycled and exchanged in an ever more autarkic way, as many observers have pointed out during the Fashion Weeks following Autumn 2014? It is customary to relate the appearance of aesthetic modernity to an essay by Baudelaire published in 1863: The Painter of Modern Life. It is dedicated to one of his contemporaries, now almost forgotten; Constantin Guys, a photographer and artist. Fashion is immediately posed as a reference model. Baudelaire uses it to change our view of art: there is nothing beyond fashion which allows us to express what connects beauty to the ephemeral charm of the present, to the tastes and habits of an era. Thanks to fashion, we understand that beauty is less in the intangible rules of one aesthetic or the other than in the bursts of "present life". But it often takes the special sensitivity of an artist to notice it. By reinventing them on canvas or paper, he reveals their share of secret and essential beauty. In this way, the artist does not just shape our taste, he teaches us to see the world around us in what is unique. In other words, to live in the present. The reorientation made by Baudelaire is radical and provocative. He plays the frivolous against the consecrated, the trivial against the noble, the sketch against the finite, the ugly against the beautiful. Forcibly superficial, art is artifice and seduction, as is the makeup on the body of a woman. Every era reinvents it, the way it reinvents its costumes or whims. By liberating art of it's formulas, Baudelaire opens it at once to the infinite; it is up to the artist to reinstall it in the immutable form, which alone will give it an end and make it perceptible. His thought of art is not unambiguous: it is almost enough that it does not disperse in the air of time. On the other hand, fashion today would not be too easy to behave itself by thinking of great art and forgetting the outside world - whereas contemporary art, its fake twin, focuses on the ephemeral? In short, does she still keep what was the day before yesterday its creative potential in the eyes of Baudelaire? If fashion has imposed a return to the present, it now seems to be part of these accessories that serve to hide it. 

Baudelaire, painted in 1848 by Gustave Courbet

"So he goes, he runs, he seeks. What is he looking for? Certainly, this man [...], this solitary, endowed with an active imagination, always traveling in the great desert of men, has a higher goal than that of a little loafer, a more general goal, other than the fleeting pleasure of the circumstance. He is looking for something that we will be able to call modernity; because there is no better word to express the idea in question. It is a question, for him, to free from fashion what it can contain of poetics in the history, to draw the eternal of the transitory "

Baudelaire notes three characteristics belonging to fashion: it is relative, it is constitutive of the beautiful and it is significant of the modernity, knowing that the first is the condition of possibility of the following ones. Indeed, fashion is above all that which is circumstantial - that is to say dependent: of a time, a history, of the women and men who compose it ... It is thus necessarily changing, ephemeral or as the author would say "Fugitive". Fashion is what passes. Paradoxically, it is precisely this inconstancy that marks its consistency. Indeed, far from underlining its futility, the contingent-being of fashion is necessary to the extent that it participates in the essence of beauty. Noting that the beauty is a concept with a double composition, Baudelaire emphasizes the antagonism of the elements that constitute it: on the one hand "eternity" and "invariability" represented for example by the ancient model of beauty; on the other hand the "relative", the "circumstantial", represented by the modern vision of beauty; fashion. With Baudelaire the beautiful is detached from its classic conception since it emphasizes and integrates in its very definition its asperities: the irregularity participates of the beauty and consequently, the mode as such participates of the Beautiful. As far as the field of appearance is concerned, Baudelaire does not champion the moralization of the ephemeral in favour of the timeless; on the contrary in Baudelaire the beautiful is detached from its classic conception since it emphasizes and integrates in its definition its asperities: the irregularity participates of the beauty and consequently, fashion as such participates of the beautiful. IThe Painter of Modern Life, he holds together in a whole and in a complementary way, the invariable and the variable. In other words, without fashion, beauty is not. We must not consider fashion as the surface where the accident of the beautiful occurs - in the manner of an accessory that would make something beautiful - but that fashion is the beautiful itself. The presence of fashion in society is nothing but the manifestation of beauty as such. With Baudelaire fashion goes into the sphere of logos, it helps us to think of the great concepts of philosophy, beauty and time.

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