NEW YORK — It was a curious evening, a mixture of frivolity and transcendence. We were at the Guggenheim Museum last week at a vernissage for an unexpected exhibit, but it felt more like we'd time-warped into an opening night at Sid Grauman's Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard.
Instead of walking soberly through the revolving doors, preparing to plunge into masterpieces, guests were being rushed past the stroboscopic flashes of heavily burdened cameramen, the gawking onlookers, the ushers with their yellow wands directing the black cars. The crush of people stumbling beside us toward the entrance included Lauren Bacall, Robert DeNiro, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Richard Gere. Inside, we beheld along a spiraling ramp more than 400 pieces of Giorgio Armani's haute couture, representing 25 years of work. A record of worn, enjoyed, and shed identity.
We were there not to ponder works of art, but to slide our eyes over beautiful rags. Because surface and appearance have become the artwork we all produce, from vests to piercing to purple hair to a shaved pate.
This exhibit marks a notable moment, and a sign of our times. Up to now, museums have been the repositories of deep insight and enduring works of art. Yet everything from the speed of daily life to money to consumerism has changed the image of art and creation. For perhaps the first time in history, an ephemeral master has been consecrated in a shrine to high art.
It's not that surface, fashion, and money have no place in a museum. It's that surface, fashion, and money have become the measure of art.
Picasso at the height of his career was never the brand and the wealth of a commercial empire. Never could any retrospective of Picasso or Rauschenberg or Warhol claim that the artist was, as Armani is, worth over $2 billion.
Armani is both an artist and a corporation. The Italian designer is both material and ephemeral, both wealth and entertainment, both substance and dream. This is perhaps the very nature of art and power today.
Armani represents the new integration of money, celebrity, genius, illusion, fashion, and commerce. None of the descendants of De Kooning or Matisse or Frieda Kahlo were ever referred to as heir or heiress of the De Kooning or Matisse or Kahlo fortunes. For genius is not inherited -money is. Armani's sister Rossana and niece Roberta are both his heiresses.
Since the growth of consumerism and the collapse of the cold-war world, a new system of values and behavior has been enthroned. Surface has replaced depth. Oscar Wilde, probably one of the most intuitive artists of our age and the philosopher of surface, foresaw our present cultural reality. For many decades his thinking was neglected and deemed superficial because of the monstrous events of our past century. World War I, the Russian Revolution, the Holocaust, and the nuclear blasts over Japan overwhelmed the revealing subtlety of his thinking.
When Mr. Wilde shocked his cultured audience by declaring that "a really well-made buttonhole is the only link between art and nature" - very few knew what lay ahead. The success of Armani is the triumph of a beautifully well-made buttonhole.
Many of his designs have turned women and men into moving masterpieces, in the eyes of urban society. His draped apparel and textured garments have the esthetic richness of a canvas by Klimt, Braques, or Rothko.
Armani's sculptured textiles are not immobilized in a museum; they are living chefs-d'oeuvre of boardrooms, parties, salons, restaurants, cultural performances, and cosmopolitan boulevards. His work is part of the fantasy of entertainment and the skin of wealth.
Another statement by Wilde shows the writer's understanding of the beauty and frailty of modern art: "How often I feel how hard it is to live up to my blue china." And the blue china has the frailty of an Armani dress or blue jacket. The Italian designer is always trying to live up to his last season's gossamer success.
For those who still consider Wilde a wild card, let us quote Ralph Waldo Emerson: "I have heard with admiring submission the experience of the lady who declared that the sense of being perfectly well-dressed gives a feeling of inward tranquility which religion is powerless to bestow." Fashion -the way we wrap and reveal our bodies -seems to have become integral to the new millennium's creed, whether or not we wrap ourselves in Armani clothes.
Not only have perception and appearance taken the cultural center stage, but they seem to have displaced traditional values. At this event, we saw no outstanding artists, like Joseph Kosuth or Damien Hirst; no consecrated writers, like John Updike or Tom Wolfe; only celebrities, stars, and megamodels.
After viewing the exhibit, the adoring crowd moved to a nearby restaurant, where dim lights downplayed guests and showcased the New York City skyline. Everything was disappearing; all the celebrities were virtually invisible in this twilight zone. What had been glitter at the Guggenheim was disappearing into the night.
On the way out, after we had left the elevator, we were each handed an Armani gray shopping bag with a warning: "Careful, it's heavy." After a gossamer evening, each of us was burdened by a bag containing a nine-pound, beige-gray, cloth-bound, 361-page exhibit "catalog," and an off-white box nesting two fluted gray stone vases. We walked away from a levitational evening rooted by the irony of traditional artifacts, a weighty book, and two stones. As if Armani were telling us that the ephemeral is a heavy burden.
Marshall Blonsky and Edmundo Desnoes teach in New York University's interactive telecommunications program. They coauthored a foreword to the Armani exhibit catalog.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society