Tuesday, 18 January 2011


Contrary to what a lot of thoughtless people seem to believe, dandyism is not even an excessive delight in clothes and material elegance. For the perfect dandy, these things are no more than the symbol of the aristocratic superiority of his mind”

Charles Baudelaire “The Dandy”

Zurburan "Saint Francis in Meditation" National Gallery

“We” are not “All In This Together.”

The original dandies dressed like you – that is to say, like anyone2. They took on the "Buff and the Brown", the uniform of the American Revolutionaries – those slave-owning avatars of egalite. The difference was in the individuality of the cut; an impeccable silhouette might, perhaps, assuage the sting of merely being subsumed into that tedious, newly minted abstraction -“The People”.

In opposition to the blunt bluffness of the democratic Everyman, whose sober attire was a sign of the bearer's public virtue, they disguised themselves as themselves. They displayed – I was about to say “their otherness in public view”, but this not only lacks precision, but is also misleading. Their otherness as the public is closer to the mark, but might imply a collision between private inclination and civic demands. Apparently trivial details on the surface of appearance, the minute stitching of a button hole, a knot on a cravat or the width of a lapel, signalled the otherness of the public, its difference from, and incapability of being reduced to, itself.

This index of withdrawal, invisibility, was a style in the most serious sense of the word *; and style, as the tangible arrangement of elements, is always serious.

*"...Every style embodies an epistemological decision, an interpretation of how and what we perceive...Every style is a means of insisting on something... It will be seen that stylistic decisions, by focusing our attention on some things, are also a narrowing of our attention, a refusal to allow us to see others."

Susan Sontag “On Style”

Contempt, to be elegant – as wholeness or necessity - has to be marked with a totality - that is to say –like any totality – artificial, or symbolic. It has to be raised above its everyday self to become its own sign, stark against its shifting background.

It requires a gesture that inscribes a circle that encloses itself. That which is mixed with, say, compassion or indulgence, belongs too much to the heterogeneous world.

Contempt is sterile. Closed within itself, it expresses only itself - ultimately its own difference from itself. In this world, there are only two qualities, the gesture and its background. To this gesture, all is background, and it indicates this with subtle and weary brevity. It neither genuflects, nor grieves.

Dandyism is a form of address, a subtle inclination forwards, merely enough to display a hint of shirt front and the cut of the sleeve. The immaculate contains itself, gives little more to the world than its scent.

The surface, the gesture that encloses itself, gives a brief farewell - perpetually departing. A sign of legitimacy external to all other forms can do no other; it cannot explain itself. It barely acknowledges what it departs from; marks its own difference/indifference to it with the briefest nod - not even something that could be called a glance.

"Whether the Lumpen … present themselves as paupers, dandies, or poets makes little difference. They are, in any case, beings without dignity (if anything, they have majesty). What deprives them of dignity is precisely their contact with something extrasocial and self-sufficient, true nefas: pleasure, the invisible, the gratuitousness of art…as soon as he speaks of l'art pour l'art … his insolent retort, in a cracked falsetto, to the power that has stripped him of authority. Since he no longer has a function and has been banished from Court, he spurns every function".

Roberto Calasso, “The Ruin of Kasch”

“Nefas” here, is the deepest level of offence - adherence to something beyond getting, spending, voting: a subject whose legitimacy (in the sovereign sense) derives from something different to a deeply prosaic and disappointing participation in the role Homo Economicus. That apparently hard-wired “enlightened self-interest” has recently displayed remarkable results.

Zurbaran’s “St Francis in meditation”, which can be seen at the National Gallery, depicts a man (or Saint, if you prefer) wearing a monk’s habit, clutching a skull. He kneels in a starkly lit concavity. The painting is a study in holes. The shadow cast by his cowl dissolves most of his face, except where the strong chiaroscuro reveals the tip of his nose and, beneath that, his mouth, gaping in ecstasy or vacancy- a void within a void. The skull clutched in his praying hands is also illuminated; displaying its hollow sockets filled with the same darkness that has invaded Francis, who gulps at a vacuum. He is nothing more than a rough garment, torn at one elbow (the last detail, in stark illumination, is the stray threads on his torn robe) folded around a void. This space would, in fact, be invisible, if Zurbaran had not clothed it in hessian robes and painted light. This is Zurbaran’s version of St Francis of Assisi. He does not depict the devotee of brotherly love in the usual saccharine manner, not preaching to birds or beggars, but hollowed out, absent – as if the message of a radical equality can only come from, and maybe be addressed to, a place where the subject is no longer itself.

St Simeon Stylites stood at the top of a column for thirty six years. The column was periodically rebuilt, each time higher. Paradoxically, this incremental withdrawal from the common things of the earth, further into a solitary communion with his God, led to his ever greater visibility. His increasing elevation, index of his vanishing, must have been evident for miles around, like an ornament on its plinth.

“…there is no valid reason why we should not believe that the tribes we call savage are not the remnants of great civilizations of the past. Dandyism is a setting sun; like the declining star, it is magnificent, without heat and full of melancholy.”

Charles Baudelaire “The Dandy”

No comments: