In Defense of the Real

On Art, the Rhetoric of Outrage, and Vice’s “Last Words”

Maybe I’ve just been tired, but, two weeks ago, while corners of the feminist internet large and small were whipped into a lather by VICE Magazine’s “Last Words,” I found myself filled neither with rage nor with contempt at the periodical’s photographic essay depicting six suicides and an attempt by seven famous female writers. I don’t think I’m the only one, but the responses from my sistren on the internet — particularly from Jezebel’s Jenna Sauers and within the comments on posts she’s written — have largely been one-sided.

The patriarchy is not the only reason why we can’t have nice things, and the quote above exemplifies the bone I have to pick with many a second- and third-wave feminist. There’s always enough room under the tent for all of us until we disagree about art or BDSM or breeding or sex, and then someone tries to take someone else’s membership card away. “Brilliant” does not mean “not difficult” or “not problematic.” Art can be all of those things at once, and to gather the pitchforks over controversial art, created by women, because it [comes from the VICE Media empire] offends delicate sensibilities is hypocritical at best and intellectually lazy at worst. And, rest assured, “Last Words,” even for some of the villagers clutching their torches of sanctimony, is art:

What in the fresh hell is a “purely artistic context?” The rather nebulous concept presupposes that art exists in a vacuum and makes invisible the socio-economic factors that determine if, how, and in what scale art moves from inside of an artist to places where we, the public, can see it. That’s fake-ass bullshit, to crudely paraphrase Molly Crabapple, who said in an essay for VICE:

Meritocracy is America’s foundational myth [and] the lies told to artists are the same lies told to women. Be good enough, be pretty enough, and that guy or gallery will sweep you off your feet, to the picket-fenced land of generous collectors and two and a half kids. But, make the first move, seize your destiny, and you’re a whore.

There exists, even among people who should know better, the deeply flawed notion that art is not pure, that the artist is not pure, if any of the expensive moving parts needed to create art touch or even acknowledge the very existence of money. Says Crabapple,

A fine artist, (successful, credential-festooned, with inherited money), told me that I was too focused on commerce to be an artist. A real artist endured poverty [because] being poor was edifying, filled with moral uplift.

In framing VICE, in particular, and magazines and fashion editorials, in general, as impurely artistic media solely “used to glamorize and sell a look and a lifestyle” and, thus, unable to “convey something meaningful,” the “Suicide to sell clothing? Fuck no.” camp of naysayers falls into the very same trap that many feminists excoriate when it’s used against women. If you buy Crabapple’s aligning the plight of artists with the plight of women, “I hope the photographer chooses their venue more carefully in the future” takes on a rather victim-blame-y tone. Don’t get me wrong, stylist Annette Lamothe-Ramos and photographer Annabel Mehran, in their roles as the creators of the essay, exist in relative positions of privilege, especially compared to other women of color. Lamothe-Ramos is the fashion editor at VICE and Mehran is an editor-at-large for Purple, and being a woman of color, as my friend Sirius likes to say, doesn’t actually mean that you’re down [see: Rice, Condolezza, et al].

Still, could “Last Words” have existed without the financial support of an empire like VICE? Perhaps the “Suicide to sell clothing? Fuck no.” camp of upset people would have preferred if Annabel Mehran had used her multi-generational-on-both-sides wealth or her numerous connections to extremely wealthy and/or famous people to pay for this project. And maybe after she did that, they would have wanted her to put the photographs in a gallery, where they might or might not sell for enough to recoup her expenditures, but where their beauty would remain unsullied by the base reality that art isn’t free. If that’s the case, I should probably just give up the writing ghost now, and someone should hurry up and tell every struggling artist out there making lattes, nannying for rich people, entering data from a cubicle, or teaching undergrads who don’t give a fuck that they’re fucked, fucked the minute they accept the help of a corporate patron that does not wish to be anonymous. Could VICE have underwritten the essay without throwing a bone to the people who made the clothes? Would “Last Words” have been more palatable if the prices had been left off or if the list of garments had been moved to tiny font at the very end of the magazine? Fuck it, just avoid the whole crass quagmire — remember, Palmer-esque Kickstarters good; trust funds better — if you ever hope to “convey something meaningful,” that is.

But wait! Remember when you were fifteen and you chose to read Sylvia Plath poems for that school year’s speech and debate Oral Interpretation season because her sadness spoke to your sadness, but then a girl from your high school’s main snobby private school competitor was also reading Plath that season, and y’all spent the whole year quietly seething at each other because Sylvia could only belong to one of you, goddamn it? Well…

Perhaps because kat.bee was making an amount of sense that is fucking crazy huge for an internet comments section, she managed to avoid getting flamed immediately and also made me want to marry her. Still, MyPrettyFloralBonnet persists…

Before we move on to “the focus on their deaths,” let’s take a quick detour to a brief lesson on why a generic term like “fashion spread” sucks the nuance from the conversation surrounding “fashion photography” as “art.” From the very straight-forwardly named Fashion Photography Blog, peep Melissa Rodwell’s helpful illustration of the difference between an advertisement and an editorial:

Editorial fashion photography is not just about “[glamorizing] the outfits, the models, and the lifestyle” depicted in the photographs in service of moving units of goods that very few people can actually afford. If it was, would Dazed & Confused have given us this?

Probably not [though, from the tiny portion of it I can see, that Givenchy by Riccardo Tisci jacket looks hot].

For Rodwell, the difference between ads and editorials is that “editorial sells more the mood and the situation the clothing would be worn in.” Piggybacking on that definition, I’d argue that, while the clothing in both photographs is “for sale,” the primary focus in the Meisel photograph is on noted fashion photographer Steven motherfuckin’ Meisel making motherfuckin’ art. The selling of the clothes is secondary — look at how teeny that font is! — but it’s also necessary because, duh, capitalism, and that’s how the art gets paid for. You do want the models and the MUAs and the lighting crew to be paid a living wage, right? The locations’ owners should be compensated for the use of their property, yes? Well, that shit’s not free, and neither is dressing a woman to look like Sylvia Plath circa 1963 [Sure, Lamothe-Ramos could have dressed the models in “Last Words” with clothes purchased at Goodwill, but then the project wouldn’t have been effective because we’d all be giving the side-eye to a Dorothy Parker dressed poorly and/or anachronistically].

Given that 1) the presence of commerce does not automatically rob a piece of art of its meaning or trivialize its subject, and 2) that editorial fashion photography can beautify and/or uglify in the same way that, say, school portraits or micrography or war photography can, I wish to turn my eye to the last bits of dissent, which seem grounded in the notions that creating simulacra of these women at the moments of their successful and unsuccessful suicide attempts somehow reduces them from the creatively fecund, talent-rich, multi-faceted human beings they were to slit wrists and oh so luxe hosiery.

Condemning “Last Words” instead of demanding that the edge be pushed even further is hypocritical and boring and safe. No. Maybe what we need is a photo spread in Vogue that features an impeccably dressed model pretending to be Ernest Hemingway or Norman Mailer or Picasso or Biggie or any of the other male artists who are glorified for their talent using a narrative that conveniently leaves out their propensity for mistreating and straight up abusing the women in their lives. I can see it now…young Ernest, rakishly ruffled, rocks glass in one bloody-knuckled hand and a sobbing, bruised woman in silk, torn hose, on the floor. Or maybe we need a pictorial of all of the artists, also women, killed by intimate partner violence and gendered stranger violence [Mia Zapata and Dominique Dunne and Ana Mendieta (though her husband was acquitted post-police misconduct in a trial by judge)]. I would pay money to see those subversions of the glossy editorial. I would buy all of the issues I could afford and give them away to people I know because they would be real and true and, yeah, I’d still probably want to know who made faux Hemingway’s cufflinks the way I’m dying to know who made faux Elise Cowen’s outfit. Even though I’d never be able to afford it, I think I have the coloring and figure to really pull it off.

As sure as we all must die, so do people love looking at beautiful women in expensive clothing, whether it’s to give them kudos or build them into style icons or tear them down to our level and into the teeniest of “now who do you think you are?” lady shreds. Yes, the notion that women must always be young and lithe and put-together and beautiful in order to have value or avoid ridicule is sexist and ageist and ableist as hell, and I think Jenna Sauers — whom I’ve been reading since she was Tatiana the Anonymous Model — is capable of decent work calling out the oppressions taking place in the fashion industry, but she’s also glass castle-clad and making a writing career out of playing the game:

What keeps “Last Words” from being described, à la YYYs music video, as “a hellish and creepy vision?” The women are too beautiful? Credit is given to the people who made the clothes and accessories using the conventions of the genre? We know how much the clothes cost? Yes, in part, but the clincher for Sauers is this: “Conspicuously absent is any information about these authors’ works.” Because the average VICE reader has never heard of Virginia Woolf and does not know how to use Google? So, let us set aside, I guess, the visual nature of editorial fashion photography, which traditionally attempts to tell stories without words? Seriously? Look, loving fashion and engaging in style-snarking does not automatically bar one from calling bullshit on bullshit when one sees it, but the inflammatory breathlessness with which Sauers has run to lead the charge of condemnation and the mind-blowing flimsiness of her argument have flattened what could have been a much more rich conversation about the intersections between mental illness, heroine worship, feminism, real live women, real dead women, and art.

“It’s almost breathtakingly tasteless,” Sauers says, cue potent quotable, “Suicide is not a fashion statement.” And yet…?

We can probably all agree that suicides are widening gyres, indiscriminately harmful, composed mostly of suffering. The desire to end one’s life signals that a human being is enduring an immense amount of physical and/or psychological pain and the grief in the people left behind can be neither measured nor ever really erased. And yet, this is the thing, looking at “Last Words,” I have felt more seen and more like someone is holding up a mirror to me, in all that I am, than I have ever felt in my years of reading Jezebel, a feminist-identified space that has often lapsed, both in its content and community comments, into racist, sexist, heterosexist, sex-negative, looksist, and classist rhetoric. Being human — deeply flawed and sometimes unable to overcome the oppressive programming we’re all imbued with from birth — I can be guilty of the very same things, and I think that’s why I center my understanding of the world, my ability to feel empathy and exercise self-compassion, around the idea of “there but for the grace of [G/g]od(s) go I.”

As a brown-skinned woman of primarily African descent, as a writer, and as a feminist who has often felt at odds with other feminists, “Last Words” speaks to me because it reminds me that I am not alone, that I can make it to the hazy years in the future, which can seem like a mirage, where I own a home and have a partner, finish my first book and write another, and grow the babies who will become children and then parents and then grandparents, if’n they choose and the world don’t end. If Virginia and Charlotte, Elise and Sanmao, and Iris, and my beloved Sylvia and dearest Dorothy, whom I read for the prose portions of my speech competitions in that fifteenth year, who tried, as I did, and survived, as I have — if they could do it for as long as they each did, then I, I think, less brilliant than they, can certainly do it, too.

Someday, I will die, and it is not entirely unlikely that it will be at my own hand. If, when the day comes, it is, my note will say that I do not want to become a shell of myself in my death. I do not wish to become a paragon, gain a post-mortem virginity, and be kept sacred in a museum and apart from my own end. Suicide is not the only thing we have left of these women.Last Words” has not been birthed into a vacuum and the richness of their voices is everywhere for those who care to see. No, suicide is not the only thing, but it is indeed, Dorothy excepted, the final public thing and these women are ours as much as they’re anybody’s and their deeds say things that their voices could not.

There is nothing wrong with disagreeing with someone else’s art — I’d argue that that is even part of the point. I wish that Iris Chang had been left out of it, because her son is still young and her death is so near, but I’d never heard of her before this week and now her first book’s on my summer list, and I don’t know the creative intent behind her inclusion, what meaning she had for either creator, so her place in this canon is not a fatal flaw. For me. I know several women, ones I like and/or love and/or respect, who have felt wounded by “Last Words,” and I do not seek to take away the reality of the pricks this art has made in their psyches — I’ve merely wanted to have my own relationship to the editorial.

“Last Words” is not glamourous or sexy, it’s just sad and gorgeous, immaculately styled and photographed, brave [yeah, I said it], and a critically adventurous use of the editorial fashion photography genre. I cannot see the entirety of this text online as it was meant to be seen. I cannot see who made all of the clothes, and I want to. I’m interested, and having logged 18+ years with clinical depression before I’ve even turned 30 means that I’m typically not interested in much.