Cimabue the painter, passing on the road to Bologna, saw, as he walked through the village of Vespignano, a boy called Giotto drawing a sheep on a flat piece of rock. This was the moment with which, more than a century later, Lorenzo Ghiberti, the sculptor and the first art historian of the Renaissance, began his Commentaries. And so I, in London on a brief sojourn, with the wistfulness of an exile who longs for a glimpse of his homestead even if it should cost him his life, witnessed a scene that represents modern sensibility as the crouching form of young Giotto signaled the Renaissance.
A young woman wearing vertiginous heels, which, history records, were part of the new season’s Miu Miu collection, had clambered aboard the No. 11 bound for St. Paul’s and was rummaging in her handbag to find her ticket, when, by opening the doors at a bus stop, the driver caught the woman’s shoe in one of them. In the space of a gasp the lacquered stiletto seemed to hold sway over the life of the bus, recalling the voluminous crinoline that dominated the life of Baudelaire in Manet’s portrait of the poet’s mistress. Clearly the driver, an older man, had been cognizant of the woman’s charms, which culminated, as it were, in the acumination now in peril. Instinctively, he shut the doors, very nearly maiming the first in the crowd of passengers who had begun boarding. And thus, in a city of smoldering class prejudice and suppressed political resentment, obsessed with bombs and security, with never smoking and hardly ever swearing, with sexual harassment and political correctness of every conceivable kind, what I witnessed was a characteristic instantané from the fetish art of Eric Stanton.
One need not bone up on Vasari or peruse Ghiberti to be reminded of the monumentality of the social role reserved in Europe for the fine arts until well into the last century. “Si monumentum requiris,” famously, runs Sir Christopher Wren’s epitaph in the cathedral’s crypt, “circumspice,” and one look from the infernal Wheel will persuade the visitor that London, like all the great effigies of European civilization, is indeed part of the same aesthetic tradition that has raised Rome and Paris, one that has given Europe a habitation and a Christian name. Today, in London as elsewhere, it survives solely in the art of adorning women, in makeup, hairdressing and dressmaking, in the cosmetics industry and the incalculable myriad enterprises that, like the artists’ workshops of old, strive to elevate their craft to a position of predominance.
“Singular society, where everyone earns money or is ruined!” noted the Goncourts in their Journal. “Never have appearances been so imperious, so dominating, so damaging and demoralizing.” At the height of the epoch that supplanted the aristocracy of class with that of money, Baudelaire was among the first to argue that “elle doit se dorer pour être adorée,” that if a woman is to be adored, she must be adorned. Beauty is not a natural gift, but the product of reason and calculation, and only in making herself appear “magical and supernatural” with cosmetics and costumes, perfumes and jewels, does a woman attain true beauty. The feminine arts, newly dominant as sartorial fashion became a social register, have since multiplied and burgeoned, acquiring the social importance of painting and architecture during the Renaissance, when these arts, likewise, relied on patronage to distinguish, exalt, and beautify the lives of the fortunate.
Baudelaire wrote of “the muslins and the gauzes, the vast iridescent clouds of stuff in which the woman envelops herself” as “the attributes and the pedestal of her divinity.” By the close of the 19th century, the writer and critic Octave Uzanne urged women to direct their art to garments wherein a man “could lose himself in soft and evanescent delicacies of colour, groping for supremely sheer and subtle textures.” Even in that relatively naive era, the Magasin des Demoiselles already described the 1867 Paris Universal Exposition, intended by its organizers as an overview of man’s technological achievement since the wheel, as “consecrated” to fabrics, clothing, ornaments, and perfumes. By 2007 most women’s magazines had elected to undergo reclassification by the postal service as catalogues, in order to free themselves from restrictions on the proportion of advertising they may contain. Hence a recent issue of Vogue is only 13-percent editorial, and the last pretense that any conventional art, such as writing or drawing, matters, has fallen away. Advertising photography, for all intents and purposes, is the modern Studio, much as the beauty salon is the Salon. A society visagiste’s paintings and a plastic surgeon’s sculptures, not sheep in brine and other highfalutin intellectualizations, are what go on display at the Serpentine.
The world market for conventional works of art, whose vitality is measured by the performance of the international auction houses—which, last year, sold seven billion euros’ worth of paintings and sculptures, most of them by other than contemporary artists—is dwarfed in comparison with the cosmetics industry alone, with a market size valued by the European Commission as nearing €100 billion. But lipsticks and creams seem a mere bagatelle when one considers the whole panoply of unconventional, contemporary, living arts that go into the making of the modern European woman, who has turned every provincial town center into a caricature of the Faubourg Saint-Honoré and has set for the global manufacturing industry the course of its future development. Characteristically, since 1958 the cosmetic industry grew at the average annual rate of 4 percent, as compared with 2.8 percent for all manufacturing.
“Everything that was directly lived,” wrote Guy Debord in The Society of the Spectacle, “has receded into a representation. In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles.” Such spectacular fetishism is indeed the face of the new London, some of whose noblest façades, symbolically, are obscured by hoardings advertising various attributes of femininity.
In fashionable restaurants, the only kind of couple one sees is an old man and a young woman. Perhaps it is the only kind there is. More likely it is the kind the proprietor is keen to attract, and indeed the old-fashioned pair of cooing turtledoves—like the diner with special needs who, while obviously lowering the tone of the establishment, must be accommodated—is nowadays looked upon by restaurateurs with a certain bemused disgust. The spectacle of love is not what this city’s after.
Tall as Wren’s improbable steeples in their architectonic heels, their heads a palette for the innumerable shades the art of baliage produces, their faces made up with the care that once went into chapel frescos, their patrons short, curt, and dismissive, preternaturally shaped blondes are the spectacle that gives London its modern edge. Designed to promote consumption, and thereby production, they are automated advertisements for the way of life that elevates spectacle to the eminence of essence, a life once upon a time only a painter or a sculptor could contemplate. Mass-produced Galateas, incubated for the most part in Russia and Eastern Europe, they have filled a fresh commercial void in the half-Manhattan, half-Babylon of the happening, cool, cosmopolitan London, itself a hybrid homunculus, whose new taboo is taboos and whose fetish is fetishism.
A Neapolitan dog, digging through the rubbish bins along the Via Posillipo, finds better nourishment than most of the lunching crowd round these parts. Salads of slime in involucres of plastic, fruit at once rubbery and wooden, fish frozen in attitudes of bereavement, chickens from commercial orphanages, puddings in vivid shades of magenta and purple, coffee in Styrofoam hog troughs—none of this matters in the new society of appearances, a cultural construct, as Feuerbach noted in The Essence of Christianity, wherein “truth is considered profane and only illusion is sacred.” Lists, tables, graphs, calories, vitamins and minerals are everywhere, as are French words and names of obscure Italian towns side by side with native lobbying terms such as “organic” and “British,” but the innate reality of food is no more part of the discourse than the Shroud of Turin is for molecular biochemists.
Transport is something out of the Dark Ages, with airports as the city gates presided over by irascible or venal keepers and the Northern Line leading, as it likely did under the Stuarts, just about nowhere—yet at the same time eerily Kafkaesque, at least to the extent that many aspects of life in Soviet Russia appeared Kafkaesque when in reality they were merely medieval. Spasms of evacuation and alarm, notices about spitting and crying, hidden cameras intended to catch the malfeasant in the act of poisoning a well, sentries on the lookout for suspicious Saracens, traffic myrmidons brandishing dysfunctional radios, and the occasional emaciated cat traversing a road in the middle distance; all these are characteristic images of the polity in the making. Four parts Matrix, one part Ivan the Terrible.
The bubble that seems to shelter those who live here is the property boom, which allows a man to borrow money while he sleeps with carelessness beyond the wildest dreams of a Balzac rentier. Thus acquired, and chancy enough to be easily parted with, that money is spent on representation of various kinds, from the public-relations stratagem of a Porsche Cayenne—four were parked, I noticed, in the 60-foot-long terminus of Draycott Avenue, including one with Moscow plates and one belonging to a Mayfair hairdresser—to the acquisition, adumbrated in the manufacturers’ advertising campaign, of a platinum blonde who answers, on evenings when she is free, to the name of Candy despite the epochal incongruity that, in honor of Lenin, her communist mom and dad in the Ukraine, suspecting in perestroika a ploy to flush out the malcontents, called her Ulyana.
To the eye that has tired of scrutinizing fictions, on a rainy day St. Paul’s seems like the sort of lumbering fake one finds in Manhattan. As I reach Liverpool Street and board the train to the airport, it occurs to me that New York’s bonfire of the vanities, observed by Tom Wolfe in the 1980’s, is but a provincial precursor of the grand cosmopolitan spectacle that is London in the 2000’s. “The spectacle cannot be understood,” wrote Debord, “as a mere visual deception produced by mass media technologies. It is a worldview that has actually been materialized.”
The visitor to modern London finds himself in the awkward position of an early critic of pointillism—who notes that from a certain distance the picture on the gallery wall looks all right, but when you come close it all seems to turn to colored soap—especially in view of the fact that the dot and the pixel are integral to the omnipotent technologies in question. As an historical locus, a cultural crossroads, and a national capital, London just isn’t there any more. There’s only a social worldview.
If this town’s hot, it’s because it’s burning.