Wednesday, August 11, 2010

You Can't Shake This

If you Tweet or Facebook much, there's a good chance you've heard about the August issue of Vogue Italia by now, featuring 45-year-old model Kristen McMenamy covered in black crude and couture on the rocky shore of a devastated coastline.

The shoot is quickly becoming a controversial symbol of the fashion industry's response to the devastating Deep Water Horizon oil spill. It's easy to understand why this may be seen as tasteless exploitation. The spill was just recently capped and we are far from understanding the longterm effects of so much crude in the ocean. And Vogue is a for-profit magazine. Shame on Vogue, right? Not so fast.

Fashion designers and photographers are undeniably artists. Savvy business people too, no doubt. Still, no one questions a designer's line influenced by nature, but draw inspiration from politics and the accusations start flying. Yet that's the role of an artist: to communicate, to provoke. And let's face it, our current political, environmental and economic landscape is so rich with subject matter, I think it's only natural that Italian Vogue and a celebrated photographer such as Steven Meisel would capitalize on a disaster like the oil spill to further penetrate the zeitgeist in a meaningful way.

Will they profit from this issue? Absolutely. Will Vogue Italia readers care about the oil spill more or will they simply buy more shiny black clothing and accessories as a result? I don't know, but I think Meisel's pictures make it very hard to think about the clothes without noticing model McMenamy's long gray mermaid tresses and body, which mimic the silvery scales of a washed up fish; the black sludge of crude co-mingling with shiny black beaded dresses that coat her skin. McMenamy vomiting black feathers. They're not aiming for subtlety here. They're not mincing words. They're not asking you to notice, they're telling you to.

If they profit from this, does this taint the political message? Maybe, but I can accept this if it increases debate on the subject, which it will. Google "oil & water" or "Vogue Italia," and you'll find that this debate is being discussed all over mass- and social media outlets. Let's get angry. Let's talk. Then finally, maybe we can do something about this horrible mess created by corporations and perpetuated by our own thirst for more and more oil.

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