WE DO ALL WEAR BLACK, DON’T WE? And it is not just artists. A ride on the New York City subways testifies to that. But for the logos on hats and jackets, we all look like Chelsea undertakers or Portuguese widows. Why bother looking for the new black? The old one is just fine, and the oldest pigment known to man. Carbon black, bone black, ivory black, mars black, peach black, vine black—by whatever name, it does not show the dirt. And everything matches. No need to get up in the morning and start coordinating a wardrobe. Grab whatever; it all goes together. Saves a lot of time.
Because I am lackadaisical in the clothes department, my closet is full of black stuffs. Ad Reinhardt would have loved it. So would a ninja burglar. But I have never thought of it as artsy, just practical. And urban. Still, this wearin’ of the black has a history. Not a very long one, but a history nonetheless. It goes back to Baudelaire and the 19th century cultivation of paradis artificiels. This, from a good, concise life of Baudelaire by Joshua Glenn:
Although he survived, from that point on Baudelaire was no longer the dashing young Bohemian. He shaved his goatee, cropped his long hair as short as a monk’s, and adopted the all-black mourning costume for which he became famous—and which has since come to signify “Pretentious Artist.” But the original Man in Black was in mourning for more than a world made vulgar by the bourgeois religion of material progress; he had come to perceive modernity (a pejorative term for Baudelaire’s peers, evoking as it did bourgeois “modernization”) as actually sinful.
In mourning for a world made vulgar. Vulgarity is the least of it—depending on what is meant by the word. To be coarse or unrefined in speech, manners or aesthetic taste is not the same as having a coarsened moral sense. The salt of the earth might love Thomas Kinkade or Precious Moments tchotchkes while thugs, thieves and assorted hypocrites admire Titian. Indeed, many do. The key word in that paragraph is religion. It is the worship of material progress that gives us reason to mourn, not progress itself. Kenneth Clark had a term for it: heroic materialism, the idol of our time.
Art is the smiling face of that materialism. The pursuit of art poses as a quest for the timeless and eternal. It is a frail, diversionary substitute for the sacred. A good reason for putting on black.
© 2010 Maureen Mullarkey