When Fine Art Becomes Fashion — Are We Missing The Point?

Though it doesn't fit me now, I own a gorgeous Frida Kahlo-inspired print dress. I swooned over it for a week or so before deciding that it was beautiful enough to warrant its slightly substantial price tag (you might be thinking, "Why wouldn't a Frida dress be worth it!?"). And I felt amazing wearing it — in full awareness that I was embodying a great tribute to Frida Kahlo and her legacy. So I was initially pleased when the first time I wore it out to meet a friend for coffee, she complemented me on my fantastic new purchase:"I love that dress! I nearly bought it," she said. To which my obvious response was, "Haha, good job you didn't! I love Frida Kahlo." Followed by her, "Who's Frida Kahlo?" Oh...

The dress was spattered with various symbolisms derived from Kahlo's paintings and even featured a little portrait of her, with a banner reading "Viva Frida" on the chest area, close to my heart. I was surprised, really, that anyone could be so completely unfamiliar with Frida Kahlo's work. And while I could understand someone appreciating the dress's sartorial merits, I was unimpressed by someone's inclination to buy a dress featuring a portrait of an artist they know nothing about.

Frida Print Tea Dress by Vanity Project Limb, $70, rockabillypinup.co.uk

It's not just Kahlo, either. Dr. Martens have a rather special Hieronymus Bosch collection, I've noticed my fair share of Monet umbrellas out and about, and even a quick Google search yields multiple results for Van Gogh t-shirts. It's nothing new — look at Yves Saint Laurent's iconic Mondrian dress from 1965. But in the age of digital media, it's easier than ever to produce and mass-produce printed textiles bearing the image of works of fine art. And are we missing the point of fine art by applying it to the every day, or is widening its audience always a good thing? Is it good that more people are enjoying the imagery of works of fine art, even if they don't know whose imagery it is?

The way we perceive art can be strongly affected by the context it is viewed in — something artists and curators like to play with, such as Wayne Hemingway's silent disco in a Tate Liverpool sculpture gallery, which invited us to consider how the experience of viewing art changes when we see a Degas in a disco. Obviously, seeing a Van Gogh on a t-shirt or a Monet on an umbrella is never going to come anywhere close to seeing one firsthand — there is simply too much energy and movement in Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painting. These were artists trying to capture a literal moment — an "impression" from real life — rather than an obsessively realistic depiction. These paintings are not just meant to be looked at; they are meant to be experienced.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images News/Getty Images

So let's look at it slightly differently then. Just as painters in the Impressionist period began to seek not to precisely recreate images of real life at a time when the camera was beginning to do just that, these items cannot seek to recreate the firsthand impact of a painting. They are items of merchandise, a different kind of product, to perhaps be viewed as a separate entity altogether.

This, however, could still be problematic in other ways — one of which is that it seems to be the same few artists who are repeatedly given this umbrella/t-shirt/scarf/calendar/cookie tin treatment. Painter Samantha Cary told me that she feels it "reinforces the canon that has been decided — that these are the important artists, this is what good art is," causing people to "flock to these blockbuster shows" of these "important" artists time and time again. Not only that, but seeing the same imagery again and again "deadens your reaction" to it — so are we possibly sabotaging our own experience of art when we let these merchandise items into our lives?

On the other hand, the printed image of a work of art on a fashion item takes it out of the sleek context of the gallery and onto the street. Cary and I touched upon the idea of this bringing a wider audience to the work, an almost "anti-elite" and more accessible way to view art. I do believe that sometimes the gallery space can almost act as a barrier to some — some people simply feel out of place or uncomfortable in the hushed halls (which is why I feel it is hugely important for galleries to continue to focus on outreach programs to get more people into the space). Perhaps everyday items bearing the the image of works of art is a way of reaching out to more art-lovers who might not have discovered they are art-lovers yet.

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Contemporary artists are more used to this art as merchandise practice — it's something that is readily available, quick, easy, and a way of branching out. It's a way of selling to a wider audience than just those who are willing to or able to fork out for an original piece. We can print on anything these days and it's a way of getting your imagery out there, broadening its availability and appeal. And, of course, it can contribute to earning more money as an artist. Yes, we artists love what we do, but really, we'd like to pay our bills, too. Plus, applying paintings to other contexts can inspire some truly brilliant collaborations — like painter David Wightman's collection with Akris. His vivid, cleverly colored landscape paintings have been applied to a striking fashion collection, which I imagine brings the work to a wider audience than just those who are interested in painting.

Dead artists, on the other hand, can't give us their take on this, nor can they consent to what they would and would not want their images used for. The mass-producing of imagery would have been an alien concept to the likes of Monet, Van Gogh or Bosch. However, so many now-famous artists really struggled to sell and exhibit their work during their lifetimes — so perhaps Van Gogh would love that so many people are enjoying his work, even if its on an arguably superficial level. (I imagine he certainly would have welcomed the extra income...) We can only speculate as to what he would say, but just for fun, I asked Samantha Cary to imagine she were Van Gogh — what would he say? "Finally, they bloody got it!"

Images: Cafe Press; Getty; Courtesy Brand