Riding the metro to the Marais I noticed two French men in an aggressive conversation with another man. The name Balenciaga came out a few times in combination with different French curse words. When the train stopped, the man wanted to leave but was stopped by the other two standing in the door. The scene ended with one of them spitting on the man before he ran away in fear. He was wearing a Balenciaga print hoodie. When cancel culture starts manifesting itself physically, bad things happen. Let us never forget Salman Rushdie.
Cancel Culture, characterised since 2019 as a collective political exercise of social exclusion, is now almost ten years old. A term whose etymology dates back to the black pop culture of the late 1970s found its way into the most contentious political struggle surrounding BLM in 2014 as a mechanism to fight back against racism by calling out and excluding from public life those who were deemed racist. In the last decade, the trend spread outside of the US debates around race and has been used and abused to alienate and isolate individuals away from their peers and outside of their fields. However widespread, social cancellation has failed to make a drastic transformation of our contemporary global worldview, only deepening mistrust and polarising the public further. After listening to a few fashion vloggers and their conspiracy theories ranging from QAnon to Jeffrey Epstein and reading all there is to read, it seems that Balenciaga creators overestimated the so-called vibe-shift away from the values of woke righteous liberals e.g. in the Dimes Square scene, that had not yet arrived in Paris. Thinking the public will accept their provocation, Demna and his team tried to take Balenciaga’s social critique to the next level. If Ye can get away with it, maybe they can too. But is anyone getting away with it or can we only say Im Westen nichts Neues?
“Someone wrote that Lotta, Gosha, and I grew up on child pornography and radiation from Chernobyl which is why we’re so fucked up.” Demna
Lotta Volkova’s ex, Andrei Matveev, just arrived back in Paris from Moscow, avoiding conscription. Andrei is an ex-model, having worked with Gosha Rubchinskiy since he was 16. He was happy to be away from Russia but quickly went on to criticise the Parisian fashion scene as “having changed much since he stopped modelling”. He also assured me Lotta had nothing to do with the Balenciaga campaign, even without me directly asking about it. The Parisian fashion scene is changing indeed. Under the pretence of being woke, the discourse rather seems to be zoning out into a state of utmost impotence — and this impotence visible in the creative outputs of the scene. Except for Balenciaga and a few other hidden gems, Parisian fashion is becoming increasingly based on weird aesthetic gestures escaping the visible image of reality. In this way, aesthetics stand in place of ethics completely and the critical discourse can be successfully avoided.
The Russian performance artist Petr Davydtchenko was censored recently in Paris. He planned to present a video piece supported in dialogue with Gustav Metzger’s theory of Auto Destructive Art at Opyum, a Parisian festival existing on the intersection between the club scene, the fashion and the art world. The minute-long video shows the upper half of a pig, seconds after being cut in half with a chainsaw, still breathing and convulsing, digitally duplicated four times and arranged into the shape of a swastika.
“I was trying to think what’s the most useful thing I could say that can actually be helpful to us all in the future. /…/ At one time, the Nazis reached the point of burning books, and now the Western ‘guardians of liberalism and progress’ have reached the point of banning Dostoyevsky and Tchaikovsky. The dictatorship of the Western elites is directed against all societies, including the peoples of the Western countries themselves. This is a challenge to all and a complete denial of humanity. /…/ Fyodor Dostoyevsky prophetically foretold all this back in the 19th century. One of the characters of his novel Demons, the nihilist Shigalev, described the bright future he imagined in the following way: ‘Emerging from boundless freedom, I conclude with boundless despotism.” Petr Davydtchenko
The festival organisers didn’t reply to my request for comment and even blocked me on Instagram.
“People are afraid of the truth.” Ye
The first significant case of social cancellation in the fashion industry happened in 2011 with John Galliano, the head designer of Christian Dior at the time. He was ousted for his antisemitic rant in a cafe in the Marais that was recorded by a bystander and published online. Protests followed, and a quick dismissal of Galliano from Dior. In 2014, the then anonymous watchdog Instagram profile Diet Prada appeared, calling out brands’ similarities in design. Later the account founders got involved into more serious topics, from cultural appropriation to lack of diversity in the scene. The Instagram account became incredibly famous as the main agent of social cancellation in the fashion world, reaching more than 3 million followers after eight years of posting exclusively this kind of content.
Before Balenciagagate, the brand held an incredibly successful fashion show at the Paris Fashion Week SS23. The show opened with Ye, stomped out, in leather biker pants, an oversize flak jacket, baseball cap and Balenciaga-logo mouth guard, made up to look as though he had been punched in the face. “The set of this show is a metaphor for digging for truth and being down to earth,” said Demna in a statement before the show. The scenography was designed by Santiago Sierra, a Spanish artist known for his performance and installation dealing with social inequities. The design was based on his work House in Mud, originally presented in 2005 at Kestnergesellschaft, Hannover, Germany. A few months later, Kanye West was erased from the video of the show, after making a series of antisemitic statements.
“Very few of us look at ‘the media’ anymore. In my environment or myself, what the media says or do has been careless for a long time. The media is always the voice of capital and broadcasts propaganda 24 hours a day. The horror of advertising that no longer for mental health but for ecology should be abolished and the imposition of the doctrine of permanent shock so that the population accepts what they throw at them. Those who see or give some value to ‘the media’ are enough to sympathise with them. Information is now sought because the manipulation of mass opinion is very powerful and highly sophisticated today. Agustín García Calvo defined the asshole as `the one who does, says or thinks what is sent to him from Above, but convinced that he does it, says and thinks, because he feels like it, because it comes out of his own ideas and tastes.’ The media are in charge of becoming an asshole. The artist acquires his public utility as long as he is also a dissident. It is when it takes interest to ‘see what he says’ because a dissident says it. Dissent would be the nemesis of the asshole. If what is said, it is said with art, then great. Art only poses a danger to the fascists. I think we shouldn’t push the envelope like that, and each one of us should be useful to society doing his or her work, and not become a problem to society. We as artists have to find the way we confront the state and capitalism, and the same should be valid with an architect, a doctor, and so on. Basically, get out of the system. It’s about deploying an active and creative opposition in order to create a new society.” Santiago Sierra
Balenciaga has always been edgy. It has sent models down the runway with bloody noses and bruises and sold extra-destroyed sneakers for a bunch of money. Pushing the limits is in their nature. But it seems this time they went too far. Following Demna’s statement that “individualism in fashion is downgraded to pseudo trends dictated by a post in stories of some celebrity of the moment,” I asked Balenciaga to comment on their intentions and positions on institutional and social critique, but they kept quiet. I also asked them to comment on the recent statement of support by Ye, even though the brand deleted him from the documentation of their SS23 show.
During past war times, the bourgeoisie has always wrapped itself in alternate realities of comfort and pleasure. This collective action of self-gaslighting can be observed in contemporary cultural elites as well. What happened to Davydtchenko is a symptom. It is a textbook case of Freudian denial, though manifested in the collective unconscious. When the alternate reality is invaded with a symbol of hate and violence raging around us, its presence is denied instantly — it is cancelled, ghosted, marked off. But why has this happened now but not when the same curators gladly accepted a video of Davydtchenko facefucking a dead fox in 2019? And why were Borremans’s naked babies covered in blood not a problem in 2017, but his book on a desk in a Balenciaga photo is such a problem now? Because, just as with addicts or victims of extreme violence, the collective denial we are observing here is deepening as the crisis that roused it deepens. The quickly evolving global unrest calls for even more radical acts of denial if the society wishes to stay ignorant. And while Demna could have picked a better topic to provoke the sleeping masses than pedophilia, Ye could refrain from loving Hitler on live television and Davydtchenko could have killed the poor pig before cutting it in half, these provocative gestures are more than necessary. The practice of appropriating fascist, criminal, socially unacceptable symbols or gore aesthetic has been regularly used in art since the avant-garde and while many attempts have failed (e.g. The Beatles Butcher Cover), some have been canonised.
“We are fascists as much as Hitler was a painter.” Neue Slowenische Kunst
With the leftist bourgeoisie living in denial and club culture in place of real culture, the right-wing has been given way to rise to power. The recent rise of Giorgia Meloni in Italy, the political turmoil in the UK, and France’s new hung parliament are obvious signs that the liberals are losing their grip. Between the artsy parties and cheap champagne, it was to be expected. The only question is, will the liberals wake up from their woke winter sleep before it happens, or will Europe become fascist under their white noses?