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24th Reading: Musing on The Model as Muse

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n It’s Official: Models Look Good, a fluffy promo piece disguised as a piece of journalism with only the faintest hints of a whiff of a trace of art criticism, Guy Trebay suggests that muses must be silent and that fashion models are “perhaps the last silent film stars” because they do not speak but are compelling to look at.

Trebay’s article for the New York Times, with a webpage title of The Silent Faces of Fashion, is a teaser piece for The Model as Muse, which opens May 6 at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Curated by Kohle Yohannan and Harold Koda, the exhibition seeks to “expand the way we see a fashion photograph to include the model” and “to examine the relationship . . . between high fashion and the evolving ideals of beauty through the careers and personifications of iconic models.”

The show, from what I can glean from Trebay’s article, is a largely non-critical reframing of fashion photography that tries to turn our attention away from the art of the photographer and toward the art(iface) of the model with a little gloss of critical curatorial content. Models are often unrecognized performers whose sometimes considerable talents contribute to the fashioning (pun intended) of the photographs we consume. I appreciate the efforts of the curators to acknowledge the work done by the models. Regardless of our opinions about how these types of performances impact culture- from disparaging feminist analysis to laudatory blogs- models are performing for audiences, and we could have meaningful conversations about the formal, social historical and deconstructable qualities of those performances.

Trebay’s linking of fashion models with silent movie stars is not outlandish and helps re-inforce the idea that acting without speaking caught on film (photographic or cinematic) is a type of performance that we can discuss critically. (By critically, I do not necessarily mean negatively). Trebay, unfortunately, does not speak critically about the models’ performances. Instead, he trots out a mistaken understanding of muses in his glib conclusion that actually undermines the attempts of the curators to create a place for the work that models do, which is a type of performing.

It cannot be accidental that Kate Moss, the most persuasive contemporary example of a model as an artistic catalyst, has assiduously guarded what she says throughout her career. Ms. Moss is no dummy. She knows that the basic requirement of her particular job is silence. A model is a muse to the precise extent that a model is mute.

For Trebay, a muse is necessarily silent, a cipher onto which we can project our fantasies, and a model’s silence is what confirms her muse like status. Trebay’s ideal model is not a muse, s/he is an absence, an erasure, a void that we then fill. She, the author made no mention of iconic male models, waits for us to act on her. “These gorgeous and petted and idealized creatures are passive — their beauty that of a butterfly pinned to a collector’s tray.” In saying this, Trebay contradicts his earlier argument about the non “passive thump” of models when he indulges himself with a little hyperbolic fashion-speak “Models are locamotives . . .Models rocket. Models explode.”

A muse is not a blank space to fill, but an active, separate force that causes us to move, act, speak. Muses do not wait for us; they act on us. To back up my claim, I turn to Wikipedia: Muse comes from the Greek mousa which not only means a type of goddess but also the common noun literally meaning song or poem.

The Muses, therefore, were both the embodiments and sponsors of performed metrical speech: mousike, whence “music”, was “the art of the Muses”. In the archaic period, before the wide-spread availability of books (scrolls), this included nearly all of learning.

and a bit more to prove my point

The Muses typically are invoked at or near the beginning of an ancient epic poem or classical Greek hymn. They have served as aids to an author of prose, too, sometimes represented as the true speaker, for whom an author is merely a mouthpiece.

The Muse moves us. S/he does not wait for us to look. S/he cannot be pinned down like a butterfly. We could possibly speak of models as muses, but only if we reject Trebay’s conclusion of necessary silence. Trebay muting of muses is not amusing. To speak of models as muses, we would have to acknowledge their performances as active forms of work that that cannot be reduced simply to passive objectification. They are performers. Their work affects us and that work and its affects could be spoken about meaningfully and critically. Let’s turn the volume up and hear what their performances have to “say” to us.

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