Dickens and Kanye

“I didn’t want my shoes to be limited or cost $300 … that was a decision by the company … I just want people to have what I make. I think in clothing right now there is a real separatism. There are $500 sweatshirts that people show up to the club in … we need to be spending that money on our families. So what I’m doing in clothing right now is taking the talent. I know what my generation wants.”
-Kanye West Interview, February 20, 2015

In the above quote from an interview conducted by the Breakfast Club, Kanye West describes his vision for the upcoming release of his clothing line. What he is speaking of is a sort of classism in clothing—a classism that is undeniable as entire weeks of the year (Paris fashion week, etc.) are dedicated to the idea that one’s existence should be based around the quality, price and trendiness of the textiles that cover our bodies. In addition, he speaks of himself as the artist—both in music and his new clothing ventures—with the express goal of generating the largest consumer audience for his art. In digitized music, it is incredibly easy to distribute the fruit of artistic labor through $1.29 songs on iTunes (although the album as art has been under attack in this model, but that is an altogether different topic). It is quite another challenge to achieve that same sort of distribution with clothing. The desirability of clothing is entirely intertwined with the perception of the brand—not necessarily of the artist creating it. This perception is achieved by a certain enigmatic quality—enigma generated through high price and low stock. People generally want most what they cannot have—clothing does not function like music or technology. The more ubiquitous it is, the less desirable and less artistic it becomes.

This is interesting food for thought from a Dickensian point of view. Like Kanye today, Dickens simply wanted his art distributed. He criticized the classism of the contemporary novel, and sought to find a way to break that classism down—to make more available the art that he was producing. The introduction of the serial novel made the cost of a novel less drastic—as the novel could be purchased across installments as they were written during the year and half of monthly publishing. Thus, Dickens disrupted the classic structure of a novel in order to reap the benefit of having his art more attainable. But did this disrupt his legacy as artist? Dickens’s novels, although canonical and relevant even today, have never had the distinction of “high art.” The novel’s ease of access disrupted the very structures that supposedly gives art its transcendent nature. The questions being asked of artists in Dickens’s time are then not so different from those being asked today.

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