Recently I went to see Iris, the film that follows the life of fashion maven Iris Apfel, a quick-witted American businesswoman, interior designer, and, at the age of 94, a fashion icon.
Afterwards, sitting in Enoteca Da Luca in Mayfair, Sam and I discussed what struck us most about the latter day starlet, her style, her owlish glasses, oversized jewellery, her shopping habit and enviable capacity to get a good price. We discussed her uncompromising approach, her brilliant abruptness and dry wit, her Manhattanite self possession, and evident determination to forge her own path – one that led her to design the White House interiors among others and travel the world. It was in later life, however, that she was catapulted to a new level of fame, largely as a result of an exhibition of her clothes and accessories at the The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Nowadays her photo has graced the cover of numerous fashion magazines, including Dazed & Confused,.
The conversation then moved on to a more reflective appraisal of ourselves, and how we measured up to this “geriatric starlet” as she likes to call herself. But how useful are conversations like this, or rather, how much do wandering musings about style and cool and the benefits of not giving a damn help us move towards the person we want to be? That question was on my mind the next day when I picked up Melissa Pritchard’s collection of essays called A Solemn Pleasure:To Imagine, Witness and Write, and came across A Graven Space, in which she explains why she is wary of “sanctifying” certain women – in this case the artist Georgia O’Keefe:
We burden someone with mystique in part to evade ourselves – not so much to honour them as to subtly devalue ourselves. Those individuals who splash their life’s canvas hugely, exuberantly, more than the rest of us, too sadly hesitant in the shaping of our lives – this near deification of an extraordinary artist like Georgia O’Keefe, the worshipful distancing that creeps insidiously into our innocent study and regard of her, comes from a reluctance to confront ourselves, our lives, an unwillingness to have faith in our own potential. We hypnotise ourselves with her accomplishment, diminishing any need of our own. The more we legend her up, trick her out in outrageous character, unsurpassable achievement, the more Promethean her proportions, the less we need to ask of ourselves. We hypnotise ourselves with her accomplishment, diminishing any need of our own, ask to be intimidated so we can remain in a familiar, if uncomfortable, state of perpetual self-disappointment – the dark side of admiration.
Now feted by magazine editors, schmoozed and gushed over at premieres and awards ceremonies, Iris was seemingly adored by the young people who flocked to her, lapping up the awkwardness and droll one liners of the woman who says she never wanted to be homogenous. But is the way our culture appropriates these larger than life characters – in biopics like Iris and such like – also on the “dark side” of admiration?
Snapshots of Iris as a younger woman are evidently just that – moments captured in a long life that involved setting up a business, deciding not to have children because of her work, struggling in the context of the cultural norms of her era to forge her own path. But no matter how little iris would like it to be otherwise, is the attention lavished on her a means by which others can excuse themselves from taking responsibility for shaping their own life?
And what then about our attitude towards the great political figures of the past? The next day, sitting under an umbrella outside the Clock House, drinking coffee and talking to Marti, I was mesmerised by her stories about her life growing up in Manhattan and then in Greenwich Village, the poetry group called the Threepenny Poets she was part of and their innovative idea at the the time of posting poetry in the subway. Marti told me about the first time she saw Bob Dylan when he was just starting out, how she joined in the booing when he made his electric debut in 1963, and fell silent, along with thousands of others as Martin Luther King began his ‘I have a dream’ speech which he delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington in 1963.
As she spoke, moving on to her husband’s involvement in the campaign to impeach President Richard Nixon, and the early projects she was involved with working with young black people, it struck me not only that as well as creating a mystique around certain individuals, we can also do it around certain eras.
Marti had experienced these events, could remember small details like the fact that she had been sitting with her feet in the fountain when she heard King start to speak, the way the 250,000 people had fallen silent, how the airs on her arms had stood up. As she spoke I saw a kaleidoscope of images that I realised came from numerous sources – photos, original footage, clips from films and a whole host of perceptions about the styles and atmospheres that I’ve come over the years to associate with those eras. As well as the recordings I’ve heard of his speeches, the black and white footage I’ve seen of Martin Luther King’s speech, to which now is added scenes from the film Selma, which I saw earlier this year. What though are the repercussions of this apparent bleeding of the past into our current era, of the way history seems to invade the present, mixing with our reality in a way that wasn’t possible in the previous century?
We have, it seems, become adept at jumbling up the eras: The pub where we were sitting was, up until a couple of years ago, a comfortable friendly place, with some nice old armchairs by the fire – bagging them was always a plus. Now it’s been revamped with new old furniture, all carefully chosen and lots of distressed wood. It’s still a friendly, comfortable pub, but the “put-together” oldness leaves me a little bit cold.
Mark Fisher in his book Ghosts of My Life argues, that:
the present moment is marked by its extraordinary accommodation towards the past. More than that, the very distinction between the past and present is breaking down. In 1981, the 1960s seemed much further away than they do today. Since then, cultural time has folded back on itself, and the impression of linear development has given away to a strange simultaneity.
Preoccupied by what he sees as the “anachronism and inertia” that marks 21st century culture, Fisher argues that a state of stasis is “buried, interred behind a superficial frenzy of ‘newness’ of perpetual movement. The ‘jumbling up or time’ the montaging of earlier eras…” Quoting Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi who in his book After The Future’ refers to the ‘slow cancellation of the future [that] got underway in the 1970s and 1980s..’ he argues that
While 20th century culture experimental culture was seized by a recombinatorial delirium, which made it feel as if newness was infinitely available, the 21st century is oppressed by a crushing sense of finitude and exhaustion.
Does the appropriation of history in this way, the creation of a mystique about certain eras act in a way similar to that Pritchard describes? Are films like Iris part of what Pritchard defines as our unwillingness to confront ourselves and our lives or have faith in our own potential? And if so, Is there a need for us, not only to draw back into ourselves, as Pritchard argues, but for us to engage with the time we are in?
There’s no doubt that the problems we face today are of an unprecedented scale. The events of the past week or so have highlighted just interwoven the refugee crisis is with the the wars devastating Syria and conflicts in Libya and Iraq. Marti, a seasoned campaigner and activist admitted that she didn’t know what she thought about the situation, adding how much this bothered her as she was used to at least knowing what she thought about an issue.
If ever there was a time that we need people to “splash their life’s canvas hugely, exuberantly” it’s now, which is why it’s been so heartening to see how people have defied current narratives and have shown up to welcome refugees and applaud them as they arrive at the train station, offering them gifts. Why it’s so good to hear stories about people offering their homes. We also need people to punch holes in the current discourse about how the refugee crisis can be effectively handled. But leaders, with an eye always on media fallout seem ill-equipped to make radical decisions
On Weekend on the BBC World Service François Crépeau United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, argued, as my friend Dora did last year, that it would make more sense to allow people to use normal transport methods and manage the process humanely.
The smugglers have had their market created for them by our prohibition policies, like during the prohibition era in the United States, like the war on drugs. We are getting there with the war on drugs and several jurisdictions have started legalising, regulating and taxing. I think we are going to have to do the same with migration, because mobility is simply part of what globalisation is all about. These people are going to move like we are moving and they are going to move quite massively if we don’t resolve crises like the Syrian one or what’s happening in Eritrea in particular.
If we don’t take control of the movement these people are going to use other means, ie smugglers. We reclaim the market. We offer the mobility services that the smugglers are offering now. We resettled two million Indo-Chinese refugees 40 years ago. We can do the same today.
The saddest part of the whole debate, Crépeau said is that “because the migrants are not participating at all in any electoral or political debate, the political debates are dominated by an anti-immigration nationalist, populist discourse and has been so for the past 30 years at least, which is essentially based on fantasies, on stereotypes and on threats.”
What difference would it make if, collectively, we were able to grasp the present and, as Pritchard advises, refuse pastiche, stop impeding ourselves and instead learn from O’Keefe and others who “went on to invent her own universe, disturbing us with her potent, altered vision of reality, giving us glorious, crucial leave to do the same.
We must, as Pritchard says, “return to ourselves and, strengthened by her example, get on with it. Life. The curious triumph of loss. Love.”