You can view 2 more articles. Unlock unlimited articles with TANK Digital Subscription. Subscribe here.
×

MONSTER HUNTER

04

Girolamo Savonarola was an Italian monk and the man whose actions gave us the expression “bonfire of the vanities”. On the 7th February 1497, he almost succeeded in torching all of the glorious frescos, illuminated books and other cultural treasures accumulated by Florence under the rule of Medici at the height of the Italian Renaissance. Today, he is mostly remembered as a monstrous, fire-and-brimstone preacher, a 15th-century Catholic version of today’s iconoclastic Islamic State, even if most historians agree his motivations were more political than religious, given his preoccupation with protecting Florence’s republican heritage.

Fashion has been going through something of an iconoclastic period, and it’s possible to argue that it has been long overdue. The industry has an image problem, not least among them the perception that fashion people are monsters. At least that’s how the general public perceives them, thanks to fictional portrayals in movies like The Devil Wears Prada and documentaries like The September Issue. Yet whilst many fashion journalists strive to emulate Anna’s “Nuclear Wintour” style of power projection, the reality is that today, such extravagant behaviour is much less displayed or indeed tolerated; throwing a coat at an assistant or commenting on their appearance may land you in court, as opposed to inspiring awe. The widespread recalibration of culture since #MeToo and Black Lives Matter means that casual bullying of subordinates seems almost a thing of the past.

The late Louise Wilson was a fashion educator and something of a living legend in the UK fashion industry. Before her death in 2014, she was a pivotal figure in the industry, not just as an elite-level educator, churning out a galaxy of stars from her master’s programme at Central Saint Martins, but also as a key opinion leader, influencer and tastemaker in the industry. Louise’s reputation as a passionate advocate of creative talent was spiced with an educational philosophy that could be fairly characterised as the “school of hard knocks”. She was a tough teacher who frequently reduced the biggest egos to jelly with a sometimes-callous disregard for a student’s feelings. Many years ago, over a Chinese meal, I asked her why fashion people are so often such monsters. Her answer? Because they need to be. To drive a creative vision through the maze of a vast corporate organisation you need to be a single-minded individual whose great talent is underpinned by great self-regard. At the highest level they need to commit to their vision at an almost pathological level. Her emphatic final word on the subject was simple: “Taste isn’t a democracy.”

Our political systems, which are, seem to be finding the current dizzying pace of change hard to digest. Politicians everywhere, like hapless carriage drivers, are struggling to control two rebellious horses named technology and money. Wealth used to power societies; now wealth is power, and society may well be damned. It is commonplace to state that democracy’s woes began with the rise of populism. Yet the rise of populism is not due to an asteroid strike or a mutation of a zombie virus creating extreme right-wingers such as Trump, Farage, Orbán and Le Pen. First seen as jokes, and then reimagined as beasts, and eventually as political anomalies by the mainstream media and political pundits, they have only gathered public support after a build-up of genuine and widespread alienation from the political system. The beast class didn’t cause the rupture, they were caused by it. The lines delivered by Steve Carell’s character at the end of The Big Short – the film about the financial crash of 2008, caused by the criminality and greed of the banks – now sound prophetic: “I have a feeling in a few years people are going to be doing what they always do when the economy tanks. They will be blaming immigrants and poor people.”

Recently a dear old friend, a veteran Labour party activist, said to me, “Between Labour and Conservatives there is a gap of two inches, but it is in those two inches that we live.” I have heard versions of this quote many times, and been struck by how it resonates with many as a rallying cry of the pragmatic centre left. I relayed this in conversation to Jeremy Corbyn, in this issue, who, along with Bernie Sanders, was the last best hope for progressive realignment of the political landscape on either side of the Atlantic.

This worldview has two major problems. Firstly, the parties of the right haven’t been playing to the same rules as those on the left for at least a decade. While the left has been tied up fighting culture wars, the right has creatively moved the centre ground of actual politics further and further in its direction. The Conservative Party is far more concerned with the inch that separates it from the populist extreme right than with the beige centre of the Labour Party.

What’s more, many younger Labour supporters feel extremely claustrophobic in the allotted “two inches”. After all, the boomers who now preach moderation benefited from trade-union protection, a functioning NHS, free higher education supplemented with maintenance grants and being able to buy a house on graduation for the price of a family car. Gen Z and millennials have none of the same advantages, crippled by punitive student loans, a broken health service, stagnating wages and completely inaccessible housing.

Education, the theme of this issue, is the cause of most concern and the site of the most profound injury to this generation. Ever larger waves of students are leaving higher education, the majority of them overwhelmed with the burden of debt and underwhelmed by the experience of an education that poorly prepares them for life in a battered economy. Student loans were sold to them at almost-zero interest rates, but are now accumulating commercial rates of interest. In simple terms, it’s a trans-generational swindle.

The education system in the UK (and especially higher education) has been defaced by encroaching marketisation and debased by technological disruption. In the UK, students have been reconceptualised as customers as universities are asked to behave like businesses. Handing the problem of funding higher education to the marketplace was both an ideological project of Thatcherism and a means of cost cutting for successive governments. As it turned out, this has made both the institutions and students poorer.

Being a student in higher education used to be a sort of finishing school for future citizens. Institutions acted as fountainheads of cultural capital and generators of technical expertise, in arts and sciences that benefited society, business and the state. Now, after 30 years of education’s marketisation, there are many, many more so-called universities in the UK, which mostly survive by attracting foreign students who can pay £30,000 a year for the privilege, because UK students (who take on massive loans to enrol) apparently don’t pay enough to balance the budget. The spectre of a once-world famous education system has ended up as a subsection of the tourism industry. On the other hand, the customer approach to student admittance has seen an explosion in certain new and “fun” subjects regardless of the viability or social purpose of such courses. (What is a graduate supposed to do with a postgraduate degree in Applied Imagination from Central Saint Martins – a snip at £23,610 just for the tuition fees?)

What’s more, universities are consistently delivering courses that were popular three years ago because it takes them that long to bring on stream courses, while the volatile economy and rapid technological changes mean that demand for expertise develops in matter of months, not years. Recall the time – two or three years ago – that we were all told to learn to code – the very skill set rapidly being disappeared by AI?

Tom Wolfe’s brilliant 1987 satire on Ronald Reagan’s America The Bonfire of the Vanities borrowed its title from Savonarola. Both the novel and its excellent film adaptation spoke of the hypocrisy and corruption of the political system in those boom years, an earlier time of rapid change and excess money for the few. This year, Todd Field’s new film, Tár, starring Cate Blanchett, updates the bonfire of the vanities with a portrait of an achingly realistic contemporary monster. The protagonist, a gay female conductor of the most culturally elevated sort, lives in a gilded world as the maestro of a world-leading orchestra and appears untroubled by society’s rules. She habitually lies and cheats and bullies everyone around her, including a six-year-old kid who is bullying her daughter at school. Her monstrous behaviour is not only tolerated but is enabled by a network of adoring underlings, acolytes and colleagues who hold her aloft in her exceptional and privileged position. The film paints an immaculately observed portrait of a contemporary monster and gets the viewer to relate to her, even cheer her on, before witnessing her well-deserved fall. Once cancelled, the troll armies make her a monster not only for her bullying habits but also for her elitist taste, and her glittering career flounders into ashes in an instant.

The film is a monster movie – yet it is not just Tár who is implicated, as it asks us to see our own age as a time of monsters. As if to drive home the message, we see Tár conducting an orchestra for a live recording of the soundtrack of a computer game to a cosplaying audience; the game is called Monster Hunter. Masoud Golsorkhi