My Spiritual Awakening, or How Alexander McQueen reminded me of Art’s Power

29 Jun

Up until a couple of years ago, I’d never been really into fashion before and I hadn’t realized the art behind designing clothing. Then I learned about Alexander McQueen. I looked up images of his clothing, admired his work when Lady Gaga wore it, and was devastated that just as I was learning about this visionary he took his own life.

The official exhibit photo. Breathtaking.

Thankfully, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City put together a beautiful collection of McQueen’s work to highlight his accomplishments and honor his genius.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a religious person…but walking through this exhibit, entitled Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, was a deeply spiritual experience for me.  I don’t much care if that sounds crazy. To see the work of an artist right in front of you and feel its power and its message is as meaningful to me as (I imagine) any kind of religious text has to its adherents. I believe in art; in the power of human creativity, of human passion and love.

From the Met's exhibit. Click on the image to read McQueen's statement about the dress.

McQueen’s work exemplifies true dedication to one’s passions and such an exquisite exploration of human emotion and action that can only be described as breathtaking. As a master of his medium, he forces viewers to see the clothing in front of them as more than just fashion, but as a glimpse into the soul of another human being struggling to find truth and beauty in this pain-filled and often grotesque world.

Yet, McQueen’s works are full of hope, honesty, and acceptance: of the actions of the past, of the state of the present, and of the adaptability that must occur to guarantee a future. His acknowledgement of the perverse and the disturbing, deeply-buried thoughts found in any and every person’s psyche enabled a redefinition of beauty and what it means to accept oneself.

What does this say for an artist who chose to end his own life? Sometimes, I think, we seek a rational explanation as to why death occurs, but perhaps McQueen himself said it best:

It is important to look at death because it is a part of life. It is a sad thing, melancholy but romantic at the same time. It is the end of a cycle – everything has to end. The cycle of life is positive because it gives room for new things.”

In a way, McQueen’s death and the Met exhibit have given me “new things” – or at least a new way of seeing things. I double-majored in women’s studies and art history and considering that I decided against working in a museum or teaching, I wasn’t quite sure how art would fit into my life after college. Yet my fascination with McQueen’s work and life brought me a reason to spend a historic night in NYC and rediscover my passion for art.

Click on the image to go to the exhibit site. Watch the video on this dress at the bottom of the page. Worth your time.

The feeling of getting lost in another human being’s work; of staring, of searching with your eyes and with your mind for meaning and truth that has not only personal value, but a kind of universal truth is exhilarating. I enter museums and exhibits like Savage Beauty with a yearning and excitement to be enlightened and transported and leave in a mesmerized state of appreciation and awe with a deeper understanding (or confusion, depending) of the human condition.

These thoughts and the powerful ways in which artists communicate can lead us to idolize these people; to view them as larger than life and above basic needs, wants, and flaws. But they’re human – or were human—just like the rest of us. And that’s the beauty of art, whether you “get it,” or like it, or not: some other living, breathing human being that is just as uniquely fucked-up as the rest of us took that which was around them to convey a message – their own message – and impart upon us their individual experience. There is power in truth, in human connection, in expression of oneself. And so, there is power in art.

This post brought to you by Dawn, who doesn’t need any deity other than art.

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6 Responses to “My Spiritual Awakening, or How Alexander McQueen reminded me of Art’s Power”

  1. Fiction & Foibles June 29, 2011 at 1:38 pm #

    The last image is haunting ❤

  2. RL June 29, 2011 at 2:26 pm #

    Dawn, this is such a lovely, eloquent essay that does McQueen justice.

    Just one small thing: I appreciate how meaningful and powerful art can be. But to compare it to religion is to misunderstand. Yes, both give people meaning in their lives, both help people feel connected to something larger than themselves. Both provide a lens to view the world.

    But so does politics. So does volunteering. Are those to be compared to religion as well? I’m not so sure. Art can say anything. Its purpose is expression, nothing else. That’s not the purpose of religion, or at least not the religion I believe in.

    I know this is a messy issue, because religion has been, rightfully so, blamed for many terrible things. But to say that art is to you as religion is to me is to, in my eyes, misunderstand that religion gives more than feeling or sentiment or spirituality. It gives purpose — one that is on the whole to serve something larger than oneself. Art does not always do that. Art is not religion.

    • Sam June 29, 2011 at 3:59 pm #

      I disagree, Rachel — I think you’re confining “religious experience” to established and structured religion, which is a mistake. Rudolfo Otto spoke of the religious experience as the impact point, the shock of the finite and limited human consciousness grazing against the flank of the truly infinite — a wholly personal reaction that transcends, in fact, in his view, must precede linguistic conception of the experience and thus precede awareness of the divine (for awareness grows from conceptualization).

      Mircea Eliade, in his notions of the sacred and the profane, treats homo religioso (us) as capable of emulating the works of creation by delineating sacred space and sacred time, yes, on an organized level, but also in the very personal realm of our own lives and own homes. What, asks he, so motivates us? An awareness of transcendent reality that embraces and sweeps through us in what he terms “heirophanies.”

      Emile Durkheim, though focused on the communal religious experience which sources from a “collective effervescence” notes that totemism, the precursor to religion, grew from personal transcendent powers and qualities being assigned to everyday physical objects. Again, we see the role that the personal religious experience plays in the foundations of religion.

      Yes, other scholars argue alternate theories that depend on a common structure or order for religious experience to possess ultimate validity, but as observers, we absolutely MUST lend credence to the beliefs of others. If they are human (or homo religioso) they must have the same capability to “graze against the infinite” as Dawn did in her experience with this dude’s crazy art. And if we deny anyone else that right to possess a religious experience of her own making, then we are no better than the Inquisitor or the extremist Imam.

  3. Sam June 29, 2011 at 3:44 pm #

    Just sayin’ — this counts as an experience of transcendent reality such that there exists beyond the realm of perception potential energy, harnessed through exposure to some trigger.

    Nonreligious agnosticism? =P

  4. Wendy June 29, 2011 at 3:55 pm #

    Dawn,
    I was absolutely blown away by this piece.
    I believe you have taken Art and Religion and showed the paralleled sides. We may not all agree that art is not religion and religion is not art. However, while Religion does give people hope, faith and to not fear death, but that death is a romantic story of how family and friends are waiting in this magical Heaven full of love and peace.
    I believe that the way Art was shown to you through this exhibit of McQueen’s showed you that Art is shows us love, compassion, faith, hope, and above all the beautiful Art of the Gowns showed us a romantic side of death in the interpretation.

    RL- while I agree with you in some aspects, I believe that yes, Art and Religion can be construed as one area of hope in people’s eyes. Does Religion not, make us feel at peace? Well, so one could also that Art could do the same thing to others. To compare them to Volunteering, etc, that you have stated above, it is my belief that all could be comparative to Religion as they are about love, human compassion, and feeling good about what you are striving for in your life. Religion is a word, it is the spirituality that gives it the meaning, as Art is a picture, but the way the it is interpreted is a spiritualistic as well.

  5. Dawn June 30, 2011 at 1:18 pm #

    Thanks for all of the comments on this! I’m really proud of this entry and feel very strongly about it.

    RL – I respect that, as you said, this is not the religion that you believe in. But the idea that I am misunderstanding a concept or experience that is so personal doesn’t really make sense to me. Art does not hold the same importance in your life, and so does not create these same types of reactions/meaning for you. But the idea of God or a savior doesn’t hold importance to me as it does for you. I don’t think this makes any of the above less meaningful or purpose-giving.

    My views on religion and art don’t–or shouldn’t–have any impact on your views. Our views are our own and shouldn’t hinge on the thoughts of others, but should be able to stand on their own. Art as a religious experience for me doesn’t demean or lessen the value of any kind of religious experience you’ve had. To me, that’s like the argument that allowing same-sex couples to marry will crumble heterosexual marriages. I don’t think these things are mutually exclusive.

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