On Herbert Muschamp and Cathy Horyn (Fashion Is a Canon in this Dialectic Also)

12Oct07

Of all the critics and columnists in recent history at The Times, Herbert Muschamp and Cathy Horyn are the only ones who have succeeded in gripping us with every sentence that ever appeared under their respective names. Now, of course, Muschamp is dead, returned to the same infinite folds as an entire generation of gay geniuses and visionaries to which he belonged, the premature loss of whom seemed to ultimately exhaust him (after all, he was only 59) as he cast his eye across a landscape he came to recognize as brittle and bereft.

Today in a fit of sorrow and nostalgia, we read the last article he wrote for The Times, a piece sadly (but not surprisingly) relegated to a travel supplement in which he laments the impending destruction of a Richard Neutra-designed visitor center in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania (one of the most haunted states, we can report with confidence). Built in 1962 and designed in the same “modern idiom” as the United Nations, Muschamp tells us that “the building is a time capsule from a period of optimism about the capacity of humans to settle their disputes by civil means. Its present state of dilapidation all too aptly symbolizes the decay of that post-World War II ideal.” He concludes — and these, his final words — that “Neutra’s building is a ghost also, a specter possibly more haunting than the others for the contemporary imagination. Gettysburg is dedicated to the idea that the soldiers gave their lives for a good cause. But the Cyclorama [i.e., Neutra’s building] is a monument to a good cause that died for no good reason. Like many works of postwar architecture, it sits in judgment on a society that has gone far toward dismantling the framework of Enlightenment values that once made this country attractive in the eyes of the world. Since it’s painful to be reminded of our own broken promises, we may as well dismantle the memories too.” How we wish that such earnest resignation and pessimism could be found on the op-ed page of The Times, instead of the same tired, recycled, vaguely condescending and/or pedantic observations to which we have become so inured!

Thus we are left with Cathy Horyn, about whom — as a preliminary note — we offer our thanks to whatever power that she was not born a gay man, for surely she, too, would be dead by now. We highlight just a few of our favorite sentences from a recent review: “The models, in fact, were more covered-up than exposed. Certainly they looked very sexy in the clothes, with armbands that seemed to continue the stripe effect of a garment and flat black sunglasses that made you think of censor bars. The modernist drive of the collection was relentless,” she concludes, “as though [the designer] had found a legitimate window to fashion’s future and was going through it.” So like Muschamp, she is always careful to place her observations in a larger context of culture and history; true, she is unapologetically obsessed with her craft — and that of those she writes about — yet (and this the miracle) so unstinting in her obsession, so that it hardly matters if you have never been to a fashion show or understand her references to say, ________ or _______; she shines her light for us on a refined and idiosyncratic (and yes, decadent and artificial) society, where a handful of souls are fortunate enough to be illuminated by her brilliant prose for just a few precious seconds before they recede into the fabric of irrelevance.

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