In my gallery practice I am hyper-conscious of the so-called death of the avant garde and its repressed desublimation. That pretentiously describes a situation in which we no longer rage against the machine but sell each other artifacts made by people who once raged against the machine as a way of staying slightly miffed at the machine or accoutred for a battle with the machine that we never intend to fight. I am both a victim and a perpetuator of this practice, as is most everyone in the art world, and my pennance is to program shows in which the art is genetically designed, at least, to draw attention to this problem, as solving it seems a bit above my pay grade.
With that beautiful loser dialogue as the default backdrop for my daily activities, you can only imagine how excited I was to come upon this photograph at the Alemany Flea Market yeaterday. That's Eldridge Cleaver, former Black Panther Minister of Information, and the author of Soul on Ice, posing in a pair of codpiece pants from his 1975 fall collection. The photo by Rene Burri of Magnum fame was taken through the window of a shop in the Les Halles district on the right bank of Paris, with Saint Eustache church in the reflection.
For me, Black Panthers are the ne plus ultra of revolutionary commitment in post war America, and they had extremely good fashion sense. Therefore they don't fit neatly into the jeremiad paradigm of a lost revolutionary authenticity that keeps getting swallowed up by capitalism and spit back as bourgeois fashion. They were both revolution and fashion at the same time. At least for a while. When he designed these clothes Cleaver had been on the run for six years after being charged with ambushing two Oakland Police officers in an incident that ultimately led to the death of fellow panther Bobby Hutton. He would soon recant his revolutionary activity, come back to America and become in sequence a born again christian, a moonie, a mormon and eventually a republican. That's not just repressed sublimation, that's only-in-America-crazy. Which Cleaver, as cagey and intelligent as he was, was.
Cleaver also had a disturbingly good sense of humor, as you can see from this ad for his line. He's toying with the critique of militantism in America as cynically fashionionable, called out most famously by Tom Wolfe in Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny's. But let's not let the politics of politics keep us from glimpsing Cleaver's sexual politics in these clothes. By foregrounding the penis, a dicey move for a famously self-described rapist, and one that illustrates Cleaver's ability to be revolutionary and shameless at the same time, Cleaver said he was trying to make clothes more honest and combat the trend of using fashion to erase sexual difference. This would have definitely gone over well in France at the time. If a man got an erection he should be able to show it, said Cleaver. If there is a better definition of revolution in fashion than that, I've not heard it.