Though this post is filed under the header of “the arts”, that is out of respect for its introductory subject. Kenneth Clark, the art historian, is an eminently readable critic of Renaissance painting; as a protégé of art connoisseur Bernard Berenson, Clark went on to be the youngest head of the British National Gallery. He is best known for his documentary series Civilisation, which chronicles western art.
During his tenure at the National Gallery he faced a staff crisis; some members of the old guard objected to him. In his autobiography, Another Part of the Wood, Clark recounts that during arbitration the head mutineer was asked what he objected to about Mr. Clark’s management:
The only concrete fact that my colleague could think of was that he objected to my neckties. It is true that I am fond of neckties, and when depressed will buy one to cheer myself up, just as ladies buy hats… neckties, albeit to a lesser degree than hats, are symbolic and almost the last thing that link us to the display rituals of birds…
I can relate to both buying ties as gift to oneself and to facing criticism for simply wearing them. I’ve even had former friends ask me not to wear ties around them. (Note the word “former.”) Ties are now typically associated with formality, social conservatism, and the business caste. Funny: I don’t match any of those labels, but I understand that most people are incapable of thinking beyond them. In another era a tie would quickly communicate membership in a club, college, or military unit, but it is because the tie is now such an unnecessary element to dress that it is liberated from any utility at all; it is therefore open to the whims of the wearer’s personality. I’ll confess that sometimes I’m further spurred to wear ties whenever theocratic or social fascists (like the Mullahs in Iran or the executive board of Ikea) go so far as to ban them. These days, it is the conformists who are refusing to wear ties and I find it darkly amusing that neckwear is becoming a symbol of individualist rebellion. Long live the revolution indeed.
In job title, uniform, and as defender of old master art values against 20th century high modernism, Clark appears to be a solid establishment figure. Yet the more I learn about him, the more I can appreciate his singular personality in the world of art. He held unpopular positions on numerous matters: from the defense of figurative art (and western art in general) to – in the mid 1930s era of apathy and appeasement – being loudly and virulently anti-Hitler, both positions would cost him friends and colleagues before the war put that latter opinion in vogue.
At the same time, on the other side of the cultural barricades from Mr Clark, we have pictured above a group of abstract painters know as the “irascibles” who, in the days before abstract art became dogma in university art departments, had publicly complained about the Met’s “modern” American painting show that had somehow overlooked them. With the exception of Hedda Sterne, Jimmy Ernst, and probably Pollack, these anti-art-establishment upstarts are all wearing ties. I’d like to see one our contempo graffiti artistes pull a rattle-can out of their tweed norfolk jacket and tag the side of a Gagosian art commodities office LLC. If only.
I suppose one could argue that subversives have long made effective use of wearing the enemy’s uniform. To that end, artists (and maybe all of us) only wear nicer clothes out of social and ceremonial pressures, desperate to be accepted by the group and thinking the right clown suit will help get us into to the circus. Panem et circenses, so then join the circus and earn your bread.
Here is a wonderful unlined specimen from Ralph Lauren. I’m often a fan of Polo’s 1920s inspired ties. Retro in design and materials, thinner and shorter than the average businessman’s bib, and completed by a slightly cryptic motif. It offers a nice contrast to those bulky swathes of loud bunting which the cable channel sportscasters wear around their necks. I mean the ones among them who have necks.