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Costume, Character and the Cult of Creativity

Four faculty members discuss different aspects of the BYU Museum of Art’s current exhibition Cut! Costume and the Cinema.

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PROVO, Utah (Oct. 29, 2014)—Gathering four professors from various disciplines throughout campus, the BYU Museum of Art’s Take 5 event, “Costume, Character and the Cult of Creativity,” shared different aspects of the current exhibition Cut! Character and the Cult of Creativity.
The exhibition, located at the museum until December, features costumes from various Hollywood movies.

Heather Belnap Jensen, an associate professor of art history, said the exhibition reminded her of how art exhibitions, or “academies,” might have looked like in late 18th- and 19th-century England and France.
“Crowds of people would come,” said Belnap. These places became sights of entertainment and leisure.

“Everyone went there to see but also to be seen,” she said. Like the spectacle of the academies, this idea of spectacle is largely present in Hollywood and in the costumes. “To me,” said Belnap, “this exhibition invokes conversation about spectacle, celebrity culture . . . about how this culture gets presented, translated and then reformulated by ordinary people like us.”

She concluded by saying that in spaces like the academies or exhibitions, “identities are fashioned and so your participation in these events can be seen as entertainment but also as education.”

Mary Farahnakian, a professor of design in the Theater and Media Arts Department, spoke of “zeitgeist,” a German word meaning “the spirit of time.”

“The exhibition shows how the spirit of time captures the minds of the designers or the people who are creating and who are selecting the designer’s themes. Different art forms from the same era display similar qualities. Influential ideas are seen in each time period,” said Farahnakian.

She gave the example of people in the Middle Ages who used architecture to create lines that led to heaven. “Everything was pointing to heaven,” said Farahnakian. “Different buildings then became the fashion of costumes – pointy costumes.” Displaying a picture of a woman with a long, pointy hat, she said, “When you see things over and over again, you get inspired by those things.”

The spirit of time can be seen throughout the costume exhibition. “Each [costume] had the spirit of design captured in the sole of the design,” said Farahnakian.

English professor Nick Mason followed Farahnakian with a discussion of the power of characterization through costumes. While recognizing the ability for novels to access the internal space of human experience, Mason said, “What film and television do that literature can’t do is immediate characterization. We can go through paragraph after paragraph and still only have a general sense of what a person looks like. But in good film and theater productions, the minute they walk on stage, we immediately get a sense of their character.”

He concluded, “You just need one glimpse of the dresses upstairs. For The Duchess, the costumes speak volumes in ways that have an immediacy that the best novels can’t match.”

Chris Cutri, associate professor of communications, discussed how Hollywood uses artifice to portray realism. “What we see on the screen, we see this depiction, but if you step back you see that everything is constructed but is trying to create truth and believability.”

He added, “The costume provides context and believability to time period, locale, and people – clothing in and of itself is one of the biggest forms of communication, as it transmits messages of class, status and aesthetic preferences.”

He said that costume discrepancies can move the film away from realism, so Cutri prefers a neorealist approach to filmmaking. “It’s a sincere approach to dealing with this art of cinema that lies to tell the truth,” said Cutri.

He concluded, “It’s important to become visually literate and to understand the signs and symbols around us and what they mean. With all that said, I can’t help as I go through the exhibit to see the incredible craftsmanship that’s happening with the costumes. The absolute aesthetic beauty of the pieces make them pieces of art worthy to look at.”

Museum of Art staff concluded the discussions saying, “Discussions like these help us think about different aspects of art, fashion and museums – they all come together for us, even today.”

For more information on Cut! Costume and the Cinema and other exhibits, visit the Museum of Art’s website.
—Stephanie Bahr Bentley (B.A. English ’14)

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