Twenty years of commodity fetishism are on display at The Design Museum.
This exhibition's focus is on the relationship between Louboutin's shoes and desire. However, The Museum has opted for displays of pedestals, mirrors and flashing lights (an OMG Shoes! approach) over providing useful information, which is a missed opportunity.
One of Freud's favourite examples of a fetish was the foot. Concerning fetishes, Freud writes:
There are some cases which are quite specially remarkable—those in which the normal sexual object is replaced by another which bears some relation to it, but is entirely unsuited to serve the normal sexual aim.
One obvious line of critique is to ask what Freud means in his reference to "the normal sexual relation". In a recent talk Ogi Ogas presents some evidence that feet (along with breasts, bottoms and penises) are almost universal visual cues for both heterosexual and homosexual men. In other words, a sexual interest in feet is about as normal as it gets.
It does not necessarily follow that the desire aroused by the foot extends to the shoe. Louboutin and the curators at The Design Museum insist (repeatedly) that his shoes are sexy. This is a lie. There are only two points in the exhibition where shoes appear on a woman: there is a holographic performance by Dita von Teese, and a series of photographs (misnamed "Fetish") by David Lynch. These are the only two points where the shoes are genuinely sexy, although as Lynch was responsible for the photos, they are also a bit creepy.
Without a woman, Louboutin's shoes are lifeless objects. They are examples, not of a Freudian sexual fetish, but a Marxist commodity fetish.
Louboutin's shoes also exemplify postmodernism's promiscuous tendencies. He borrows from a wide variety of cultures and context to create his footwear. The exhibition puts some of this process on display, with a replica of his workshop, perfectly mimicking the commodity fetishism of films outlined by Žižek in The Plague of Fantasies: > The paradigmatic case of [false transparency] is the recent series of "The making of..." films which accompany big-budget productions... far from destroying the "fetishist" illusion, the insight into the production mechanism in fact even strengthens it, in so far as it renders palpable the gap between the bodily causes and their surface-effect... (129)
In other words, the curators at The Museum have chosen to further commodity fetishisation rather than undermine it. This is a problem for design more generally, in the sense that the design process reinforces commodity fetishisation. Consider Apple computers: every new product launched is accompanied by videos and explanations of the design and manufacturing processes and the "revolutionary" ideas and techniques they embody. At the same time, we know full well that these products continue produced by slave labour at Foxconn factories.
There are a series of Louboutins on display which, in contrast to his mass-produced shoes are made by "artisans." If the knowledge of an authentic artisanal production increases our desire for a pair of Louboutins, doesn't our desire for an Apple computer increase with the knowledge that it was produced by an authentic slave? This is a qestion that designers should be asking, and Louboutin's footwear offers a potentially effective way of introducing it. Against this background, it is disappointing that The Design Museum has decided to give us a room of old shoes.
The Christian Louboutin exhibit The Design Museum closes on the 9th of July.