The Enema

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Mannerist mannequin (can you see it?), American Apparel

In my first year of college, I joined the staff of a short-lived campus newspaper called the Weekly Enema. I’ve never trumpeted this achievement on a resume, but at the time I was happy to be publishing somewhere, even if my articles were squeezed between the sex advice column and the poop dispatch.

One of my first assignments at the Enema was to parody hipster life from the perspective of a hipster. Hipsterdom is genetically shackled to post-post-irony, which is to say that any joke about it is as stretched as the elastic on a vintage flower headband. Based on that zinger, you can imagine how the article turned out.

The piece’s climax was a visit to the American Apparel on 13th street, where my hipster self idolized the shiny white mannequins and aspired to enter the “crushing tsunami of generic sameness” of hoodie fashion.

Fast forward to senior year, long after the Enema flushed away.

This Friday’s art history lecture was on Mannerism, which is apparently pretty difficult to define. My teacher’s description was full of buzz phrases like “It’s the Stylish Style” and “It’s, you know, scherzo.” He spent a lot of time on a slide of Parmigianino’s Madonna with the Long Neck, which shows a space alien-style Virgin clutching her Voldebaby Christ.

I took a peek at Wikipedia for clarification, and learned that, “The definition of Mannerism, and the phases within it, continues to be the subject of debate among art historians.” Great.

My teacher finally (somewhat) pinned it down:

Mannerism is the willful distortion of figure and space for aesthetic or spiritual effect.

So to understand is to revel in confusion? This was all sounding très hipster.

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On my run that afternoon, Mannerism kept bugging me. When I can’t grasp something inside the ivory tower of art history, I usually take it to the streets. Where was Mannerism’s real-world parallel?

Then I passed American Apparel. There hung three photocopies of alien Madonna’s long, pale body dressed in different shades of cardigans and stockings. The figures were perfectly twisted into the extreme contrapossto of Mannerist works like Raphael’s Galatea. Was this a coincidence, or some sort of post-post-ironic reference?

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Either way, reconnecting with my old Enema friends helped me understand Mannerism through the lens of modern advertising. The Mannerists verged away from the High Renaissance obsession with accurate scientific depiction, warping their figures in the pursuit of “superhuman” beauty, as my teacher would say. Magazines and ads do the same thing in our post-post-modern world, albeit with a very neo-Mannerist tool called Photoshop.

As I stood in American Apparel and took these shots, I wondered if the horde of shoppers realized how abstracted the slender white goddesses towering around them were. Do they aspire to be these freakish beings? Based on American Apparel’s ads, maybe so.

Not to worry: my moment of cultural awareness was soon replaced by post-cultural awareness. I wrote that Enema article in the aughts. When will American Apparel hoodies go out of style? I thought ironically. Cuz, you know, they’re actually so out that they’re back in.

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