29 August 2010

New Finessed Site

I have now migrated Finessed to a new site.

20 August 2010

Coming Soon: New Blog Site

I am in the process of migrating this blog to a more functional WordPress site. Look out for my new blog site updated entries by next week....

In the meantime, check out my first guest blog for Shop Local Alexandria on The Perfect Shopping Saturday. Also, don't miss my column, "The Multifacted Writer," for Writer's News Weekly. Here's this week's column: "Writing Visually."

15 July 2010

Narrative Marketing: Brand Strategy as Storytelling

From 2006 to 2007, the British lingerie company Agent Provocateur launched a lavish e-mail marketing campaign with four short films entitled "The Dreams of Miss X," featuring Kate Moss. The campaign promised to be a new concept for e-mail marketing, drawing in viewers (and thus potential buyers) with a more cinematic feel to the online retail experience.

Despite being wooed by the very concept of this type of higher-end video marketing, particularly with a scantily clad Kate Moss, many viewers were turned away by the apparent poor video quality and the sheer lack of characterization in what should have otherwise seemed a strong narrative concept.

Agent Provocateur has made a name for itself in redefining the world of intimate brands with its branding approach in providing edgy, yet luxurious design with a boutique feel. The brand's prominent use of storytelling techniques in its marketing campaigns has helped to establish and augment this feeling of desiring the undesireable, i.e. sumptuousness with an edge of danger. Their successful campaigns featuring Kylie Minogue and their UK cinema commercials, including the iconic "Love Me Tender" Valentine's Day campaign that was a YouTube sensation, prove the success of this type of narrative marketing.

Obviously, video marketing has exploded in the four years since the Agent Provocateur campaign. Video is now ubiquitous, particularly in online advertising and on retail websites. Yet, the use of narrative, i.e. storytelling techniques, in marketing and brand strategy strangely is not as pervasive as one would think, particularly not in luxury brand advertising.

There has been a lot of buzz about narrative marketing in the past decade or so as a way for companies to distinguish their brands in an age of social media. By narrative marketing, I would include the following characteristics:
  • strong, consistent unifying concept or main idea;
  • a "plot" or storyline--i.e. a course of action or series of events--that can be developed across different media outlets;
  • intriguing "characters" or actors (whether a person, product, or idea) to carry out the action; and
  • a simple, pervasive means of implementation or strategy to express or tell different parts of the narrative in various forms across the product line and through media/advertising/communications.

Yet, in the retail sector, the brands that use this type of strategy to define, communicate, and sell their products tend to be more niche, purposefully appealing to a small, designated market segment.

For example, British cycling brand Rapha, which sells high-end cycling clothing, as well as a full-color magazine, art work, and other accessories, is centered around the pain and beauty of cycling. Rapha's brand concept is unified around recounting the history and glorious suffering of the cyclist's experience as an epic narrative.

Each Rapha clothing label contains a meticulously-written narrative of a legendary cyclist or event in cycling history, which gives the product an exclusive feel, as if the purchaser is himself or herself an active participant in the ongoing cycling story.

Rapha have now extended their narrative into the world in an applied sense with the opening of cycling cafes in London, New York, and elsewhere (see a recent Financial Times article on these cafes), providing cyclists with a brand experience and lessons in the history of the sport as they grab a coffee after a long ride.

Many international retailers make use of video storytelling in a trailer fashion to market upcoming or new products. Many also do indeed try to make use of narrative techniques in their marketing and branding.

However, few larger brands, especially in the luxury sector, have been able to do this consistently. This is perhaps because of the problem of diffuseness and the need to distinguish between product lines. But, it could also be simply that the principle behind narrative marketing does not make sense for all companies. Traditional marketing techniques, putting advertising and communications behind the brand label and letting the brand sell itself, work wonders for big names like Tiffany's, Burberry, and Louis Vuitton.

This is not to say that a picture, the central focus of all print advertising, cannot itself tell a story. But, the ability to tell and link this type of story to a product as a part of a cohesive marketing strategy can be a difficult thing to do, particularly to relate this story across all aspects of your business model.

The proliferation of online media offers almost endless possibilities for marketing and communications. Yet, focus, clear presentation, and a simple message are critical. Consumers are inundated and thus can grow easily bored. Many good ideas are lost, albeit unintentionally, in an ever-escalating mire of images, words, and concepts. There also is a lot of sloppiness at all levels of marketing and advertising, and a lack of core attention to good writing and consistency of concept. (Word nerds: how many typos a day do you find on commercials and throughout the web?)

Despite all of this advice, the key thing about marketing and communications, of course, is audience. I am a literary person, so adore the idea of narrative marketing for its use of storytelling techniques. Yet, this approach obviously is not appropriate for all audiences.

So, now I ask readers---What draws you to a brand or an advertising concept? An attractive visual or a material incentive (such as a sale)? Are there any brand marketing campaigns that you find particularly memorable? What drew you to them?

07 July 2010

The Death of a Poet (and Why You Should Care)

8 July 2010 is the 188th anniversary of the death of Percy Bysshe Shelley.

While most people hopefully may encounter at least one of his poems (perhaps
"Ozymandias") over the course of their lives, it remains a question for many adults as to why they should continue to pay attention to the work of a writer like Shelley and literature in general once they get out of school.

To this end, why should anyone in 2010 care about the death of a poet who died almost 200 years ago?

Many stories surround
Shelley's death, largely due to the dramatic and exaggerated account of the poet's body being found with his brains oozing out his ears with a copy of Keats' works in his pocket in Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron by Edward James Trelawney (a figure who is nearly as interesting as the poets themselves).

To add dimension to Shelley's story, as any undergraduate level course or book on Romanticism may tell you, he authored at least two poems ["Alastor; or the Spirit of Solitude" (1815) and "The Triumph of Life" (1822)] centered around a poet who ultimately meets his death in a boat.

While reading biography into literature is the downfall--and indeed great fear--of many critics, Shelley's works and his life nevertheless have an odd (and often deliberate) parallelism. Some of this biographicalness, if you will, is self-styled authorial fame-seeking (of the famous
Byron portrait in Turkish garb I'm-an-exotic-artist-adventurer-way). But, some of this biography-in-literature, of course, reflects the strange irony by which life frequently imitates art.

For my own interest as a researcher, Shelley's works represent a relatively rare example of self-taught interdisciplinarity in writing. That is, he is a writer who finds unique ways to adapt ideas from other disciplines, in this case, music, into literature with no practical training but sustained exposure as a listener and reader.

To address the question I posed at the beginning, people should care and occasionally try to read a work or two by a dead writer (yes, even a dead British poet like Shelley) due to the odd, enlightening, and frankly fascinating things you can learn, even about writers (like Shakespeare) about whom you've read a million times. So, in short, read out of simple curiosity.

For instance, in March 2010, The Guardian reported that a researcher had unearthened a lost memoir by Claire Clairmont (Shelley's half sister and mother of Byron's illegitimate daughter, Allegra) that directly contradicted everything else that she had ever written about Shelley and Byron. This newly discovered memoir, written when Claire was an older lady, called Shelley a "monster," partially for his treatment of women. This "revelation" sent many scholars into a tizzy, defending Shelley and all of Claire's previous support of the poet.

For my part, I was fascinated by the continued interest in the Shelley circle and by the fact that it remains possible to read something new about them. That said, I was far from shocked by Claire's accusations, both because she was old when she wrote the document and because it is hardly surprising to learn of an act of misogyny in the 19th century.

In an age where knowledge and language have descended with purpose into ephemerality, multiplicity, and truncation, there suddenly seems room, almost inexhaustibly, for people to rediscover literature, history, philosophy, and good writing. Even while it seems as if the very fabric of language and books themselves is being unravelled. After all, aren't writers the main source of #quotes on Twitter?

The advent of electronic media obviously has created a revolution of substance in terms of archiving and preserving history and literature as well as educating people through the plethora of information now at one's fingertips.

Yet, as I'm sure others have observed, I think that we see a quieter revolution slipping in with the concept of knowledge as direct marketing. In a sense, when we Tweet, post a link, or write in a blog, we're directing people to ideas or something in a targeted fashion because we find it relevant, important, or interesting. This adds purpose to the acts of navigation and reading, among a chaos of information now available in an instant.

In this way, I find blogs, Twitter, and other information resources comforting as I observe old ideas becoming new ideas to someone as he or she reads them again or for the first time. Thus, Shelley's death has the potential to become a significant event for anyone who may not have ever had the chance to read "To a Skylark" or "Ode to the West Wind."

What do you think? Even if you've been exposed to the poetry of this era, how do you think literature remains relevant in an age of social media? Can social media actually improve learning and student learning outcomes in this way?

This is the third in a column appearing regularly about literature and my forthcoming book, Shelley and the Musico-Poetics of Romanticism.

27 June 2010

The Problems with Soggy Manuscripts

Many debates in literary scholarship concern issues surrounding the interpretation and history of manuscripts, particularly as they inform understanding of what authors write and why they write.

This a particular problem in establishing version control and thus textual authority for literary works, particularly when different copies of the same works exist in one or multiple hands.

Happily, academics have come to consensus about some of these issues, which are frequently published in the form of established "critical editions" of literary works.

Unfortunately, as a scholar who studies the relations between Romantic-era poetry and music, manuscripts and their interpretation continues to cause problems. Indeed, rumors abound in relation to a poem by Shelley called variously "An Indian Girl's Song" or "An Indian Serenade."

Percy Bysshe Shelley died on 8 July 1822 when his boat capsized off the coast of Livorno in Italy. When his body and boat were found, several of his notebooks were also recovered, including one containing a version of the poem that begins "I arise from dreams of thee." On the back of damaged leaf containing a draft of this poem, Shelley appears to have jotted some words from the Italian aria "Ah perdona" from Mozart's opera La Clemenza di Tito. From this evidence, many biographers and scholars have concluded that Shelley intended his poem to be set to the music of this aria.

Knowing the poet's interest in music and passion for Mozart since early 1817, I find it entirely probable that Shelley did, in fact, intend for this poem to be set to this duetto from Mozart's Tito. The poem fits the music relatively well. I also argue elsewhere that he had similar intentions (though did not yet have the musical setting) for his lyrical drama "Prometheus Unbound."

Nevertheless, as a reader, critic, and music lover, I am highly interested in the assumption that leads one to the conclusion that this poem must go with Mozart's aria because the poet wrote the Italian lyrics on a page close to this draft of this poem in the manuscript. How do we know this?

The poem "I arise from dreams of thee" has a complicated manuscript history. Shelley, who famously left his first wife Harriet to run away with the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, had many semi-erotic relationships with women over the course of his life. It appears that Shelley "spontaneously" wrote several versions of this poem (with different titles) for several different women, including one written in 1819 for a young Englishwoman named Sophia Stacey, which did not include any reference to an aria by Mozart, and one written two years later for Jane Williams, who was perhaps the intended recipient of the soggy version that washed up on the shore with Shelley after his death. Since there are variances between these different versions over the course of more than a year, it has proved troublesome for scholars trying to pinpoint the "original" version of this poem and then, in turn, determine whether or not it was to be set to music.

As renowned scholars Donald Reiman, Michael O'Neill, and others have noted, it seems certain that Shelley originally wrote the poem in 1819 for Sophia Stacey after hearing her sing at a gathering of friends. In addition to the popularity of Tito on the European and British stage from 1810-1825, "Ah perdona" was a popular piece of drawing room music at time, which meant that Shelley likely knew the song well. In this way, it seems possible that he originally wrote the poem for Sophia Stacey with the intention of her singing it to this popular aria by Mozart.

Yet, again, coming to the conclusion that "I arise from dreams of thee" is meant to be set to this particular song is partially conjecture. Educated conjecture based on interpretation of primary sources, both from Shelley's own hand as well as others who knew him. But, conjecture nonetheless.

However, what interests me most about the soggy manuscript is what it may reveal about a writer's impulse to have one of his poems set to music. What did music mean to Shelley in 1819 and then in 1821? Shelley was no musician, though fell in love with music due to various experiences from late 1816 to 1817. Yet, it does not appear that he ever wrote a poem for his wife, Mary, with the intention of having it set to music, even though he wrote several for other, arguably more musically-inclined, women.

These are some of the questions I investigate in the book I'm finishing. I am a literary critic interested in maintaining a historical perspective while closely reading the works themselves. This approach, of course, necessitates interpretation, conjecture, and informed decision making based on a variety of sources, including soggy manuscripts.

And so the job of a researcher goes on....

This is the second post in a regular column appearing about art and my forthcoming book, Shelley and the Musico-Poetics of Romanticism.

For more on Shelley and opera, see--Jessica Quillin, "'An assiduous frequenter of the Italian opera': Shelley's Prometheus Unbound and the opera buffa," Romantic Circles: Praxis Series.

* Image above is from Fair Copy Manuscripts of Shelley's Poems in European and American Libraries, ed. Donald Reiman and Michael O'Neill, London: Taylor & Francis, 1997.

20 June 2010

Art, Unanticipated

Many people say that art is most powerful when it makes you think. I would take that further. Art is at its most powerful when you don't know you're being affected or, rather, when you don't expect to be affected.

I am writing a book about a British poet,
Percy Bysshe Shelley, whose work I argue was greatly affected by his experiences with music. (For example, see "The keen stars were twinkling.") In Shelley's time, poetry was arguably more popular than music because writers and critics, many of whom were the paparazzi of their day, published the latest gossip, news, and political ideas in verse.

Poetry still does this in many ways (there is a lot of amazing work being written). Yet, it does not capture the public imagination the same way that music does. I am not here to declare the death of poetry, but rather its continual rebirth through its relation with other art forms. Poetry, in a very real sense, is everywhere--in song lyrics, advertisements, and magazines.

By corollary, art, in a very real sense, is everywhere. We are surrounded by it, from the statue you drive by everyday to the song you can't get out of your head all morning.

So, why does the very subject of art, particularly poetry and opera, cause people to groan or turn away in disinterest? Without pretention, I would argue that it's simply because people are no longer conscious of when they're experiencing art because it is so much a fundamental part of our daily landscape.

Art can be clever. Sneaky art: an unexpected experience with the creative expression of the human imagination that sticks with you. Obviously relative to an individual, but it's still art.

Here's an example. My guilty pleasure is the show "So You Think You Can Dance." But, the routines are sometimes forgettable, even if impressive in skill. However, one routine from the 2008-2009 season, choreographed to Pit Bull's "Calle Ocho (I Know You Want Me)," was literally the most riveting expression of human physicality I've ever seen--on television or the stage. (The
YouTube video of this routine doesn't do it much justice.) The combination of music, choreography, and dance presented a scene with an almost primitive energy that was mesmerizing. The screen went dark and the dancers took off. Incredible.

Having seen Pavarotti as Cavaradossi in Tosca and Domingo in Pagliacci, I cite this random television experience as another moment of artistic awe. It was sneaky art, totally unexpected from American television on a random Wednesday, but art nonetheless.

Look around you. You might find art.

This is the first in a column that will appear regularly on Mondays about art and my experiences finalizing my book, Shelley and the Musico-Poetics of Romanticism.

16 June 2010

Remembering Stravinsky

On the occasion of Stravinsky's 128th birthday, it seems fitting to reflect briefly on his contributions to music and his famous affair with legendary fashion designer Coco Chanel.

This month American audiences have a chance to get a glimpse into a chapter in Igor Stravinsky's life with Sony Classics' release of Jan Kounen's film "Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky," much lauded at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. Although the film has come under some criticism for lacking depth and sufficient background development to situate the events behind the affair between these two celebrated historical figures, director Kounen, in collaboration with author Greenhalgh, on whose book Coco and Igor the movie is based, nonetheless seem to have created a film that provides a fitting visual and dramatic landscape to accompany the composer's music, which understandably dominates the soundtrack.

Stravinsky, who was born in Russia on 17 June 1882 and established his career in Switzerland, Paris, and then the United States, firmly believed in the autonomy and self-sufficiency of music in the modernist tradition. In his book Expositions and Developments, he famously commented that when a composer writes music, he only apprehends "the contour of the form, for the form is everything. He can say nothing whatever about meanings."

Ironically, Stravinsky is celebrated for the rhythmic energy and musical intensity of his works. This is especially true in ballets like The Rite of Spring (whose premiere was the scene of the most famous riot in musical history), which he composed under the tutelage of Sergei Diaghilev, the founder and impresario of the Ballets Russes.

While he is known for his ballet music, Stravinsky also wrote 5 operas, including The Rake's Progress, for which W.H. Auden partially wrote the libretto, and The Flood, a 7-part work written for television that aired on CBS on 14 June 1962.

Although like Chanel, Stravinsky was famous as a revolutionary in his day, the significance of his contributions to music and musical aesthetics becomes more remarkable as we realize the lingering impact of his style, theories, and attention to rhythmic structure.

Happy Birthday, Stravinsky!

"Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky" (2009) recently opened in New York and will be opening soon at Landmark Theatres around the US.

Poetry and Curriculum

Why is it useful for students to learn about poetry?

A former teacher asked me this question this afternoon. This led to a rather heated debate about the utility of teaching and assessing students in poetry and the overall function of poetry in the landscape of language arts curriculum.

The teacher argued that poetry draws student attention away from the task of learning to read and interpret prose, which is the most common form of writing that students will encounter in throughout their lives.

With all the renewed attention to core skills training as a part of the new Common Core Standards, she pointed out that valuable teaching resources—and thus money—are better spent focusing on improving basic reading and writing before paying so much attention to higher level cognitive tasks like reading comprehension.

This point of view floored me. I could not and cannot fathom teaching students of any age how to read without introducing them to the myriad of ideas that are expressed through verse form. Never mind that so much of poetry is arguably more accessible than prose for its simplicity of form and stark presentation of ideas.

Ever since I scribbled my first haiku at the age of 9, I have been drawn to poetry for its creative form and for the endless possibilities of expression it allows. Somehow, it has always seemed to me an easier way to express core ideas and feelings.

Yet, this teacher’s attentiveness to the practicality of specific parts of English/Language Arts curriculum reminds me of the fundamental nervousness that is now a seemingly permanent part of the education environment.

If teachers and administrators are increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of teaching anything that is not mandated within a prescribed curricular framework or is not specifically geared towards test preparation, then I have to wonder what we are doing to students.

Isn’t an instructional system supposed to be like a business plan in laying out 1, 2, and 5 year goals for student learning outcomes rather than a voice-enabled GPS system telling teachers where to turn and drive?

The second a former English teacher tells me that she thinks that teaching students poetry and its fundamental elements of grammar, syntax, and the differences between literal and figurative language—in other words, what I consider the building blocks of human communication, then I think we’ve got a problem.

So, I have to ask, with districts in many states, such as Florida, determining the cost and, therefore, relevance of the arts and other elective subjects in schools, are current efforts to focus on fundamental skills pushing creativity out the window?

09 June 2010

Blogging and the Voice of Fashion

There has been much mention since the CFDA awards on Monday evening of Marc Jacobs’ thank you to bloggers (and indeed everyone else). From the precocious Tavi Gevinson to the frequently discussed Bryan Boy, after whom Marc Jacobs indeed named a bag, bloggers have established a solid presence for themselves as a serious fashion commentators, bringing new scope and external verification to fashion criticism that can so often fall just south of insularity.

As a writer, I only recently have begun to explore applying my knowledge of fashion to my job. This was half because my previous job had nothing to do with fashion and half because the fashion industry has always seemed, well, purposefully impenetrable.

It is somewhat paradoxical that fashion, from a certain point of view, exists at the opposite end of the spectrum of the academic world in which I’ve spent much of my life. Although fashion, literature, and cultural criticism meet in the pages of Vogue and in my own research on aesthetics, fashion can seem pure pleasure, unnecessary, yet alluring.

Supporting my own argument about importance of maintaining the élan of luxury, the glamour of the fashion world, like Hollywood, is what makes it compelling and thus is a fundamental of industry marketing.

Fashion is a complicated mixture of art, design, and craftsmanship. Haute couture, for example, is, by its very nature, high art because it represents an individuated concept, whether that concept is designed for a specific consumer or is meant as a self-styled artifact, existing only on the runway.

Yet, as any fan of “Project Runway” can tell you, an undeniably important component of fashion is also to sell—to make clothes that someone somewhere wants to wear. Even the most abstract designer is keenly aware of that at least some part of their work has to involve a functional component, if he or she wants to make money from his or her own creations.

For example, when asked by the Financial Times a few weeks ago what he thought of the new Vuitton Bond St store, Marc Jacobs commented that he didn’t know what it looked like, stating that his job as Creative Director is “to create products,” rather than be concerned about store design.

But, when it comes to marketing—which is an essential component of fashion writing, fashion has to have the right balance of art, glamour, and functionality. Whether on the runway or on the high street, a fashion brand has to give its collections and point of view an almost linguistic quality, creating a narrative glamour for itself in order to separate itself from other brands. For most brands, this is something that has to be constantly reinvented, even while maintaining a consistent voice in the marketplace.

So, what does this all have to do with blogging?

Until recently, many fashion designers, particularly luxury brands, have eyed the internet with skepticism as the wild west of business due to its lack of regulation and its all-inclusive critical environment. In this way, some fashion journalists think that we’re witnessing the fashion world embracing the inevitable by seeing designers inviting bloggers to fashion shows. Others think that this is new age for fashion and fashion criticism, as blogging makes everyone a critic and opinions instantly accessible to a mass market.

From a certain point of view, the idea of blogging as a new front in fashion criticism impacts the luxury sector most particularly because it makes the inaccessible suddenly more familiar and thus arguably less desirable.

Yet, from an artistic and even marketing perspective, the proliferation of educated, market-savvy, passionate commentators from an array of backgrounds seems nothing but positive because it does what all art should do—it gets people talking.

Even if a sale cannot be directly attributed to a blog mention, the sheer fact that blogging makes it possible for informed and innovative content—whether from a teenager or an editor from In Style—to get noticed on an international level keeps fashion and fashion writing interesting, particularly as it opens up the possibility for new designers or innovative collections to make their mark more quickly.

These are hardly new points, of course. Yet, from a sheer academic point of view, this actually represents a seismic shift in the field of aesthetics, as the lens of criticism about beauty and culture continues to widen.

02 June 2010

Luxury and the Flagship Store

The recent opening of the Louis Vuitton flagship store on Bond Street in London is symptomatic of a trend among fashion houses to establish a more permanent presence in influential cities around the world. Now a model that seems half brand marketing and half conceptual art, the idea of a “flagship” or large scale atélier has evolved significantly since the foundation of the first luxury fashion houses over 150 years ago.

Yet, as we enter the second decade of the 21st century, what does the concept of a flagship store represent, particularly in the multi-country model that many companies adopt as well as in the face of an increasingly digital-oriented retail market for fashion?

It’s funny to think that the luxury goods giant Vuitton had its origins in humble suitcase design. Louis Vuitton was a licensed layetier, or travelling case manufacturer, who was hired by Napoleon III to design luggage for his wife, Empress Eugénie. From this base, Vuitton began marketing his label from his studio on Rue Neuve des Capucines in Paris in the mid-1850s and eventually opened his first store on Oxford Street in London in 1885. The Vuitton building on the Champs-Elysées, which was spectacularly renovated in 2005, did not open until 1913, by when the company had become the largest travel goods manufacturer in the world.

Vuitton, then, have come full circle, launching their “most luxurious store to date” on Bond Street in London, only a few streets away from their first retail space. But, what does this new store signify for the brand and for the luxury market in general? The 2005 refurbishment of the Champs-Elysées store established an updated presence, confirming the brand’s permanent position on the elite roster of luxury brand stores on what is arguably the most famous shopping street in the world.

A recent article from the BBC suggested that the depreciation of the Euro has decreased costs and increased sales for luxury goods manufacturers whose primary business is overseas in the United States and Asia. As the BBC points out, this trend suggests that part of the impetus behind the choice of London for Vuitton’s new flagship store is to target the tourist and ex-pat market, which continues to grow.

Yet, almost in contrast to any sensible market-driven purpose, the new Vuitton store has started a quiet media frenzy on its own simply because it’s new, gorgeous, and Vuitton. The name, not surprisingly, sells as much as its product, presentation, and store location. Why? It is luxury or haute couture, we say, which represents the culmination of money, power, beauty, and fame. In short, luxury is a tantalizing, unreachable, yet desirable aesthetic.

Jean Bergeron, former president of the Comité Colbert in France, defines luxury as “part dream, but its reality is excellence…. Yes, the superfluous is essential and luxury is the stuff of dreams. Dreams are what create all human adventures. It is not money, but dreams.” (Translated from a brochure from L'Agence Regionale d'Information Strategique et Techologique de Paris)

Of course, the popular conception of haute couture as representing all luxury fashion is a misnomer. In fact, the French actually own the rights to the term haute couture. Technically, it refers to custom-order fashion, as opposed to ready to wear (prêt-a-porter). In France, to qualify as haute couture, a fashion house has to meet a set of qualifications and then be approved by the Chambre de commerce et d'industrie de Paris in order to call themselves true artisans of haute couture.

Technicalities aside, then, the new Vuitton store is a further embellishment, in a way, in the fleurissance or flowering of its international brand. The concept of a flagship store is a living cultural artifact: a way for luxury brands to make their mark, setting up a type of cultural permanence. This seems comforting in the face of so much impermanence in the virtual world established by online media. Even the multiplicity of flagships, i.e. a company having “flagship” stores in select cities across the world, is arguably a quiet form of cultural diplomacy, even if from a profit-driven standpoint.

So, the next time you’re in airport duty-free or at a shopping mall or on the high street and spy the characteristic Vuitton “LV” logo, think of luxury and admire its sheer necessity.

26 May 2010

Common Core Arts Standards

How are the new initiatives in standards-based reform, particularly the Common Core Standards, affecting the arts and other parts of the education sector? Is this national standardization the right approach towards curriculum and assessment for arts education?

The release of the
Common Core Standards for Math and English by the National Governors’ Association and the Council for Chief State School Officers as a part of the blueprint for reauthorization of No Child Left Behind (Elementary and Secondary Education Act) has impacted the way that local, state, and national governing boards and other organizations consider the question of how to address the problems of our education system.

blog posted on 25 May by Lynn Tuttle, director of arts education for the Arizona Department of Education, summarizes the findings of a meeting held on 11-12 May between the State Education Agency Directors of Arts Education (SEADAE) and key arts education stakeholders. The group assembled voted overwhelmingly to pursue assembling a new set of national arts education standards called the Common Core State Standards for the Arts.

Since 1994, teachers across the arts sector have followed the voluntary
National Arts Standards, a document formulated by the Consortium of National Arts Education Associations. The document outlines recommendations for fundamental arts learning objectives and outcomes expected of every student in the US K-12 education system. However, the current National Arts Standards were established as guidelines to “provide a vision of competence and educational effectiveness,” but allow for freedom in implementation at the state and local levels.

According to Ms. Tuttle, the next steps for the stakeholders involved in the current meetings is to survey teachers, teaching arts, local arts organizations, and other institutions to learn their concerns and priorities.

As a writer who supports the arts and education sectors, I find the current drive towards a national-based set of educational standards an interesting facet of the education reform movement.

From an assessment standpoint, in spite of the drive for personalization in large-scale state assessments, which should in part produce comprehensive tests tailored to each state, educators, administrators, and other parties face problems of setting their own standards based on the national norms as well as enforcing their own accountability system.

The issue at stake with our current education system boils down to the degrees of conformity with or variance in implementation of the rules set in place by No Child Left Behind. In this way, having better standards, or at least establishing a common grounding by which to gauge student learning and expected student learning outcomes, seems a solid way to move discussion forward and to give educators and other stakeholders the tools and vocabulary they need to begin to tackle problems of failing schools, high dropout rates, teacher retention, and college/career readiness.

Yet, for the arts, I wonder how much debate this will create in terms of the necessity of flexibility in program design and evaluation for a host of reasons, including artistic freedom, demographics, and funding. It is my hope that the renewed emphasis on college/career readiness help stimulate funding for arts programs in schools to help us prepare the next generation of performing artists, musicians, fashion designers, arts educators, administrators, and policymakers.

In all, I am encouraged by this attention to arts education and look forward to seeing how these standards come together.

25 May 2010

Essay: Confidence

I find myself musing this morning on confidence. I have just started my own consultancy and am trying to use social media (i.e. this blog, Twitter) to market my business.

This all puts me in the public sphere, inasmuch as my business is me (metonymically, for we literary nerds), which is exciting but unnerving. This makes me wonder about confidence and what it means.

A contact, to whom I am grateful for my improving fluency on social media, suggested to me that the rules of online social etiquette are more flexible, yet brutal. As many of you know, people on Twitter will eagerly follow or unfollow you at will.

Confidence, it seems, is key to navigating through the mire of the world of communications and, in turn, the world at large.

It has always perplexed me that the word “confidence” means both “self-assurance” and “trust or assurance in someone else.” (There’s that trusty dictionary again.) But, for me, the whole concept of confidence as believing in oneself has connotations of independence and self-reliance that seem antithetical to any definition that includes putting trust in other people.

All of my favorite characters from literature, history, film, and opera exude confidence, though in vastly different ways.

Take Tosca from Puccini’s opera of the same name, for instance. A textbook diva (literally, as a singer), she is fiery, complex, and determined. She acts with confidence and self-assurance. When given the chance, she stabs the evil Scarpia without thinking. Out of superstition, she then sets up a Catholic funeral around his dead body, complete with crucifix and candles. Tosca is indubitably impulsive and passionate, is she truly confident? Yes, I would argue, but she is too vulnerable to be fully self-reliant so is confident only out of trust in her love for Cavaradossi.

In literature, there are heroines of all sorts who display a common independent will, alluring and confusing men, starting wars, or, shockingly, having their own opinions about the world. However, outside of a few exceptions (the works of Ayn Rand come to mind), literature is the same as opera in resolving confidence, particularly for women, as a combination of self-awareness and trusting in other people. If your life has no external reference, literature punishes you (e.g., Narcissus, the poet in Shelley’s “Alastor”).

But, then there’s Mozart’s Don Giovanni (on whom I’m giving a lecture on 3 July at 6:30 for Ashlawn Opera, if you happen to be in Charlottesville, VA). Self-reliant, self-made, he is fearless. Even being haunted by the ghost of the Commendatore he killed doesn’t seem to bother him. Don Giovanni is confident in a defiantly self-assured way and is, of course, sent to hell for his arrogance. Yet, he does so laughing all the way, sometimes with a bikini-clad hell-babe with him (as in a Royal Opera House version I saw in 2002).

Yet, if art is for the living, what of consequences? Don Giovanni realized his own mortality and decided to live his life as his own. He was confident. He had money and no responsibilities (Leporello doesn’t count), but he also fully accepted his ultimate fate.

Didacticism aside, all I can say is that we should all be a bit more fearless and a little less superstitious in our confidence. Being part of a human network is fabulous, of course. Yet, there is some logic to striving to be a happy human first and then networking.

Confidence, then, only without apology for the self-assurance that makes you curious and moves you forward.

21 May 2010

Essay: New Beginnings

I have been obsessively highlighting dictionaries since I was around 8. To me, the dictionary is like an enormous storybook, full of secret messages and historical intrigue.

It is an adventure to discover the interconnectivity of words and, in turn, ideas. I find it fascinating to uncover the common origins of words, particularly when the meanings refer to completely disparate things.

But, mostly, I love the way words sound. My favorite word in middle school was “prodigious.” It seemed a regal word, as it smoothly rolls off the tongue with its combination of soft consonants and vowels.

To me, taking words and organizing them into sentences is somewhat the essence of being: it is our method of control in a chaotic world yet its fundamental value lies in expression and its relation to thought. Words are the building blocks of how we express what we understand about the world, ourselves, and each other.

Like music, words are the most powerful when we allow ourselves to be moved by them, get lost in them, and allow them to directly stimulate our thoughts and imagination. According to Romantic poets like Wordsworth and Shelley (whom you'll end up hearing a lot about if you stick with me), this is the moment at which artistic inspiration occurs.

This passion for language, art, and learning is why I’ve started this blog and why I recently started my own company.

I’ve seen too many people, including myself, floundering in professional and personal limbo. Why? They feel trapped and therefore unmotivated. The job market is tough. But, I firmly believe that people, both children and adults, are happiest when they exist in an environment that encourages continual learning, curiosity, and individual expression.

Finding your outlet is possible even within the confines of an extremely stressful job or life situation. Sometimes, you just have to step back and evaluate what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and what it means.

In my mind, everything comes down to messaging. We live in a world of language that is driven by content and delivery. When you fire off a quick text to a friend, you’re taking an idea and presenting it to your friend in a particular way. When you send off a “no” to the wedding invite of your ex-boyfriend, you’re making a decision and communicating it.

For professionals, the importance of messaging is why resumes are critical (see my article on multiple resumes). For individuals, we message ourselves, our beliefs, and our intentions every time we say, write, or gesture anything.

This is all what makes words fundamental but also dangerous. Drive your words carefully: they are powerful.