Artist Spotlight: Ben Schneier

Dara Swan ‘21 interviewed Ben Schneier ‘21 about his art-making as part of a series for Method highlighting artists at Wesleyan and showcasing their work.

Below is a transcript of their conversation from 11/28/18.

Silk-screen print on recycled shirt from 2018.

Dara: When did you become interested in fashion?

Ben: I’ve been interested in fashion on a personal level, in terms of what I wear, from a pretty young age, I guess. I remember on the first day of kindergarten I had on a Pokemon hat, and the teacher was like, “You can’t have a hat on in class,” and I got into a huge beef with the teacher over wearing the hat, because I really fucked with Pokemon, and I was like, this is my hat and I want to wear it. In elementary school, I designed a couple of t-shirts for school organizations. When I think about it, I was kind of drawn to dabbling in designing t-shirts and shit because I did a lot of graphic design. So it kind of developed over time, but I didn’t really start taking it seriously until probably senior year of high school.

D: Why do you think you’re interested in fashion?

B: I think it’s a unique form of creative expression because, first of all, it’s omnipresent. I mean, your average person probably doesn’t go to a museum that often but every single person gets dressed (for the most part) every single day, so it’s something that you’re looking at constantly. You have no choice but to stare at fashion all day long every day, period.

Another thing that makes it unique is that it kind of strikes a balance between art and utility. It’s somewhere between architecture and fine art, I would say, in that there’s obviously a creative aspect to it, but there’s more things to take into account. It’s like a tool; it’s a useful thing. Like basic human needs: food, water, shelter. It’s a form of shelter for the body. So I guess what interests me about it is that it’s something creative, but there’s a more direct application and useful aspect to it in that it’s so democratic.

D: Fashion as an art form is complicated, especially because clothes are considered a necessity rather than purely an aesthetic form like many other arts. Clothes that are elevated to the status of art are often inaccessible and physically unwearable. Can you speak about the role of fashion as an art, and if or why it is important to be viewed as such? As you were saying, because fashion is such an everyday art, it’s not really appreciated. For example, there’s not a fashion major at a lot of schools that offer other art majors. So, do you think it’s important for fashion to be elevated to the status of an art, and why?

B: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with not looking at fashion as art. People are entitled to their opinion. Personally, I do look at it as art to a certain extent. I recently did some screen-printing, and initially I hadn’t sold any of it, and some people were kind of taken aback by that, like: “Oh my God, you’re not gonna sell it?” But if you’re a painter, every single painting that you make at age 19, you’re not gonna sell. There’s this idea that fashion needs to be commodified, just by its nature, and that it’s not art, which I think is kind of stupid. That being said, it’s not just fine art. I’d say it’s akin to architecture. That’s a good area of comparison. Because if you’re just thinking about aesthetics, then you’re just taking up space. When most people reach into their closet, their primary concern is, What is going to be comfortable on my body today? What is going to help me do what I need to do today, endure whatever weather conditions there are? And the aesthetics are usually a secondary condition. But in my opinion fashion is definitely on that tipping point between form and function, or aesthetic sensibilities and utility.

Did you say something about fashion that’s considered art being inaccessible?

D: I was saying that if you go to a museum for a fashion exhibit, it’s not featuring something you would actually wear, so that kind of breaks the idea of fashion being a utility, because then it’s more of a sculpture.

B: Yeah. For most major designers, what you see on the runway is the haute couture; there’s a gap between the haute couture and the ready-to-wear. There is inaccessibility in that, but that kind of comes down to whether you value art for inspiration’s sake. If you make things no one ever wears, it is just like a sculpture that serves to inspire. So I think there’s a lot of different directions you can take.

I do think inaccessibility in fashion is wack. It’s complicated because a lot of shit is expensive for a reason, but at the same time, the profit margin is kind of disgusting a lot of times, and it’s way bigger than it needs to be. I mean, personally, I don’t buy expensive clothing because I just don’t think it’s worth it most of the time. I guess it depends on how much money you have. And that might be hypocritical in the sense that, let’s say I end up making clothing and I want people to spend money on it.

Sometimes I see a t-shirt that’s over $100 dollars, and it’s just kind of disgusting, like, why? The material value of this is so low. But it’s honestly complicated because, if it’s art, then you wouldn’t just say, “This is just a painting, it’s only worth this much,” because there’s so much more that goes into it than the material value. I think if I were to move deeper into fashion, I would hopefully try to find a balance between the two. I do think accessibility is really important.

Red harness hoodie made in 2017.

D: What types of pieces have you made and what inspired them?

B: Over the past couple of years I’ve done a lot of experimentation, and I’ve made some prototypes, I guess. I took a pair of pants and I turned it into a tote bag. I’ve made two prototypes of that, and the second one was better than the first. I made one prototype of a hoodie with a square hole on the chest, and that’s something I would like to develop further as well. I think it’s important to just try things out. That being said, I don’t think you should show people everything. If you make a hundred songs, you could release all of them, but you should just release the ten best ones. I think there’s a pressure to constantly be productive and overshare.

Most recently I’ve done a collection of screen printed clothing, which to me is my strongest work to date. I collected a bunch of second-hand items of clothing and then created two silk screens and did prints on them with a variety of different placements and colors. The print was of a flyer for a spiritual consultant. The flyer is all over the New York City subway. If you’re from the city, you’ll recognize the image. I think the subway is a huge, huge thing for me. I took the subway everyday for a while, and I think in general growing up in New York City is a huge part of my identity and it bleeds into everything I make. To me, the subway is the most hyper-focused expression of what New York City means to me. It’s like, you take all of this and all of these people and literally push it and compress it into this one little metal box underground. And so for me that flyer is a really interesting piece of contemporary subway iconography.

I researched a lot of old subway advertisements and pictures of the subway and how it’s evolved. I really like the universality of it. Everyone rides the subway. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich; a lot of times that’s the fastest way to get from point A to point B. And so this is an image that almost anyone from the city could see and recognize.

What’s interesting is that, you might see the image everyday and not think about it or completely ignore it. It’s so omnipresent that it has just become a part of the everyday vocabulary of advertisements--these images that we’re inundated with--so you kind of just look over it. So I wanted to take that very specific reference and highlight it.

If the print can make people consider their environment more closely, then that would be great. And then also, with printing on second-hand items, I was thinking of how this flyer is just slapped on all these different advertisements, all these different images, and different people wearing different clothes see it, so I was thinking about how the print is almost slapped on all these different backgrounds, which reflects the diversity of imagery and people in the subway. Also reading the text of it, there’s a really positive message I like and an air of mystery….Obviously when someone else sees it there’s no way they would think of all that stuff, but even if someone thinks of one of those things then I’m happy with it.

Keano silk-screen print made in 2018.

Keano silk-screen print made in 2018.

D: Have you sold any of the things you have made, or are you uninterested in selling?

B: When I was a freshman in high school I had a line of t-shirts that I sold. I haven’t really sold stuff since then, I’ve mostly given it away or worn it myself. I mean, in the world we live in, you have to make money. Period. You can’t survive without money. I think all artists face the struggle of finding a middle ground between making a living and making art, and I think almost all artists have to focus on making a living which is just the reality of how life works. To put a lot of time into things that don’t have a direct financial gain is a privilege.

Fashion is something I’m considering as a career among a lot of other things….I love giving things away; it feels great, and sometimes I feel it’s a shame that we have to sell things, but you know, that’s the world we live in. It’s hard, just ‘cause once you start selling things, you start thinking about who you’re selling it to. Then, you start to think about what people are going to buy and you stop being able to focus on your own intent and have to start focusing on other people’s intent. But I think that making any form of art in a capitalist society, the struggle and the goal is to reconcile your own ideas and expression with where people are and what people want.

D: I just wonder, when do you know when you’ve worked on your craft to get to the point where you can sell it without it being like, making a business out of nothing? If you put off making that leap where you start selling, you might keep saying to yourself, “I’m not ready yet.” You might have to just start selling before you’ve think you’re good enough.

B: Yeah. I mean it’s a personal decision, and it’s not necessarily like you reach one tipping point. I might say, “This is something I’ve put a lot of time into and it’s something I want to sell,” and I can sell that thing and go another direction and work on something else. We’re also talking within the framework of being an independent artist, but you can also work for a company and design things for them and get a salary. And also, for most people, it’s just that they need to make money so they’re going to make money off of the things they put their time into. I think that’s really a personal decision. There’s one mentality that, if people are willing to pay for it, then it’s an equal trade. But I think that’s a personal decision. When you feel like you can charge people with integrity, then I think you should do it.

D: I just feel like that’s so hard. A lot of artists really question themselves, and the people who don’t question themselves are often not the best artists.

B: That’s a fact.

D: Moving forward, are there any trends that you like or dislike?

B: It’s hard for me to categorize any trend as good or bad. I feel like, honestly, most trends are fine….But once something becomes a trend, it kind of turns me off to it. Once something becomes ubiquitous, I don’t want it anymore. It’s also just all about context. I like the baggy clothes movement. It’s just comfortable. Anything that makes people more comfortable, I’m in favor of.

The thing about trends now is that they snowball so quickly. There’s no time for them to build up from the early adopters to the mass stage. I feel like with the internet, since images are proliferated so quickly, it used to take way longer for a trend to build up from like a tastemaker, underground thing, to like everyone wearing it. Now, it’s like that. One second you see some influencer wearing some shit, and then all of the sudden every fucking person has it. If you’re just wave riding then it’s wack, but if you genuinely like something you should wear it. Style is always going to be greater than fashion. Fashion is so fussy and temperamental, but style is something you can have for your entire life and that’s what you bring to the table.

D: Are there people who inspire you or that you consider to be fashion icons?

B: There aren’t any people whose style I want to emulate. There’s nobody where I’m like, “I love the way this person dresses so much and I want to dress like them.” I don’t fuck with that mindset. There are a lot of people who I kind of look up to or appreciate their approach to things. I interned over the summer at a screen-printing studio and brand called LQQK Studio, and my boss from there, Alex Dondero, I look up to a lot because he really has a high value of craft and high quality things, and he’s also a very giving person who has an ethos of wanting to share knowledge and resources. He has an interdisciplinary approach with other art forms, and just a people-oriented approach of connecting the people that I really appreciate. Philip Post, the creator of Dertbag, is one of the best at streetwear graphics, and I really appreciate his work. There are a lot of smaller artists like Posh God, Left Hand LA, Arvid Logan, Brendan Fowler, Tremaine Emory, Mordechai Rubenstein, and Studio Hagel. In terms of aesthetic inspiration, obviously I’m aware of what’s going on in fashion, but that’s not the seed for most of my ideas. Just kind of being observant in my everyday experience, taking in as much visual information as possible, that’s what inspires me aesthetically, whereas in the fashion world I just look at people whose approach I appreciate.

Also I would say, when I was younger and throughout my childhood, a lot of my personal style was inspired by rappers. From age seven, I was listening to rap music all the time and watching music videos all day, looking at album covers all day….there’s like 50 Cent in 2008 and then there’s Tyler the Creator when he first came out wearing Supreme and shit. So that’s something that has always been present in my life and where I drew inspiration. Now I dole inspiration from a much broader palette, but as a child, growing up that was probably my biggest source of fashion inspiration: rappers. I thought they were just the coolest people.

D: You mentioned a lot of what we call “streetwear,” and that’s a part of fashion that’s becoming a lot more elevated. What do you think of that?

B: I kind of have mixed feelings about it. In general, I’m always for democratization, I’m always for accessibility, so the fact that the fashion world is becoming way more accessible and that you don’t have to go to like Central Saint Martins anymore to become a designer, that’s a great thing. The opening of doors has been great, and streetwear has been one of the big vehicles for that….What I would say is that there’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t have a lot of care and thought put into it, or there’s a lot of stuff that’s made without much intention. People love to throw around words around like “designer” or “creative.” Honestly, it’s like everything in the information or the internet age. It’s good because it’s more accessible, and a lot of people who wouldn’t have the opportunity now have opportunity, so you get all these new, original ideas and it’s less stale. But at the same time, you just get inundated with bullshit and trash and it’s kind of oversaturated.

Ben Interview Keano Hawaiian Shirt.JPG

“To put a lot of time into things that don’t have a direct financial gain is a privilege.”

D: Do you have any pieces that are particularly meaningful to you, something that you’ve made or you feel represents you?

B: I have this ring that was my [late] grandfather’s that my mom gave me on my eighteenth birthday that I wear almost everyday, so that holds a significance for me. I mean it looks cool as fuck, but it has a meaning that’s beyond purely the aesthetic. There’s a red hoodie that I made as part of my senior thesis in high school, that and a t-shirt dress, that are kind of special to me….because that was really my first time thinking of fashion in an art sense. It took me a really, really long time to make them, and it took a lot of thought. I was learning how to sew as I was making them. So it was really a labor of love, and there was a lot of time put into it. Every time I make something I always want to be elevating, so right now obviously my favorite thing would be my screen-printing stuff I just made. But those are kind of important to me because they were just a big step for me personally.

D: What other mediums do you work with?

B: In an academic sense, drawing. I’m in architecture now. And I’m planning to major in sculpture. I’ve done a lot of graphic design. I’m self taught in that and sewing….[graphic design] obviously has a very direct connection to clothing, any graphic design on clothing, if not designed digitally, is going to be rendered digitally. What’s great about graphic design is you can make everything perfect….exactly how you want it: all the colors, the lines. Everything’s super clean.

D: My last question is: do you consider yourself to be an artist?

B: I mean, saying “I’m an artist” just sounds pretentious as fuck. I guess I see myself as more of a creative person than an artist, but from the outside, I’m going to college and planning to major in art, so I mean, yeah. Technically, yes. I am an artist. I do think of myself as an artist. I feel like I have a vision for shit and I like creative expression. I don’t think that has to be such a loaded term, pretty much everyone can be an artist.

This interview has compressed for clarity.

Artist Spotlight is an opportunity for the Wesleyan community to learn more about one another, to share our work and stories. If you would like to be featured in or involved with the series, please contact Dara Swan (dswan@wesleyan.edu) or Dayna Weissman (dweissman@wesleyan.edu).