Urban Outfitters have hit the headlines again for creating a sweatshirt that appears to be a blood-stained piece of clothing referencing a clash between police and students in the US in 1970 in which five students were shot dead. They’ve withdrawn the item and apologised.

Is it arguable that what divides Urban Outfitters and many artists in this one specific case is the absence of a manifesto?

Let me say first that I am absolutely not condoning their choice of subject. I’m simply applying Donald Rumsfeld’s idea that “there are unknown unknowns”.

Kent State (an institution famous, tragically, for the deaths of students in May 1970 in a clash with the National Guard over a potential escalation of the Vietnam War – and the theme of Urban Outfitters’ offending sweatshirt) was also the subject of a screenprint on paper in a run of 5,000 by British Pop artist Richard Hamilton, an artist that I greatly admire.  His most famous work is ‘Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?’  Here it is:

Just what is it

Hamilton’s Kent State image is savage.  It features a bloodied body, either dead or close to, being tended to by someone else – a fellow student or a paramedic perhaps. The image is stark and blurred – a screen grab from a sixties TV screen. It conveys the horror of the act in its stark depersonalised simplicity. It was controversial at the time but Hamilton had the support of the artistic and critical community.

Kent State comes up for auction at Christies and Sotheby’s occasionally. Here’s one on sale at a gallery for £450 http://rjalderson.com/editions/product/richard-hamilton-kent-state/.

Kent State Urban Outfitters Kent State


I am not comparing an apparently bloodied retro sweatshirt (seemingly dashed off by an in house designer, though, actually, who’s to say?) with the artistic choices and judgement exercised by Hamilton, but in a way the works (at least at superficial level) are similar. Both are shocking to anyone who knows about the Kent State killings (something that in and of itself make this seem like a somewhat elitist grab for notoriety – are we being played here?). Both are bloodied. Both are in the public realm. Both were made (in part) to sell.

Maybe what is missing from Urban Outfitters’ version (or from the designer responsible) is a manifesto or a declaration that this is art.

It’s a curious choice for controversy. I’m in my fifties and I know a fair bit about US history and pop art. A straw poll of my office yielded no one who could say with certainty that they had heard of the Kent State massacre.  Those with their hands on the levers of controversy tend to be more overt in their choice of controversial symbols, something that Urban Outfitters have been called out for (rightly in my view) several times before.

It’s London Fashion Week this week and there are stylists and designers flooding the courtyard at Somerset House, hoping to be photographed, spotted, employed. Their choices are largely – but not universally – tame, but no one could doubt that their intention at this point in their career is artistic expression. On the assumption that those making the range choices at Urban Outfitters started out in fashion school (I don’t know but I guess it’s a reasonable assumption), at what point did they leave their artistic judgement at home and become commercial designers – or is it just possible that that artistic flame is still alive and manifesting itself in some of the controversial output of this and other mass market retailers? The idea that there might be 2nd generation Warhol-equivalents with their knowing hands exploiting the levers of mass production is a beguiling one.

From a standing start, it doesn’t take a close textual reading of Herschel B Chip’s Theories of Modern Art (an excellent book) to figure out that a bold and legitimate artistic statement could be on display here. Certainly something with more resonance and profundity than the output of some of the current crop of commercially successful and collectible artists. You could easily shoehorn in a rationale no dissimilar to the Futurist, Dadaist or Vorticist manifestos.  We carry and inadevertently showcase the images of brutality with us on newspapers every day (ink on paper, of course – a more traditional artistic medium than a sweatshirt). In a way is this any different in its effect on the witnesses of our carriage? It isn’t much a leap to a sweatshirt, is it?  Aren’t we all, from time to time, billboards for atrocity?

Perhaps what Urban Outfitters ought to do is publish a manifesto against which to be judged. That might save them some criticism – or at least elevate it, unless there’s an artist in their midst, as invisible as Banksy and this media storm is what they were after all along.

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