The internet likes to be offended and it likes to be outraged. This should be old hat by now. There are whole sites dedicated to expressing snark and indignation at outrageous things like a hipster version of Andy Rooney. Sometimes the outrage is justified and other times not. The whole internet media economy seems designated on finding stuff that is outrageous, immoral, and anti-ethical.
This week got an early start on the outrage thanks to the Urban Outfitters vintage finds website. Urban Outfitters decided to sell a vintage sweatshirt for 130 dollars. The problem was that the sweatshirt said Kent State was in a faded red and splattered with something that looked like red paint. The internet decided that this was supposed to be evocative of the notorious Kent State Massacre in 1970 when members of the Ohio National Guard opened fire on students protesting against the Vietnam War. Urban Outfitter’s quickly issued this non-apology:
Urban Outfitters sincerely apologizes for any offense our Vintage Kent State Sweatshirt may have caused. It was never our intention to allude to the tragic events that took place at Kent State in 1970 and we are extremely saddened that this item was perceived as such. The one-of-a-kind item was purchased as part of our sun-faded vintage collection. There is no blood on this shirt nor has this item been altered in any way. The red stains are discoloration from the original shade of the shirt and the holes are from natural wear and fray. Again, we deeply regret that this item was perceived negatively and we have removed it immediately from our website to avoid further upset.
The internet and my friends have been going back and forth on whether to declare this statement BS or not.
I have a personal view that the Internet is turning everything into an “all troll” economy. Rather then expose people to a diversity of opinions and ways of viewing issues and the world, the Internet seems to further cement Bill Bishop’s idea of the Big Sort and that people are just entrenching themselves among like-minded people instead of having a diverse view of friends. The Internet does not teach nuance. The Internet teaches people phrases like “I can’t even” or to express themselves with a GIF of Captain Picard shaking his head when someone expresses an opinion that is beyond the pale. Beyond the Pale seems to often equal “has a different opinion than I do.” The Internet often seems filled with people who are shocked, shocked to discover that not everyone agrees with them on every issue. I think that the many companies are aware of how the internet likes to be outraged and take advantage accordingly. Urban Outfitters is a mass market company but they try to have a kind of “edgy” and downtown persona. I would not be surprised if they had a dedicated social media marketing team that knows how to play the Internet like a violin. This is a kind of school of thought that declares no publicity to be bad publicity.
The argument that this was a stupid mistake is that this was sold in their vintage shop. It is also entirely plausible that a young purchaser found it in a Salvation Army somewhere, thought it was the right-level of distressed/vintage and bought it and then upmarked the price to 130 dollars. There is a big industry for vintage clothing but it takes a lot of patience and skill to find the good stuff. I usually don’t buy vintage clothing because most of the stuff you can find in the guy’s section at a vintage/used clothing store looks like it came from your grandfather’s moth-ball filled attic and hasn’t been worn since sometime before the Carter administration. There are people with the patience to search through the stuff and then mark up the price and extreme amount and sell it though.
There is also the issue that people in fashion do consider themselves to be artists and sometimes artists like to offend for the sake of offending or to shock the consciousness of polite society. Rimbaud’s rallying cry for the decadent poets was “Eparter la bourgeoisie.” The issue with fashion is that it seems to be a lot like modern art and can often offend or shock people for merely existing in a “you paid what for that!” kind of sense. Fashion like everything else has a language and that language can often intentionally and unintentionally work to exclude people. Fashion also seems to be an area where people have very strong opinions on price points and very strong and firm opinions on people who will go over those price points in spending money on clothing. I’ve certainly gotten into heated debates on this site about what is and what is not an acceptable amount of money to spend on a given piece of clothing. A lot of fashion also seems to get criticized with a very glib “my kid can do that” kind of attack in the same way people often criticize Jackson Pollack and Mark Rothko and Cy Twombly artworks. A good example of this would be Maison Martin Marigela paint splattered sneakers (1).
I like clothing and I like modern art. I consider clothing to be art you can wear on a day to day basis and an expression of your outward personality. The issues whether fashion or not is offensive crosses a lot of difficult socio-cultural-economic issues. It is easy to see why the Urban Outfitters sweatshirt is offensive because it easily references a very tragic episode in modern American history. The fashion industry can also send rather horrible messages especially to women about body health and imagery. Yet I will rebel against the idea that expensive or interesting fashion should not exist just like I rebel against the idea that anyone can paint like Jackson Pollock or Matisse and that modern art is a sham. I’ve written about it before but I reject and flee from the overly romantic work that many people consider to be pleasing. Besides being false, I find it boring. I don’t care about images of knights bowing before beautiful shield maidens and princesses because it shows a false world that never existed and it just seems like diabetically inducing treacle (2). Jackon Pollock’s splatter paintings are highly planned and so are Martin Margiela’s paint splattered sneakers. The designers thought very hard about what colors to use and what splatters should go where. Other interesting things about fashion are the use of materials like making a pair of shoes out of natural leather that will develop their own unique patina over time. Art and clothing make the world interesting and I would find it rather depressing if everyone wore the same thing all the time and the only options were Chucks, New Balances, and some boring black or brown Rockports or various t-shirts and cargo pants combinations. There is something great with how playful a designer like Mark McNairy can be. Sometimes this playfulness requires being expensive thought.
I think the Urban Outfitters sweatshirt is in poor taste but I can’t tell how intentional that poor taste is or not. It is also a question about whether Urban Outfitters deserves the benefit of the artists defense of being able to offend for the sake to offend. Mapplethorpe photography and Harvey Darger’s outside art is offensive to many people but we also assume it comes from the heart and sincerity instead of from the profit motive of a major corporation like Urban Outfitters. There are plenty of artists who do make decent money off of their “offensive and shocking” art though and it seems hard to draw the line about who deserves the defense and who does not including among fashion designers and companies. Maison Martin Margiela is upscale and I find it a bit odd that he can be defended as art but more mass market urban outfitters cannot be.