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Shima Seiki
Shima Seiki

Carlo Volpi

Knit Blog

22nd September 2014, London

Freedom of speech

I started writing this entry a few weeks ago, when Zara pulled out their allegedly "Nazi inspired pyjamas" from the market, but in view of something that similarly happened to Urban Outfitters, I decided to add to the content of this article. For those of you who aren't aware of it, U.O. recently decided not to sell a sweater that many people found very offensive. The garment in question bears the logo of Kent State University and it has some random spot dyeing in red that some may associate to blood stains (I personally didn't, but I can see how some people may). A very tragic event actually happened at Kent State University: during a peaceful demonstration some students were shot to death by armed officers.

Marc Jacobs was also faced with public shame when one of his print designs was accused of being incredibly similar to an album cover of Neo Nazi band Skrewdriver. Very recently, a similar incident happened to Raj Shetye, an Indian photographer, who sparked outrage in his home country after publishing a piece of work entitled "Wrong Turn". The fashion shoot depicts a beautiful woman wearing designer clothes being groped by two handsome models on a bus.

© Urban Outfitters

I'm not going to question here whether it is correct or ethical to promote rape, racism or any other form of discrimination. Of course that is seriously wrong and anybody who appreciates life and has even the most basic range of emotions and isn't a psychopath will agree with my statement. What I'm more concerned about is the intention of the artist or the designer in making such statements, and how fair it is for the public opinion to jump to very quick and often superficial conclusions, disregarding the idea as simply crass, uneducated, offensive or even worse, racist.

Personally, I think Zara's pyjamas, Marc Jabobs' "Neo-Nazi" t-shirt, the fashion shoot and the blood stained t-shirt were interesting pieces of work, I'm not sure whether it was the designers' intention to cause such an outrage or just a very unfortunate series of wrong associations, but they nonetheless created such a great negative reaction that I find incredibly curious and fascinating. I doubt Marc Jacobs has close affiliations with Neo Nazi ideals, I don't think Zara has either, and I'm sure U.O. didn't want to promote shooting sprees. So why did so many people get offended?

In my opinion it all has to do with etiquette, and how certain images are tolerated only when they are represented in a certain way: for example, the political ideals of a writer who decides to publish a historical book on fascism will never be questioned.  If, on the contrary, anybody decides to photocopy a picture of Mussolini from that same book and stick it on their wall the game changes completely. The picture is exactly the same, but the associations we have with the place and the method of displaying it make us think of something terribly wrong, and improper (usually we put images we like on walls).

Marc Jacobs'

Some people may argue that it's wrong for a fashion label to capitalise on people's tragic deaths, but isn't that what happens in the many ex-concentration camps in Germany? Or in the various 9/11 museums in New York or Pompeii? Some may argue that such places are a living memory of the brutalities that happened there, a reminder for the future generations, but I believe there is also another reason why people decide to visit those places, and it's simple, genuine, inoffensive curiosity. It is our only way to look at death and to try and understand it.

I don't think violence is a big taboo in our society, it is perfectly accepted in some clearly defined areas, such as art, cinema or entertainment: there are many video games that are far more violent than Shetye's photoshoot, and yet they are sold in most shops, often without too many restrictions. In Tarantino's films violence is cool and sexy, and I bet many of those people who have had such adverse reactions to "Wrong Turn" have enjoyed watching Kill Bill, or Reservoir Dogs. Titanic memorabilia can also be bought very easily online from many websites. The absurdity of this paradox really fascinates me, why have we come to accept such double standards?  Those pieces of work, those "outrageous" garments and photographs are an invitation for us to reflect upon it: are we getting upset because those artists and designers are really violent and racist or simply because they propose a new way of describing violence that we have yet to accept?

Wrong turn, by Raj Satye. © Raj Satye

I personally find this social outrage far more violent and patronising than the work produced by the artists: when Shetye's photographs were published, some people called him a "dirty swine", while Bollywood director Vishal Dadlani expressed his desire for the photographer to be arrested. I'm surprised nobody suggested he should be burnt at the stake like a witch. I also disagree with the public opinion's power to decide on the cultural value of a piece of work: real life isn't the x-factor where the talent of a person is assessed in less than a minute, and often according to their likability. Art and design should challenge us, and if we want to make a comment, then it should be an informed one, not simply based on our initial reactions.

I have spoken to various people about "Wrong Turn" and most argue that it instigates violence, that most straight men, after seeing the pictures, will think it is perfectly ok to use violence on a woman, almost as if the photographer had the power to secretly cast a spell on the male audience, turning them into women-exterminating Daleks. Of course these assumptions are incredibly superficial and they don't take into consideration the real reasons why a troubled man might feel the urge to assault, rape and kill an innocent woman. I completely understand that if I were the father or the brother of that girl killed on the Delhi bus I'd be angry at the Shetye's work, but I'd probably be just as angry at the sight of any rape scene on film or hearing on the news about anybody being sexually abused.

Another reason why the garments I have been talking about caused such a stir has to do with our perception of everyday fashion and textiles as an inappropriate expressive medium for conceptual art and design. Unlike paintings and films, which are relegated to art galleries and cinemas respectively, everyday fashion is public. It's immediate, it's on our skin, it is always, and everywhere with us. We can't hide from it, and it it isn't part of the fantasy world of an art gallery or a cinema. Or a catwalk show. It can be extremely powerful and it has an incredible, unexplored subversive potential.

I don't condone any sort of violence, discrimination or sexual exploitation, what I am really worried about is our freedom of expression and how the misinformed and often over emotionally charged opinion of the masses can prevent an artist from expressing their opinion. We should focus on the real haters, those who do those terrible actions, not the creative people who are simply challenging the status quo.

If you fancy buying some Titanic memorabilia, please visit www.titanicitems.com

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  • DrHenry 22nd September 2014 20:27PM

    How much of this can be traced to the companies being young and not having any old folks that might have lived a few years looking at these programs? A VP of Life Experience might be needed in the loop at each company.


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