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The Whitney Biennial Artists and the Gap

May 27, 2008

I was walking down Michigan Avenue last week, patiently waiting for a stoplight to change. While waiting I looked around and there on my left was a very imposing Chuck Close wearing an image of Philip Glass on his shirt. Reading the fine print informed me that the Gap has enlisted some of the artistic talent at the Whitney Biennial to make $28 graphic t-shirts. Like Close, the Gap enlisted the heavyweights in the art world, not the newcomers. Kiki Smith, Barbara Kruger, Glenn Ligon, Kerry James Marshall, Marilyn Minter and perhaps most appropriately Jeff Koons (and others).

See more about it on the Gap’s website here.

For me, this isn’t about artists making t-shirts, it’s about the Gap. The Gap utilizes (read exploits) economically distressed, industrializing nations for their cheap labor, to wit, the Whitney Gap shirts are made in Peru. This is the same Gap that last year had children in India making Gap Kids clothes. The same Gap that, according to its president, in 2006 “ceased business with 23 factories due to code violations.” The same Gap, in 2000, that a BBC documentary uncovered young girls producing Gap products at a Cambodian factory (CNN). Of course, the Gap had no idea that this was going on and fired the contractor in India, donated to charity, issued a public statement, blah, blah, blah. Of course the bottom line is the bottom line. To control costs the Gap uses (exploits) cheap labor around the world, they demand a supply of cheap labor and needy countries and unscrupulous factories are ready to meet those demands.

A couple of the artists designed tees that seem to acknowledge this situation (Koons isn’t one of them), though they remain complacent accomplices. It’s especially odd to see Kruger simultaneously critiquing yuppie culture and participating in it. Not very convincing. Perhaps Rirkrit Tiravanija is the most overt skeptic with his tee bearing the inscription (a phrase that reappears other places in his work): “the days of this society is numbered” [sic].

Granted I have been very busy the past few weeks, but everyone is very silent on this odd alliance of artists and the Gap. Though, perhaps it is not that odd, considering that Donald Fisher (Gap founder) is a major San Fransisco collector and is currently trying to get a museum built for his collection (in parkland, but that’s another issue).

Sure the Gap will keep on with its PR campaign of being child-labor free, but are they really? Sure we must continue to demand more accountability of the company. Sure we must demand more of the foreign nations where the Gap builds its factories. Of course these demands would all be moot if more people demanded that the tag read “made in the USA.”

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Shlomi permalink
    June 5, 2008 4:15 pm

    While I completely understand the argument you present against the Gap and its exploitative methods, I am a little surprised by the complaints you direct against the artists. Of course the Gap would enlist the heavyweights and not the newcomers. It is those very same heavyweights, after all, who have become emblems of the marriage between capitalism and art. They are all brand names in and of themselves (and whether one agrees with their approach is a whole other topic of discussion.) It is not uncommon for people to talk about art produced by these artists using label lingo, e.g.- “I’d love to own a Koons” or “The new Kiki Smith completely sold out.” Unsurprisingly, most of these artists (with Koons at their helm) have had assistants do their work for not even a fraction of what the work will end up selling. The joke, perhaps, and more likely than not this is not intentional, is on the artists, not us.

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