Is a Sweatshirt Just a Sweatshirt Anymore?: Keith Haring and the Commodification of Art

Keith Haring pictured at his Pop Shop in 1886

I recently bumped into a friend wearing a sweatshirt that showcased the late artist Keith Haring’s famous Five Dancing Figures on the front of it. I complimented it by saying, “Nice Sweatshirt! I love Keith Haring, too.”I was met with a confused face that quickly glanced down at the cartoonish figures dancing on the front of the hoodie. My seemingly “art-loving” friend responded, “who? Oh, I don’t know who that is. I just thought this looked cool. I got it at H&M.”

I knew people wore T-shirts of bands they didn’t really know, or maybe a random thrifted sports jersey here and there, but this felt like an entirely new ball game. I mean, suddenly a once multi-million dollar untouchable work of art is now a $20 machine-washable souvenir.

But then I took a pause. I mean, nothing was wrong with my friend wearing Haring’s design without knowing who the artist was—I just had to dive a bit deeper. As an art lover and researcher, my gut told me something was definitely happening here, I just could not figure out what. So, how was this affecting art?

On the one hand, Haring’s art originated from a street art graffiti subculture largely based on anonymity. Haring probably would have loved that my friend-of-a-friend simply liked the look of his art without caring who made it.


 

Keith Haring H&M sweatshirt.
Keith Haring H&M sweatshirt

 

On the other hand, I couldn’t help but think how this H&M sweatshirt fit into Haring’s career-long attempt to avoid being a corporate “sell-out.” In the arts community, a sell-out refers to an artist who has lost sight of their passion and artistic integrity in order to profit financially.

Throughout his career, Haring avoided this as best he could. One article from 2019 “The public has a right to art: the radical joy of Keith Haring” written by Miranda Sawyer explains that Haring turned down a lot of sell-out offers like running “a Macy’s boutique, [painting] a Hall & Oates album cover, or [creating an advertisement for] Kraft cheese and Dodge trucks. He accepted some—those that offered a challenge.” Back then, Haring said that “Ever since there have been people waiting to buy things, I’ve known that if I wanted to make things people would want, I could do it easily… As soon as you let that affect you, you’ve lost everything.”

This H&M sweatshirt, and seemingly Haring’s legacy, now exist in a constant state of tug of war—one sleeve yanked into a more accessible, public platform as seen on mainstream clothing items (arguably moving closer to Haring’s street art roots as public commodities), while the other is being tugged toward the sell-out commercial world he worked to avoid for most of his career.

So, how is this phenomenon altering the art world as we know it? Who is profiting more from these sales, the artists or non-equitable corporations? And, how do mass-produced interpretations of art like this affect the public’s relationship to it?

Sometimes it's best to take a look back before looking forward.

On April 19, 1986, Haring opened The Pop Shop in Lower Manhattan. The store, open to the public at large, sold specialized Haring pens, pins, clothing items, and more. The Haring Foundation’s website states “All The Pop Shop’s profits were distributed to children’s charities, educational organizations, and AIDS-related causes in accordance with the mandate of the Keith Haring Foundation, established by the artist prior to his death.” The shop received a lot of negative criticism. People denied that Haring himself did not profit from the store. But it really was a charitable cause and in the end, the shop allowed Haring to reach people outside of the context of a museum or gallery—something he always sought to accomplish through his art.

For a creative person, the dream is to get paid to make art, right? So when does an up-and-coming artist, perhaps just like Haring at the beginning of his career, living “the dream” supporting himself financially through art, suddenly risk becoming a corporate sell-out?

While the answer to this question is situationally dependent, I can definitively say the line starts to get fuzzy when art is plastered on a wearable object ready for overnight Amazon shipping.

Take, for example, The Claude Monet Umbrellas fad, circa 2008. If you didn’t have one, I can almost guarantee you knew someone who did. In this context, Monet’s artwork is simultaneously an acclaimed, precious piece of art history and a dripping-wet “canvas” someone might throw into their trunk after a rainy walk to the car. The umbrella phenomenon came along after the copyright on the art of Monet, who died in 1926, expired. (The Sonny Bono Copyright Extension of October 27, 1998, extended the term of copyrights from the heretofore life plus 50 years to life plus 70 years.)

Such entities as The Artist Rights Society charge fees, or waive them, to use an artist’s image for anything from website articles to store merchandise.

And really, the umbrella is just one example. These days, creativity is branded left and right in the name of capitalism. When this happens, the quality, notion, and integrity of art are reduced to mundane objects people tend to pay little mind to.

Monet
Monet's Water Lilies umbrella.

 
Munch
Munch's The Scream bedding.
Bustown Modern runway with Haring commodifications
Bustown Modern runway with Haring commodifications.

One article titled “Moving Beyond Banksy and Fairey: Interrogating the co-optation and commodification of modern graffiti and street art” written by Jeffrey Ian Ross, John F. Lennon, and Ronald Kramer explains that some artists “May be okay going to block parties and getting paid to spray paint a T-shirt…but when a developer contacts them to paint an advertisement for their property, or a restaurant owner wants an ‘edgy’ piece on a wall, they may object. In other words, this is often a personal ethical decision that an individual makes for themselves.” So, it’s up to the artist. An artist can decide to collaborate with companies. Maybe an artist wants to make money, and that’s okay. Maybe an artist hopes for a corporate collaboration with a “happy accident” as I called it—one that takes the shape of a million dollar donation for an artist residency program. Either way, it’s a gamble, and one they must be willing to take.

So, what happens now? Should artists continue dipping into an increasingly consumerist art world and collaborate with large companies? If so, should these companies be required to have equitable working conditions for employees and donate to museums, artist residencies, or art communities? And finally, as ethics are being questioned, is it “wrong,” for artists to capitalize on the mass production of their craft?

I mean, after all, if art is for everybody like Haring said, why shouldn’t artists have their cake and eat it too? Why shouldn’t they make a profit and contribute to culture at the same time? If it were that simple, I guess this article wouldn’t exist and the conversation would end here. But the truth is, this conversation goes far beyond the scope of this essay and my hope is it never stops—Corporate America sure as hell won’t.


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