Freedom of Expression Verses Social Responsibility

One of the many things that makes our country beautiful and diverse is the fact that our freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition are protected by the First Amendment. As our history tells us, we are not a nation of conformity. We can express our objection or satisfaction of any governing body, policy, religion, or movement.

While I ultimately feel fortunate for our unalienable rights, this idea is not a flawless one, in my opinion. A question that I have been chewing over this past week is, “if we can, does it mean that we should?” Let me elaborate.

The ever controversial brand Urban Outfitters outdid themselves last week with their latest college spiritwear collection. Earlier this week, a Kent State University sweatshirt was available online for purchase. This was not your typical overpriced ($129) piece of Urban gear. The “destroyed” sweatshirt featured spattered red stains. The shirt was OBVIOUSLY tied to the 1970 campus shooting at Kent State rather than stylish, vintage spiritwear worn by many. Urban Outfitters PR department claimed that the piece is a part of “our sun-faded vintage collection.” Well, I have searched high and low on Urban’s website for any trace of this “collection” and I have not been able to find anything (shocking). Side note: crisis communication 101 is to own up to your mistakes, apologize, and let your audience know how you are going to make up for the error and prevent a similar situation in the future.

Many students, alum, faculty members, and other alarmed people expressed a horrified reaction. Because who would honestly believe that a large clothing company would just happen to include a small college in small town, Ohio and just happened to pick the color red for a school that just happened to have had a shooting massacre in their school’s history, for their “sun-faded vintage collection.’ WHO WOULD BUY (literally and figuratively) THAT?

The move to release the sweatshirt was obviously a strategic one that was reviewed by designers, buyers and marketers before its debut. I couldn’t help but think, who is in charge here?

Yes, Urban Outfitters did receive a ton of press coverage because of the shirt, which made me think that Urban values the philosophy of “any news is good news.” But is it really? Now, before I say anything further, I will admit that I have always been a fan of Urban Outfitters. Some of their stuff is a little out there and some of the things you will find in the “sale” section on their website are amusing, but overall their brand is fun, expressive, and typically harmless. I am probably not going to stop shopping there because of this incident.

I am curious, however, as to weather Urban has any measurable outcomes from this and other antics. Is any news really good news? Did people flock to your stores after the release of this awesome, worn-in and vintage sweatshirt was all over the news? Or did you maybe waste too many people’s time working with designers, buyers, models, online markets, and store managers? Oh and don’t forget your PR team that had to “fix” this mess. Hopefully you made that one guy who sold his on eBay really happy.

My next example of public idiocy comes from the very unique Taylor Mac. Taylor is a drag performing artist who is as hilarious as he is inspirational. I had the opportunity to attend his performance at the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) last week. Taylor was a joy to watch perform and I was excited to share my experience right up until the last act.

Taylor brought up a controversial exhibit-turned-lawsuit against the CAC back in 1990. Basically, the then art director was arrested under child pornography charges due to Robert Mapplethorpe’s exhibit. I have never seen the photos included in the exhibit myself, but I have read enough about the lawsuit and Mapplethorpe to know the nature of his work. Maybe I’m being quick to judge despite never having seen the photos, but I’m not that curious to view photos of minors that have been described as, “lewd exhibition or graphic focus on the genitals.

“Poking fun” would be a nice way to put the nonsense spewing from Taylor’s mouth. It was a shame because he had the audience captured the entire evening up until the last moments. Although the CAC and its employees were acquitted and protected under our First Amendment, the entire incident clearly stings the art world in Cincinnati, over two decades later. Again, the point I am trying to make here is that just because you can, does it mean that you should? Is the message Mapplethorpe’s exhibit really THAT important to where minors need to be exposed just for the sake of art and because you can? Like Taylor, I found it a shame that Mapplethorpe had to include the obscene photos in the exhibit, as I find most of his work to be captivating.

Most of this post is just me thinking out loud and trying to assess controversial situations. I think as a whole, our society needs to reevaluate purpose and intentions. Is expression always worth the harm it can cause? Of course, you are free to disagree. 🙂

kent-state

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Freedom of Expression Verses Social Responsibility

  1. Julia

    it’s weird to think that the sweatshirt was a publicity stunt to traffic some new buyers through the website, but I have to agree with you. I’m thinking here people browsed that Urban Outfitters website after pulling up pics of the sweatshirt and got some over-priced, herringbone, sheer curtains in the apartment section…I recently watched Mona Lisa Smile, and one of the big topics of conversation is ‘what is art?’ ‘are there rules?’ It’s a tale as old as time. Expressing yourself has no rules, I suppose, but don’t expect to see my in a massacre inspired UO sweatshirt checking out some offensive graphic baby art.

  2. All valid points. Urban Outfitters has come under some pretty tough attacks lately for being a terrible brand and company in general. What was the point of that sweatshirt, really? I agree with Julia that it is weird to think of it as a publicity stunt. Perhaps all the people working on that particular product were really that dim-witted and didn’t know anything about the Kent State shootings, perhaps they just didn’t care. Urban has always stood out as a unique, different, and experimental brand – but everything has a limit, doesn’t it? I wasn’t familiar with the Mapplethrope story, but it seems to leave the same mind-bending question as UO, why? It’s a solid question to ask – just because we can, does it mean we should?

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