BROOKLYN MUSEUM | SEPTEMBER 28 – NOVEMBER 12, 2017
“The T-shirt made a kind of social debut in the 1950s, a literal ‘coming out’ from concealment as an undergarment to attitude-intensive outerwear,” according to artist and satirist Pippa Garner. In its early days, the blankness of the T-shirt—its plain white, James Dean look—signaled a spirit of refusal. “Any kind of inscription or image would have seemed déclassé, recalling the depression-era sandwich board (a strap-on set of advertising panels by which a hard-up individual could earn a sandwich, by emulating one).”1 Today, the T-shirt has embraced the work of the sandwich board, gamely delivering corporate slogans, catchy witticisms, and expressions of personal or political affiliation.
At the Brooklyn Museum’s new pop-up gift shop, the T-shirt works overtime as art object, protest gear, and swag. Conceived by artist Marilyn Minter and curator and art historian Andrianna Campbell, Anger Management features artist-designed, resistance-themed T-shirts and other merchandise that respond to a growing culture of violence, repression, and fear in the United States. For those enraged or imperiled by the current presidential administration, the work offers a kind of retail therapy.
Some of the artists repurpose historical slogans (“DON’T TREAD ON ME”) or codify internet memes (“NASTY WOMAN” and “SHE PERSISTED”). Other pieces, like Andrea Geyer’s multi-pronged emblem of equity and inclusion, imagine new, intersectional iconography. There are Pictures Generation cut-ups and sampling: stickers and postcards from Jenny Holzer, a T-shirt by Barbara Kruger, and glitch art wrapping paper by Louise Lawler for the unnerving present. Though much of the work is text-based—even from social experimenter Rirkrit Tiravanija—there’s a neon light installation by Jonathan Horowitz, priced in the five-figure range, and Rashid Johnson’s spin on museum gift shop fare: a silk scarf printed with scenes of martial combat from his short film, The New Black Yoga.
The work addresses urgent political concerns: attacks on the EPA, racial violence, threats to the rights of women and workers, discrimination against the LGBTQ community, and the immigration ban. Because the museum’s nonprofit status bars political campaigning, the artists don’t name names. Instead, they deliver their anger or dread by blunt epigram: “NO FLAG” (Trevor Paglen), “RUN FOR YOUR LIFE” (Rob Pruitt), “THIS IS NOT AMERICA” (critics Jerry Saltz and Roberta Smith), “GRAB ‘EM BY THE BALLOTS” (Zoe Buckman), “ALL LIES MATTER” (Hank Willis Thomas), and “RESIST” (Marilyn Minter). Andrew Kuo’s black-and-white sweatshirts say “SAD.” They bring to mind the wonderfully weird merch of comic Maria Bamford: her giant pair of gym shorts that say “SHY!” These are forms of abjection written on the body—rhetorical resistance to corporate messaging about achievement or winning. This is clothing as political combat. (“To strike a pose is to pose a threat” (Dick Hebdige.))
But are feelings political? Which feelings and whose? White anger vented on Twitter in the name of patriotism may be given political status or publicly rewarded in a way that the anger of a black man on the football field isn’t. Anger Management isn’t really about the strategic deployment of feelings for political ends. Or it is. It straddles the twin meanings of the Greek agora: “I speak in public” and “I shop.”
The pop-up project arrives at the Brooklyn Museum during A Year of Yes, a series of exhibitions and public programming dedicated to the history of feminism and feminist art, from A Woman’s Afterlife: Gender Transformation in Ancient Egypt to this summer’s We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-85. Anger Management shares first-floor space with The Legacy of Lynching: Confronting Racial Terror in America, an exhibition examining the roots of America’s carceral system in the history of black lynching. These exhibitions and programming reflect the museum’s commitment to institutional critique—and a willingness to engage with the contradictions and complexities of this enterprise.
Here, political speech is for sale: buttons, stickers, iron-on patches—the sort of throwaway objects historically distributed as part of a grassroots medium of exchange. The Museum takes a twenty-five percent cut of the proceeds, with the remainder divided among the artists and distributed to charities of their choice. You won’t see this sort of thing uptown at the Met. But it’s a quick walk from countercultural critique to institutional embrace. Somewhere in suburban New Jersey, there’s a teenager sporting Shepard Fairey’s dissident mantra OBEY alongside Nike’s corporate swoosh.
- 1. Pippa Garner, “On Shirtstorm,” artist statement for Redling Fine Art, Los Angeles, CA, April 2017.
NICOLE MILLER is a Brooklyn-based writer and coeditor of the digital arts journal Underwater New York.