Often, appropriation is an indispensable component of art. What would Marcel Duchamp’s portfolio be without the readymades? Who would Andy Warhol be without a Campbell’s tomato soup can? The history of art is one of reception, revision and recreation.
But there are instances when creative reuse looks a lot more like theft than inspiration. Streetwear company Supreme’s blatant appropriation of Barbara Kruger’s iconic aesthetic exemplifies this problematic tendency. There’s a fine line between being inspired by someone and copying what they’ve done — Supreme ollied over it.
Propaganda art is one thing. Mass-produced propaganda sold purely for profit is another. What Barbara Kruger did in the ‘70s was original. What Supreme does is a cheap imitation.
Kruger said it best in her response to Foster Kramer of Complex. When Kramer asked for her thoughts on Supreme, Kruger responded, “what a ridiculous clusterfuck of totally uncool jokers.”
Long before Supreme got on the scene, Kruger began her criticisms of the economic structures that made capitalism into something close to religion. With her 1987 work “Untitled (I shop therefore I am),” Kruger takes philosopher René Descartes’s “I think therefore I am” and critiques our materialistic society that people depend on for a sense of identity.
Ironically, Supreme has been aggressive in defending its copyright. In 2018, the company won a lawsuit condemning production of counterfeit Supreme products in Milan. In 2013, the company sued Leah McSweeney for $10 million in damages. Her company, Married to the MOB, sold “Supreme Bitch” t-shirts in the same style as Supreme’s logo.
In that 2013 case, Supreme founder James Jebbia acknowledged the Supreme logo was based directly on Kruger’s imagery. Yet people still buy hoodies, fire extinguishers and bricks with Supreme logos slapped onto them as status symbols.
On his Netflix show, comedian Hasan Minhaj noted that “Supreme is the king of appropriation. They wouldn’t exist without it.” The aesthetic Supreme stole started as a mocking condemnation of consumerism and advertising. Their brand promotes the exact opposite.
Kruger’s iconic style overlays white italic text highlighted red with shadowy black and white images, mostly of people. The contrast between harsh advertisement-like text and subtle, emotional expression in the photographs calls viewers to examine what makes advertising convincing.
What makes us want to consume? Often it’s a desire to meet a standard set by companies. Too often, consumer demand doesn’t even exist without a culture that commands it.
Hypebeasts simultaneously consider themselves representatives of counterculture and pinnacles of brand name clout, but they can’t be both. What they fail to recognize is that their empire is built on the back of feminist art and the exploitation of aesthetics created to critique capitalism, not enable it.
Supreme embodies the misogynistic and capitalistic ideas that Kruger combats in her artworks. It’s no secret that Supreme is geared toward male consumers, with images of naked women on merchandise and an Instagram page filled with skater boys.
Wearing logos from head to toe is contrary to Kruger’s vision and hypebeast culture is the antithesis of feminist theory. Consumers who throw money at products as assertively masculine as Supreme’s are buying into exploitation — both of themselves and of Kruger’s work.