'The VisualVerbal' by Olivia Tabai
Popular art, undeniably, is often born out of — or created by — widespread trends. Arguably the most notable ‘trend’ of recent years has been the way in which text that is deemed ‘aesthetically pleasing’ has dominated popular culture. A prominent example of this is the Supreme logo. The high-end streetwear brand’s striking white logo in a red rectangle has been unavoidable in real life and on the internet. However, the creative team behind Supreme were not actually the ones who invented this design. The font style and boxed-in words are undeniably a copy of the work of American conceptual artist Barbara Kruger.
The artist has been active since 1969, long before the founding of Supreme in 1994, and even longer before the brand started using her design in 2013. Kruger herself made it clear that she didn’t take this act of blatant plagiarism lightly. When the artist was asked to comment she emailed her reply with only a file entitled ‘fools.doc’ attached. This document contained the lines “What a ridiculous clusterfuck of totally uncool jokers. I make my work about this kind of sadly foolish farce. I’m waiting for all of them to sue me for copyright infringement.”
This statement from Kruger demonstrates the deep level on which Supreme does not choose to engage with its own influences. Kruger’s work is known for its brutally anti-capitalist rhetoric, so a clothing brand catering to the elite by using her signature style is laughable at best and concerning at worst. The artist’s tongue-in-cheek comment that she is waiting for Supreme to sue her shows just how arrogant the brand has become, believing themselves to have a richer cultural influence than they really do. Perhaps the switch from the company almost being sued by Louis Vuitton for using their trademark on their products to having a collaboration with the fashion house does that to your ego.
Either way, text sells, and nowhere does it do so more than on Instagram. Take accounts such as @werenotreallystrangers. The Los Angeles based artist (@koreen) has accumulated almost half a million followers through treating her art account as a personal diary filled with bold text, all in capital letters and often filling up the space of walls or billboards. The statements have the vagueness of a Rupi Kaur poem, whilst also having a personal edge that makes people feel as if they really are reading a page from someone’s diary rather than a non-specific phrase that Forever 21 are just itching to put on a t-shirt. Yet phrases such as 'WHAT ARE YOU STILL TRYING TO PROVE TO YOURSELF?' are incredibly reminiscent of the works of Jenny Holzer, another American conceptual artist like Kruger.
Holzer is best known for her short capitalised phrases — known as ‘Truisms’ that she often displays in busy public places. Phrases such as 'PROTECT ME FROM WHAT I WANT' could easily be found on Koreen’s Instagram account, but does that make it wrong in the same way as Supreme and Kruger? Probably not. This is bigger than that. It’s about communication and the power that a few words can have over an individual’s psyche. Whether you scroll or walk past a phrase by one of these artists, you stop and feel something.
The fact that this is the kind of art that is popular online right now is in many ways heartwarming. It proves that we still look towards art to feel something, and that art continues to have a uniquely human purpose when so much media is battling it out for our attention. Most importantly, it proves that we want to feel something and be affected by the art we consume.