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The "semiotic disobedience" of Hank Willis Thomas


In the Brooklyn Rail, Sonia K. Katyal has a short reflection on African-American artist Hank Willis Thomas, who appropriates tropes from advertising to saying damning things about consumerism and race in the US. An excerpt:

Hank Willis Thomas’s dual act of artistic expression—and indeed, some might argue, political protest—represents today’s modern version of civil disobedience: a massive worldwide phenomenon that I call semiotic disobedience. Today, aided by the power of digital media, thousands of artists, activists, and ordinary citizens across the world—and the internet—routinely reverse the power of advertising, transforming ads and logos into a global conversation between corporation and consumer. For this reason, Thomas’s work accomplishes a sort of double irony: not only does he critique the constant pull of branding and advertising, but he also risks being targeted for violating the very properties within the advertising he criticizes. In this sense, his work continues in the tradition of artists like Andy Warhol and Richard Prince, all of whom appropriated recognizably commercial images in order to say something more profound about modern America and its romance with consumption. But while artists like Warhol often escaped being sued for the images they appropriated, in the past, many artists and activists like Thomas can be far more vulnerable than previous generations have ever been.

Image: Hank Willis Thomas, Priceless #1, 2004. Via Brooklyn Rail.