PRINT January 1990


the United Colors of Benetton

MOST ADVERTISING THAT FIXES itself like barnacles to the outsides of buses is of the Jordache, Bud, or Virginia Slims variety. In the wake of the ruthlessly upscale “redevelopment” of New York’s housing stock, some ads now feature bodacious young women lying belly down before high rises reduced to the scale of gigantic vibrators. But lately something new has been added to such reinforcements of the national appetite for youth, luxury, and officially sanctioned vice. Buses now contain ads that double as political messages. The photographer Oliviero Toscani has produced the most extraordinary of these profitable public-service announcements for the Treviso-based Italian knitwear concern, Benetton. Today’s flâneurs might be stopped dead in their tracks by the specter of two giant hands—one black, one white, both unmistakably male—bound together by a pair of handcuffs. “United Colors of Benetton,” reads the discreetly marginalized slogan, thus foreclosing the possibility that this might be a plug for the equally civic-minded TV show America’s Most Wanted.

Did Toscani—the originator in 1983 of Benetton’s ecumenical image—notice that racial tensions ore on the rise and related acts of brutality widespread? Perhaps he decided that something more persuasive and less sentimental than children of all colors, wearing all colors, hugging together is needed to get Benetton’s message across. By Benetton’s “message” I refer, of course, to the not unrelated issues of racial harmony and selling Benetton. Perhaps Toscani also feared that the public might be growing indifferent to a six-year-old ad campaign that has been imitated widely (by, among others, Toscani himself for other clients) and resolved to up the ante of his “avant-garde” pitch. Be that as it may, this is one weird ad.

There are few clues, either to the identity of the players in this laconic drama or to the nature of the scenario itself. Both hands are of equal bulk, muscularity, and moisturized salubrity. Extending upward beyond the picture’s frame, the pale-blue cuffs of work shirts correspond with the penal theme. That these choice mitts are posed in this manner for the perusal of the pedestrian or the casual shopper underscores the ad’s libidinal appeal: the likelihood that, at the subliminal level at least, it will evoke private fantasies of domination and submission in the most public of places. But to return to a more acceptable reading of the image—which hand do you think possesses the authority of the law and which is the cipher of criminality? That the photograph remains stubbornly noncommittal regarding this matter produces two significant effects. First, it forces the ad to read the way it finally does; which is to say, somewhat menacingly: “We MUST live together!” Second, this calculated evenhandedness reduces the historical legacy of white racism to an image of mere “enmity” between the races—an enmity that is drained of both historical cause and culpability. Such a tendency to void the meaning of a sign—to empty it of its historical contingency—is fundamental to the semiological machinations of myth.

You don’t have to be a shopaholic to know that Benetton went global roughly a decade ago. Benetton pioneered a method of retailing that depends upon continuous demographic surveys of the areas in which it operates. Its computerized factories in Italy, France, Spain, Scotland, the U.S., Brazil, and Argentina—and the independent, nonunionized labor Benetton also employs—are prepared to deliver the goods within ten days of their regional agents’ requests for particular colors and patterns. Benetton, with net sales in 1988 of almost 1,500 billion Italian lire (over a billion dollars), is the world’s largest manufacturer of knitwear and the world’s largest consumer of virgin wool. With some 5,000 stores in 80 countries, Benetton would seem to have an interest in imagining racial harmony and social stability.

When the myth of racial harmony, as dreamed up by Benetton, doesn’t necessitate the banishment of historical reality altogether, it displaces the latter with the most wistful, roseate memories of the imperial past. Thus a recent print ad shows a little black girl being taught how to write by an older white girl who wears the immaculate, starched headgear of a missionary sister. “United Colors of Benetton.” There is, however, another ad in the current series that takes the cake; so much so, that it was deemed unsuitable for exposure in the United States and Great Britain. A representation of breast-feeding, it features the torso of a robust black woman, her crimson cable-knit cardigan open to bare her ample bosom. That this woman works at something more arduous than fashion modeling is intimated by her hands: a trace of scar tissue is detectable on her right hand; her nails are trimmed short and left unpolished; unlike other models, this one—pace Catherine Deneuve—has pores. To top it all off, this very dark brown woman holds a very long, very pale pink infant to her left breast. “United Colors of Benetton.” Are we to believe that this woman is the child’s mother? Combined with the effect of ingrained racial stereotype—that of the mammy—the visual evidence suggests that what we have here is, on the contrary, a baby and her wet nurse. Such a configuration of race and class would not altogether dismay a white South African Benetton shopper. In France it was deemed worthy of a Grand Prix d’Affichage.

Not all advertising space today is devoted to the discreet charm of mythic speech. While some New York buses contain ads disguised as political messages, others contain political messages that are disguised as ads. Gran Fury—the artists’ collective comprising members of ACT UP (New York)—has appropriated the look of Toscani’s Benetton campaign to convey a revolutionary message. Installed on the sides of buses—primarily in the outer boroughs where such ad space rents for less, and where more buses will therefore carry the message to a public even more resistant to it than in Manhattan—this “ad” depicts the heads and shoulders of three young, kissing couples evenly spaced across a pure white expanse in a manner virtually indistinguishable from Benetton’s own. Also reminiscent of the Benetton look, these three colorfully dressed couples are of mixed race; two, however, are of the same sex; one couple male, one female. The slogan now reads differently too: “KISSING DOESN’T KILL. GREED AND INDIFFERENCE DO.” In somewhat smaller type an explanatory text asserts: “CORPORATE GREED, GOVERNMENT INACTION, AND PUBLIC INDIFFERENCE MAKE AIDS A POLITICAL CRISIS.” The “revolutionary message” here resides less in the accusatory language of the secondary text than it does in the bold representation of same-sex love, and in the critique of mythic speech that Gran Fury’s site-specific appropriation achieves. (The image and the primary slogan were enough to cause Amni International, the company that rents that space, to reject the piece, which was only saved when pressure from a variety of sources was applied.) From the vantage point of the mythologist—in Roland Barthes’ sense of the critical reader—this is indeed something of an achievement.

In the essay of 1956 that concludes Mythologies (the theoretical tract entitled “Myth Today”), Barthes juxtaposed the language of myth to the revolutionary language of the oppressed. Since mythic language results in a “miraculous evaporation of history,” a reduction of diversity to sameness, and aims at the eternalization of the status quo, Barthes characterizes it as “plenary, intransitive, gestural, and theatrical.” Because revolutionary language must preserve historical meaning, describe diversity, and transform society, Barthes concludes that it is “active, transitive (political) language.” While mythic language is therefore “multiform” and “supple,” Barthes denies to its emancipatory counterpart the complexity and subterfuge of such metalanguage.

In the late 1950s it would have been inconceivable for someone—even someone of Barthes’ intellectual generosity and foresight—to imagine that the category of “the oppressed” might so soon be redefined to include women, lesbians, and gay men. Nor could he have foreseen that, confronted by an unprecedented health emergency, one that would be prompted by a sexually transmittable disease and obscured in a deadly welter of mythic language, gay men and lesbians would reduplicate the appropriational aspect of myth to subvert mythic language itself.

At the dawn of the 1990s, appropriation—hardly an innovation—is a staple of post-Modern esthetics. All the more remarkable, then, that by restoring to appropriation the political motive that was inseparable from its original context in Dada, Gran Fury—and other artists like them—have been able to resuscitate a tactic that seemed a matter of either academic or commercial interest. Of course none of this takes place in a cultural vacuum; and the elements that contribute to such change can come from the strangest conditions: from a corporate world ever more impatient to identify itself with art, and from an art world that aspires in different ways to the condition of big business; from multinationals eager to project benevolent corporate images, and from artists who, confronted by a desperate situation, are just as eager to take advantage of the social currency that such magnanimous and seductive imagery possesses. The resistant messages of a handful of artists can thus coexist among the ambiguous missives of innumerable others. For the time being, that is, until the money that supports it runs dry—or until the state that barely tolerates it grows more meddlesome still.

David Deitcher is a writer living in New York. He contributes regularly to Artforum.