Just because you can doesn't mean you should!
The NBA, this country’s savviest professional sports conglomerate, knows how to make a buck. When it introduced the “City Edition” uniform in 2017—a fourth jersey alternate meant to highlight the most granular shibboleths of each franchise’s home—it was a conceptual triumph. It not only flattered fans, for whom local pride is often more consequential than playoff appearances, but it also opened a self-replenishing conduit of merchandising possibility. It was also another opportunity for the Brooklyn Nets, who in 2012 migrated, like an upwardly-mobile NYU post-grad, from New Jersey to Park Slope, to add to a sloughed-off pile of trampled borough signifiers. There were abstractions of the Brooklyn Bridge, graffiti-lite wordmarks, and a sleeved oddity that was meant to hearken back to the Dodgers’ time in Crown Heights but looked like the promotional freebie you get at a Mets game and hand to a child on the way out.
This season (which is occurring during a still-rampant pandemic, and should have been cancelled), the Nets are wearing a uniform meant to evoke the art of Jean-Michel Basquiat, who was born in Brooklyn, but who no one has ever referred to as “a Brooklyn artist.” The design is both shocking and unsurprising; shocking, given the vibrancy of its subject, how awful they look, and unsurprising because it’s just another entry in a long procession of indiscriminate apparel licenses of Basquiat’s body of work, elements of which have appeared for years, lassoed from their contexts into multiple price points in the market, from Supreme and Off-White to Valentino and Comme des Garçons to Uniqlo and Reebok, reaching down to smaller brands most people would be surprised to learn exist.
Collaborations, which in fashion usually means artwork grafted onto T-shirts, are by now more diktat than novelty, and the brands that engage with a Basquiat license are only a small piece of an overheated collaboration economy that substitutes the waning thrill of collision for an actual idea. But a piece of clothing with Basquiat imagery is made especially ironic by the fact that much of Basquiat’s work bristles at commodification, both of himself and Blackness. Basquiat’s estate, fed up with dealing with litigious collectors hunting for trophies, stopped accepting authentication requests in 2012, by which time his paintings were already being traded for tens of millions of dollars. Into that lucrative vacuum entered Artestar, the agency that administers the Basquiat license, who has demonstrated no such reticence in exploiting the artist’s legacy for profit, mashing his body of work into pulp.
Aesthetically, the Nets uniform makes little sense. Their website highlights “the multi-colored stripe down the side of the uniform [that] reflects a style that is prevalent in much of Basquiat’s work” (it isn't), and “the crown, found on the shorts… as a representation of our home, Kings County” (it wasn't). The main feature is the team’s name, styled as BKLYN NETS, in something that maybe, if you squint, looks like something Basquiat drew, but which, because he died 25 years before the words “Brooklyn Nets,” existed, never actually did. Especially heinous is the copyright symbol, which in Basquiat’s paintings agitated against consumer society and the increasing oppressiveness of the market. Stamping it on products sold by a massive corporate entity seems, at best, to wildly miss the point. Naturally, there's an entire cottage shop of tchotchkes, including pom pom caps and can koozies.
The desire to glom onto Basquiat isn’t hard to parse. He was an incandescent talent who could seem composed of pure attitude. Because he was dead by the time he was 27, he’s seized in perpetual youth, which in the cultural imagination makes him a cipher—whatever you want him to be. What all these brands grasp for is less Basquiat’s pictorial vocabulary or color sense than attitude. But collaboration can’t extend past death, no matter how many direct-to-consumer watch brands may try, and attitude doesn’t rub off by screen printing it on a handbag, no matter how supple the leather. As bell hooks wrote, “Basquiat’s painting challenges folks who think that by merely looking they can ‘see.’”
“The Nets City Edition platform,” their site reads, “aims to celebrate Basquiat’s work by giving a voice to the voiceless…thanking those who have represented Brooklyn and all it has to offer.” An enduring mythology persists around Basquiat, that he was some kind of unrecognized artist toiling away in a cellar, a feral genius only achieving renown in death. In reality, Basquiat was private-school-educated and famous by the time he was 20, represented by blue-chip galleries in L.A. and Europe, painted in Armani suits, and was a constant dinner guest at Mr Chow. In other words, the Nets are hardly lifting an unheralded artist out of obscurity. More likely, they see in Basquiat’s legacy what every other brand does: an easy shorthand for a street-level respectability. Their time in New York, which has seen a fizzled Jay Z connect and a battery of aged superstars, has made that search more desperate. The merits of yoking your national franchise to the specificity of Brooklyn culture notwithstanding, Basquiat isn’t an immediate representative (Biggie Smalls, the subject of previous Nets uniforms, is a more likely choice, even if those uniforms were also garish). It’s impossible to extricate Basquiat’s art from the crucible of its making, which is not the brownstone Brooklyn he rejected, but the downtown Manhattan scene of the ’80s, a post-punk, near-ruinous New York where everything felt permitted. The Nets, with their faux-rusted $1 billion arena plonked into the middle of Flatbush Avenue, are as alien and opposite to that version of New York as conceivably possible.
The Basquiat uniform, aside from mangled execution and spiritual misguidedness, have the added problem of belonging to a team that plays in a city in which the New York Knicks, however improbably, still exist. The Knicks may be an irredeemable abscess of an organization with noxious ownership that embarrasses itself at every turn, but they belong to the city in a way that is unlikely to be eclipsed (to be fair, the Knicks City Edition jersey, itself a product of the collaboration factory Kith and which reads, cryptically, “CITY NEVER SLEEPS NEW YORK KNICKS,” is also a failure of design, but fittingly).
Basquiat’s work anoints Black cultural history and illuminates its anxieties. It reckons with oppression, racism, capitalism, and police brutality, which may make it seem to jibe with the NBA’s stuttering attempts at board-sanctioned social justice, but for the players who seem to be awakening to their own commodification and a capitalism hostile to their personhood, subsuming Basquiat’s art in the service of corporate ambassadorship feels like a step backward. Basquiat’s pictures were frenetic crashes of art historical references, memory, language, vectors, motion—his mind made visible. There’s something depressing about reducing an irreducible body of work to the words “BKLYN NETS” scratched out in a fumbling hand, as if by tracing the marks any of their power can be absorbed.
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