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Perspective: From Ye to Balenciaga, artistic license shouldn’t mean anything goes

When it’s not art but pornography, it’s past time to push back

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A Balenciaga store is pictured on May 7, 2022, in New York City.

A Balenciaga store is pictured on May 7, 2022, in New York City.

David Niviere, Sipa via Associated Press

“We create products of passion,” the rapper Ye reportedly told a high-ranking employee at Adidas. He meant that in the most literal of ways, according to a Rolling Stone magazine report that says the controversial entertainer had a habit of showing pornography during business meetings and making references to how porn can make you more “creative.”

Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, also reportedly shared sexually explicit photos of his former wife, Kim Kardashian, with people working on his line of products, branded Yeezy.

It would be easy to dismiss the behavior of Adidas employees who let this go on for years as another case of people humoring someone who says and does offensive things but brings in a lot of money. An open letter from people who worked with Ye accuses Adidas officials of having “turned their moral compasses off,” and this may well be true.

But it is also true that many people have lost sight of the difference between sexually explicit content and pushing the artistic envelope.

How else to explain the story of Balenciaga producing an ad campaign involving children holding teddy bears wearing bondage outfits, without anyone noticing that this might be offensive? The fashion company is now suing the firm that produced the ad and the photographer says it’s not his fault, but how many eyes must have passed over this multimillion-dollar campaign before it was approved?

Sure, maybe some people might not have noticed that the pictures included documents referring to a child pornography court case. But who doesn’t notice teddy bears dressed up in leather and chains?

In all likelihood people did notice but were afraid to speak up because no one in fashion or advertising wants to be known as a prude. These companies think they are producing art, that their fashion is fueled by high-level creativity and that the creators are just eccentrics who need to be indulged in the name of their craft.

Even Balenciaga’s apology reveals that its leadership thinks references to violent sexual behavior are totally fair game for a mainstream advertising campaign:

“We sincerely apologize for any offense our holiday campaign may have caused. Our plush bear bags should not have been featured with children in this campaign. We have immediately removed the campaign from all platforms.”

To the company’s leadership, the only problem here was the involvement of children. 

Obviously the presence of children in the ads makes the whole thing much worse, but it’s interesting that there is no sense that perhaps sadomasochism is inappropriate for ad campaigns on major media platforms.

None of this is new, of course. Plenty of companies — and especially fashion companies —use sex to sell their products. A few years ago, Calvin Klein was featuring ads with photos taken looking up a woman’s skirt. And Calvin Klein has spent decades pushing the envelope. So maybe we are all just lobsters in the boiling water of pornographic culture and we’ve finally noticed what’s happening all around us. 

The outrage against Balenciaga, which started with some moms on Instagram, built to such an extent that celebrities, including Kardashian, were shamed into ending — or considering ending — their associations with the company.

In the case of Ye, though, one wonders whether absent his antisemitic rants anyone would have said anything about his pornography filled business meetings.

And that is the challenge. At what point do employees at these companies draw boundaries? Will it finally be OK to say that artistic license does not mean anything goes? That claiming to be a creative genius does not mean we have to humor your worst impulses? 

Just as Ye has been rapping for years in ways that are demeaning to women (and men), fashion companies have been using violent sexual imagery and imagery that sexualizes children. And all of it is done in the name of pushing the envelope: We just need our company to be a little more edgy. We need our clothes, our music, our advertising to be a little more “out there” in order to attract attention.

And, of course, social media helps this along. The outrage only fuels more clicks. Perhaps now, though, a few brave souls might start to speak up — to give name to the ugliness right in front of them — before the ugliness gets right front in all of us.

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and a Deseret News contributor. She is the author of “No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives,” among other books