As a college student, studying printmaking and fine art, my professors would always reference something called the “democracy of the print”. They were referring to the fact that woodcuts, etchings, lithographs and screen prints had the advantage over paintings and sculptures in the respects that they are relatively inexpensive and exist in multiple. Even to this day, a person of an average income can afford a print by Picasso, but not a painting. That print would not only enrich that person’s life, but that of many others due to the fact that it exists in hundreds of other places.
I argue that the tee shirt brings the notion of the “democracy of the print” to its peak. The tee shirt is so inexpensive that nearly anyone can own an entire collection or make one with their own design. And, due to the versatility of the screen print (and now direct to garment printing) nearly any image can be imprinted upon one. The tee shirt is the ultimate (and somewhat untapped) in artistic potential energy, able to proliferate messages through multiplicity, low cost, mobility and public visibility all while retaining a status as a covetable object.
The screen print with the tee shirt as canvas potentially makes the owner a mobile gallery. The owner multiplies the voice of the artist with every person he or she passes on the street. The tee shirt has the potential to reach far more eyes and minds, far faster, than any museum show through a relative legion of walking canvases.
If The Starry Night, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon or even, say a Diego Rivera mural had been on tee shirts instead of canvas or wall, would this have diminished their significance? Perhaps the context would have changed, but the message would have been the same and would have traveled farther, faster and would have been available to nearly anyone who wanted it in their lives. I argue that the tee shirt very well may be the most democratic, if yet somewhat unrealized, art form.