DESIGN CULTURE A Collection of Essays from Emigre Andrew Blauvelt and Kenneth FitzGerald
Essays Originally Published by: Emigre, Inc. 1700 Shattuck Ave., #307 Berkeley, CA 94709 Design: Mario Mejia www.mariomejia.us Typefaces: Futura and Helvetica Process Colors: Magenta, Yellow, Black Published by Blurb San Francisco, California Printed in the United States Copyright ÂŠ 2011 All rights reserved.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
IN AND AROUND
IN AND AROUND
SKILLING SAWS AND ABSORBENT CATALOGUES
Cultures of Design and the Design of Cultures – Part One Originally published in Emigre 32 in 1994 Andrew Blauvelt
Cultures of Design and the Design of Cultures – Part Two Originally published in Emigre 33 in 1995 Andrew Blauvelt
Originally published in Emigre 48 in 1998 Kenneth FitzGerald
IN AND AROUND:
Cultures of Design and the Design of Cultures Part One
By Andrew Blauvelt
The paradoxical nature of being both in and around is familiar to the cultural anthropologist, who might work in the field among the observed and at the same time remains apart from the observed. It is this observer status given to the anthropologist that creates this necessary dilemma. The conventional wisdom supporting the role of cultural anthropology has been its intention to study the cultures of other peoples as a way of reflecting on our own culture, or to borrow a phrase from Liberal Humanism, “To know others so that we may better understand ourselves.” The situation between an observer and an observed can never be neutral, however, since the power relationships are inevitably unequal. The graphic designer shares a similar dilemma of being both instrumental in the making of cultural artifacts and living in the society through which they are distributed. Graphic designers are often asked to remove themselves from their social positions and experiences and offer themselves as
professionals, specialists in the various forms of visual communication. This detachment, which we might call “professionalization” or “specialization,” creates the mythical, autonomous observer in the design process. This is a learned method of being professional and a consequence of the “problemsolving process” at the core of every graphic design procedure. We are asked to be objective and to render rational decisions (solutions), and doing so places graphic design on a par with other professions. The graphic designer is, of course, a member of society and thus lives with the artifacts of his or her making, as well as with the artifacts of other designers. In this way, designers are asked to be professionals outside of (to be around) culture, and at the same time, to be a part of (to be in), culture. We are, with others in society, witnesses to and participants in the consumption of cultural artifacts and, therefore, share in the moments of seduction and repulsion that these artifacts generate.
I am seduced by the messages of others I appreciate the materiality of the finely printed book I respond to the urgency expressed by the political poster ... and I shop at the mall. I am repulsed by the messages of others I am appalled by displays of injustice I am threatened by the signs of hatred ... and I shop at the mall. The important lesson of this confession is that we consume cultural artifacts and their messages in different ways. While we consume these artifacts in the conventional manner of conspicuous consumption, which renders consumers as passive, blank slates upon which all forms of messages can be written, more recent research efforts have demonstrated another dimension to this idea of passive consumption, showing that we also consume artifacts symbolically and even ironically through small acts of individual resistance.(1) I watch Melrose Place ironically, for the melodramatic plot lines and the obvious acting - itâ€™s so bad, itâ€™s good - while I resist buying cable television because thatâ€™s just too much television.
The Discovery of Difference
The dilemma of being both in and around culture exists at another level: at the level of individual subjectivity. I have already asserted that the phrase â€œin and aroundâ€? constitutes a subject position, if only a paradoxical one. Just as a subject position will only be meaningful if it is defined in relationship to other positions, so too is the subject of that positioning. We need other things to mark the boundaries of ourselves, our identities and our cultures. Psychoanalysis tells us that this process happens at a very early age, when the child recognizes itself as a self; that is to say, as an individual, and also recognizes others as others. Similarly, cognitive psychologists have suggested that we seem predisposed at the earliest ages to recognize difference, the exceptional, as a way of making sense of the world around us. This process of differentiation continues on a social level through identification with race, ethnicity, gender, age, religious affiliation, sexual orientation,
class, etc. These social and cultural positions are defined as much by what they are not as by what they are. We find that we are culturally constructed as subjects and we are socially constructed through the identities we claim or the categories we are placed in. It is easier to understand that class is a social construction but harder to consider how race is a construction, and not simply a natural phenomenon, until we realize that the idea of race emerged in a historically specific way, bolstered by the truth claims of science for various political ends. Race is not natural, it is cultural. Gender is not natural, it is cultural. These statements are made to counter the extent to which ideas about woman, blacks, gays, etc. are so intertwined in the fabric of society as to appear inevitable and unquestionable - natural. The relationship between self and others is a twoway street, producing effects on all parties within a power structure that is typically unequal. This
“discovery,” of others - that moment of first contact between different groups and their subsequent relationships - has been characterized by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida as essentially “violent”: “... the anthropological war [is] the essential confrontation that opens communication between peoples and cultures, even when that communication is not practiced under the banner of colonial or missionary oppression.”(2) This violence occurs at the level of actual, lived experience and at the level of symbolic existence, through words and images; i.e., representations. Design’s relationship with cultural identification is a very important, that is to say, financially significant one. The “discovery” of various cultural groups within society coincides with their definition as an audience and as a market. It is no coincidence that Big Business “discovered” other audiences after the social turmoil of the 1950s and 1960s; the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights Movements to name
but two. We are, in fact, witnessing a renewed discovery of cultural diversity under the banner of multiculturalism, a phenomenon that is reflected in “progressive” advertising campaigns.(3) Tellingly, many of these campaigns are for fashion clientele, contributing to the notion that such “diversity” is “fashionable.”(4) In our discussions of others in this culture, it is hard to imagine a scenario that is not a product of larger economic forces. This applies to the economic development of colonialism that brought slavery to the New World and with it the foundations of racial supremacy, as well as to today’s effects of global capitalism which turn those old feelings of supremacy into longings for contact, even intimate contact, with others - their skin, clothes, language, music, crafts, cuisine. (5) It is this longing for contact with others, their exotic appeal, which drives the desire for cultural appreciation through cultural appropriation.
Race is not natural, it is cultural.
Imaging the Other: The Digital Fiction of First Contact This “discovery” of cultural difference through the recent guise of multiculturalism can be seen in a fall 1993 issue of Time magazine entitled “The New Face of America.” Created as a special issue and devoted exclusively to issues surrounding what we now call “multiculturalism,” this publication effort was sponsored, exclusively, by Chrysler Plymouth Corporation. From the cover: “Take a good look at this woman. She was created by a computer from a mix of several races. What you see is a remarkable preview of The New Face of America. How Immigrants Are Shaping the World’s First Multicultural Society.” We learn inside that this new woman is a composite creature created through the digital “morphing” process combining specified amounts of ethnicity: 15% Anglo-Saxon, 17.5% Middle Eastern, 17.5% African, 7.5% Asian, 35% Southern European, and 7.5% Hispanic. Least we consider her some sort of ethno-technoFrankenstein, we are told that this woman stole
the hearts of several magazine staffers, obviously unaware of her virtual existence. Of course, it doesn’t take a cynic to realize the fallacy of asserting that today’s America represents the world’s first multicultural society. The history of the world’s oppressed would say otherwise. Even though the issue contains a story on interracial marriage and what it calls “crossbreeding,” complete with real husbands and wives and their real mixedrace children, it expends a great deal of effort in the presentation of its digital ethnic-mixing “times table” shown in the next spread. Using the same “morphing” technology as the cover creation, they have assembled 49 others using a 50-50 mixing formula. In a similar vein, the magazine Colors sponsored by the Italian fashion corporation Benetton, in a spring/summer 1993 issue devoted to race, offers a six-page section of digital “possibilities.” In these pages, celebrities are transformed, much like
Ted Turner’s colorizing technique, creating a “black” Queen Elizabeth, a “black” Arnold Schwarzenegger, a “white” Spike Lee, an “Asian” Pope John Paul II and a “white” Michael Jackson. The absurdity of these “possibilities” as reality creates the humor that makes us laugh. These possibilities do not represent any lived reality but a mythic realm where we can now dissolve the outward boundaries of “us and them”ness through the wonders of digital imaging. Our fascination with others has been rethought by anthropologist Michael Taussig, who turns the table on the observer and the observed. Taussig asks “Who is fascinated by what?” when he questions early anthropological expeditions and their use of the camera and the phonograph to make contact with and record other peoples. According to Taussig, “the more important question lies with the white man’s fascination with the non-whites’ fascination with these mimetically capacious machines [the camera and the phonograph].”(6) Similarly, we need to ask ourselves
Who are these images for?
who is served by the wondrous potential of digital imaging to transform pictures of race, ethnicity or gender? Who are these images for? “The shock of recognition! In an electric information environment, minority groups can no longer be contained - ignored. Too many people know too much about each other. Our new environment compels commitment and participation. We have become irrevocably involved with, and responsible for, each other.” The Medium is the Massage, Marshall McLuhan & Quentin Fiore, 1967 Over a quarter-century has passed since this prophecy about our technological relationship with others by media guru Marshall McLuhan. In the racial turbulence of the sixties, McLuhan saw the impact that increased information exchange would have on society, particularly on our relationships with other people. Tinged with the optimism that pervades all technological revolutions, McLuhan injects a message of civic responsibility - an ethics of mutual dependency. Fast-forward to yesterday: “Our critics felt that Matt Mahurin’s work changed the picture fundamentally; I felt it lifted a common police mug shot to the level of art, with no sacrifice to truth. Reasonable people may disagree about that. If there was anything wrong with the cover, in my view, it was that it was not immediately apparent that this was a photo-
illustration rather than an unaltered photograph; to know that, a reader had to turn to our contents page or see the original mug shot on the opening page of the story.” James R. Gaines, Managing Editor, Time, July 4, 1994 This statement was a defense for the use of Matt Mahurin’s digital photo-illustration of O.J. Simpson for Time. This recent event underscores the relationships among electronic technologies, representation and cultural identity and the many issues their convergence raises. There are many instances in recent memory of the manipulation of photographic imagery by digital technology, such as the head-of-Oprah-Winfrey + body-ofAnn-Margaret collage for T.V. Guide or National Geographic’s shifting of the Great Pyramids at Giza, which stirred numerous public controversies over the myth of “the truthfulness of photographs.”(7) In the case of the O.J. Simpson cover, Time
decides to use as its defense the argument that the illustration transcends the original mug shot photo and becomes art, thereby placing it in a special cultural category reserved for suspended judgments, a place where my taste is not yours, yours is not mine, let’s agree to disagree and other relativisms that seemed to have been inherited from the “I’m Okay, You’re Okay” ‘70s. By placing this commission in the realm of art, the editor can argue that the artist who created it (or rather recreated it) gave it something it lacked. This lack occurs, of course, because of the kind of image it is - a mug shot. Justification for Mahurin’s image hinges on displacing everything we know about the social significance of mug shots as documents of suspected criminals and re-reading the image as an intervention of the artist’s hand and eye, thereby elevating the commonplace mug shot to the extraordinary realm of art. The greater at-large and largely negative reaction
to this image occurs at a level of understanding about how images are conceptually framed in society. According to Time management, detractors didn’t read the image “correctly” as a work of art, but rather as what it is, a technological alteration of a mug shot - a photographic document of criminal surveillance.(8) What was read, at least by some, was the darkening of Simpson’s skin tone, which shows that some grasped the fact that this was not the “original” because it did not conform to what they knew (mostly from other pictures) about O.J. Simpson. It did not correspond to the “truth.” The reinscription of a police mug shot, #BK4013970 06-17-94, into the red frame of a Time cover, trades our abstract belief in “innocent until proven guilty” for the tacit knowledge of assumed guilt. The resulting re-creation mixes several other social messages: the story of a fallen public figure (“An American Tragedy,” reads the cover) subconsciously translated in many minds as the verification of everything they think they know of black males and criminal activity. This mini-controversy is but the latest episode in the on-going struggle for representation in our culture that is dressed in the high-tech clothing of digital imaging, while revealing the same old social truths. McLuhan saw a social opportunity but lacked critical insight into the social reality that limits individual options that seek to operate in opposition to established social truths. What is interesting to me is how new digital technologies have been harnessed for representing racial “possibilities.” These ethnic fictions populate
the world of cyberspace in ways that picturing others used to reside in the mind, moving away from imagining the other to imaging the other. Unfortunately, little has changed in the conceptions of race, only the spaces in which they are articulated. The representations of other cultures have moved from the conspicuous colonialism of stolen and bartered objects found in the curiosity cabinet and the natural history museum to the neocolonialism of appropriating cultural representations, including the creation of yet another “other:” a fictive one you can’t know because it doesn’t really exist. It is this aspect of fictitiousness that distinguishes the use of digital imaging techniques to capture and fix the image of the other. Photography has been consistently used to “capture” others, particularly in the field work of anthropologists or the surveillance of police. These photographic depictions have their own level of conceit but always remain true to their claim to capture reality “as it was.” These recent uses of digital imaging techniques, however, relinquish their claims to reality in favor of picturing reality “as it isn’t,” or “as it might be.” The fictive domain of the digital construction can be seen more obviously in another Colors (June 1994) depiction, a portrait of former President Ronald Reagan with skin lesions next to an obituary citing his recent death from complications with AIDS. The fictitious photo and obituary rewrite the Reagan-era policy on AIDS and extol the virtues of a man who “is best remembered for his quick and decisive response to the AIDS epidemic,” under the headline “Hero.” While at great pains to establish
a level of reality for their story, Colors declares the fictitious nature of the story in a footnote and uses the word “manipulation” in the attached photo credit. These are offered to prevent misreading the story as true, while trying to preserve the supreme irony of the story itself. Again, the absurdity of the story plays havoc with the reality of its presentation. Unfortunately, we are left with the “wishful thinking” of the obituary and the all-too-real historical record on the subject. The fictive fantasy of digital “possibilities” seems so appealing because they offer us a form of pleasure through their refusal of a known reality.(9) The ease with which such productions are made is in contrast to the difficulties of easing racial conflict or ending political apathy towards the AIDS pandemic. As a counterpoint to these instrumental uses of digital technologies by mainstream media is the use of similar technologies by British artist Keith
Piper, whose video installation “Surveillances: Tagging the Other,” deals with the use of that technology within the climate of European racism. Piper appropriates the slang term of “tagging” - the marking of territory by a unique graffiti signature and applies it to the use of electronic technologies to mark and track others. In this way, Piper shows how, for example, a proposed New European State could utilize digital technologies and information networks to target social “undesirables” and keep them under surveillance. Piper’s digital images foresee a distinctly 21st-century vision of documenting and analyzing cultural differences in much the same way as 19th-century phrenologists studied the head structures and facial features of others, particularly the insane, the criminal and the “Negro.” Keith Piper’s use of the same technology creates a different digital fiction: one you fear because it might just exist.
Picturing Difference / Representing Diversity We come to know ourselves and others less often through actual contact and more usually through representations in society. Cultural identification is a factor of representation. For example, the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, speaking about the concepts of woman and sexuality, said it succinctly: “Images and symbols for the woman cannot be isolated from images and symbols of the woman. It is representation, the representation of feminine sexuality... which conditions how it comes into play.”(10) The debates about multiculturalism are debates about representation. Although many people consider the issue in terms of sheer numbers a quantitative approach to representation - the issue is not necessarily a lack of representations but the diversity of them; for as the art critic and theorist Craig Owens reminds us: “In our culture there is, of course, no lack of representations of
women - or, for that matter, of other marginalized groups (blacks, homosexuals, children, criminals, the insane...).”(11) Representations can be depictions of others as a kind of shorthand that we substitute for specific cultural categories. The effect of the linkage between dominant political interests and the use of various representations can be seen when we confront wholesale categories that are themselves amalgamations of sex, race and class, without imagery. For example, what image do you form for “welfare mother,” “crack addict,” or “AIDS patient?” These code words are the cultural shorthand for young, unmarried, poor, African-American woman; young, poor, African-American man; and young, white, gay male respectively. Their power derives from their ability to exploit media images of these scenarios in the minds of the public without directing attention to their misogynic, racist and homophobic roots.
Picture This: Voice and Agency
The debate on representation for the graphic designer seems to reside in the space between Karl Marx’s empowering dictate, “They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented,”(12) that is to say, act for others, and Gilles Deleuze’s categorical rejection of such presumed authority - “the indignity of speaking for others.”(13) Marx’s famous dictate is the more typical task that artists and other cultural producers have assigned themselves: to speak for others. Less typical is the statement by Deleuze that suggests, perhaps, letting others speak for themselves. The negotiation of representational strategies seems central for the graphic designer (and others) who are routinely asked to speak for others. Graphic designers and other cultural producers are just beginning to rethink the terms of representation, away from speaking for others and towards speaking with and to others.(14) The factors that would allow others to speak for themselves deal
with access to the means of representation that is ultimately a function of power. The debates around multiculturalism can be seen as a struggle for control over the means of representation. As Craig Owens states, it is representation itself that takes away the ability to speak for oneself. However, the traffic in representations will not end since it is fundamental to the operation of our society. So, while increased instances of represented others (tokenism) inject some presence into the picture, they do little to explain the previous exclusions. Fundamental change is unlikely to occur through the pages of multinational corporate advertising no matter how many others are depicted. After all, have you â€œCome a Long Way, Baby!â€?? Fundamental change is much more likely to come at a broader social level through a multitude of changes from any number of sectors and inevitably it will be reflected in the construction of various representations, made by graphic designers and other cultural producers and ultimately incorporated in the constitution of identities. After all, corporate advertising campaigns and token representatives (spot the black, the Asian, the woman in the scene) do not create diversity but merely reflect it.
The work of socially engaged activists, artists and designers tries to undermine the stereotype in innumerable ways; through disruptive strategies such as appropriation, subversion and inversion, as well as the destabilizing tactics of deconstructive textual readings and demystifying widely held views.(15) True inclusiveness, as a result of empowerment or agency, includes access to both the means of producing cultural representations and to the modes of their distribution in society. In this way, the voices of others will be heard only when those others have access to the larger public sphere. While graphic designers may claim an independent status, like that of neutral observers, we find that their role is a central one in the system of representations. As producers and consumers of various cultural artifacts, understood as both tangible goods, such as books and magazines, as well as the more intangible products, such as ephemeral messages and images, graphic designers find themselves both in and around culture. So what is the answer? The problems are multifaceted and much larger than design, which means we need a variety of responses on a variety
of levels. It helps to remember that we are both designers and citizens. In this way, you can be part of the solution even if you are not designing for it. It also helps to remember that graphic design is about messages, and that our solutions are merely contributions to a larger effort. There must be greater cultural diversity in the people who design, including an analysis of why these people are not there now. We need greater critical awareness that the teaching and practice of design occur in larger social frameworks, governed by rules of racism, patriarchy, heterosexism, etc., particularly for those individuals who may not
experience it themselves. We need a greater range of methods and options for practicing graphic design that begins to step outside of a reactionary response to problems with its outmoded, pyramidal (top-down) structure and towards a more inclusive, responsive position found in activities like, for example, collaboration and co-authorship. Much to the disappointment of many, these issues will not disappear with dismissals of â€œpolitical correctnessâ€? since they reflect a fundamental social change that has been underway for quite some time, no matter how slow it seems in coming for the rest of us. Quite simply, design has no choice but to get used to it.
1. The now classic example drawn from work of popular culture is Ien Ang’s Watching Dallas, first published in the Netherlands in 1982. Ang gathered responses from women by placing an ad in the Dutch woman’s magazine Viva, addressed to those who either liked to watch the American soap opera Dallas or disliked it. Ang discovered three general positions toward the program: one group of fans, a second set of viewers who watched the program ironically and a third group who hated the show. Ang’s work demonstrates that the consumption of cultural artifacts (in this case watching t.v.) is a complex negotiation involving sometimes the wholesale acceptance of the show’s message (by fans), sometimes an outright rejection of such debased messages and meanings (by haters) and sometimes an inverted re-reading of the show’s message and meaning (by ironists). Ang’s work is important because she examines how pleasure is produced through consumption, in rather complex ways with contradictory value systems, rather than seeing consumption as simply an end in and of itself. 2. “The Battle of Proper Names,” from “Part II: Nature, Culture, Writing” in Of Grammatology by Jacques Derrida, 1976, p.107. Derrida’s comment is in context of a discussion of the “Writing Lesson” by the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. The linkage between violence and representation is fully present in this allegorical image of “America” by Philippe Galle in the late 16th century. The New World is rendered as a naked, violent woman. Why a naked, violent woman? 3. The advent of “multi-culti” advertising has produced a bewildering amount of information on the consumptive preferences and buying patterns of various ethnic groups. For example, we now know that Korean Americans consume more Spam than any other ethnic group or that Chinese Americans drink more Cognac. In the words of one executive, “Today’s marketing is part anthropology.”
4. The most visible of these campaigns is the on-going “United Colors of Benetton.” A critical analysis of Benetton is made by Jeff Rosen in his article “Merchandising Multiculturalism: Benetton and the New Cultural Relativism,” New Art Examiner, November 1993, pp.18–26. The critical difference lies in how the concept of multiculturalism will be allowed to exist as a force in society. Will multiculturalism act as a force for substantive change in how we deal with other cultures? Is it to be seen as a form of marginalized pluralism? Or is it simply a relative concept perfect for the marketing of our times? In the reported words of Benetton’s creative director Oliviero Toscani, “Products change, images capitalize.” Or as Rosen notes, “Toscani has it backwards: Images change, products capitalize.” 5. “The commodification of Otherness has been so successful because it is offered as a new delight, more intense, more satisfying than normal ways of doing and feeling. Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture.” - bell hooks from “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance,” in Black Looks: Race and Representation, 1992, p. 21. 6. “The Talking Machine,” in Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses by Michael Taussig, 1993, p. 198. 7. For an extended account of what he calls the “pseudo-photograph,” see William J. Mitchell’s book The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era (1992); in particular, the chapters “Intention and Artifice” and “How to Do Things with Pictures.” 8. For a critical account of the use of photography in the service of documenting criminal activity, see “The Body and the Archive” by Allan Sekula, reprinted in The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography, 1989. 9. This thought parallels some of the conclusions of Ien Ang (see note 1), who argues that fantasy and fiction do not “func-
tion in place of, but beside, other dimensions of life (social practice, moral or political consciousness). “It...is a source of pleasure because it puts ‘reality’ in parentheses, because it constructs imaginary solutions for real contradictions, which in their fictional simplicity and their simple fictionality step outside the tedious complexity of existing social relations of dominance and subordination.” (p.135) 10. “Guiding Remarks for a Congress on Feminine Sexuality,” by Jacques Lacan in Feminine Sexuality, edited by Juliet Mitchell, 1982, p. 90. 11. “‘The Indignity of Speaking for Others’: An Imaginary Interview,” by Craig Owens in Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power and Culture, 1992, p. 262. 12. The comment is from Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire in a discussion of the French peasantry. This is discussed by Owens (see note 10), who adds: “Here, Marx uncritically assumes the traditional role of politically motivated intellectual - or artist - in bourgeois society: he appropriates for himself the right to speak on behalf of others, setting himself up as their conscience - indeed, as consciousness itself. But in order to occupy this position, he must first deny them (self-) consciousness, the ability to represent themselves.” (p.261). 13. Michel Foucault, “ Intellectuals and Power: A Conversation between Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze” in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, 1977, p.209. This statement by Deleuze about Foucault’s work comes from Craig Owens’s
essay (see note 10). 14. Undoubtedly, designers are discovering that issues of cultural diversity and social responsibility can be found in their own back yards. As I write this, the premiere issue of Sphere has arrived at my door, a publication by the World Studio Foundation. The stated intent of the Foundation is threefold: to “examine the role of cultural identity in the design disciplines,” to “collect and disseminate information about social projects in the global creative community” and to “encourage projects that empower individuals and communities to participate in the shaping of their environment.” While their intentions are laudable I am left with an uneasy feeling. Perhaps it’s cynicism, maybe it’s the Colors-like design that makes me suspicious, or maybe it’s the $50 subscription price. See the brief report on World Studio, I.D. magazine, November 1993, p. 26. 15. It is easier to see the work produced by artists as instances of “others speaking for themselves” and in the process enabling another voice to be heard. I think of Carrie Mae Weems, and African-American woman, whose photographic series “Ain’t Jokin” with titles such as “Black Woman with Chicken” or “What are the three things you can’t give a black person?” or of the Native-American artist Jimmie Durham’s work, both of whom undermine the prevalent stereotypes produced by and for dominant culture. It is harder to see this activity in the realm of graphic design proper, much of which is produced by and for dominant cultural interests.
IN AND AROUND:
Cultures of Design and the Design of Cultures Part Two
By Andrew Blauvelt
As a spectator to the saber rattling of recent articles arguing, in very different ways, for graphic design to understand its social consequences and function, I am led back to their usual foil: style. In this line of reasoning “style,” particularly when seen as formal experimentation, is explicitly or implicitly contrasted with “substance,” usually understood as the content or message.(1) Of course, these oppositions of style and substance, form and content, are as old as the art versus design debate. The newness of recent arguments, however, lies in the epiphany that graphic design is a product of larger social forces and contributes to this thing called “culture.” This reasoning extends the analysis beyond the substance of any particular message to examine content in the bigger picture of cultural consequences and social functions; in short, its context. As an articulate contributor to the debate, Andrew Howard in his essay, “There is such a thing as
society,” notes that the concern for understanding graphic design in a larger framework of society does not “preclude an exploration of the formal representation of language.”(2) This statement is made to counter the extent to which discussions of social and cultural context seem to situate themselves against the kind of intense visual experimentation associated with recent graphic design. In this way issues of form are separated from issues of content while style is severed from meaning. I believe it is necessary to rejoin these artificially constructed oppositions in order to engage in a more meaningful discussion of graphic design. For graphic design to understand its relationship to culture, we need to consider how its visual language operates in society; its locations and dispersals and how these, in turn, effect meaning. We also need a better understanding of why graphic design exists in society, which requires a critical examination of the interests it serves and can serve.
With this in mind, I would like to consider a space that is opened through an understanding of the relationship between the concepts of design and culture. I wish to explore this designculture relationship through two terms borrowed from recent work in historical studies: circulation and negotiation.(3) These two terms describe a relationship between design and culture in two related ways. I use the term â€œcirculationâ€? to speak of the traffic in visual languages, or styles, focusing on their location within particular groups and their dissemination among other social groups through forces like appropriation. Negotiation relates to the idea of the transference of visual languages or styles from one group to another, not as simply a wholesale acceptance, but as a consequence of some give and take. These forms of exchange should not be thought of as somehow even or balanced, because the social positions of who gives and who receives are different, thereby reflecting
an unequal distribution of power. Additionally, the circulation of visual languages is not unidirectional, flowing one-way from the top down or from the bottom up, but rather, an exchange among various social strata, where they attain specific meanings and associations and generate new meanings through each transference.(4)
The Traffic in Signs
The traffic in signs is the big business of professional graphic design. The high contrast marks of corporate symbols and logotypes and the ubiquity of the international signs of the pictograph are the products of this business of graphic design, signaling the way through the contemporary public sphere. Graphic design literally packages the commodities of consumer culture as it shows us the way to the bathroom.
The corporationâ€™s identity is protected through its status as a registered trademark as it makes its way through the global marketplace asserting its uniqueness, its difference, in the face of utter homogenization - illustrating a basic premise of consumer promotion, the first principle of advertising: how to be a unique individual while being like everyone else. It is the particular nature of corporate culture which can speak of difference through the language of sameness. This condition of sameness should be familiar to anyone who has lived with its environmental equivalent, suburbia. Now referred to as the â€œWalMarting of America,â€? the feelings of sameness and placelessness can now be exported on a global scale under one of the many signs of late-capitalist corporate culture. Just as an economy based on old trade routes fostered the development of colonies and colonial imperialism, the new global economy continues this, shuttling products between countries
and consolidating capital in certain places, namely the U.S., Japan and Western Europe. This vision of globalism with its transcendence of cultural differences is different than earlier, decidedly modernist visions of universal communication based on the hopes for a shared visual language.(5) While English may be the international language of business, it is the language of capital that facilitates the exchange of goods, the accumulation of wealth and the ever increasing penetration of foreign markets by transnational corporations. At a global scale, the circulation of graphic design is predicated on its instrumental use by and for dominant interests. However, reactions to the forces of corporate imperialism and cultural homogenization vary from wholehearted embrace to subversive resistance, including much in-between these opposing positions. It is some of these uses or reactions to the more dominant forms of visual language, and the interests they support, which I would like to journey through.
Trickle-Up Aesthetic: Artistic Appropriations
The world of logos, symbols and pictographs, as the invention of graphic design, becomes the material of artistic production through the work of numerous artists who came to typify artmaking in the 1980s, using the language, style, and the promotional strategies of mass media advertising. The roster of names should be familiar, from “image-scavenging” artists such as Barbara Kruger to “word smiths” of language such as Jenny Holzer, all of whom provide, in different ways, a critique of mass media. In these artistic strategies the traffic in signs moves from the spaces of popular culture to the spaces of elite culture - into the world of museums, galleries, alternative spaces, art journals and eventually art history. The work of three artists serves to illustrate the reuse of two types of signs; one type held within the public domain and the other circulated within the public domain but protected from infringement through copyright and trademark registrations.
The signs, symbols, and pictographs of the public sphere are the subject of artist Matt Mullican’s work. These signs should be familiar to anyone who moves about in today’s society; high-contrast, simplified, and silhouetted forms, some personified with names like “Mr. Yuck” but the vast majority living life in anonymity. These signs constitute what Ellen Lupton and J. Abbott Miller refer to as a form of contemporary “hieroglyphics,” occupying a “space between pictures and writing,” and combining “the generality of the typographic mark with the specificity of pictures.”(6) These signs exist in society for the purpose of conditioning our behavior and controlling our actions, limiting choices by simplifying options. As Henri Lefebvre notes, “the signal commands, controls behavior and consists of contrasts chosen precisely for their contradiction (such as, for instance, red and green)”(7) thereby paring down options by setting up binary oppositions, organized into systems of
codes. Mullican appropriates and originates these marks and recasts them, sometimes literally, into situations which point out their presence in the world and that presumably make us question their social function. Critics have been quick to point to the subversive quality of Mullican’s work, particularly his more public projects.(8) Walter Kalaidjian describes how Mullican’s works “function to disorient and estrange the ‘normal’ traffic in social communication”(9) and then relates Mullican’s reported reaction to a work that caused Belgian and Flemish nationalist tensions to run high when he placed a large flag over a museum in Brussels using yellow and black, unbeknownst to Mullican as the Flemish national colors: “When I put an image on a flag, I found it meant something very different than when I put it on a piece of paper.”(10) Mullican’s discovery that a change in format changes meaning is incomplete without the
recognition that the concepts of cultural specificity and context - those colors, that site, those cultures - are necessary for a more complete understanding of the event. In an ironic turn of events, Mullican and his New York gallery, Mary Boone, are upset with a banner hanging in the clothing store next door, Max Studio.(11) Mullican is arguing that the store’s logo is a work he first unveiled as a flag at the 1982 Documenta art fair. The store argues that a graphic designer created their image independently of Mullican and with symbols in the public domain. In this case of ownership and property rights, symbols circulated in the public sphere and considered generic are now argued as unique, protected works, whether by artist or designer. The sites of consumption, whether gallery or clothing store, attempt to control the system of codes and find, to their surprise, the truly subversive irony of their struggles. The corporate domain consists of legally protected symbols, logotypes and other graphic marks circulate
globally and have come to represent the corporation itself. Indeed it is argued that these marks come to represent the “personality” of the corporation, its (inter) face with the public.(12) It is presumably the concept of differentiation which enables each corporate body to have a unique, memorable face. Corporate uniqueness is played against corporate sameness in the need for an image that is able to transcend specific cultures and national boundaries, not only in the form of a global spokesperson or universal human themes, but also in a way that obscures the compulsion to consume and the realities of industrial production. The advent of zip code clusters and increasingly sophisticated tracking methods enables a narrower demographic profile of consumers and their consumptive patterns. This penetration of everyday life is supported by the massive saturation of corporate-sponsored images and messages that have effectively substituted the value of the image itself for a product’s inherent usefulness or exchangeability.(13)
These signs exist in society for the purpose of conditioning our behavior and controlling our actions
The artist Ashley Bickerton gives us the quintessential late-capitalist consumer portrait in his construction “Tormented Self-Portrait,” emblazoned with the corporate emblems that constitute the life of his subject, including Bickerton’s signature - effectively objectifying the phrase: “You are what you eat.” Mullican and Bickerton appropriate the marks of public life knowing that their reception within the world of art galleries and museums will be received with a knowing irony, effectively negotiating their meanings from their circulation in popular culture to the institutional spaces of elite culture. This pattern of circulation and negotiation shifts meaning from the specific character of a generic existence (the logotype or pictograph in the world) to a generic character of specific existence (the logotype or pictograph in the art world). While Mullican and Bickerton offer us one critique of contemporary life by representing these signs in a different context, other artists such as Hans Haacke have deployed a social critique of corporate life that focuses on exposing its instrumentality by adopting its language. In a range of works Haacke subverts the propriety of corporate symbols and
advertising codes not simply by appropriating them outright but by manipulating them to expose corporate interests that lie behind logos, ad campaigns and spokespersons. A particular example is Haacke’s 1976 exhibition titled “The Chase Advantage.” In this project, Haacke appropriates Chase Manhattan Bank’s symbol, the octagon shape designed by Chermayeff & Geismar in 1960,(14) and inserts into its empty center an “advertisement” juxtaposing a statement made by Chase’s chairman justifying the company’s support of and investment in modern art and another statement by a public relations expert extolling the need for a company to “induce the people to believe in the sincerity and honesty of purpose of the management of the company which is asking for their confidence.” This project was part of a series exposing the interconnectedness of corporate patronage of the arts thereby implicating the art world system in a larger framework of corporate interests and demystifying the seemingly neutral status of the museum or gallery. The controversy and censorship that greets much of Haacke’s work stands in contrast to the subversive qualities attributed to Bickerton or Mullican.(15)
Stealing the Signs: Voices from Left Field At another point on the cultural spectrum, in the space of subcultures, we witness another series of appropriations. Stealing the signs of commerce appropriation is, after all, a term reserved for art - is the ultimate copyright infringement. The equity of the sign, its semiotic investment, is emptied and dominant meanings subverted. The high-jacked symbol or pictograph is pressed into service, delivering a new message and engaging in what Umberto Eco calls “semiotic guerrilla warfare.” British fashion stylist Judy Blame’s T-shirt design
brandishes the message against the intellectual pollution of neo-fascism by recycling the image of “tidy man” putting litter in its place. Blame substitutes the paper wad of the famous pictograph with the Nazi swastika, which was previously borrowed from its ancient associations with good luck and fortune, now recovered from history by Neo-Nazis. The obviousness of the political message of Blame’s design points up the seemingly apolitical nature of the original pictograph. To say that Blame’s design politicizes the pictograph is to miss the original
encoding of tidy man - a sign that compels our allegiance to prevailing social standards of hygiene and ecology. Blameâ€™s message registers with its intended audience through the recontextualization process, an intellectual project made famous by the Surrealists, who knew the power of the unexpected. Another symbol of Nazi Germany is the subject
of recontextualization, this time by AIDS activists. The Silence = Death Project inverts the pink triangle used by Nazis to identify homosexuals in concentration camps and subverts its infamous meaning from a sign of stigmatized visibility to an outward gesture of the invisibility of the AIDS crisis. This symbol of AIDS activism does not borrow wholesale from history, but rather alters the
original by rotating its orientation from downward to upward and incorporating the typographic message “SILENCE= DEATH.” Douglas Crimp and Adam Rolston relate the linkage between a symbol associated with Nazi death camps and the contemporary AIDS crisis: “SILENCE=DEATH declares that silence about the oppression and annihilation of gay people, then and now, must be broken as a matter of our survival.”(16) Stuart Marshall, co-chair of Positively Healthy, an organization of people with AIDS, has pointed out the problematic nature of this historical appropriation. Marshall argues specifically against the use of the pink triangle as it fosters a notion of victimization, “which has tended to stress death, annihilation, and holocaust and genocide analogies in its attempts to stir the state into a caring response to the crisis.”(17) Marshall’s arguments are well taken, particularly as they relate to one form of AIDS discourse dominating the voices of those
surviving with AIDS. However, although Marshall relies on a specific historical understanding of how the Nazi’s dealt with homosexuals (understood as gay men, lesbians are not mentioned), he seems to inadequately address the recontextualization of that symbol or the circumstances of its contemporary reception. The mark itself is not simply the pink triangle - taken from the past and displaced into the present - but rather a signature mark combining an inverted symbol and typographic message, with its own history. The meaning of this transformed symbol registers with its audiences not only because of the familiarity of its previous existence even if it is a suppressed history - but also because it is transformed in the act of possession. Capturing the language of oppressors, making it one’s own, is seen as an important event on the way to ending that oppression and underscores the importance of controlling the codes of representation.(18)
SILENCE = DEATH 37
The Ecstasy of Communication The appropriation of the symbols and images of popular culture is by now a well-documented tactic of youth culture in its subcultural manifestations, such as the punk movement of the 1970s and the rave culture of the 1990s. The graphic design produced for rave culture (promoting its raves as well as its diversified interests in things like clothing), illustrates an interesting recent phenomenon of the circulation and negotiation of visual styles as they move from design cultures to popular culture and back again to design culture. The rave graphic represents the technological mutation and synthesis of pop culture imagery and the typographic manipulations available on the personal computer. The rave graphic entrepreneur, especially as an untrained professional, represents graphic design’s technophobic nightmare. The demystified technical processes of graphic design are readily available to “kids” educated on Macintosh computers who have the ability to transform found images and to skew, outline, bend, and otherwise “mutilate” type.(19) As graphic designer Jeffrey Keedy suggests, the source material for much of this work is the stuff of professional graphic designers of yesterday: “The old and low cultures that rave designers borrow from are primarily American corporate and package design of the
seventies and eighties (now there’s some hacks)! Rave designers love logos, lots of color and outlined type, and hey who doesn’t? The fact that the ‘professional designer’s’ work is now being reworked like any other bit of ephemera might be some kind of poetic justice, but it fails to be an interesting design strategy. That’s because their work (like their predecessors) is essentially a oneliner that has little resonance beyond the ‘shock of the old.’”(20) This maybe true if you are judging this work with the values near and dear to graphic design, a notion of stylistic invention as innovation inherited from the avant-garde, where newness is next to Godliness. The work is interesting to me because it represents both a form of corporate cultural appropriation and subcultural invention, and it achieves this using the latest tool of graphic design, the personal computer. Unlike the photocopier aesthetic of the punk graphic, the rave graphic gains its legitimacy,
its threatening posture to professional design, from the computer’s ability to sample images and seamlessly integrate the results. Gone are the mystifying processes and technical skills that supported graphic design’s professional autonomy and what remains intact are the designer’s claims to originality and innovation. These claims seem to be the last defense against professional collapse. The availability of the personal computer enables the maker of rave graphics to have access to the means of producing graphic design and carries with it the residue of its making. That is to say, the multitude of rave graphics carries the signature of the computer - its “information texture,” to borrow a term from April Greiman. Suddenly the distancing of the designer of the rave graphic as somehow outside the profession becomes problematic when we are confronted with the highly celebrated designs of a professional graphic designer like P. Scott Makela, whose work carries much of the same
technological residue. Makela as a self-described “hacker”(21) certainly toys with the distinctions and refuses the boundaries of a graphic designer with his work in other media. The creation of the rave graphic produces another code, another style. The unfortunate consequence of subcultural resistance is pop cultural commodification; as Dick Hebdige notes: “Youth cultural styles may begin by issuing symbolic challenges, but they must inevitably end by establishing new sets of conventions; by creating new commodities, new industries or rejuvenating old ones...”(22) The subcultural, as a code, becomes incorporated or assimilated into mainstream culture through commodities where any subversive power is lost. The circulation of rave graphics into the space of popular culture creates new effects on other designers. For the professional graphic designer, the rave graphic becomes a vernacular form, an oddity on the mundane visual landscape of cultural life. It comes to represent a challenge to mainstream society and visual culture, it has the currency of the “code.” It becomes the representation of a prevailing style used to articulate a subculture’s difference and the professional sees this as an
available language with which to engage others. Thus, the language of the rave graphic is employed by the designers of ReVerb to promote a fundraiser for the literary and art journal Now Time. For the designers of ReVerb, the rave graphic is but one more style available in the heterogeneous cultural milieu that they ascribe to Los Angeles. (23) For ReVerb the resulting mixture, the clash of styles, is to be prized for its inclusive approach, rejecting the exclusivity of modernism. The hybridity that results from this clash of styles generates new forms and new meanings. As Lorraine Wild, a partner in ReVerb, states: “We use styles like maniacs but we never use them lock, stock and barrel...We would usually manipulate them to create some kind of tension. No style is good or bad, it’s just another style - whether you use it wholesale or not.”(24) Authentic culture is gone, if it ever existed, and what is left is the material of invention. Ripe for quotation and parody, the styles of multiple cultures are presumably available to all. The graphic designer, seeking to speak to different pockets of culture, draws upon a range of styles supposedly denied it under the guise of modernism or the rules of professional practice. If the multiple cultures
of Los Angeles represent a vernacular language, then a case could be made for ReVerb’s work responding to the unique conditions and particular circumstances that are endemic to L.A. - a condition Kenneth Frampton labels “critical regionalism.”(25) A much larger cultural space of appropriation is envisioned by the Designer’s Republic, who would go as far as another planet for inspiration and certainly as far as Japan, without ever leaving Sheffield. In the Age of Information, firsthand contact seems potentially corrupting for designer Ian Anderson: “In some ways [a trip to Japan] may mark the end of an era, as I would loose my isolationist naiveté about the Japanese culture.”(26) In an interview with Rudy VanderLans, the Designer’s Republic sets itself up as thoroughly postmodern, in tune
with pop culture and reveling in the contradictory stances that are indicative of graphic design’s anonymous social status and the celebrity status that comes with an identifiable style. Anderson describes the appropriation tactics of their style as it relates to the bigger social framework of contemporary life, where everything is up for grabs: “If there’s something which suits our purpose, we’ll use it, but we don’t discriminate when it comes to inspiration. There is no hierarchy in the age of plunder, there is equality; from the humble sweet wrapper, through the billboard on the side of a bus right up to sacred texts of Bradbury Thompson and Weingart himself.”(27) In this way, the potential subjects of appropriation are equally available for reuse, while all other hierarchies are preserved, especially the role
of the designer. In a particularly telling passage commenting on someone who appropriated a Designer’s Republic design, Anderson states his conditional approval: “I don’t really have a problem with it as long as it doesn’t detract from what we do, as long as it is used to create something new, something more than it was before and providing there is a reason for it beyond lack of imagination.”(28) The values to which they subscribe are precisely those that are used to sustain professional graphic design: originality, innovation and rationality; and these are, ironically, the virtues we associate with modernism, not necessarily postmodernism. Anderson, however, does not wish to change the social status of graphic design itself and does not believe that he is in a “position to improve [society’s] condition,” and will continue “to enjoy the game I find intriguing.”(29) Part of that game is establishing a position within graphic design that simultaneously tries to defy it - extending beyond
the confines of the profession and into the global flow of images. In what might be an emblematic image for this position, the Designer’s Republic has merged the icon of ‘70s pop culture, the smiley face, with one of the icons of “good design,” Paul Rand’s Westinghouse symbol of 1960. In a gesture indicative of cultural genetic engineering, the Designer’s Republic has created a symbol of the hesitant space between a highly protected corporate image and a highly marketed cultural image, effectively fusing pop and corporate culture’s underlying sameness: the ubiquity of the mantra “good design-is-good business” with the banality of “have a nice day.” Makela, ReVerb, the Designer’s Republic and others distance themselves from graphic design proper in their respective ways: by transgressing professional boundaries, rejecting professional standards, or denying that you’re a designer at all.
What Goes Around, Comes Around The circulation of signs comes full circle, weaving its way from the corporate culture of the anonymous design found in the mini-mart to its subcultural manifestations in the rave graphic back into the public space of urban culture and to the institutions of high culture - filtered through the professional culture of graphic design proper where it can be dismissed today and copied tomorrow. It is the public sphere where graphic design circulates and it is this space that is highly contested, regulated and protected. Dominant cultural interests favor the exchange and circulation of symbols and images to take place in the marginalized spaces of youth subcultures, artistic enclaves, and design avant-gardes. As the artist Keith Piper laments: â€œ... in this mass media, mass broadcast age, it has become easy for the artist to siphon information and images off for our own use, it however remains almost as difficult as ever, to find a space to return and distribute the results
of our activities within that mass media. Access to the existing channels of mass communication still remain firmly in the hands of the enfranchised and empowerment within those channels remains their closely guarded preserve.”(30) The invention of style, whether on the street or on the screen, will continue in spite of the forces of homogenization, because it is thought to reflect the heterogeneous quality of life. Style could be better understood as a manifestation of culturally specific communications rather than a byproduct of some nebulous cultural “fallout” or an exotic language of difference. The designer needs to consider his or her role in a society that is increasingly stratified and culturally differentiated. Perhaps this is what Lorraine Wild had in mind when she says: “We need more graphic design particular to the tribes, not less.”(31)
Any attempt to understand design as somehow fixed in a hierarchy of cultural spaces (high or good design versus low or kitsch design) or in a historical linearity of precedent and influence (originators and impostors) seems futile. Design should know that its place is not fixed, that design resides in all spaces. The traffic in signs that design produces circulates among these spaces, negotiating the differences of multiple positions of social and cultural identities. The privileged space reserved for the professional designer, either real or imagined, has been perforated by the historical and theoretical demise of modernism as well as by the technological democratization of the means of producing graphic design. The resulting trauma of this violent perforation in the social fabric of design culture allows us the opportunity to discover our own precarious position, both in and around.
1. I subscribe to the notion that style carries meaning and is neither simply a meaningless ornament attached to nor separable from some truer, deeper, or purer structure. This dichotomy is argued by J. Abbott Miller, who makes a case for such an opposition between style and structure, in his essay “The idea is the machine,” in Eye, Vol.3, No.10, 1993, pp.5865. 2. Andrew Howard, “There is such a thing as society*,” in Eye, Vol.4, No.13, 1994, pp.72-77. 3. These terms are borrowed from Steven Greenblatt as exemplified in his book Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988. 4. The trickle-down theory of stylistic diffusion, a sort-of supplyside aestheticism, is typically attributable to certain modernist sensibilities borne out of elitism, while the trickle-up theory of stylistic diffusion is of a more recent vogue, as exemplified by the MoMA exhibition, High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture. Corrective variants exist for this model including Ellen Lupton’s critical examination of the graphic designer’s love affair with the “vernacular.” See Lupton’s “High and Low: A Strange Case of Us and Them?” in Eye, Vol.2, No.7, 1992, pp.72-77. 5. The modern drive to collapsing the boundaries between nations occurs both verbally and visually through utopian projects like developing an Esperanto, or common verbal language, or in the development of pictographic systems such as ISOTYPE. Modernist qualities of objectivity and rationality reign in Otto Neurath’s ISOTYPE system, which adopts the abstract, reductive forms we now associate with signage programs meant to facilitate our movement through places like airports or the Olympic Games. 6. Ellen Lupton and J. Abbott Miller, “Critical Way Finding,” in
The Edge of the Millennium, Susan Yelavich, ed., New York: Whitney Library of Design, 1993, p.223. 7. Henri Lefevbre, Everyday Life in the Modern World, New York: Harper & Row, 1971, p.56. 8. Nancy Princenthal in an introduction to an exhibition catalog for Matt Mullican, Untitled, 1986/7, states: “[Mullican] likes to place his work in public places, but its status there is subversive. He does not endorse standard stick-figure/plane geometry signage, but instead returns it to aesthetic consideration.” (p.5) 9. Walter Kalaidjian, American Culture Between the Wars, New York: Columbia University Press, 1993, p. 224. 10. The original statement was published in “Sign Language,” Peter Clothier, ArtNews, Summer 1989, p.146. 11. “Theft, Coincidence, or Art,” in AIGA Journal of Graphic Design, Vol.12, No.2, 1994, p. 48. 12. The foundational text promoting this idea is Wally Ollins’s The Corporate Personality, London: Design Council, 1978. For an excellent critical analysis of Ollins’s text, see: Steve Baker, “Re-reading the Corporate Personality,” in Journal of Design History, Vol.2, No.4, 1989, pp. 275-292. 13. Jean Baudrillard, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, St. Louis: Telos Press, 1981. 14. The abstract, reductive forms of modern art that were favored by David Rockefeller, CEO of Chase Manhattan and an officer of the Museum of Modern Art, go hand in hand with the design of the Chase Manhattan Bank symbol, which Philip Meggs describes as “an abstract form unto itself, free from alphabetical, pictographic, or figurative connotations” that “could successfully function as a visual identifier for a large organization.” In this way the “free” symbol can stand in for the corporation. Haacke trades on this substitution, “grounding” the symbol in the history of Chase Manhattan policies and
corporate ideologies with its use of seemingly neutral art. 15. Most, if not all of Haacke’s projects meet with controversy and a few with censorship, including his Hans Haacke: Systems exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in 1971 and his Manet-PROJEKT ‘74 in Germany. 16. Douglas Crimp with Adam Rolston, AIDS DEMOGRAPHICS, Seattle: Bay Press, 1990, p.14. 17. Stuart Marshall, “The Contemporary Political Use of Gay History: The Third Reich,” in How Do I Look? Queer Film and Video, Seattle: Bay Press, 1991, p.89. 18. This phenomenon is by now widespread including the appropriation of terms like “queer” and “fag.” Historian Stephen Greenblatt describes the first act of appropriation on the part of colonizers is the abduction of natives to serve as translators. See “Kidnapping Language” in Marvelous Possessions, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991, pp.86-118. 19. See Michael Dooley’s essay, “Frequent Flyers,” in Print, XLVII:II, March/April 1993, pp.42-53+. 20. Jeffrey Keedy, “I Like the Vernacular...NOT!” in Lift and Separate: Graphic Design and the Quote/Unquote Vernacular, New York: Herb Lubalin Study Center of the Cooper Union, p.9. 21. Michael Bierut, “Sampling the Candy: P. Scott Makela,” in I.D., Vol 41, No.1, January/February 1994, p.55.
22. Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, London: Methuen, 1979, p.96. 23. Anne Burdick, “A sense of rupture,” in Eye, Vol.4, No.14, 1994, pp.48-57. 24. Ibid, p.53. 25. Kenneth Frampton, “Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance,” in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, Hal Foster, ed., Seattle: Bay Press, 1983, pp.16-30. “The fundamental strategy of Critical Regionalism is to mediate the impact of universal civilization with elements derived indirectly from the peculiarities of a particular place....But it is necessary...to distinguish between Critical Regionalism and simple-minded attempts to revive the hypothetical forms of a lost vernacular.” (p.21) 26. Interview with Rudy VanderLans, Emigre #29, 1994, p.16. 27. Ibid, p.18. 28. Ibid, p.11. 29. Ibid, p.19. 30. Keith Piper, “Forty Acres and a Microprocessor,” in Place, Position, Presentation, Public, Ine Gevers, ed., Maastricht, the Netherlands: Jan van Eyck Akademie, p.263 & 266. 31. Laurie Haycock Makela and Ellen Lupton, “Underground matriarchy,” in Eye, Vol.4, No.14, 1994, p.46.
SKILLING SAWS AND ABSORBENT CATALOGUES
By Kenneth FitzGerald
The Matter with Two Minds
Designers have an art conflict. When attempting to establish design quality, discussions customarily enter - some say intrude into - the region of art. Is design an art overall? Is great design art? For the latter question, the answer’s usually “yes,” no matter what designer you ask. For the former question, the answer seems invariably to be “no.” Paul Rand himself couldn’t arrive at a consistent, coherent answer to those questions. Depending upon where his theorizing wandered, design was or was not art. Neither author nor editor cared (or dared) resolve the internal inconsistency created by contradictory claims. To Rand’s legacy we may add this art-schizophrenia. Design desires to be art and not-art simultaneously - and fears it’s nothing. While it is futile to argue what is and isn’t art or design, we will gain from studying the origin and operation of the terms. By revealing our need for such terms we may move to a healthy method of evaluation. The goal is not to “elevate” design to art’s level but
to relocate both. It’s a given that art has a higher cultural station, however nebulous and undeserved. Establishing this hierarchy is an evaluating function based entirely upon self-image rather than objective criteria. People want the prestige that derives either from producing art or knowing it when they see it. This despite the fact that there is not, never has been, and never will be a consensus on what art is. Art is all aura - wondrous but unable to sustain itself under the spotlight. Challenging stock convictions may move us toward what Edward O. Wilson calls a “consilience.” This obscure 1840 word derives from William Whewell’s book The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences. Wilson describes the word as meaning “...literally a ‘jumping together’ of knowledge as a result of the linking of facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation.” As art and design are intellectual constructs, we can never prove any assertions. We
may, however, establish a more realistic foundation for discussion of our visual culture. More than conceiving new theory, we need to identify and disassemble the many ill-constructed conceptions between and within art and design. Ultimately, consilience is a radical action for both fields. For art, consilience challenges a position at the top of the cultural food-chain. A major threat for design is to the stature of designers whose regard within the field depends upon peer ignorance of art. The paradox of design is that the more it tries to distance itself from art and assert independence, the more art-like it becomes. Conversely, prominent efforts to (re)connect design to art have only served to devalue design and produce a legion of irascible practitioners. Articulating a substantive difference between art and design is impracticable. In terms of forms, process, intent, causality, or response, the activities are identical. Difference lies in the sector of
consumer culture one wishes to operate in, and the cultural role we feel most comfortable playing. “It is clear that art is useless, that perceiver and artist are arrogant and indifferent. ... Art tells us nothing about the world that we cannot find elsewhere and more reliably. Art does not make us better citizens, or more moral, or more honest. It may conceivably make us worse.” - Morse Peckham “...The presumption of art’s essential ‘goodness’ is a conventional trope. It describes nothing. Art education is not redeeming for the vast majority of students, nor is art practice redeeming for the vast majority of artists. The ‘good’ works of art that reside in our museums reside there not because they are ‘good,’ but because we love them...(This) is the argument: art is good, sort of, in a vague, general way. Seducing oneself into believing in art’s intrinsic ‘goodness,’ however, is simply bad religion, no matter what the rewards.” - Dave Hickey
The Cap A, Dropped The immediate obstacle in talking about art is locating which one you’re talking about. Is it the personal, the pop cultural, or academic definition? The calling or the art culture industry? As described by art historian Donald Preziosi, the academic meaning is constantly in flux. “The broad amalgam of complementary fields in which the modern discipline of art history is positioned never
achieved fixed or uniform institutional integration. Nevertheless, in the long run its looseness... proved particularly effective in naturalizing and validating the very idea of art as a ‘universal’ human phenomenon.” Transition is the requisite state. A conditional answer is all that is possible. (Want design to be art? Wait a few minutes.) With the expansion of
Be regular and orderly in your life... so that you may be violent and original in your work. - Gustave Flaubert
what art history considers its field of study, excluding anything - not simply design - is problematic. Selecting out design becomes a matter of personal taste or prejudice. These motivations continue to be the most powerful influences on discourse. A more fundamental complication in debating art is the origin of the term. The structure of our language precludes arriving at a functional definition. When Aristotle and Plato carved up reality, art was the Other. Art is what’s left when you can’t categorize something as useful. To paraphrase Lacan, l’art il n’existe pas. Rather than being elevating and resplendent, the term is a linguistic black hole. Calling something art effectively removes it from our universe altogether. The activity collapses into a realm we can only speculate upon. Those speculations are essentially mystical. Art is venerated for its ability to produce transcendent experiences. Attributed to art are virtues and verities that are as profound as they are ineffable. While these art apotheoses are likely very real for their recipients, we may still question their cause. All attempts to locate “artness” within objects or their producers have proved failures. Describing the art experience is more rightly the province of perception theory and cultural study.
Morse Peckham describes art in terms of role playing. The purpose of studying art is to instruct us in how to play the role of art appreciator. When presented with what we recognize as an art appreciation situation (almost exclusively the gallery or museum), we know to adopt the art viewer role and anticipate the art experience. A great work of art is one that best meets our anticipation of what an artwork should be. The rigidity or flexibility of our expectations determines what we will consider art. The inherent nature of the work is, at best, secondary. Our reaction to art is hardly spontaneous - culture instills it. That art exists is a teaching of culture. We respond as a result of training. The profundity of our reaction depends upon how seriously we take our role. Everything we today regard as art - whether it be a Renoir or a Koons - was once non-art and was rationalized into the definition. Art is also purported to be our vanguard of culture
and a vital experience. As prevalent the belief is that art anticipates culture, little evidence can be found as proof. Art objects may be catalysts for and products of social change. However, all artifacts of our material culture possess these qualities. The means by which art enlivens existence are a matter of faith. Billions of people have and continue to live without exposure to anything considered art and are no worse for it. A better case may be made that the ex- perience of art is detrimental. It either proposes an unobtainable fantasy or twists the mundane into distressing phantasmagoria. Assuming, that is, you are able to comprehend the work. And, of course, there’s always a bottom line. If you get addicted and want to possess some art, the costs are exorbitant. Is it expensive because it’s art or art because it’s expensive? Then there’s the disturbance of interacting with artists. Certainly, no one can claim the makers of art are de facto a saintly breed. The popular
conception insists just the opposite. One of the most bizarre and insupport- able contentions of our culture is that only reprehensible persons have the ability to generate the art experience. Though possessed of a self-image as exemplary humans, artists are no better than most, likely worse on average. And in their emulation of artists, designers adopt their most offensive traits. They regularly fuse aesthetic superciliousness with an arrogance born of considering themselves masters of their profession. In art as in design, this conceited attitude likely compensates for a bitter realization. Society considers their activity a marginal, selfindulgent pursuit. Artists receive adoration from the greater public only in the abstract.
The Designersâ€™ Art
Designers consider themselves creatively aware and often study within art programs. However, designers are no more in touch with art than your average Joan. When designers talk about art they rarely deal with the reality of contemporary art practice or theory. The art of the past seems a more commodious area to opine in. However, comfort doesnâ€™t bring clarity. Misinterpretation and misrepresentation are common when designers engage past activity. Art is rarely looked at rationally. The people, process and product all become romanticized. When referring to art, designers usually settle in one of two historical eras. For those of a more traditional bent, nothing seems to have happened
in art - or be worthy of attention - since about 1940. The more progressive-minded designers will, however, accept up to 1955. What often distinguishes a conservative from a progressive designer is which outmoded conception of art they prefer. Art after 1960 is largely ignored, even though conceptually, itâ€™s more interesting for designers. The former, larger group of designers see art as high aesthetic activity. The lineage that Paul Rand created in his books were classic demonstrations of this model. Art is artifacts of transcendent genius that stir profound emotion in the human soul. A masterly manipulation of formal elements moves these artifacts to a rarefied plane. Only the finest of design may claim this level of achievement, though all should aspire to it. The requirement is awareness of and strict adherence to aesthetic rules consistent throughout history.
This model is no more arguable than any that has evolved since. However, the fact is that it is historically backward and archaic. Rather than responding to the critiques of their models - in other words, recognizing any of the art made in the latter half of this century - Rand and his followers dismiss them. Their neglect of art begins at about the time when Dwiggins coins the term “graphic design.” It’s almost as if the birth of design meant the end of art. Or that design is heir to the true, historical art. “To poke fun at form or formalism is to poke fun
at... the philosophy called aesthetics,” Rand wrote in his essay “From Cassandra to Chaos.” The problem is, art had been debunking aesthetics his entire adult life. In his books, Rand referenced outdated doctrines, peppered his text with quotes yanked out of context, and constructed a philosophy ultimately dependent upon his status in his field. Only within design could you find regard for these declarations. Of course, Rand’s books were self-promotions. The theory’s ultimate end is creating a noble
lineage into which he inserts his work. Like David Carson’s The End of Print, these books theorize to self-aggrandize. An objective, critical analysis is nowhere on the agenda. The art interpretations made by design-star hagiographer Lewis Blackwell in David Carson’s name supervene Rand’s in shallowness and distortion. Both theorize from surface readings. Carson considers his work as having “similarity” with “Outsider Art/Art Brut” in 2nd Sight. The statement sounds learned but is more empty romanticism. Ignored, as always, are the quite separate historic, intellectual and cultural circumstances that brought these artistic conceits into fashion. The former construction, “outsider art,” is a self-negating term (if it’s outside art, it’s not art) which denigrates, not celebrates, the activity. Carson’s “outsider” stance is similar to a career politician claiming to be a “Washington outsider.” Rand was entitled to formulate his own version of art history. For the majority of people, Rand’s claims sound succinct, sensible and lyrical. This
is due to the fact that they are concise bursts of received knowledge. Everyone knows these things. It is, however, comforting to hear them intoned by the Oracle. If someone with his stature lives by these beliefs, there must be something to them. Designers forget that design conferred his stature, creating a self-reinforcing system. It also doesn’t hurt to write your own monograph. Rand’s theories require review because of how they continue to shape the sensibilities of designers. In a recent AIGA Journal article, Elizabeth Resnick describes the response of design students to a new ?lm on Rand. All show enthusiasm and admiration for his insistence that design is art. However, those students will become even more marginalized and disenchanted with their work and status if they attempt to de?ne themselves by Rand’s fallacies. Omitted from his theories were the wholly subjective and situational-speci?c circumstances surrounding the acceptance of his work. (That corporate America has turned to designers who are formally
To poke fun at form or formalism is to poke fun at... the philosophy called aesthetics.
-Paul Rand 57
antithetical to Rand was seen by him as evidence of a CEO dumb-down. What it actually demonstrates is that the CEOs are shrewd enough to recognize how to utilize design styles to signal contemporiety. No matter how aesthetically “correct,” business will junk design that doesn’t signify what consumers respond to.) Rather than investing in the ideas of their times, the students accept inculcation into an illusory legacy. Today, it is a common opinion of designers that everything went to hell with art in this century. For many people, art of the last half-century has been progressively appalling. Art stopped being about the visual and became ideas - masturbatory and ridiculous ones at that. Once the province of genius practitioners and unquestioned aesthetics, academics hijacked art and sti?ed it under incomprehensible jargon. Artist-manqués were only too happy to join the game. There is merit in some of these arguments. Unfortunately, designers lack critical substance to expose any conceit due to their fundamental misinterpretations of past art activity. Art has always been about ideas. It is designers who focus on the visual nature of the works and assume the surface is what art’s about. As Dave Hickey says, “Junior professors (!) began explaining to me that non-portable, non-object art had arisen during the
nineteen sixties as a means of ‘conceptualizing’ the practice of art in response to ‘commodi?cation’ and the ‘commercialization’ of the art object during the postwar era. This would have been a wonderful argument if a painting by Edward Ruscha or JeanLouis David were any less ‘conceptual’ than a pile of dirt on the museum foor....” The complex iconography that makes up so many great paintings was the incomprehensible artspeak of yesterday. If you hold that art of earlier times was “about” the visual aspect, all painting is ruined. Design can only suffer in comparison to this popular construction of High Art. The ideal is unattainable not because of a designer’s cupidity, indifference, or hack status. It’s because the artist ideal is wholly ?ctional. The closer you examine art activity, the more diverse a behavior it becomes. If it resembles any contemporary activity, it’s design. He had never realized that he had produced quite this many things. Why, some people might consider him an actual artist, by profession. Was that possible? He pictured all those hours spent alone in his room, patiently fitting together tiny scraps, feverishly hunting up the proper textures, pounding in a row of thumbtacks until the back of his neck ached - all that drudgery. It wasn’t the way he pictured the life of an artist. - Anne Tyler, Celestial Navigation
The Archetype-Cast The artist beau ideal is that of a loner pursuing a personal agenda. Design is said to be different because of its collaborative nature. Often, a team accomplishes design projects. Credit usually goes to the principal designer, of course, obscuring the process. The determination to produce under one person’s name (e.g., Kenneth FitzGerald Design) intends to appropriate the artist’s cultural authority. When a designer stresses that they are a “oneperson shop,” the intimation is one of greater creative distinction - working like, being, an artist. The fact is that most artists past and present operated as a ?rm. For hundreds of years, artists apprenticed in shops, working under masters. Whether it was painting portraits, frescoes or blacksmithing, you weren’t working alone. The goal was to set up your own shop then make your underlings do things your way. Rather than temples of individual attainment, museums are show houses of art direction. The Rembrandt Project - the ongoing research effort to identify “authentic” paintings by the master - displays the
normative situation, not an aberration. “The Great Masters” was a collection of schools; art ?rms directed by principals. The devaluation of works only partially executed by Rembrandt speaks more to our culture’s skewed values than the paintings’ intrinsic worth. Social and cultural changes did occasion a more specialized art commodity provider. These individuals desired a higher social status, as did the purchasers of their wares. From here, the art idea as we know it began to form. However, the lone genius remains the exception. It’s almost a truism that to find an artist working alone in a garret was (and is) to find a failure. Today’s major-selling fine artist is still regularly a company in every way. Assistants fabricate the bulk, if not the entirety, of pieces. They stretch the canvas, paint the content, then wash the Range Rover. It’s a plum job for aspiring artists, and has been for centuries. In process, art is like design is like fashion is like scientific research is like most human activity: the labor of many to the glori?cation of one. The
solitary creator myth, however, still dominates inside and out of the art world. I remember my disdain when, as an art school undergraduate, I first read of an artist’s assistants. This pseudo-revelation is regularly roto-tilled up by the popular media as an exposé of contemporary art avarice and hypocrisy. My naïveté resulted from the reinforcing art school indoctrination and a wholly visual de?nition of art activity. The dissimulation lies with our culture. We demand mass commodities with the aura of exclusivity. Alternating, and often mixed, with the Great Master model is one inspired by the heroic artists of abstract expressionism: Pollock, de Kooning. These American (native or adopted) painters wrested the art world from European dominance in the 1950s. Combined with the lust-for-life archetype of the late 19th century (Van Gogh, Gaugin, et al.), the artist became a tormented soul. Art now was an intensely personal self-investigation of the psyche. Artists make art to purge their demons. It is a representation shared widely within our culture, though the movement was brief and problematic. Designers, for all their claims of practicality, buy into the romance. They either play against it to assert their creative sobriety, or conjure its spirit to siphon off artistic aura.
The Big Express
The ultimate artistic license is personal expression. Designers will be forever distinct from artists because they must present someone else’s message. To free themselves from corporate/modernist shackles, designers strive to inject their own personality into their work. At this year’s Fuse98 conference, Erik Spiekermann received a round of applause for stating he designed to solve his clients’ problems, not his own. He offered the comment while reviewing presentations by other designers whose speculative nature he saw as bordering on the artistic. (“Artistic” meaning, in this context, impractical and useless.)
On the latter side, Lewis Blackwell again imparts David Carson with the legacy of the rebel Americans. In 2nd Sight, Blackwell explains of Carson, “He doesn’t go to a psychoanalyst to express himself he designs.” Here Blackwell attempts to link Carson with Big Art while disparaging critics who have read something other than The End of Print. Of course, Pollock painted and went to the psychoanalyst. This idea of self-expressiveness permeates design’s conception of art. Within art, dispute of the rhetoric of expressionism came soon after its inception. Once more, design seems bent on rearguing constructs art moved beyond decades ago.
In The Expressive Fallacy, Hal Foster demonstrates expressionism to be just another fabrication. “(E) xpressionism is a paradox: a type of representation that asserts presence - of the artist, of the real. This presence is by proxy only (the expressive marks of the artist, the indexical traces of the hand), and yet it is easy to fall into the fallacy: for example, we commonly say an expressionist like Kandinsky ‘broke through’ representation, when in fact he replaced (or superimposed) one form with another - a representation oriented not to reality (the coded, realist outer world) but to expression (the coded, symbolist inner world). After all, formlessness does not dissolve convention or suspend mediation; as the expressionist trope for feeling, it is a rhetorical form too.” As examples of the artistic reaction against expressionism, Foster details a succession of painters beginning with Jasper Johns (Target with Plaster Casts) in 1955, to Roy Lichtenstein (his brushstroke paintings), and, more recently, Gerhard Richter. In other art media, self-expression acts primarily as a conceit to work against. As we draw closer to contemporary times, artwork in form and concerns move closer to design, and, ?nally, art must coexist with design to have import. Foster cites Jenny Holzer
and Peter Nadin’s artist book Eating Friends, which “debunks” expression with a literal obsession with “inner life”: texts and images (the stuff graphic design is made of), focusing on internal organs. Still, designers regularly travel extended rhetorical distances in form to arrive at art. Usually, designers aspire to painting - the traditional art medium. Frequently, designers express a desire to “paint with type.” The implication is of scattering letterforms as expressively and directly as Pollock splattered enamel on canvas. However, as Foster points out above, the process of abstract painters is just as intentional as representational painters. The gestural, immediate style of painting is merely a point in the artistic continuum. Deliberate, systematized painting routines - ones that resemble common typographical practice - have been the dominant method. If you can’t ?nd a painting approach that matches your design process, you haven’t looked hard enough. The aspiration to type-paint is less a desired working method than another longing for artistic legitimacy. Self-expression stands as another attempt to signify truth through formal means alone. For design, however, the effort is ironic. Expressionism long ago became a language appropriated by consumer culture. As Foster suggests, “...we must open up
Filthy Lucrative (expressionism) to include the expressionist rhetoric of psychology and consumerist society in general. Express yourself, we are exhorted but only via the type, only via the commodity.” Striving to elude “commodi?cation” through selfexpression, designers charge head?rst into its maw. Meanwhile, the expressionist desire to create a public, formal language was likely usurped by design. Culture has for a time de?ned itself through mass media: the realm of design. The point being made here is not that one must be absolutely contemporary in their art metaphors. The past should be neither venerated nor rejected. The issue is that designers continue to work from a romantic ideal of art. Rather than construct a relevant model for their activity, designers orbit a hoary salon. Unfortunately, when art isn’t romanticized, design treats it as visual supermarket. Designers unashamedly investigate art because it offers many graphic ideas to purloin. Design becomes a process of raising movie-set facades behind which business is conducted.
What are the essential, irrefutable particulars separating design from art? People go into design to make money. Designers prostitute art for business. Designers work for clients, artists work for themselves. These clichés hold up as well as the other aspects of the art myth. It is a delusion that the activity of ?ne artists is divorced from commercial considerations. It isn’t even a matter of degree. All that separates art and design is the kind of marketplace one chooses to operate in. The direct evidence of this is the art world’s obsession with sales. No matter how “conceptual” or “non-object” oriented, art can and must be sold. Economic viability is the preeminent determinant. The traditional estimation holds that designers are dependent upon having clients and are subservient to their will. Artists, however, are selfstarters who answer only to their muse. To believe this, you must disregard admissions committees, art faculty, review boards, competition jurors, selection committees, gallery owners, curators, critics, grant committees, opening attendees, et al.
Each of these groups has a profound and often direct in?uence on how and what art is made. For artists, these encounters are client meetings. Artists frequently modify how they make and present their work in the wake of feedback from these groups. The input of knowledgeable art insiders is craved, not scorned. The notion that art is an â€œanything-goesâ€? zone is misinformed. Straying too far from well-delineated boundaries is hazardous for artists. The ?eld is broad, but often shallow. To gain recognition as an artist, it is incumbent to exhibit regularly in approved forums. Critical recognition requires first being seen. This means you must please people, particularly, gallery owners. If they are to be at all successful, gallery owners must make a basic economic decision about art. Will it sell? Sales are evidently not a requirement to be an artist. If it was, we must remove the majority of practitioners from the canon. The large number of artists successful in their time but ignored in contemporary estimation complicates the situation. Unless we are ready to accept that unseen creations are artworks (just as anything done in type and image can be design), we must acknowledge that art is mediated by forces exterior to the artist. Every artist must face the reality that the surest way for their labor to be considered art is to attach a high price tag to it. Historically, artworks have always functioned as commodities. Finding clients has concerned artists throughout history. Jacques-Louis David resented having to accept portrait commissions. The historic epics he preferred to paint, however, couldnâ€™t ?nd a clientele. Art was born of the marketplace, as was
design. Design was merely a new product line. Brian O’Doherty takes a scathing look at the “art industry” in Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space. The gallery is a showroom ?oor, displaying manufacturers’ latest models. “For many of us, the gallery space still gives off negative vibrations when we wander in. Esthetics is turned into a kind of social elitism - the gallery space is exclusive. Isolated in plots of space, what is on display looks a bit like valuable scarce goods, jewelry, or silver: esthetics are turned into commerce - the gallery space is expensive. What it contains is, without mediation, well-nigh incomprehensible - art is dif?cult. Exclusive audience, rare objects dif?cult to comprehend - here we have a social, ?nancial, and intellectual snobbery which models (and at its worst parodies) our system of limited production, our modes of assigning values, our social habits at large. Never was a space, designed to accommodate the prejudices and enhance the self-image of the upper middle classes, so ef?ciently codi?ed.
“The classic modernist gallery is the limbo between studio and living room, where the conventions of both meet on a carefully neutralized ground. There the artist’s respect for what he has invented is perfectly superimposed on the bourgeois desire for possession. For a gallery is, in the end, a place to sell things - which is O.K.” The modernist gallery didn’t transform art into commodity. It was always in that state. Like the illusory neutral grid, the gallery is an ideological space - and receptive to commerce. Willingly complicit is the artist. O’Doherty writes, “The economic model in place for a hundred years... is product, ?ltered through galleries, offered to collectors and public institutions, written about in magazines partially supported by the galleries, and drifting towards the academic apparatus that stabilizes ‘history’ - certifying much as banks do, the holding of its major repository, the museum. History in art is, ultimately, worth money. Thus do we get not the art we deserve but the art we pay for. This comfortable system went virtually unquestioned by
the key ?gure it is based upon: the artist.â€? All art is in the marketplace. It must be to be considered art; its validating establishment resides there. The fiction of the artist as victim of these forces - and not devoted accessory - is a component of the modernist construction of the avant-garde. To command authority, artists must claim a privileged status in society. They must be above crass commercialism and defend culture. Art must be kept pure. But someone must take the fall. That would be designers. Nevertheless, a look at the most prominent art stars shows individuals responding to markets
and making no (or little) pretense to making commodities. To afford his epic Cremaster videos, Matthew Barney has to up-front please people with money. Damien Hirst conceived ?oating a shark in a tank of formaldehyde but it took the ?nancing of a Saatchi to do it. The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living is as much a brochure for its patron as was the Mona Lisa for whoever commissioned that vanity item. Commissioning a work of art has historically been a public declaration of virtue and wealth. Why is it different if your claimed virtue is the making of a beverage?
An Artist’s Design It isn’t necessary to detail the scorn most artists have for designers. In an interview in Emigre #46, the designers of Orange?ux relate a typical story of artists dismissing their work: “...when we show Rust Belt within the art community they tell us it’s not art, it’s design. They can’t see beyond the type.” The ongoing marginalization of ?ne artists in our culture drives their determination to keep designers in a lower status. These are attitudes within the arts deserving mention. They relate to the way design dispels certain works as not being design but art. In keeping with its art schizophrenia, design can’t decide if having your work called art is condemnation or acclaim. It depends, of course, if you respect the designer or not. As Orange?ux learned, the art world is not a commodious place for daring designers. The work condemned as art by designers is a non-starter for artists. Art industrialists who champion the most dif?cult, challenging art become obstinate conventionalists in their design concerns. For every Walker Art Center, there’s one hundred museums that can’t get enough 12 pt. Helvetica. The preferred exhibition announcement is a template design: color photo of the art piece on the front (always white bordered, like a frame, so you know it isn’t just a design) and easy to read centered type (Helvetica, Gill, Garamond) on the back. To violate this design space is like stepping outside the gallery, which the card emulates. You risk not being taken seriously. At a presentation to fine art gradutate students, I garnered the
Factographic Design expected response to contemporary “cutting-edge” design. The reaction to the art school publications I brought for the students’ appraisal - P. Scott Makela’s Minnesota College of Art & Design catalogs, ReVerb’s Otis and CalArts works - was almost uniform. They regarded the publications as incomprehensible indulgences that failed to meet their fundamental purpose. Students expressed their opinions with a startling passion. They recoiled from a representational disturbance they assiduously cultivated in their own work. It’s only slightly ironic that artists are the most vehement defenders of conservative design. Design is different, they’ll say, it’s about relaying facts, information. It’s about communication. Though this would seem to be a harsh judgment on art - that it is uncommunicative - it certainly proves true. Arguably, art isn’t about communication - at least, no more than design is. Artists thrive on the avant-garde notion that it is their role to critique and experiment with cultural forms. A designer investigating these ideas is an offense against sensibility, against the cultural order. Artists don’t like this view contested as it leads to prying apart desperately held illusions of relevance.
Design has directed attention to contemporary artists thought to have links with its practice. Barbara Kruger is cited as a kind of designer-madegood. She’s often looked to for insight on design’s potential as a medium of cultural commentary. While Kruger’s work is signi?cant, its relevance for design is limited. Her works were readily acknowledged as art, unlike the magazine layouts she brie?y worked on. Acceptance of her work hasn’t increased regard for design activity. Also, Kruger hardly utilizes the potential of the rhetoric of design. Though she explored different typefaces in early works (and nothing controversial in design), she has stuck to an extra bold Futura italic since. In this, she proves more discriminatory than Massimo Vignelli. Considering the conservatism about design described previously, it may be that Kruger recognized what was unacceptable in art. Being typographically challenging might prove professionally dangerous. The artist Hans Haacke provides a crucial insight into the construction of art and design. Critical study of his work highlights the arti?ciality of the art/design division. In their content and reception, Haacke’s installations disclose the overriding commercial concerns of the art industry. By denying
what he terms the “trademark appearance of art,” Haacke constructs a relevant art by constituting it as design. Haacke - a German-born artist who has resided in the U.S. since 1965 - has been one of the most signi?cantly controversial artists of the past two decades. (“Signi?cantly” means that the controversies have not centered on political distractions such as obscenity and ?ag-burning.) Originally allied with conceptual art movements in the 1960s, he turned to a political art at the start of the 1970s. His works blandly document “...the institutional, discursive and economic apparatuses of international high art....” Manipulating the advertisements and collateral of multinational corporations, he exposes their connections to repression and exploitation. Support for the arts serves as whitewash, not altruism. Art is implicated as another method of control. Censorship and cancellations mark Haacke’s
exhibition career. Institutional discomfort with the works’ content motivated these actions. Elaborate circumlocutions attempted to draw attention away from accusations of suppression. Haacke’s work was criticized for its lack of aesthetic pleasure and for being mere journalism. Curiously, he employs strict (Swiss International Style) modernist design tools to attack modernist ideals of “...esthetic autonomy and esthetic pleasure.” Art historian and critic Benjamin Buchloh’s Hans Haacke: Memory and Instrumental Reason, is an important analysis of the artist’s work and its rami?cations not only for art, but our entire visual culture. Buchloh believes Haacke’s work “...has in fact been marginalized because it represents a turning point - one of those historical moments in which a set of assumptions about the structures and functions of art are being effectively challenged (in a way that Heart?eld’s work constituted such an instant in the 30s).” Like Heart?eld’s, Haacke’s
work utilizes the forms of “commercial art,” using its language to critique society. To categorize Haacke’s (and other like-minded artists’) work, Buchloh coined the term “factography.” Factography is an art form that is motivated by a desire to expose economic and political powers manipulating our society. Factography also attempts to escape and disrupt the corrupted art practices of the past. It takes as its subject matter a neutral, documentary reportage of facts, such as statistics. This form is regarded by the public as both participatory and immediate - no art education is required to comprehend its message. Factography thus denies the typical aesthetic concerns of art and invites challenge as an art practice. Haacke’s works frequently simulate corporate PR. Billboards and advertisements are restructured with corporate design precision. Through these simulations, the photographic and textual inversions have great impact. The bland straightforwardness becomes highly charged in ways a more adventurous
design could not. An infamous censored work, Manet-PROJECT ‘74, is chilling in its simplicity. The rejected installation would have displayed a Manet painting with ten panels tracing the art work’s provenance. These panels, set in Times Roman, resemble the ubiquitous head-shot/text bios of countless annual reports. (The work was rejected as its ninth panel revealed “...a prominent ?gure in the economic establishment of the Nazi government...now functions as a major cultural benefactor in the liberal democracy of postwar Germany.” )
Along with demonstrating the complexity of meanings attendant in design forms, Haacke’s work leads to a profound insight on the relationship of art and design. In his article, Buchloh scrutinizes different artistic strategies to “reject the idea of esthetic autonomy.” To accomplish this, artists have also needed to “...abandon traditional procedures of artistic production (and, by implication, of course, the cognitive concepts embedded in them).” To describe this process, Buchloh expands upon a term used by artist Ian Burn: “deskilling.” Deskilling rejects “manual dexterity” as a principal component
of art. To pursue traditional art practices is to be caught up in their ideological adulteration. New practices with new skills must replace what has been repudiated. First amongst these new skills is the ability to recognize that factographic forms are culturally signi?cant, intellectually substantive, and relate directly to the public. In this way factography is identical to design. Buchloh echoes the rhetoric of design and its impact upon audiences. The conception that there is an unmediated, objective visual language is still questioned. However, we can recognize that particular forms popularly signify factuality and objectivity. This indicates a greater potential for using “style” as signi?er. Design work, however, is not universally factographic because of its form. Design is popularly regarded as more ideologically corrupt than art, and most designers unabashedly adopt the rhetoric and politics of their clients. Negotiating the problems and potential of design requires novel skills indeed.
The Guerrilla Girls are other factographers design should make note of. This anonymous group of women artists and art professionals have arguably made the only truly dangerous art of the past decade. Through a remarkable series of mostly text-only handbills, the Guerrilla Girls have pointed up the gender and race bias of the art world. (Like Barbara Kruger, their font of choice is Futura.) Once again, the most cutting and substantive art uses design as its principal constituent. Through these works, design demonstrates what Donald Preziosi calls a “carrying capacity” the ability of a study object to have art historical signi?cance as a cultural artifact. It also con?rms that design artifacts require a much deeper reading. Haacke’s in?uence has already paid signi?cant dividends for graphic design. Ellen Lupton and J. Abbott Miller studied with Haacke at Cooper Union. Their use of design as a fundamental element in their factography refers to Haacke’s investigations.
Esthetics is for artists as ornithology is for the birds - Barnett Newman 73
The Pleasures of the Vortexture
A cynical opinion about art theory is that its complexity and self-referentiality can justify anything. But rather than shunning it, designers should investigate and elaborate. Of course, the basis of art world regard is doctrinal adherence, not theoretical alignment. The goal shouldn’t be gaining art world acceptance. Designers must add art’s material culture speculations to their data base - if only to chart wrong directions. Art is a recent construct historically. The notion of timeless objects being preserved through the centuries because of their inherent quality is misguided. Art is all “presentism.” Much of what we value was a previous generation’s excess. And who knows what was lost? That there is an “art” phenomenon is still pure speculation. As stated by Donald Preziosi, art history has not only described art, it has shaped it. Artists’ awareness of art history and subsequent
desire to be part of the canon has been the fundamental motivation for art making this century. All other rationales are secondary at best. Art history indoctrinates students into the art industry primarily through books and magazines. First-hand experience of art is still rare and overshadowed by the preponderance of art publications. Artists become artists because of what they see in print, not in a museum. Ed Ruscha’s determination to be an artist came from seeing a reproduction of a Jasper Johns painting in Print magazine. For scores of artists, art is a small repro (frequently in black and white) with an accompanying caption. Art became its representation almost immediately upon birth. Concrete artifacts were but illustrations of concepts. This, of course, is the truth of all art, inadvertently revealed. With print as the direct vehicle de?ning art, design becomes the framework for its perception.
Rather than being handmaiden, design is validation. As with the show announcements, it is the design that tells you it’s real art. Art publications (direct descendants of auction catalogues) don’t support and frame art, they consume it whole. At best, there is symbiosis. This design ?lter has been modernist. However, this structure is breaking down, as is the gallery framework. Postmodern art within modern frameworks is causing public dissonance. Art needs to recon?gure its perceptual vehicle, which will also change its nature. This direction leads through design. A prototype of this eventuality is Jonathan Barnbrook’s design of the Damien Hirst monograph, I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, with Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now. Barnbrook and Hirst realize that the “neutral” modernist paradigm for representing art work cannot adequately serve a postmodern artist. (The “original” works, of course, regularly appear in the modernist White Cube.) Hirst’s problematic pieces are far more engaging as graphic devices than objects of contemplation. Barnbrook’s inventive and seductive design comes closest to accounting for the appeal of the morally questionable practice of segmenting farm animals. Meanwhile, designers like Paul Rand deserve inclusion in the art
canon. This recognition, however, will not come in the way he would have wanted. As art history gravitates toward visual culture studies, attention will move toward design. Rand’s logos were the emblematic artifacts of their time. They were of a kind concurrent with abstract painting and sculpture. Corporations hung and placed those art works in their of?ces for the same reason they placed Rand’s symbols on their letterheads. Each signi?ed modernity, ef?ciency, and was resolutely neutral. Rand’s aesthetic rationale is dissertation material but not germane to their impact. Eventually, art comes down to aura. Walter Benjamin predicted that works of art would lose their aura due to mass reproduction. However, it hasn’t quite turned out that way. During his presentation at Fuse98, Bruce Mau noted that mass reproduction has caused art to become even
more valuable. The Mona Lisa, for instance, now transcends valuation as a commodity. What also has happened is an aura for mass produced works with no original. Designed artifacts may generate an aura due to the various associations people append to them. A personal example is record albums. It was aura I was experiencing when I picked up certain desired albums. I knew there were millions in circulation but it didn’t matter. Purchasing one was enough. I still experience the aura when I’m shopping for CDs and run across a favorite work I already possess. I want to buy it again, to refresh the aura. “The one important thing I have learnt over the years is the difference between taking one’s work and taking oneself seriously. The FIrst is imperative and the second disastrous.” - Margot Fonteyn
Art is the orientation that makes innovation possible -Morse Peckham
Art for Our Sake
What role do art and design play? For Dave Hickey, art should be a function of democracy. The first step is for art to admit it is a “bad, silly, frivolous thing to do.” “...We can stop regarding the art world as a ‘world’ or a ‘community’ or a ‘market’ and begin thinking of it as a semi-public, semi-mercantile, semiinstitutional agora - an intermediate institution of civil society, like that of professional sports, within which issues of private desire and public virtue are negotiated and occasionally resolved.” This is also design’s state. All the aesthetic rationalizations and informational architecture conceits can’t change the fact that it’s usually self-indulgent toying with form. And that it’s okay. Morse Peckham ?nds a biological necessity in art. Rather than an expression of order, art strives to create disorder, so we may learn to handle the stress of reality. “Art is exposure to the tensions and problems of a false world so that man may endure exposing himself to the tensions and problems of the real world.” Peckham and Hickey come from different directions to agree on art’s frivolity and necessity. Peckham states, “The only moral justi?cation for
the study of the highest level of art...is to take what it can give so seriously, so passionately, with such conviction that one can learn to do without it.” Art offers many theories that suggest it’s in crisis intellectually, but the industry keeps rolling along. (Hans Haacke is regarded as a major international artist and sells work.) Socially, the art world grows increasingly marginalized. Art industrialists show little inclination to reverse the trend. Art is a pleasant bourgeois playground. Helping to drive this marginalization is design assuming its former status. The ephemera of today will become tomorrow’s timeless art. Design is the contemporary popular art that mediates for people. Therein lies its power. Designers hankering after art legitimacy is like rock stars writing operas,
symphonies, and musicals. They crave high culture af?rmation, effectively renouncing what came before as frivolity. The challenge for designers is not to become ?uent in artspeak so they have come-backs the next time some artist disses them. The task is far more dif?cult than regurgitating theory. It’s about unequivocal honesty about what you do and why you do it. It’s about looking for that honesty in work, not arbitrary surface features. It requires putting aside the desire to be seen as doing something “higher” than other people. It’s wanting to do something meaningful today, not begging history. And the best part is that you can do it with any materials, in any style, any theory, any job, any time. Then art isn’t and doesn’t matter.
So much for Art, what of Thought?
- Thomas Pynchon, V.
References: Edward O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, Knopf, 1998. The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology, edited by Donald Preziosi, Oxford University Press, 1998. Morse Peckham, Man’s Rage for Chaos: Biology, Behavior and the Arts, Schocken Books, 1965. Paul Rand, Design, Form and Chaos, Yale University Press, 1993. Elizabeth Resnick, “Paul Rand: The Movie,” AIGA Journal of Graphic Design, Vol. 16, No. 2, 1998. Dave Hickey, “Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy,” Art Issues. press, 1997. Lewis Blackwell, David Carson: 2nd Sight: Graphik Design after the End of Print, St. Martin’s Press, 1997. Hal Foster, Recodings: Art, Spectacle, Cultural Politics, Bay Press, 1985. Jenny Holzer and Peter Nadin, Eating Friends, Hallwalls, 1986. For an extended look at the “high & low” dialog, see “High Way Robbery,” Michael Dooley, Print, XLV:V, September/October 1991. Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, The Lapis Press, 1986. “Rust Belt,” Emigre 46, Spring 1998. Benjamin Buchloh, “Hans Haacke: Memory and Instrumental Reason,” Art in America, February 1988. Michael Dooley, “Ed Words: Ruscha in Print,” Print, XLVIII:V, September/October 1994. Damien Hirst, I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, with Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now, Booth-Clibborn Editions, 1998.