Friday, November 18, 2005

Art is made to disturb

William Drenttel + Jessica Helfand, Culture Is Not Always Popular: AIGA National Design ConferenceConference Theme: The Power of DesignVancouver: 25 October 2003.
Jessica Helfand: At a faculty meeting not long ago, a colleague of mine suggested that smart designers need to resist the impulse to over-intellectualize things, as though such efforts are counterproductive — if not entirely paralyzing — for the designer seeking to make work. Upon hearing this, I was immediately catapulted back to an episode in high school — which, sadly, had been permanently etched on my memory — when a teacher suggested that in order to be more "popular," I might consider using fewer big words around my peers. Specifically, he noted, around boys.
  • Even for this talk, we were encouraged to be "engaging" and "visual." The implied caution? Don’t use big words, don’t be too intellectual. Remember, this is an audience of visual people.
  • Where does this come from — this notion that thinking and making are seperate acts? That graphic design must be inherently anti-intellectual because it is a creative enterprise? And why is being "popular," — and by extension, participating in "popular" culture — understood somehow as antithetical to an engagement with the larger world of ideas?

William Drenttel: Designers talk about creating a body of work, but they seldom talk about acquiring a body of knowledge. They take pride in being makers, but seldom identify themselves as thinkers. They claim to be emissaries of communication — to give form to ideas. And while we would like to believe this is true, it seems to us that all too often, we, as designers, are called upon merely to make things look good — rather than contributing to the evolution and articulation of ideas themselves. This is an age-old criticism of design, but it seems especially relevant this morning as we talk about the Culture of Design.

  • We believe the "Culture of Design" has become implicitly about branded culture: culture that we can see, that we can name, that we can buy and sell and package; culture that is synonymous with style; culture that resonates with novelty and which, by conjecture, dismisses history as mere nostalgia; culture that determines and drives our reactions to the constantly changing pulse of modern life.
  • But we do believe that we are fundamentally restricting the pluralistic character of design by adopting a fixed vocabulary for process. Not everyone in this room sees "generating value" as a rationale for what they do. By expanding the very definition of design, are we simultaneously narrowing the rich variety that makes design such an exciting profession?

JH: But it is sobering, nonetheless, to consider how culture awards real contributions. The French cubist painter, Georges Braque once said that art is made to disturb, while science reassures. Design, it seems, lies somewhere in the middle: it is both and it is neither, playing both ends against the middle: and it is this middle-brow, middle-class, middle-of-the-road intellectual apathy that diminishes the real power of design: its power as a humanist discipline. We believe that to engage that discipline — and the many cultures it serves — means simply being better educated. This has perhaps less to do with culture, and more to do with having a cultivated mind; less to do with technical virtuosity, and more to do with intellectual curiosity. Less to do with popular culture — and more to do with culture, period.

WD: Francis Bacon once said that knowledge and human power are synonymous, and it is in this spirit that true power is perhaps ideally achieved: it is power informed by learning, collaborating and considering how the ultimate quality of our lives is made, whether in reference to our health or our schools; our environment or our foreign policy; our aspirations in science or in space; or our humanitarian achievements, as people, in war and in peace.It's that simple. And it’s that complicated.

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