Design and subversion.
This is more half-baked than most, since it just started germinating like yesterday, so you may be following me down a road that just ends with no destination. You have been warned. But I’m wondering if it’s possible to be subversive with design work. Increasingly it seems like there are the worlds of journalism (such as it is), of satire, of protest, of scholarship, and of capitalism. Of course, capitalism has fostered some of those worlds and tainted others, but in the end, the only connective tissue seems to be the capitalism. And capitalism, for all of its wonders, is also a really effective means of imposing self-censorship on us all. We all gotta eat and that means money and that means not offending the money.
Of course I could create a (usually) unsubtle anti-war poster* but these things seem to be mostly exercises for the designer, created to be posted on the Internet, preaching to the masses (those masses, being made up primarily of designers, tend to reward this kind of thing). Or I could create a scathing anti-capitalist dissertation, but – and the academy seems to be as eager to distance itself from the commercialism of our society (for good and ill) as the economic powers are to have that distance – that is also more of the same choir preachage. I could write a play or make a YouTube video of a puppet show or just about anything else. But, if you take the many-worlds model above and then think of how much more fragmented are our methods of media consumption (personally tailored news feeds, eight bajillion channels of narrowcasted niche cable tv, etc.), you have to wonder how anyone can deploy a message that might reach those fragments and those worlds. Comedians, I guess, are pretty effective at it. And El Vez (seriously – you should all check out a show). But apart from them, the only really unified element of American society is consumer culture.
So I’m wondering if it would be at all possible to create something subversive that could piggyback on a commercial campaign. The closest I ever came was a brochure design for an anti-cellulite unguent for Jenny Craig, featuring a before and after picture where the before was a lemon (for the bumpy skin), the after was a tomato (for the smooth). Of course, neither image is a flattering one – you are a lemon if you exhibit the normal signs of aging; and you are a sex object (tomato) if you don’t. It was killed, but only because they didn’t want to pay for photography. Nobody got the joke (granted, it’s not a great joke).
Here is where I’m supposed to wrap this up into some kind of insight or resolution but I don’t have one yet. Maybe I’ll get back to it, maybe not. Hurray for free Internet electrons!
Clarification: This is sort of what I’m talking about, maybe. A CEO for a book company is talking about how to sell books, and his presentation (which was good, overall) relates retail trends to recessions. He calls these new retail elements “revolutions.” What bothers me is not his industry-specific evangelism.
It’s that the only revolutions we have are limited to retail business. There isn’t an art revolution (it’s too dependent on the art market), or music revolutions (ditto) or groundbreaking television or movies. It’s like selling shit has become this enormous smothering blanket and I suppose it’s just boring me to death right now. Creating something to sell is boring, and creating something in opposition to selling it on principle is boring. I want something in between. I want something ugly and amazing. I want the opposite of the iPhone. Unfortunately, genius, as ever, is in short supply, and I think that’s what it’ll take.
*I know Guernica is a painting, but really, it’s nothing more subtle than a political cartoon. I mean, really, how much of a genius does it take to create a painting, the meaning of which is: war=bad.
Perhaps I spoke too soon. Perhaps I was just in a mood. But it could be that Grand Theft Auto IV is what I was talking about. There’s a nice review here, and beyond how intriguing the game is, I’m heartened that it’s being taken seriously by a reviewer. I feel slightly less bleak. So, hoo-ray!