A Bush-Bashing Design Bash
After Thursday evening's Designism 2.0 panels and the political-design omnibus that was AIGA's Cause/Effect event, held today at The New School for Social Research, I don't care if I never see another Bush-bashing poster, t-shirt, sticker, or website. I could also do without the tossed-off condemnations of conservatives that this week's speakers delivered with alarming frequency, in some cases going so far as to wish, with a broad smile to assure us it was all in fun, bodily harm, even death, upon their ideological opponents.
Some would probably claim that these attitudes and the design work that reflects them exist in a noble tradition of creative dissent. Among the presenters at Cause/Effect was Seymour Chwast, who showed several classic subversive images from the Vietnam era, many of which featured as a central design element the famously ugly mug of Richard Nixon. Caricatures of the 37th president were a staple of the counterculture up until his resignation and even beyond. The derisive portrayals took many forms, from jowl-shaking physical impressions to stubbly-faced artist's renderings, not to mention the Nixon stand-ins in Philip Roth's Our Gang and Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow.
The vitality of that counterculture--as it appears to this 29-year-old--came from the combination of youthful energy, political awareness, subversive humor, and pure, antic ingenuity. With all these elements in place, all that was needed was to find the lexicon to express their confluence, a task not too demanding for such great artists as The Rolling Stones, Jean-Luc Godard, and Thomas Pynchon. The arrival of this new lexicon could be seen in a 16-page brochure called "The South," which was part of Chwast's slideshow this morning. Each page bore an idyllic image of the Old South (a Currier Ives print, a hand-tinted movie still, etc.) disrupted by the photograph of a slain black person or civil-rights activist, the violence signified by a circular perforation in the photo. It's a striking piece of agitprop that becomes culturally revealing when one recognizes that the perforation makes each page resemble a vinyl record. At its height, the counterculture aimed to sweep away the old codes and replace them with the language they were developing and rediscovering through pop music and street-level politicking.
Carin Goldberg, who designed album art for CBS Records in the '70s, gave a much less lively historical account in her talk this morning. She seemed to believe that her audience had never seen a movie, let alone read a detailed history book. Her disquisition on Truth included thumbnail descriptions of the quiz-show scandals of the 1950s (covered in the movie Quiz Show), the oft-mocked "duck and cover" campaign, and Senator Joseph McCarthy. Even if she felt compelled to drag these punching bags out for yet another thrashing, she could have done so with a single image instead of playing the pedant. She appeared to think that we desperately needed the historical context only she could provide.
The younger design activists who took the stage after lunch used equally problematic approaches. I enjoyed listening to Scott Stowell, one of the minds behind the lauded design of Good magazine, talk about the publication's mission of reaching "people who give a damn" and watching his display of highlights from Good's inaugural year. The magazine's flaws, though, can be gleaned from its directionless title. Its mannered, jokey design, laden as it is with tics and digressions, often seems intentionally deployed to sweeten the tough topics risked in the articles. As the magazine develops, we may well see Good find a deeper, more resonant voice.
Listening to today's talks, it seemed to me that the old-school counterculture, instead of evolving, had split. Boomers kept the political awareness and oppositional craft they honed while fighting Nixon and others, but lost both the desire and the will to bring about fundamental change. Generations X and Y have desire in abundance but little awareness and discipline to guide it. Each group is left with only half a lexicon. The only subject on which everyone can be brought to agreement is George W. Bush. When he goes, assuming the Democrats prevail in the '08 election, will we all just resume our pre-millennial nap?