A friend of mine, a painter, recently saw a group exhibition at PS1 in New York in which he was struck by the absence of primary source material. Although intentionally abstract works, these paintings all referenced extremely specific aspects of contemporary culture, most of them heavily filtered through the media.
Put another way, these artists weren't abstracting simple forms natural forms, geometric forms, simple and universally comprehensible forms but were instead referencing ideas that had already been parsed by various media sources. While on one hand, this work could be said to be mirroring a particular generation of artists who have come of age in a heavily mediated world, my friend was conflicted: does our willlingness to accept the cultural and biographical bias of the maker mean we are also meant to forgive the absence of original ideas?
In the wake of last week's indictment of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the question of where sources come from is on everyone's mind. And while it might be said that questions of national security are not likely to be compromised by a group of abstract painters, the question of source material is, I think, one that deserves a second look.
Because it is by its nature tied to the exigencies of public communication, graphic design is perhaps less overtly prone to this type of critique: after all, in traditional practice, there are a series of external transactions involving clients, budgets and a host of personal and public agendas that frame the process, if not the actual product of the design itself. Art, on the other hand, does not invoke the same kinds of interpersonal complexities, although there is a long tradition of patronage, going back to the Medicis, that shows the artist does not create work in a vacuum. Yet beyond the obvious the clients, the curators, the governing factors of economics and what the market will bear the central question remains: when is an idea original, unmediated and pure?
Clearly, there is nothing that suggests the notion of pure has any relationship to the world we live in. But at the same time, the idea of targeting original sources and by conjecture, of seeking original ideas seems like a goal we should, in all fairness, support. (There's a certain amount of semantic confusion here that easily leads to a kind of involuntary hypocrisy: we want to breathe clean air and drink pure water, but we don't want our art to reference "purity" because that wouldn't be a reflection of the world in which we live.)
This is not to suggest that purer is better but that the notion of a primary source, meaning unmediated and unmoored from a host of other complexities has become something of an endangered species in our time.
Designers, who might be said to embrace a slightly more pragmatic vision of making work and disseminating messages, feel the burden of communicating the complexities of an age in which "pure" resonates as utopian, sugar-coated, and false. (There is also the very real fact that "pure" in graphic design recalls the neutral, overly homogenized, and borderline fascist tone of the International style.) And it's tricky: it's all been done. How can anyone ever use Futura Bold Italic again and not evoke the purview of Barbara Kruger?
These sorts of assessments of which visual metaphors, messages and meanings drive and are driven by people participating, as makers, in an ongoing repository of visual culture lie at the cornerstone of a kind of ideological polemic about design versus art. Isn't it all subjective? Who is to say what is original? And how do we know if it is?
And why, frankly, should we care?
Let's return to the idea of sources. To the designer, "referencing" an earlier style or maker can be seen as a kind of post-modern pastiche. When done with irony, it can be deliriously enchanting Paula Scher's open gesture to Herbert Matter in a series of posters for Swatch, in the early 1980s, come to mind. Sans irony, we're left with blatant plagiarism, and at the risk of really painting myself into a corner, I will refrain from giving examples. At the same time, we yearn for new visual languages to emerge: so scratchy handwriting replaces the clean alignments of mechanically-rendered type and we applaud ourselves for letting go. We photograph signage on our cell phones and upload images to share online: here, through digital concensus, we sanction our societal acceptance of this itinerant, manmade vernacular form, whereupon it becomes streamlined and secondary, no longer the stuff of impulse, the magic of outsider art.
Sources are precious. Original ideas, even more so. The nature of design practice means that we will always, by necessity, need to reference existing information, but in our race to the finish, let's not forget that in the very process of translation from idea to form, from one thing to many things we are not obligated to imitate, replicate, and indeed mediate.
There is one more piece to take into consideration and that's the piece that involves reality. One has only to consider the popularity of Reality TV to understand why any of us with a healthy imagination would see the blurring of fact and fiction as material worthy of compelling inquiry. But beyond the seduction of the blur lies the deeper, more pressing question: what does the truth look like? Lately it is easy, too easy, to see reality as something distanced from the truth. Writing of the greater concerns over social displacement and substance abuse in yesterday's New York Times,, a psychiatrist warns that the growth of technology has cleaved us from a greater reality of self. His examples, in the context of my argument here, are indeed cause for concern:
"We say that we are "going" places on the Internet without ever leaving the room. In elaborate Internet-based games, people pay thousands of dollars to own "real estate" that isn't real at all. We watch newscasters (who increasingly could double as models or comedians) report on terrible tragedies, then shift gears and joke about the weather or a baseball game. And we learn to mirror them, to respond to our own losses like channels we can change. We can wage wars that kill tens of thousands of people with "smart" bombs. But we see little, if any, blood. And we can count the dead between episodes of our favorite sitcoms. We sit still for a cloudy sense of whether our president was elected to his first term. Then the president in the television drama "West Wing" delivers a political statement about the war in Iraq, and people actually pay attention."
I come back to my painter friend and his dismay over seeing paintings gesturing to life as filtered through a million video games, the composite lenses of youth culture in America. Is there any there, there? Perhaps if he'd thought about it before subscribing to his own fictionalized account of a series of unrelated events, Scooter Libby might have experienced a moment of unfettered truth-seeking and chosen to keep his own counsel, remaining silent instead of vocal a choice that has now placed him squarely at the center of a Federal investigation. Of course, graphic designers need not fear that their transgressions, on the whole, will put them in such epic jeopardy. But a little introspection might not be such a bad thing and where sources are concerned, we would do well to look, think, and look again.