What are we saying?
Letter from Andrew Howard in response to Ian Goodyer’s letter ‘Design is a ghetto’ in Eye 15
First, let me say that developing theory, thinking, discussing, and yes, even talking are not meant to be substitutes for, or alternatives to, practical political involvement, but neither are they circumstantial. They are necessary parts of the same process. Effective action is impossible without understanding.
I have been actively involved, since I was old enough to vote, in campaigns, pickets, lobbies and marches which probably typify the history of left-wing activism in Britain since the mid-1970s. I did these things in my capacity as a designer and as a private individual because I believed in them. What many of us learned during this time is that ‘getting out there’ is simply not enough.
Do you really believe that poverty is only material, that ideology is only a phantom, and that psychological disorders can be cured through surgery? All of these interpretations point to the same tired old misconceptions about the role of culture and cultural activism in movements toward democratic society, the same inability to realise that the power of capitalism is not rooted in political economic relations alone, and the almost missionary insistence – despite evidence to the contrary – that the only real fight (as opposed to the ‘don’t-kid- yourselves’, marginal fight) is ‘out there’ solely on conventional economic and political terms. Control of culture by a small group is not direct control of thought. Rather, it is the control of the ability to use thought and understanding. Culture, at any one time, is the agenda of what is imagined to be possible. Culture is not simply the evidence of an unequal economic system – it is its foundation, its support, its means of justification and influence, and the context within which that system sustains itself. As I argued in my article, capitalism, through the manipulation of culture, has become a means of organising the consciousness necessary for its survival and growth. Culture cannot therefore be an issue of peripheral concern to political activists, whether socialist or not. It is a vital area for campaign and struggle.
Graphic design, we are repeatedly told, is essentially concerned with communication. If this is so, then it should concern itself with what is being communicated, to whom, and in what ways, aesthetically, technologically and socially, and not just whether it is for the ‘correct’ group. To bring into existence a society of equals means not simply taking power in the conventional sense understood by the traditional left, but changing the nature of the ways that power is understood, shared and practised. It means reflecting that understanding in our work as designers by remembering that language is never neutral. Culture, language, the ways in which we are able to speak to each other, the ability to express our desires and needs, and to think about the future – these are essentials. They are not issues to be put aside until after the ‘revolution’. Without them, there can be no transformation.
None of the above minimises the importance of political and economic issues. It proposes that cultural democracy is as necessary as political and industrial democracy, and that the move towards any one of them must be a move towards them all.
First published in Eye no. 15 vol. 4, 1994
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