On Visual Empathy
In her profile of the American painter John Currin in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine
, critic Deborah Solomon examines the somewhat quixotic appeal of "tradition" suggesting that "virtuosity can be the source of emotionally raw art, a message that goes against the radicalism of the last century."
It's an intriguing argument: classicism as the new cool.
But beyond this, Solomon offers a more sobering thought still: is
"emotionally raw" what we aspire to when we look at, or better yet,make
art? Let me assume for the sake of argument, here, that "design"
can be considered interchangeably in this equation as I turn to anotherTimes
piece: this one an editoria that considers the powerful "appeal to the emotions" raised by the eight 9.11 memorial designs which were presented
this past Thursday in New York.
Interestingly, the editorial identifies documentary records (arguably,
"ephemeral" evidence) as the principal supply of factual material with which
future generations will learn about this tragedy. (Obviously, not so
ephemeral after all, and newspapers and transcripts have long performed this
service.) But the commentary here focuses on something much more ephemeral than paper: the memorial, it suggests, is a public expression of a private memory, "a way of arranging space and light and imagination so something more than the past is evoked." Completely intangible, this "memorial for our collective loss" should, by all indications, resist being trapped by
Reports on this hugely delicate topic vary, but all raise the idea of
judging the emotional value of design; or evaluating design by its emotional
value, or applying emotional characteristics to design in some way: notes Christopher Hawthorne in Slate
: "This is a dangerous way to judge
architecture, but it's an even more dangerous way to think about memorials."
Obviously, not everything makes as "overt an appeal to our emotions" as the
9/11 memorial, but it raises an interesting point, I think. John Currin may
come across as bombastic when he argues that "progressive ideas are just a
machine for ruining art," but he's right about the fact that being
progressive for its own sake rarely succeeds in anything that truly endures.
"A masterpiece, by definition," writes Solomon, "is supposed to be a
consummate example of some kind of skill," and while we can not all lay
claim to Currin's gift, we can appreciate, I think, the specificity with
which he captures a kind of forgotton form: figurative, familiar,
occasionally disturbing, emotionally resonant...
At a symposium several weeks ago at the Annenberg School for Public Policy in Philadelphia, we gave a presentation in which we discussed some of the more vexing consequences of graphic design and what we've come to call faux science
: namely, that making facts pretty and palatable, while a conscientious thing to do, often minimizes a kind of intellectual engagement that should be equally essential to design practice. This position irked at least one of the symposium's participants, the architect and design theorist Laura Kurgan, who later confessed to me that we had hit a nerve: in her work, she explained, aestheticizing factual information was an intrinsic part of making that information more available to the public. Was this wrong?
I don't think it is. But I found myself thinking about Laura's comment long after the symposium ended, and was reminded of it again on Sunday when I read Max Frankel's editorial in The New York Times
, "Seeing is Always Believing."
In it, he describes the irresponsible nature of dramatization where the innocent public is concerned...
Color Me Kurt
An article in today's New York Times
discusses the new direction for Colors
under the editorial leadership of critic, author, editor and part-time radio host Kurt Andersen.
Formerly an editor of Spy
and New York Magazine
, Andersen has a particularly original mind, and he's always been sensitive to what's going on around him. It's worth pointing out, too, that his understanding of design is perhaps more sophisticated than most: so what does it say of his sense of magazines (and of where they're headed) that he has selected as his art and design directors two of our foremost television designers, Bonnie Siegler and Emily Oberman of Number 17
in New York? (Even better for Kurt, Bonnie and Emily happen to also be seasoned graphic and editorial designers. It's a smart choice.)
took chances under Tibor Kalman's leadership, it will no doubt continue, with Andersen, to push against expectations...