Note: Quotes used are taken from recent interviews with writer Alan Moore and from The Duchamp Dictionary by Thomas Girst.
Naturally a university for the arts will train its students for fields and professions with the highest guarantee of work. In the early twentieth century, before the effects of Industrialization, art schools were still traditionalist, training its students to work for commissions in the classical fine art realm. Modern graphic design, and modern art more generally, sprouts from secession from this tradition. Alfred Roller (1864-1935) was a key figure in this secession from academic style, focusing more on typography, radical forms, and flat colours. Some of Roller’s pieces were used as magazine covers representing the movement.
A few decades later, Surrealism and Dadaism were prominent movements. The contributions of Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) and Josef Albers (1888-1976), for example, brought us closer to how we conceive product design and advertisements. “It is not surprising to see Duchamp’s influence in [graphic design]. He paid meticulous attention to designing his own editions of boxes, posters and books as well as catalogues, announcements, invitations, flyers and publications for his friends or for the Surrealist and Dada movements…His magazines prefigured the underground press punk and fanzine cultures that emerged in the US” (Girst).
Go into a city, drive on a major road, look at your cell phone, surf the Internet, turn on your TV. Really anywhere you look in an urban or suburban environment, someone is trying to sell you something, and more times than not a graphic designer is the one responsible for grabbing your attention and storing recognizable information in your brain. Repetition is essential, like when reading a story to a toddler, or training a dog. Then, if you buy the product, it’s also a graphic designer who ensures, for example, an aesthetically pleasing packaging for your KFC meal or your iPod.
These are powerful forces, and shouldn’t always be “degenerated to the level of cheap entertainment and manipulation.” Instead of using them as “opiates to tranquilize people,” we should use them to wake people up, or shed light on real issues. Think about it: through television, designers have the ability to plant the same thoughts in a whole population at the same time. Instead of planting useless information, or plain banality in the heads of the public, “reassuring and reconfirming [their] prejudices,” why not surprise and challenge them? “A lot of popular culture is saying ‘everything’s okay with the way you think about things, with the way you see the world. Isn’t it nice…look, a butterfly’” (Moore).
“It’s necessary for arts to be less about commerce and more about real issues. We’re reaching a threshold of complexity that is much greater than any we’ve faced before. Its liable that in the next eighteen months we’ll have invented as many things as we’ve previously invented in the whole of human history. People feel more fragmented in terms of their personalities and lives. The complexity keeps mounting; we need art more than ever. We need voices that can actually make some sense out of this chaotic storm of information that we find ourselves surrounded by. It’s not just preferable that we have some decent committed art around at the moment… it’s absolutely vital” (Moore).
Beginning with the Vienna Secession and its roots, with figures like Alfred Roller, the academic style has fully shifted from traditionalism to modernism and today it totally panders to commerce. It’s time again to secede, toward using art as the undercurrent of change, as a means to cure loneliness and challenge people; to give them not what they want, but what they need, to tell them things they know but don’t know that they know.