One question stuck in the back of my mind while preparing the workshop and class that ultimately led to the posters in this catalogue. It was a question I couldn’t shake, and now try to address with this brief introduction: What would Karl Marx have thought about something as seemingly ephemeral as modern day graphic design? On which side of the class struggle would it land, in his critique of political economy? If design emerged from the modern capitalist culture in the early 19th century in England, the very culture Marx critiques as exploitative, unjust, and unequal; is it possible for design to merge with such critique? To be something capable of causing change, in the very culture that relies on the qualities of subterfuge to reproduce itself?
The easiest way to exculpate graphic design from its involvement in the capitalist mode of production would be to reject Marx’ analysis of the use and exchange value of a commodity. This would celebrate the victory of enigmatic exchange value, over the profane and pragmatic use value of a commodity. A true emancipation from the struggle for survival and the development of a culture of abundance and sophisticated consumerism: pure enjoyment! Graphic design would be the champion of this consumer culture, of this expressive engagement with everyday objects of identification, the mediator of the aesthetics of commodities.
But a closer look at our reality simply does not allow for such an easy way out. We would have to be blind or simply unwilling to see, that our mode of consumption is not only harmful to the environment but to other humans as well. A globalised communication system makes it impossible to ignore such facts. We know well what we are doing, but we do it anyway. Critics of capitalism point this out, time and again. There seems to be no alternative to this enforced happiness, this constant enjoyment, solidifying the power of consumption and capital. While inequality continuously grows, we keep on consuming. And in this pattern, persuasive graphic design plays a vital role.
The Marxist criticism of design–as superficial, seductive and dishonest–has a tradition as long maybe, as marxism itself. Consider Victor Papanek for a moment, who so famously proclaimed on the first pages of his book Design for the Real World, that there is only one profession on this planet which does more harm to it than a product designer: the advertiser (yes, sorry graphic designers, but that includes you)! Papanek concludes, that designers throughout modernity have been occupied with making the world prettier for wealthy first world consumers, and should now direct their attention to the real, social issues of our time. This, is the “real world” mentioned in the title of his book. Another critic from Germany directly elaborates on Marx. In his book Critique of Commodity Aesthetics, re-released in 2009 with the appendix ‘Commodity Aesthetics in High-Tech Capitalism’, The German philosopher Wolfgang Fritz Haug claims, that we live in a world, where commodity aesthetics (the superficial appearances of objects, designed by product designers, wrapped in pretty packaging by graphic designers and put into the best light in stores by interior designers) conceal the real value, the use value of everyday objects and actually add nothing of value to them.
They even taint the true experience of our everyday life by literally screaming at us, polluting our visual environment with signs, everywhere, advertisement and price tags. While the appearance of things has become so important for the buying and selling of commodities, they begin to overshadow the things true being.
We live in a fake world. We are constantly manipulated by advertising, and commodity aesthetics.
And through design, we seem to be tricked into strange new needs and desires, persuaded to chase the superficially new, and beautiful. Of course more design is not really an option here. When the whole world is glossed over with beautifully slick graphics, even critical design as the exception could be quite simply implemented into the self-improvement of capitalism. By pretending to belong to a sphere freed from economic interests, all design–even protest design–must reinforce the power of economics. All the nice looking environmentally friendly products prove, that you can shop for a good and critical consciousness while still supporting the system. From this viewpoint graphic design and capitalism are inseparable.
So this is it? Graphic design is an intrinsic part of capitalism, whether we like it or not, and there is no one to argue the value of its transformative potential? Well, there might be someone.
Karl Marx was smart enough to let us know, that he himself is actually not a marxist. I guess it takes a smart-ass to know one. Even when Marx was certain of his own ideas and a passionate critic of those who opposed him, he might have well known what happens to theory at the threshold of the real world. Everyone interprets what they want to see, and reading those passages that underpin their own theories. So let us take a closer look and see if those marxist critics are right in assuming the essential and pure use value.
In the first page of the first chapter Marx defines a commodity as “an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another” only to add that, “the nature of such wants, whether, for instance, they spring from the stomach or from fancy, makes no difference”. Haugs critic, which he grounds with Marx analysis of use value, that the superficial aesthetics of commodity–graphic design–add nothing to the value of a thing and therefore, nothing of real value to this world, is wrong. Even our wants spring from the highly aesthetically influenced, capricious and imaginary “fancy”–a realm of individual freedom, that Marx valued as the only ground on which collective freedom can be built. And in regard to pure use value, Marx himself points out that something can only be a pure use value when it is created by someone for themselves. This seems to be a highly theoretical concept, as nothing we ever do is possible without the work of others. If we only look at the making of a wooden chair, that I create alone, to sit upon myself, we might be tempted to speak of a pure use value.
However, did I cut the wood? Who made the clothes that I wear as I build it? Who made the tools that I wield to cut, chissel, or wedge the wood? Through how many hands has the food passed that nourishes me, enabling me to build this chair? Who built the porch where the chair is placed? And will I hide the chair from everyone else, so that only I will ever see it? I highly doubt that.
By creating this chair I already anticipate the way it will appear to myself, and the way it will appear to others. I think of its design. And I think of the design of other chairs, that others have built. I consider all the different ways a chair could function, and how they have appeared in the form of a chair.
Marx historical materialism–our metabolistic relationship to the world outside and inside of us, humanity as the true motor of history and the interconnectedness of our ideas and our materials–depicts a social material world, perpetually intertwined with its objects and their appearance. There is nothing useful in itself. It can only be useful to us and therefore be useful to a human being, a rational, always social and emotional, more complex being than most analysts of our basic needs would have us to believe. Marx sees the complex construction of our needs and knows that use value is nothing abstract, nothing transcendental. Everything that is useful needs an appearance and would be totally useless without it. To be useful to us it has to appear to us, and not just in any way, but in a certain kind of way. There is no pure function in this world. There are only dirty ones, entrenched in this messy world with messy subjects. Simply put:
there is no way around design. This is the strong, maybe even inseparable connection between the use and exchange values of a commodity. Our commercial practices are usually practices of communication, which already imply a shared common ground. Design is not superficial to the real world, it is superficial in the way that we relate to this world, the way that we make our own world appear to ourselves. Design is part of the common ground that we ourselves build.
Having taken this unorthodox approach to Marx, in considering the relevance design might have had to him, and consequentially its relationship to graphic design, we can imagine how to orient our graphic design practice with his form of fundamental critique. We can imagine valid ways of critiquing the status quo of our society designed, by design. And this prospect has been imagined in the posters designed by the students in Offenbach, and Nanjing.
There are some, that are in line with Marx reading of money as this strange, alien power, that humankind has created which actually rules us. Others address human labour as the essential creator of all value. Students throughout the course and the workshop took great interest in Marx’ remarks on the steam powered machine, revolutionary in Marx’ days, and how we could relate them to today’s digitised mechanisms, powered by data. Finally there are those that take a closer look at what happened to Marx’ ideas, to the “spectres“ of Marx as the french deconstructionist philosopher Jacques Derrida refers to them, and also imagine new ways to revive those spectres, by mourning them. To mourn, Marx suggests the conjuring up of his spectres, and his theories to let them haunt our present day. Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet after he is confronted by the ghost, the spectre of his slain father, we have to realise that this time, our time is out of joint. That the injustices of the past are converging in new forms in the present making a new future seem impossible, yet very much needed. (I’m confused here…)
We have to see the new forms of exploitation, that capitalism has come up with: new alienations, new precarious situations of labour, exploitation in the form of self-exploitation, that we so often find in the creative economies, to recognise the borderless flow of capital while the physical borders for humans remain obstructed. Flexibilization and rationalisation on a global level produce only local losers. If we take Marxism seriously, then we know that design is quite often part of the problem. But if we really take Marx seriously, then we also know that design will without a doubt, be part of the solution.