If I were to be so crude as to demand a designation for something as unwieldy as “creative culture,” I might be hard-pressed to define it. It would easily encompass the world of conceptual artists and rap stars, film directors and mystery writers. Somewhere in there, soccer coaches and ministers could make a case, and professional portrait photographers might try to push the limit. In American society today, it might actually be difficult to draw a boundary around such an entity at all. But as a feeling, it exists. And more than ever before, it seems to be wed to markets and the ideas of innovation and progress that tend to drive those markets. From an intellectual property standpoint, creativity is seen more and more as a force of constant innovation. If it’s not new, it’s not worthwhile.
Of course, I am ignoring for a moment the countervailing trend towards “postmodern” appropriation – mixing and dubbing and collage techniques that are the bread and butter of progressive art. I am ignoring it because it is being ignored by corporate America (and thus by corporate Everyone) in favor of the secure market model of creative “innovation.” We can see this everywhere we go. Because we live in an environment that is purchased, the images that surround us are generally financed and cultivated by those favoring the corporate model of creativity.
This brings me to Design Annuals. These are not books to be read. Reviewing a design annual is a like reviewing a Staples catalog. When I sit down in front of the fire, home for the holidays, 6 inches of snow outside and a cup of Swiss Miss in my hand, I don’t usually reach for my design annual and curl up for the evening.
On the other hand, there are few places in which an industry, and perhaps even the culture that spawns it, are more naked and starkly revealed than in an industrial catalog. 256 pages of single page advertisements and designs, introduced by a single page of text and meant for the eyes and ears of an industry that doesn’t have to convince its own members of its validity can be a fun study. And it turns out that they are easy to read. Pictures are much more flexible than words. A design annual is less demanding than your average novella, although it is hard to concentrate on anything after the third page. All the pretty pictures function so very differently than the pointed and designed text of linear prose. They tend to battle each other for your attention and they end up generating a 256-page stalemate that it takes all you can muster to get anything out of.
Advertising Annual is the showcase for the winners of Graphis’s annual competition for the best in Ad Design. This is a juried competition that competitors pay to enter. The introduction to this reference book makes my case very well: “What is Creativity” by Tom Jordan is a 3-paragraph mission statement for an industry hellbent on crippling itself by making undesirable and unattainable all the rich resources that the history of visual culture offers us today.
When you insist that something be unconnected to the work of another human being, that it be unarguably “mine,” you make it easy for me to put a boundary around what is “mine.” This is good business. By insisting that creativity is synonymous with innovation, that if it’s not new, it’s not good, this industry helps to create a day when no one can use a Romeo and Juliet riff without paying for it, when everyone who doesn’t have the budget to buy the top shelf materials will have to make do with cheap Mona Lisa knock-offs for their promotional material. Where is the indignation? Why can’t creativity be synonymous with the recognition of a good idea? Should I be punished for updating an old concept? For referring to a time-honored myth or idea? When you give up fighting for the importance of our cultural commons, you allow them to be bought out from under you.
As an industry outsider, I found the contents of these annuals uninspired and dull. From cars to toasters, paintings to website designs, there was not a single section that stood out as exciting. They point to a day when no one stands on the shoulders of giants and we are a culture of very short people with no reach. As I mentioned, of course, there are other forces at work to prevent this future, but they are not the forces with the cash to invest in the legacy of “creative culture.” This isn’t a situation in which corporate culture will catch up with the avant-garde in a more progressive age, but rather one in which corporate visions enact laws which in turn influence cultural notions until the creative commons is a dim memory and we are stuck with the least desirable material that our own minds can churn out without stepping on someone else’s property.