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Designs on Democracy

Simon Warner
Voter's Choice in The Great British Design Quest

On The Great British Design Quest a new sort of made-for-TV entertainment/culture show, the best that Britain has to offer is at the mercy of the masses.

We live, we believe, in a great age of democracy, at least in the West where the principle of one man (maybe, even, one woman), one vote has become an almost mystical mantra, a phrase so apparently possessed of inner magic that the world's wider ills can be solved by its mere incantation.

In practice, of course, the democratic impulse can place plasters on wounds, but, whether we are talking about Israel or Palestine, Iraq or the Ukraine, even the UK or the US, it rarely heals the sickness that causes division and derision, disagreement and disaffection. In fact, perhaps democracy's greatest weakness, as well as its strength, is that it permits a lively forum to those who wish to rail and rant, rebel and revolt. If there ever was, or is, such a thing as a common sense route, in a democratic culture there will always also be the inevitable and vociferous nay-sayers.

But let's set politics aside for a minute, and get to the real meat of the matter. In an era of telephone voting, whether we are viewing Britain's compellingly competitive X-Factor or the US's gentler American Idol, the twirling tomfoolery of Strictly Come Dancing or the mind-numbing drudgery of Big Brother, the broadcasters now insist that the outcomes are actually down to us. Those elected icons, Bush and Blair, may not be able to calm the Middle East or tame the terrors of extremist Islam, but at least we — yes, you or me — can call the shots on the best new pop singer, the most capable toe-tapper or the most crushingly boring competitor caught in the glare of an Orwellian lens.

We may be paying good pounds or dollars, marks or yen, to vote in or vote off these reality revellers, but the feeling remains that control rests with us and our versatile keypads. Video games may provide us with fleeting figments of omnipotence, but interactive TV programmes offer a genuine chance to zap flesh-and-blood humans off our screens.

The Romans dubbed the strategy "bread and circuses": as long as bellies are full and the populace has its tickets for the forum and a chance to view gladiators clubbing Christians or disembowelling leopards, then society can tick along quite smoothly. But how much do such ancient wisdoms apply to the mores of civilized modernity? Probably more than we care to admit. After all, the Americans were placing their presidential candidates on small screen soap-boxes as long as ago as the start of the '60s, and if Nixon and Kennedy were not actually scything each other with long-swords, the cruel gaze of the camera did sear reputations, if not body parts. It's taken much longer, until the early 21st century in fact, for British party leaders to face up to a similar kind of media-fuelled fire-storm.

What is true today, is that if you use your living room and watch the box, virtual ballots (thumbs-up to that wannabe, thumbs-down to that no-hoper) are almost unavoidable. They are, as already hinted, a lucrative extra income stream for the programme-makers and broadcasting companies as premium phone-lines lure us and our lolly in. So they are not merely about extending the franchise to the dedicated couch potato.

But in recent weeks these participatory play-offs have been extended onto the loftier rungs of the television ladder. The BBC's best arts vehicle of the moment, The Culture Show, a production which scans the broad waterfront (from music to painting to cinema to drama) has cast its eye over the world of home-grown design. The brief of the item, which has featured in several editions, has been to find the most iconic piece of British design. And, while the experts have put their cases forward for this item or that object, the ultimate barometer has been left in the hands of the masses, a constituency few have trusted wholeheartedly since the original Marx brother wove his utopian spells.

The Great British Design Quest, launched in January, selected some 25 pieces for the show's viewers to weigh up. The initial list included cars (the Mini and Aston Martin), magazine and album examples (by Peter Saville and Neville Brody), computer games (Tomb Raider and Grand Theft Auto), and remarkable, indigenous concoctions as massive as the worldwide web, and as tiny as the illuminating road-stud known as a Catseye. By the time the longer list had been whittled to a shorter list of 10, and then to a final trio of design examples, the search had repeatedly encouraged us to phone in, text in or go online before our champion of the applied arts could be unveiled in all its glory.

Take nothing away from The Culture Show; this was an entertaining enough wander through the maze of aesthetically pleasing functionalism. But it did leave me wondering if the BBC had been wise to trust such decisions with the great unwashed. Weren't these matters generally left to the professionals; curators, architects, critics and the like?

It did bring to mind the story of the desperate theatre impresario who declared, after the reviewers' notices had left his latest presentation in tatters, "No one liked it, only the public". Maybe though the arbiters of taste, in times when deference is pretty well dead, are no longer the trained, titled and the decorated, and even the BBC's premier arts showcase is content to pass the buck to its audience.

But what, you may ask, did the public go for? In the end, transport was the reigning theme. The renowned London Underground map — a modernist masterpiece — and the Battle of Britain's winning Spitfire aircraft were eventually edged out by that extraordinary, if retired, sliver of sleek excellence, that exemplar of cloud-busting beauty: the Concorde. So, a great symbol of transatlantic travel, the passenger plane which shattered the sound barrier, the Anglo-French collaboration which shrank the ocean between Europe and America to a mere three hours, flew off with the ultimate honour (a touch perverse as Concorde was only available to the elite, the wealthy, the celebrity) yet nothing, as someone, maybe Karl himself once said, is ever too good for the workers.

But democracy, as this article began, is not a perfect remedy. Tens of millions of us have used the map to guide ourselves through the subterranean mysteries of the Tube, but, when the chance arises, our aspirations are sky high… rather the haughty snout of Concorde than the candy-striped utilitarianism of the humble rail guide.

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