Summer 1994

A visual guide to stereotypes

Modernism and Eclectisim

New York
19-20 February 1994

It was a weekend in New York crowded with opportunities for intellectual stimulus. The Frank Lloyd Wright show had just opened at the MoMA, with attendant press hullabaloo. A block or two away at the Hilton Hotel, a thousand art historians were gliding up and down escalators between ballrooms at the moveable feast known as the College Art Association Annual Conference. And around the corner, in the bowels of Park Central Hotel, Steven Heller’s seventh annual “Modernism and Eclecticism” conference was in progress.

The two conferences made for an interesting comparison. The former is a swarming academic get-together where sophisticated speech codes prise new interpretations from well-trodden terrain and, in the staggering number of papers delivered, claim sovereignty for infinitesimal nuggets of knowledge. The latter is a valiant effort to put design history on the map of theoretical respectability, rich (eclectic, indeed) in its range of offerings but relative to the CAA, tentative and occasionally simplistic in its modes of analysis.

I had the sense that for many of the participants in “Modernism and Eclecticism”, the event itself constitutes a work-in-progress aiming towards the definition of “design history” as a specific strand of visual and social research. As yet it seems an uncertain hybrid, partaking of art-historical methodologies but also borrowing from anthropology, literary theory and cultural studies. One thing’s for certain: there is much to do.

The great charm and success of Heller’s conference is that it demonstrates the richness of the turf in two directions. By bringing disparate practices under a unifying umbrella of scrutiny, M&E reveals them as a coherent realm of cultural production, rather then just visual flotsam and jetsam of various degrees of ephemerality. And these practices are each shown to have patterns of internal development worthy of investigation.

Over the two days of the conference, one theme kept recurring. The stereotyped images was the thread that connected Leslie Savan’s analysis of “the commercially-correct woman” in advertising, Roger Law’s uproarious presentation on the genealogy of the satirical TV programme Spitting Image, J. Abbott Miller’s inventive probing of stock photography, and Faith Davis Ruffins’ breakneck introduction to ethnic representation in the Smithsonian Institution’s collection of advertising history. Each of these presentations, in its way, addressed how visual shorthands emerge as a way of condensing complex popular opinions, conveying widely understood social values through crude but convenient graphic referents.

Following Natalya IIyin’s intriguing but ultimately lightweight study of the chameleon female in bridal publishing, Village Voice advertising critic Leslie Savan weighed in with a knockout exposition of the many and flexible myths of ideal womanhood as constructed by television commercials since the 1950s. From the demure housewife “with nothing better to do than mount chemical warfare on her own home” to the X-rated woman-on-top from a recent fashion campaign (for Anne Klein A-Line), Savan’s video clips revealed as enduring paradoxical twist: advertisers constantly reassure women that “all you have to be is you”, but insist that this “real” identity can only be released by using their particular product.

Savan’s talk crescendoed into the latest “self-improvement ads” : girls who can fill their own tanks, thank you (Hyundai cars), and girls who would rather go it alone (fabulously seductive spots by those arch-rivals in the long-running sportshoe jihad: Nike and Reebok). Her advice: “Don’t buy – sublimate! Run barefoot. Read a book.” Mine: Nike’s Nancy Kerrigan ad should be prescribed in lieu of Prozac in nine out of ten cases.

As members of the audience felt inside Ross Perot’s empty head (the full-size Spitting Image puppet was passed round for inspection), Roger Law paid homage to caricaturists Gilray, Cruickshank and Dore, precursors in the art of puncturing royal and presidential pretensions. He outlined Fluck and Law’s graduation from cartoons to satirical photographic tableaux to weekly production for the television series, involving prodigious speed and talent in transforming sketches into full-size latex puppets.

J. Abbott Miller, eschewing his announced topic of MTV, turned our attention to an area of graphic activity so commonplace as to have gone virtually without critical recognition: stock photography. It took a few sets of slides before the audience cottoned on to his simultaneous critique and exposition. As he described his effort to track down information about commercial picture libraries, the images thrown up on the screen – a woman on the phone, people talking in an office, a handshake between two disembodied arms – appeared effortlessly to support his account. But after a while, the effort required to tailor the lecture to the available repertoire of “generic” scenes became apparent. An ironic theatricality crept into Miller’s narrative, disclosing the crucial difference between images produced for all-purpose application (in Barthes’ terms, almost-empty signs waiting to receive externally supplied meaning), and those made with specific intent (the “authorial” image).

Here are a million idyllic sunsets, close-ups of intermeshing gears and assorted facial “types” – instantly retrievable visual props for a multitude of cliché situations. Miller discussed the provenance, holdings and worldwide distribution of these images, and touched on many questions worthy of further investigation: who decides what settings need to be included, who are the anonymous photographers (and actors) behind these saccharine shots, how are they constructed to be “evacuated” of excess connotation, and to what extent does stock photography – in its Borgesian attempt to catalogue scrupulously “everyday” activities – reflect a collective fantasy of “the normal”?

Rick Poynor’s paper gave series attention to another under-discussed area – album cover design. But he took the opposite approach, applying the auteur theory of film-making to pluck two practitioners from the anonymous tide of music industry graphics: Alex Steinweiss, working for Columbia Records in the 1940s and 1950s, and Vaughan Oliver working for 4AD in the 1980s and 1990s. Though they operated in different aesthetic registers and several decades apart, Poynor argued that both designers managed to pursue their independent vision within the constraints of commercial production, using successive commissions to explore personal themes and develop an identifiable visual language. Poynor’s application of the auteur concept was provocative, but I wonder whether it was just a polite way of (not quite) describing these designers as “artists” – that vexed nomenclature, indeed, which points up the difficult boundary between design and fine art and threatens to impose even more complex evaluative criteria on work which might not hold up under such scrutiny.

Faith Davis Ruffins outlined the scope of an exhibition to be mounted in 1998 at the Smithsonian which will examine how ethnicity has been represented and interpreted in America over the last century, thought institutional and commercial imagery. Ruffins made the vital point that although much attention has been given to mainstream icons generated by the “big boys” of American business aimed at an international market, a whole other realm of “inside-ethnic” imagery exists in parallel, and has thus scarcely received due consideration. Designed “to be thrown away”, this is the stuff of everyday life: the signage and literature corner stores, beauty parlours, bodegas, religious and fraternal organisations.

Concentrating on the period immediately before and after the Civil War, Ruffins demonstrated how deeply embedded ethnicity is in American consumer culture: from fruit crate labels to cleaning products, particular social characteristics came to be associated with Native Americans, blacks and early waves of immigrants – Scots, Irish, Dutch and Jews. She showed how these visual stereotypes served to construct “narratives of citizenship” in the young nation and how the symbolic value of certain nationalities (the Dutch, for examples, in the late 1700s) often far exceeded their actual presence in the overall US population.

Ellen Lupton’s talk traced the transmigration of the term “deconstruction” from philosophy via architecture to graphic design. Potentially treacherous territory, but she managed to steer an elegant path, showing en route how designers such as Richard Eckersley (for Derrida’s Glas and Avital Ronell’s The Telephone Book) and Marlene McCarty (for the New Museum of Contemporary Art’s catalogue Strange Attractors: Signs of Chaos) critique the structures and conventions of typography within their work. Mapping the “growing distance between writing and speech”, Lupton showed how typographic fundamentals such as margins and letter-spacing – often regarded as “transparent” – come to operate as anything but neutral mechanisms for reinserting the rhythms of spoken communication. The framing of the text, its corruption or reinforcement of the page as a spatial plane, the choice of letterform: all are charged ineluctably with meaning. If Beatrice Warde’s “crystal goblet” is the typographic equivalent of “Form Follows Function” in architecture, does that mean that Emigre equals the Centre Pompidou?

Stewart Ewen of Hunter College media studies department usually compares a question-and-answer closing session, but this year the slot was taken up by a panel discussion of the Cooper-Hewitt’s “Packaging the New” exhibition (unfortunately dominated by an over-zealous curatorial assistant). So the audience was denied the catharsis of debate and left with unasked questions rattling around inside their heads. This was disappointing, especially given the connections and corrections just waiting to be made across the presentations. Ruffins’ alone served to vanquish the notion – implied once again in “Packaging the New” – that American design history began in the 1920s, and was largely the work of a few white men.

First published in Eye no. 13 vol. 4, 1994

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