Year 2, CTS – Design Activism

Resistance, revolt, revolution and dissent enrich our history and have shaped contemporary society. In the communication of these forms of activism, design has played a key part.

The first CTS topic I have chosen for my second year of studying Graphic and Media Design is Design Activism, in which we are exploring how artists and designers within protest groups and social movements have developed creative practices to protest and resist.

Our lecturer, Adriana Eysler, introduced us to Design Activism with a text by Stephen Duncombe and Steve Lambert. ‘An open letter to critics writing about political art’ analyses the role of a critic and the mastery required in this role. They discuss how an art critic as an individual is part of the audience for most art, and therefore it’s valid for them, as a critic, to write from their own perspective. However political art is directed at a much larger demographic, and the critic therefore needs to “place themselves in the minds of very different people”, something not all art critics are accustomed to.

Duncombe and Lambert encourage their target reading audience, critics, to question the purpose of their writing; whether it’s to clarify or illuminate the work, and whether it’s giving instruction and room for improvement or if they’re in fact problematising as a substitute for understanding, analysing and aiding the work. I found this concept really interesting as you often find when you read critiques that there is a large element of unnecessary controversy written in a supercilious manner, that make things that aren’t an issue, into one. Duncombe and Lambert argue that to be a critic is like to be an artist, it requires a degree of selflessness, which isn’t always the case in the critique of political art. They conclude by stressing how important it is for critics writing about politcal art to provide a helpful service through their attention and analysis of the work, and not to just exercise their superiority complex. If we are going to make a difference, we need artists that can work in engagement with society, not just expressing their vision in spite of society.

“Call us optimists, but we assume anyone producing creative work to affect power is doing it from a sincere and passionate place. If it’s not working, it’s not because they don’t care enough or aren’t committed. It’s because we haven’t developed a critical tradition that helps artistic activists strengthen their work.”

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