And Contempt for Woman

February 17, 2012

Tags: design history

I'm in the enviable position of being one of the last professors Graphic Design students see at Cornish College of the Arts. I get to spend time with them as they work to create their degree projects: the capstone design and book and film and motion and sound exhibition they make that proves that they have gotten their minds and skills into the sort of functioning order capable of pulling off something big.

I run this class as a series of individual meetings: sort of like sixteen independent studies. Of the sixteen students I have this semester, fifteen are women. This is not an anomaly. Far more women than men are now graphic designers.

So I was sitting there the other day, talking with one of my students, and we ended up chuckling together over one of the lines of the Futurist Manifesto. (The sign of a real design talent, as far as I am concerned, is this tendency to make humorous and arcane design history references and then chuckle about them.) The line that got us chuckling was Futurist point number 9, a blatant young-Italian-guy statement in a series of young-Italian-guy statements that set the agenda for much of the bang/zoom modernist design we've seen in the last 85 or so years:

"We want to glorify war the only cure for the world militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman."

These days, no one would argue that Marinetti was a great genius as far as understanding anything about reality, and no design professor worth much would spend a lot of time on the actual ideas contained in Marinetti's puerile Rocky Rocketship rant.

Futurist type injects a lot of excitement into what formerly was a pretty staid affair, but after moralizing on that, we don't give Marinetti and his love of war and of being young and sexualizing machines and locomotives and this sort of thing all that much time in the time-crunch that is graphic design history education.

No one thinks of his manifesto's principles as true. "That was then!" we all say, flipping to the next image. That was then, and not to be taken seriously, not to be confused with our time-- our time of gender-unbiasedness, challenge-blindness, after-you-my-dear-Alphonse appreciation of everyone and everything. And on we go to fly through Constructivism, without a backward glance at the Futurists.

But perhaps we shouldn't be so quick to blow off Marinetti. Because his brand of modernism, his brand of bang-zoom is one of the great molds from which our own sensibilities have been released, like quivering aspics upon the platter of history.

Marinetti is refreshing because he is so very clear about his distaste for anything female. He is not hiding anything in the shadows. Femaleness to him is weakness, tears, sensitivity, the maudlin, the questioning, the ripe. A fairly narrow definition. Since he was so outspoken, we tend to laugh him off. But weren't his brethren in the Modern as equally opposed to anything not masculine? Pre, post or neo, Modernism has contempt for all that is psychically female. The women who are most successful in design today are successful because they have been able to absorb these anti-female beliefs and live with them as with a sort of second personality. For women in design, psychic splitting isn't a sign of mental illness, it's a career move.

My senior students, the fifteen women and one man, recently sat around the conference table. And when I looked at them, I thought how strange it was that these women were just finishing up a degree the very bones of which detest them, the very sages of which discount them. I thought about how strange it was that it was I who was teaching them the very notions that would divide them from themselves.

What kind of designers might they have been had they not been schooled in the straight line?
What would design be if my students didn't study Ruskin and Marinetti and Corbu and Wright? If they studied Jane Jacobs instead of Gropius? Christopher Alexander instead of Mies van der Rohe? I am not talking about the need for a feminist critique of design history-- I'm sure there are a few of those in the works. I am talking about the creation of a different history all together. Not a feminist review of Anni Albers and Gunta Stoltz and the many other famous women who have made their marks within the Modernist agenda. But a history of people--men and women-- who made things outside that agenda--a history of ideas that do not play by those rules.

What would the women I teach make if-- as game designers, for instance-- they didn't emulate the only games they have ever seen: games designed by men for 14 year-old boys, games that embrace Marinetti's world-view? What buildings would they build had they not memorized the lines of Falling Water? What type would they draw if they had not been steeped in Helvetica and Akzidenz Grotesk? Tell me, what would the values of design be, if it were not founded in or reacting to the anti-female modernist agenda? What would design be, if design were centered on the feminine?


  1. February 18, 2012 8:53 PM EST
    "I thought about how strange it was that it was I who was teaching them the very notions that would divide them from themselves."

    Speaking as one of the female students in question - as someone who has put work up on the walls at Cornish and heard "it looks kind of feminine" as a negative critique more than once - I can say with authority that you have done no such thing. If anything, you make us more aware than we ever would have been otherwise of the unrelenting "maleness" present in modern design history and design education. You help us to challenge these conventional notions, and encourage us to express our full, female natures unapologetically in our designs. That has meant so much to me, and I won't ever stop feeling grateful for it.

    This idea of starting from zero is intriguing, but between the two options, I think I'd rather know the broader context of design history that surrounds my work and my values. Knowing myself as a designer in clear relation to the world around me is extremely valuable. It makes me more myself. And it helps me to understand that my work as a designer might one day be very influential to those around me, for better or worse.

    Video games are another matter. I'm constantly, viscerally disgusted by the content of so many of them - as opposed to, say, a modernist building that might prompt a mild, "Hmm! That's a lot of squares and rectangles." I also feel that the video games industry is cheating itself out of a huge potential customer base (females or really mature self-respecting adults in general) by clinging so steadfastly to the 14-year-old boy formula. So yeah, by all means, start from zero there.
    - Louisa
  2. February 19, 2012 7:20 PM EST
    And Jared said, let there be a book: Outside the Monolith: The Alternate History of Graphic Design. And let it be a collection of other ideas, other philosophies, and other lives: the Third World of design, where women and non-modernists went to die: even Frank Lloyd Wright, who was doing something beautiful before the International Style. (Not Fallingwater, which is lovely, but buildings like Taliesin and the Imperial Hotel - intricate works of art, fussier than Gropius would sanction, colorful and textured.)
    Naturally, design history is focused on the big names because they were important and influential, but they aren't ALL, and focusing on them can teach students that this is the ideal form of design. (That is not helped by the chill perfection of the International Style; it's so impossibly cool that it's very, very difficult not to want to be its friend.) The imbalance needs to be corrected, but it will be difficult because of how small the alternative is, as far as I know. But then I hadn't heard of Christopher Alexander, so I don't know very far.

    At the very least let us not worship Le Corbusier. In his own way, he was as bad as Marinetti in terms of his grasp of reality and the human psyche. If you read Vers une architecture, it is staggering how out of touch he was: he said at some point that people don't want carpet, they want concrete floors, not color but white and grey, not comfort but efficiency. It is troubling that he is so influential. I think he gave voice to a lot of the abstraction and non-empathy that underlay modernism, the idea, which you mentioned in class once, that "we are the aristocrats and we will do what is best for our peasants".

    A minor nitpick: I think the study of Ruskin, actually, would be a good thing. For example, in The Seven Lamps of Architecture, he argues for concepts a modernist would reject outright: such stuff as allowing buildings to decay naturally and with honor, and looking backward and sideways rather than forward and up; he likes the past and he likes the elaborate grandeur of the Gothic way more than is acceptable.
    - Jared Pechacek
  3. February 23, 2012 6:00 PM EST
    Exception?: Fortunato Depero, the ONE graphic designer in the bunch. He later did refute the more radical notions of Futurism, right? Is there any evidence of his or other Futurists (who made it past the World Wars) softened on this or other things they so hubristically made manifest?
    - Josef
  4. February 26, 2012 1:01 PM EST
    I think is matter of the notion that women are considered emotional and unpredictable, as oposed to rational, and modernism is all about rationalism. So i think the prejudice that women are irrational still persists in society, even by the author of this text.
    I wonder why when someone think of a feminine design, is difficult not to conceive a girlish colorful aproach, and not a neutral, rational one?
    And is funny, because Graphic design is always deemed to have this "Personal Aproach" syndrome, that in a way, modernists tried to combat. You don't see a "Feminine Engineer questioning", or something like that, but since graphic design is so difficult to pinpoint as exclusively rational, we have such questions. Even if it is a fact that women are more emotional, i don't think graphic design should be all emotion or focused only at that personal view.
    - Ed

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