And Contempt for Woman

Jane Jacobs

Jane Jacobs

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?