It has become increasingly clear to me that what the advent of mass media has brought to art is the universality of exchange value, first recognized by Marx. “Marx describes how capitalism abstracts out from the use-values of objects and replaces them with the abstract decontextualized notion of exchange value1.” The advent of the exchange value over use value means that now everything has a value. High art (which for Adorno meant art that could not be comodified2) is impossible.
What does this mean? In my opinion, it makes us all prostitutes. The sin of prostitution comes, not so much from selling your body, but from selling yourself. I specifically use this word because of the ethical dilemma that it brings to the discussion. The ethical problem behind prostitution is that your body is part of You and only you should use it. If you have ever spoken the words “I am a graphic designer” or “I am a designer”, we could conclude that you are, technically, a prostitute. You sell your visual self to your clients. Your designs are part of you and your identity is constituted by you act of being a designer. This, in my opinion, is very similar to selling your body.
This is a problem that is not just part of graphic design, but is present in all arts. Because exchange value is present in every walk of life, “Composers admired by Adorno such as Beethoven and Mozart were not averse to making money from their art, and glories of ‘high’ Western culture such as the Sistine Chapel were only possible through the patronage of rich merchants2.” But the relation is intrinsic to the practice of graphic design. Graphic design is intrinsically a ‘low art’ by adorno’s standards. But, this is something that should be accepted and celebrated rather than rejected. Designers should celebrate their dubious ways. They should always acknowledge their state as prostitutes and should never forget it. Creativity doesn’t come from the age-old pretending game of denying guilt, but from the ability to own it and live it in your own way.
I don’t think there is any escape from this. This is something that affects us all. Academia, cultural institutions, independent studios, design writers… We all have to deal with the world and our work is never pure. Unless you don’t have any type of association to our universal system of value exchange (money) you work is tainted by the outside world and outside influences. These influences are rarely merely visual.
What to do about this? I already propose celebrating the irony of it all. But it is also important to recognize it. Reading the foreword, Stefan Sagmeister mentions “So how does a graphic designer avoid losing his or her own soul? Having misplaced little pieces of mine, I’m not sure if I am the right person to answer the question3.” He goes on to do exactly what he said he wouldn’t do and answers the question. His answer is not all that interesting but what I did find intresting in the though that: designers and artists all have to misplace some pieces of their souls in order to create.
1 · pg 56 / Critical Theoris of Mass Media
2 · “It is a complex area of debate whether high art even remains possible in a socity that has become so comodified but Adorno’s high/low distinction is based upone the fact that at least high art has the potential to produce non-comodified outcomes while low art ocntains comoditys vealues within it s very development strucuture, or creative DNA if you will” pg. 73 / Critical Theoris of Mass Media
3 · pg. 73 / Critical Theoris of Mass Media
4 · pg. 11 / How to be a graphic designer without losing your soul