Betraying convention

Are the days when artists could produce work free from the restraints of a client long gone? After attending the Barbican’s art extravaganza Jam and MTV’s youth culture conference WORM 2, Liz Farrelly found that people working on their own terms are payin

Over the past few weeks I’ve been feeling mixed up. The problem is I’ve had my preconceptions about what constitutes art and design shot to pieces.

What’s caused this conundrum? Well, a couple of events that I’ve been privvy to.

The first ground swell which got me thinking was the Barbican’s latest exhibition, Jam. Having been one of the organisers, I’ll resist singing its praises. During the run-up we were constantly asked: “What’s it all about? Sum up the show in a sentence”. Impossible. More than a simple showcase of trendy photography, music, fashion, and design, Jam is about shared ideas and the networks which make stuff happen.

But it wasn’t until I saw the variety of work there that I understood. A lot of the exhibits are client-free, produced by young “practitioners” attempting to make work on their own terms. It may be that Tom Dixon’s “conceptual” exhibition design underlined the art slant by doing away with glass cases.

The majority of non-commissioned work came from the fashion crew. Forget the accusations of elitism and irrelevance which are levelled at cutting edge British fashion. When it comes to the crunch, here are designers and image-makers whose personal vision inspires and produces commercial successes, and where self-motivation equals creativity. Witness the work of Alexander McQueen, Hussein Chalayan, David Sims and Juergen Teller. Confirming the cross-over, these frocks look just as believable hanging on a wall as they do on a model, and the photographs look doubly so, freed from the confines of magazine spreads. In fashion, novelty has been superseded by innovation and self-expression, and that’s what I call art.

Why is it that graphic designers, on the other hand, are trapped by their track record? How often has a client asked a designer for “something just like the one you did for so and so”. Where’s the room for manoeuvre, let alone a chance for inspiration or innovation to flourish? And who’s at fault? Not just the client with a lack of imagination, but the designer who trades on past glories, and files experimentation under “college work”.

Mixing it up in Jam were Tomato and Fuel, two graphic design combos which, ignoring the consequences, have strayed out from under the client mantle, some would argue to the detriment of the discipline. Members of Tomato underwrite personal projects by way of successful jobs in advertising. For their troubles, they’re labelled “pretentious”. But, thankfully, they don’t care.

Fuel, on the other hand, has carved a “trouble-making” niche for itself within the graphics world by way of art directing and publishing a taboo-smashing magazine. It admits, however, that its in yer face attitude has alienated prospective clients. Fuel lays it on the line: “Graphics is about communication, but, sadly, graphic designers aren’t employed for their opinions.”

Fuel has it sussed. Both it and Tomato went ahead and broke the mould, expressing themselves via complete editorial freedom, in book form. The irony is that neither Fuel nor Tomato want to be known as artists.

Perhaps they think art is a dirty word. Thanks to Marcel Duchamp and his urinal we’ve got artistic freedom, but with a downside. Since anyone can call themselves an artist, we have to trust in our own judgement and sort the wheat from the chaff. But that’s the problem – do we have the guts?

Then along came Tony Kaye, a renowned ad man (he won a British Design and Art Direction award for the Volvo Twister ad), and self-appointed artist. His latest escapade happened at WORM, MTV’s youth marketing conference. Instead of speaking himself, he sent a surrogate speaker, Lydia, a 19-year-old HIV-positive mother he’d flown in from Soweto, along with Topelo, her toddler son. Exploitation, communication or self-publicity? My money is on communication.

Lydia’s life story shocked and moved me, and she certainly put the event in perspective, reducing the other talks to the level of idle banter. But the organisers’ reaction was hostile and unimpressed. Kaye had shocked them by shining a light on their complacency.

Does that answer my question? Content, information, emotion, life, integrity, a mirror revealing the absurdities of convention. That’s art. And design too? Could be.

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