When Images Arouse Fury, Art Is the Antidote

This is not the blog entry I intended to write this week. However, on my drive up to South Bend earlier today, I saw a Confederate flag hanging from one of the bridges spanning across the bypass. And a few hours later, after finishing up a meeting with one of my design education cohorts, I walked out to the parking lot where I was greeted by a Confederate flag plate mounted on the front of a truck. Though I’ve become accustomed to this kind of thing, having grown up in Indiana, I suppose today was simply one of those days when it was too much. I was already preoccupied, thinking about my profession, which is, academically and professionally, overwhelmingly Caucasian. I was already wrestling with the question of how education might serve as a vehicle for inspiring a more diverse population of designers. And then at various points during my trip to and from Goshen, I found myself mentally raging against the Confederate flag, a graphic symbol that is part of our collective, cultural language whether we like it or not.

I can recall an experience I had during a college choir tour when, at a rest stop somewhere in Tennessee, I started pointing and giggling at a collection of Confederate and Civil War memorabilia I spotted. The entire display seemed too anachronistic to be taken seriously. However, it wasn’t until one of my fellow choir members came up behind me, carefully put his arm around my shoulder and said to me in a half-whisper, “Anne, you might want to keep you voice down…” that I remembered who and where I was.

When I began studying black caricature several years ago, I became aware of the devastating and systemic effects figures such as Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben have had on the psyches of black Americans. Though innocuous-looking, these trademark characters were born out of an overtly racist, Jim Crow era society. That much is a given, and I understand it on an intellectual level just as I accept that the Confederate flag will never go away.

But there are days like today when all of this knowledge becomes a burden and I would actually prefer to unlearn what I’ve learned. The aforementioned images sit with me, making me furious because I’m forced to acknowledge that even in 2012 they still have power. One need only look at the kind of “design” Barack Obama’s presidency has inspired to be reminded of this fact.

Moreover, when you consider that even the Nazis had a branding standards manual, perhaps it’s easier to understand how and why art and design have the potential to wield such influence. I was drawn to design because I wanted to make visually meaningful (and beautiful) contributions to society and thereby chip away at some of the harmful things design has wrought.

I often tell my design students that creativity is a superpower, one that can be used for good or evil. Though I state it somewhat jokingly, I want them to think about the responsibilities they carry when they produce information for public consumption. The idea of a design superhero also serves as a personal reminder that I must avoid sitting for too long with the ugly reality of history; my job, ultimately, is to look for solutions.

Art is the antidote.