Chapter 77: The designer as 'author’

Rose petals let us scatter
And fill the cup with red wine
The firmaments let us shatter
And come with a new design

Hafez of Shiraz (1326–1390)

But now that the Socratic culture can only hold the scepter of its infallibility with trembling hands; now that it has been shaken from two directions—once by the fear of its own consequences which it at length begins to surmise, and again because it no longer has its former naïve confidence in the eternal validity of its foundation—it is a sad spectacle to see how the dance of its thought rushes longingly toward ever-new forms, to embrace them, and then, shuddering, lets them go suddenly as Mephistopheles does the seductive Lamiae.

It is certainly the sign of the “breach” of which everyone speaks as the fundamental malady of modern culture, that the theoretical man, alarmed and dissatisfied at his own consequences, no longer dares entrust himself to the terrible icy current of existence: he runs timidly up and down the bank. So thoroughly has he been pampered by his optimistic views that he no longer wants to have anything whole, with all of nature’s cruelty attaching to it. Besides, he feels that a culture based on the principles of science must be destroyed when it begins to grow illogical, that is, to retreat before its own consequences.

Our art reveals this universal distress: in vain does one depend imitatively on all the great productive periods and natures; in vain does one accumulate the entire “world-literature” around modern man for his comfort; in vain does one place oneself in the midst of the art styles and artists of all ages, so that one may give names to them as Adam did to the beasts: one still remains eternally hungry, the “critic” without joy and energy, the Alexandrian man, who is at bottom a librarian and corrector of proofs, and wretchedly goes blind from the dust of books and from printers’ errors."

–Friedrich Nietzsche, Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik (1872) 

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In 1872 Friedrich Nietzsche, in his brilliant criticism of Euripides, The Birth of Tragedy advanced his thesis that the plays of Euripides represented the decline of tragedy, which saw its zenith in early to mid fifth century with Aeschylus and Sophocles. He maintained that the age of Aeschylus and Sophocles, was a logical development from Greek traditions of music, song and dance, which could be divided into two tendencies, the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Apollo, the god of light, dream and prophecy, personified the gentle reign of reason and intellect, pushing life to a somewhat unnatural ordering. Dionysus, the god of intoxication, personified emotions and particularly passions, sometimes whipped to a self-destructive frenzy of excess. The Dionysian suppresses his intellect to live as one with nature, and wine plays an essential role in his cult.

Nietzsche argued that the early fifth century tragedians, Aeschylus and Sophocles, were able to reconcile the two antithetical tendencies of the Apollonian and Dionysian moods within their plays. In the tragedies of Aeschylus, of Sophocles, and of Shakespeare as well as in the music-drama of Wagner Nietzsche was convinced that 'Dionysus speaks the language of Apollo, and Apollo, finally, the language of Dionysus, whereby the highest goal of tragedy and all art is achieved' This duality represented the fusion of the two major currents in Greek poetry: the Apollonian element of Greek tragedy was responsible for advancing serenity and rational imagery, as reflected in the epics of Homer, while the Dionysian element of Greek tragedy offered a darker insight into the irrational and unpredictable nature of human kind, as reflected in the poems by Archilochus and Pindar.

However, according to Nietzsche Euripides failed to balance the Apollonian and Dionysian psyche within his plays: “To excise that original and all powerful Dionysian element from tragedy and to rebuild tragedy purely on the basis of an un-Dionysian [Apollonian] art, morality, and world-view – that is the Euripidean tendency.” By disregarding the dark and irrational nature of the Greek psyche, and focusing almost exclusively on the rational and the visible , Euripides had, in Nietzsche's view, occasioned the decline of Greek tragedy.

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Had Nietzsche were alive and observed the sorry state of the conceptual art in the 20th century he would have assured us that by focusing almost exclusively on the dialectics of aesthetic discourse and on the process and systems analysis the post-modern conceptual art, with its complete reliance on artists' self-analytic conceptual statements exposing the internal logic of their work, has contaminated the essence of art. He would have been disgusted reading the account given by R. Cronk in his 1996 essay, The Rise and Fall of (Post-)Modern:
The new aesthetic made the assumption that beneath art lay an internal logic that could be understood through language theory. These artists were concerned with producing art that established its own context within the dialectics of aesthetic discourse. The intent was to provoke aesthetic sensibilities into the realization of art as a semiotic device.
(...)  The artist abandoned the search for iconic form in favor of an aesthetic based on propositional logic. He turned from the considerations of formal perception to approach art in self-analytic conceptual terms.
Structuralism and the aesthetic theories that followed entrenched themselves behind a reductive hypothesis that denied the relevance of the numinous art experience. The symbolic and the spiritual were out. They were no longer interested in presence or significant form. Art establishment aestheticians abandoned transcendent aesthetics for a system of value based on man's greatest attribute -- the contemplative intellect.
 For the Structuralist, the idea and its context became the subject. There were no restrictions on the medium. The artist could mix media and include theory and environment as elements of the work. The artist could put mirrors in the landscape and call it sculpture because the idea was the art, not the object. By contrast, the Formalists had contemplated attributes inherent to the object without regard to surrounding spaces. Minimal artists rejected the Formalists' concern for internal relationships. The Minimal shape, like the blank canvas, stood for itself. There was no attempt at illusion. It presented no further signification.

When a culture believes the illusion that anything may be understood and reformed in theory, then philosophical or scientific theory will eclipse its world, resulting in the domination of theoretical man, and the demise of art. However,the illusion of understanding, being an illusion, eventually runs up against its own limits, for the unintelligible is the case. In Nietzsche's view, as Euripides confronts and challenges the Dionysiac, for example when his Pentheus confronts and challenges the character Dionysus in the Bacchae, or the post-modern art challenges the nature of aesthetics, they seek to eliminate the Dionysiac basis of tragic drama and art altogether, in favour of a new, experimental, audaciously rational drama, and conceptual art based on the Apolline without the Dionysiac - which is, however, an impossible goal because, it turns out, the Dionysiac is the precondition of the Apolline, and without it, the Apolline atrophies and withers.

Nietzsche praised the great achievement of Kant, and of Schopenhauer, in clarifying the limitation of knowledge. From the perspective of theoretical reasoning itself, Kant showed that our legitimate knowledge is based on categories, but the categories are not applicable to things in themselves.Thus there are limits to knowledge. Science is fundamentally limited by what it cannot grasp, and it cannot grasp the very ground of a thing's existence in the thing in itself. In contrast, the Dionysiac art creates the "thing-in-itself". However, the true art is exclusive as Nietzsche explains :
Accordingly, we must learn to identify as a cruel-sounding truth the fact that slavery belongs to the essence of a culture: a truth, though, which leaves open no doubt about the absolute value of existence. This truth is the vulture which gnaws at the liver of the Promethean promoter of culture. The misery of men living a life of toil has to be increased to make the production of the world of art possible for a small number of Olympian men. Here we find the source of that hatred which has been nourished by the Communists and Socialists as well as their paler descendants, the white race of ‘Liberals’ of every age against the arts, but also against classical antiquity. If culture were really left to the discretion of a people, if inescapable powers, which are law and restraint to the individual, did not rule, then the glorification of spiritual poverty and the iconoclastic destruction of the claims of art would be more than the revolt of the oppressed masses against drone-like individuals: it would be the cry of pity tearing down the walls of culture; the urge for justice, for equal sharing of the pain, would swamp all other ideas.
Of course, here Nietzsche is not condoning the slavery, what he means is that the nature of economic organization concentrates the purchasing power in the hands of "a small number of Olympian men" who can afford the true art. The solution is not to kill the true art, since it's the only hope for the mankind's liberation. Killing of the true art is perpetuating the structural inequity and imbalances, with the miserable "men living a life of toil" feeling quite content with eating their hamburgers, drinking their cans of coke while watching their ball games.

In 1996, Michael Rock, asked: "What does it really mean to call for a graphic designer to be an author?". He wrote:
Authorship has become a popular term in graphic design circles, especially in those at the edges of the profession: the design academies and the murky territory between design and art. The word has an important ring to it, with seductive connotations of origination and agency. But the question of how designers become authors is a difficult one. and exactly who qualifies and what authored design might look like depends on how you define the term and determine admission into the pantheon.

Authorship may suggest new approaches to the issue of the design process in a profession traditionally associated more with the communication rather than the origination of messages. But theories of authorship also serve as legitimising strategies, and authorial aspirations may end up reinforcing certain conservative notions of design production and subjectivity - ideas that run counter to recent critical attempts to overthrow the perception of design as based on individual brilliance. The implications of such a re-definition deserve careful scrutiny. What does it really mean to call for a graphic designer to be an author?

see: The designer as author, Eye no. 20 vol. 5, 1996

Two years later, in 1998, Ellen Lupton wrote;
The slogan ‘designer as author’ has enlivened debates about the future of graphic design since the early 1990s. Behind this phrase is the will to help designers to initiate content, to work in an entrepreneurial way rather than simply reacting to problems and tasks placed before them by clients. The word author suggests agency, intention, and creation, as opposed to the more passive functions of consulting, styling, and formatting. Authorship is a provocative model for rethinking the role of the graphic designer at the start of the millennium; it hinges, however, on a nostalgic ideal of the writer or artist as a singular point of origin.(...)

As an alternative to ‘designer as author’, I propose ‘designer as producer’. Production is a concept embedded in the history of modernism. Avant-garde artists and designers treated the techniques of manufacture not as neutral, transparent means to an end but as devices equipped with cultural meaning and aesthetic character. In 1934, the German critic Walter Benjamin wrote ‘The Author as Producer’, a text that attacked the conventional view of authorship as a purely literary enterprise. He exclaimed that new forms of communication – film, radio, advertising, newspapers, the illustrated press – were melting down traditional artistic genres and corroding the borders between writing and reading, authoring and editing.

See:The Designer as Producer in The Education of a Graphic Designer,ed. Steven Heller (New York: Allworth Press, 1998), 159-62.

Perhaps the whole discourse of 'the designer as author’ has started with Roland Barthes' argument in "The Death of the Author" (1968) that can be reinterpreted in the context of design as:
"[A] text is made up of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not, as was hitherto said, the author"
Barthes' starting-point is a sentence lifted from Sarrasine (1830), a little-known Balzac novella about an artist who falls in love with a young castrato he believes to be a woman. He became fascinated  with this ambiguous tale of mistaken identity in  his S/Z (1970). For him the ambiguity of Sarrasine's feelings is reflected in the mysterious identity of the personality who, paradoxically, describes the castrato as the essence of womanhood. Who is this personage? Is he the duped, fallen in love artist? The narrator? Balzac the writer? Balzac the man?... Having explored all possibilities, Barthes  concludes that it is impossible to determine who has uttered the sentiment. In a design context, we may reformulate  Barthes'  conclusion  to describe design as a space "where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that designs".

According to Barthes framework, then, it is the observer--not the designer-- who is able to play the role of the proper witness for the "plural of the design" and provide it with unity, a unity which is not appropriative or limiting or owned because the observer remains anonymous, unlike the designer. The designer has thus become nothing more than "the instance designing". Thus, we can proclaim like Barthes that:
"the birth of the observer,  must be at the cost of the death of the Designer."

Michel Foucault, in "What is an Author" (1969) reexamines the role of the author, by searching in the void created by his death. We can also reformulate Foucault's statement in the context of "What is a Designer?" and like him  we can argue that:   
"…[W]e should reexamine the empty space left by the designer's disappearance; we should attentively observe, along its gaps and fault lines, its new demarcations, and the reapportionment of this void; we should await the fluid functions released by this disappearance"
In the gap that has emerged we like Foucault can  find  the "designer-function" that now has assumed the role of the designer, and suggest that a  designer should be understood as a function of design's discourse, rather than as an entity unto itself:
"[T]he function of a  designer is to characterize the existence, circulation, and operation of certain discourses of design within a society"
Looking from this perspective we like  Foucault can ask, ‘What difference does it make who is designing?'
"It would be as false to seek the designer-as-author in relation to the actual designer as to the fictional illustrator; the " designer-as-author -function" arises out of their scission--in the division and distance of the two"

In Human, All Too Human, Nietzsche suggests an artist’s ambition
“demands above all that their work should preserve the highest excellence in their own eyes, as they understand excellence.”
In this Nietzscheian framework , one can maintain that as a designer becomes more and more extolled, he begins to detach himself from himself and obtain an additional identity, a persona, as ‘the  designer-as-author’ for the public, not as an individual. He takes on the role of ‘master’ through his masterpieces, resulting in the cessation of being “serious with regard to himself.”

Perhaps this is partly because acclaimed designs outlive their designers. In fact, not only are the masterpieces the posthumous representation of the ‘life’ of those artists, but in the end the masterpieces simultaneously take on a life of their own. One’s masterpieces acquire separate identities which only kill the  designer-as-author even more. For instance, after "The Bridge on the River Kwai" in 1957, David Lean's first great success, which won seven Academy Awards, including best director and "Lawrence of Arabia," that won seven Oscars, including one for Lean as director, and "Doctor Zhivago," in 1965 that won three Oscars and a best-director nomination for him, I remember an interview with Lean in which he confessed that the harsh treatment of "Ryan's Daughter" in 1970 by critics made him so depressed that he did not make another film for 14 years -- as an artist he was dead in all those years -- had those masterpieces  not existed, perhaps "Ryan's Daughter" would have been treated differently.

Employing Wayne Booth's concept of "implied author," in the context of design in the form of "implied designer-as-author"  defined as "the product of the design and the creature of the designer, in the sense Alexander Nehamas has employed, in his "Writer, Text, Work, Author" we can also argue that "implied designer-as-author," is contingent upon the design itself, since "even if several designs have been composed by a single designer, their implied designer-as-authors are held to be distinct"
"Designers (but not, as we shall see, designer-as-authors) exist outside their designs and precede them in truth, not in appearance only. And precisely for this reason, designers are not in a position of interpretative authority over their designs, even if these are, by law, their property"
Nehamas' notions of author and text are the closest to my concepts of  the " designer-as-author" and "design" in graphic design, to the extent that we can appropriate Nehamas' framework we do, in order to argue that:
The relation between  designer-as-author and design can be called "transcendental." Unlike abstract symbols,  designer-as-authors are not simply parts of design; unlike actual designers, they are not straightforwardly outside them. The  designer-as-author now emerges as the agent postulated in order to account for construing the design as the product of an action. Designs, then, are works if they generate an author; the designer-as-author is therefore the product of interpretation, not an object that exists independently in the world.

The figure of the  designer-as-author, in contrast to that of the designer, allows us, however, to avoid the view that to understand a design is to re-create or replicate a state of mind which someone else has already undergone. Designers own their designs as one owns one's property. Though legally their own (eigen), designs can be taken away from their designers and still leave them who they are.  Designer-as-authors, by contrast, own their works as one owns one's actions. Their works are authentically their own (eigentlich). They cannot be taken away (that is, reinterpreted) without changing their  designer-as-authors, without making the characters manifested in them different or even unrecognizable.Designer-as-authors cannot be taken apart from their works.

In this Nehamasian world interpretation need not directly relate to a desgn's deeper meaning, but rather interpretation "is the activity by means of which we try to construe movements and objects in the world around us as actions and their products". To understand interpretation as an activity or an action thus allows one to place a design within a "perpetually broadening" context. Using Proust's Remembrance of Things Past as Nehamas does, and applying it in the context of design:
Only when the designer succeeds in designing the flower's very silence and in seeing his experience of that silence as part of the process that finally enables him to become a  designer-as-author, that is, only when he takes this experience of "incomplete" understanding itself and gives it a place with the complete account of his life and his effort to become able to design, does his designing begin.
As Nehamas believes the significance of objects does not lie in their hidden symbolic signification, but rather in their interrelation: "[T]heir significance is their very ability to become part of this design, their susceptibility to description, even if this description is exhausted by their surface. For the design is nothing over and above the juxtaposition of many such surfaces, the meaning of which is to be found in their interrelations" . As a result, "the designer-author now emerges as the agent postulated in order to account for construing a design as the product of an action".

Perhaps it is in this vein that Peter Shillingsburg in Scholarly Editing in the Computer Age: Theory and Practice states:
"The author as initiator of discourse is showing new life, and renewed interest in social institutions has given the author further life as a member of a community producing works of art as social phenomena.

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