Looking for the real Paris

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The last time I visited Paris, my travelling companion was decidedly disappointed by the place. He complained that the city had none of the life and sparkle and bustle he’d been led to expect. I knew what he meant and I suspect it’s a common experience. Paris is a great city to visit if you’re interested in the history of Paris – but it’s rarely the slightly twee, romantic, ‘gaye Paree’ that’s so often depicted in films.

Recently this seems to have become more of a public concern. The newly elected (socialist) city mayor, Anne Hidalgo, has pledged to tackle the housing problem that is forcing a middle and working class exodus to the hinterlands. This social homogenisation of the city is unfortunate for many reasons, and one big one is the negative impact on its vitality and creativity.

This article on the Matador Network went further, accusing Paris of being a ‘cultural wasteland’:

Paris boasts few artists of international recognition, it has a Ministry of Culture that seems to do anything in its bureaucratic power to keep Paris from progressing, and French nationals occupy every notable cultural post… Paris proper seems to be slowly atrophying, a muscle that has long ago stopped being able to afford to pick up a pen or paintbrush.

The piece suggests (among other things) that the city’s cultural policy is too tied to memorialising its glorious past – because there are millions of tourist euros to be earned that way. (It’s striking that another of Hidalgo’s first major announcements is a revamp of the 125 year old Eiffel Tower.) But this means that the living city is slowly ossifying into a monument to a former period of great creativity, rather than continuing to be a fount of creativity today.

Parisians themselves are aware of this flagging, of the gradual disappearance of edgy arty bars, independent cafes and randomly curated shops that are the outward evidence of emerging creative communities. A friend reported after a recent trip:

There was a real melancholy about the place – people were saying how it feels so staid against cities like London that are constantly changing. In London we lament the loss of the true East End character to the hipsters, but in Paris they are still sitting about in cafes in Montmartre like they always have, and they’re bored of it.

There are two things I think about all this. First, London should be wary of any superiority in the creativity stakes. Its own inexorable property price rises may well be driving it the same way, as this Guardian piece by Alex Proud points out. But – second – I wonder whether Paris has become a victim of its own impossible reputation, and is being unfairly judged. There are a number of reasons to suspect this is the case.

Paris, and the life of Paris, has been mythologised like no other city, in paintings, books, and films, and by actual historians – who can’t let it alone but are constantly ‘re-reading’ and re-telling its significant moments. The imaginary city – the one tourists have in their head when they flock there – is a rich accumulation of all these things, layers of fact and fiction and speculation. The real city is disappointingly solid and one-dimensional by comparison. I was quite prepared, on the occasion of my last trip, for the unavoidable difference between the Paris of the mind – exotic, chic, the city of lights, of dancing girls, intellectuals and artists in garretts – and the realities of a modern capital city. But still it’s an anti-climax to find that the place you’ve been hoping to at least catch a glimpse of doesn’t really exist.

So, we then should ask ourselves, did it ever really exist? Or has it been exaggerated by story-tellers all along? Looking back to its periods of great flowering – the Belle Époque, the fin de siècle, the early 20th century – undoubtedly a lot of interesting stuff happened in a relatively short period of time. All sorts of inventions and breakthroughs started life in Paris: in technology (the Eiffel Tower, escalators, diesel engines), art (countless rebellions and movements), design (art nouveau), psychology (think Bernheim, Charcot, Freud), commerce (advertising, department stores) – and all this alongside rapid social change. It is just this, and the fact that the arts at the time were socially so prominent, that makes historians and art historians obsess about it. But hindsight probably exaggerates the sense of compression, and powerful narratives around certain remarkable places (Montmartre) and events (the Worlds Fairs) seep into our picture of the whole period.

A third thought: this great explosion of progress was not unique to Paris. Rather it was a feature of a particular moment in history. Other European capital cities were being catapulted into the modern world in the same way at the same time (we just idolise them much less, for some reason). And few of them in their contemporary state – carefully governed, regulated, constantly surveilled, expensive to live in, and subject to the pressures of global capitalism – embody much of their former creative, disruptive selves. We shouldn’t over-penalise Paris for being the same.

Finally: the accusation that the current cultural administration is backward-facing and protectionist doesn’t distinguish it from previous cultural administrations. The arts in France have traditionally been ruled by an inherently conservative bureaucracy (against which certain artists rebelled of course). Something like Art Nouveau – the powerful imagery that frames our thoughts of this exotic time – grew out of a government-backed project to revive the French luxury goods industry by resurrecting ‘the Rococo’ (the favoured royal house style from over 100 years previously). It was a very historicist project, and it was specifically about protecting the Frenchness of French industry.

So: although it’s terribly depressing that in real life none of us can do an Owen Wilson (ie be transported back in time to hang out with Gertrude Stein, Hemingway and friends, courtesy of Woody Allen), we must be careful to separate this from reasonable criticism of the city. And perhaps visits should come with some sort of advisory warning: if you’re looking for the Paris of your imagination, it’s more likely to be found in a library.

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The Politics in Social Design


This is a re-post from mappingsocialdesign.org

Recent years have seen something of a proliferation of social design work (see here for our working definition of social design). Some of this has been about making objects that ‘solve’ social problems: for example the One Laptop per Child project. But there has also been an expansion of non-object-centric projects, of design methods being applied to social challenges that would normally be tackled in other ways. Much of this kind of social design practice has involved either:

  • designers working with, or within, governments, or
  • governments themselves explicitly adopting design methodologies as part of their own toolkit, or
  • designers working with social groups to develop new offerings that replace eroded public services (the space formerly known as Big Society).

This new context for design has not gone unnoticed. In fact, the idea of design stepping into an overtly political space tends to cause a fair bit of consternation: is it fully equipped for the challenge?

Under New Labour (when it all began in earnest in the UK), designers were liable to be written off as complicit in – and significantly benefitting from – the marketisation of public services, and the move to turn ‘citizens’ into ‘consumers’ (a new identity that not all ‘citizens’ readily recognised).  Under the Coalition, there is a tendency for the (predominantly left-leaning) majority of the design community to be suspicious of any designer willing to fraternise with a Conservative agenda, and to read a malevolent undertone into attempts by a right-of-centre government to make use of design.

For example, see this comment from Jeremy Till on gov.uk (the new single platform government website) winning the Designs of the Year Award 2013. Till suggests that gov.uk’s design principle of ‘do less’ (in their own account, a response to previous government websites that handed out unnecessary pieces of advice like ‘put a jumper on if cold’, and ‘how to recognise a wave’) is in fact the embodiment of the Coalition government’s determination to ‘do less’ for everyone. Justin McGuirk says a similar thing in a piece entitled ‘Design and the Right’, and, following Morozov, points to the use of utopian design terminology to support a ‘hard core right wing agenda’ (participation becomes DIY public services, open source becomes open government, customisation becomes localism).*

The problem here is design’s slightly chameleonic ability to slot itself into any system as a catalytic element – and indeed to actively seek opportunities to do so for commercial reasons. This means that it’s liable to find itself with a range of bedfellows. However in government there is a difference between politics and administration. Most designers working with or alongside the current government, and particularly those working with local authorities – a level removed from national politics – would clearly distinguish between aligning themselves with the wider political agenda, and helping administrations work better for the benefit of the communities they govern. Often that means helping organisations adapt to changes instigated by political decisions (such as funding cuts). Most designers would say they have little power over the political decisions, but can make a big positive difference to the front line, so why shouldn’t they help where they can? They would favour pragmatic action over conscientious objection.

But should they be ‘pushing back’ on some of this, in the case where they don’t agree with the politics? Perhaps a better understanding of systems and theories of power would allow them to tackle problems at that level, rather than just focusing on helping people deal with the systems. At the very least, perhaps they do need a better framework for understanding whatever political context they are launching themselves into.

A similar criticism might be levelled at those designers working with communities on social innovation-type projects, facilitating the development of some kind of new service or system in the absence of state-funded services. Even though many might see such work as ethically and socially motivated, and apolitical, in fact this too can be read as compliance with a neoliberal agenda to dismantle the state – a way of making sustainable a particular political project. Cameron Tonkinwise discussed this very question in an article for Core 77 a couple of years ago, and commented:

‘being ethical, in order to avoid politics, is a political position, most definitely if you are trying to design (or redesign existing innovations in) non-government-based social services… it does put you on the ‘make-government-smaller’ side of the neoliberal-liberal spectrum’.

In the UK this is further complicated by the toxicity of the ‘Big Society’ brand. This has now been fully written off by the left as ‘Cameron’s sleight of hand for scaling down of government in accord with neo-liberal and libertarian ideologies’. And it’s been written off by everyone else as a lot of hot air that didn’t really deliver.

But whilst ‘Big Society’ was undoubtedly a Tory project, actually there is more than one way, in terms of ideologies, to read attempts to rekindle the strata of civil society that has been undermined by globalisation and the natural break-up of closely-knit communities. It’s not necessarily an evil neoliberal plot – and designers choosing to work in this space might be doing something different – even inventing new kinds of ideologies and politics.

The question underlying all of these things is whether we expect designers, as a professional group, to take political and ethical stances on things? Historically – with the exception of activist designers – they have mostly taken the money and done the work. It hasn’t been their job to consider the wider context. If they’re now engaging in big public issues, and social contexts, ought there to be a rethinking of the professional framework? Should there be a Hippocratic oath for designers? In all of the design community it’s only the architects who have institutional structures guaranteeing a certain level of professional ethics. (In theory. Certain people obviously missed that memo.)

So: how do we know, essentially, that whenever designers are peddling their wares to governments and communities-in-need, they aren’t just following the money? And how could those designers who are motivated by a social change agenda do their work whilst taking a stance on the political context?

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*What’s being elided in both these examples is administration and politics: the Civil Service’s attempts to improve its own systems of working (and thereby spend taxpayers’ money more efficiently), and the wider agenda of a section of the political class. Of course those two things aren’t entirely separate – but neither are they, as any Minister would affirm, seamlessly joined up. Gov.uk and the move to ‘open policymaking’ are not, in themselves, especially political projects, neither of them are about shrinking or expanding the state, and it’s important to distinguish between what they’re actually about, and what politicians happen to say about them to align with their own messaging.

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Social design under the microscope

ADF Papers Series 4: architecture and drawing, social design, fashion as installation. Image © OBJECTIF, courtesy of the British Council.

For the next few months I’m working on a research project for the Arts & Humanities Research Council. We’ll be mapping the academic work that’s been done on social design, as well as looking at the practice of it in the real world. The aim is to identify the gaps in thinking about this emergent area of design: what questions haven’t been asked? What might stand a bit more evaluation/ critique? Where are the new frontiers?

Social design isn’t a particularly established term. To some it means designers doing their work with a heightened awareness of the social and sustainability impact. But in the context of this project, we are talking about the increasing tendency of people with a design background to apply their methods/ approach to social challenges. The focus of analysis is more on the process than an end ‘product’ (although often there is a product or service that results). So while there isn’t yet an agreed name for this kind of activity, it’s getting to the point where it could bear being put under the spotlight.

Not least because this seems to be a critical moment for design. Governments around the world are starting to consider incorporating design approaches into their toolkits for policymaking and public services. But it’s still a relatively immature field, and there is plenty of scope for it to underperform: in which case it risks being consigned to the scrap heap of failed government experiments.

If this all sounds overly negative it’s because it’s a field in need of critical friends. In theory, it has a lot to offer at a moment when the relationships between state, civil society, publics and corporations need reconfiguring. It’s a promising field, but not an untroubled one. My fellow researchers (Guy Julier, Lucy Kimbell, Leah Armstrong) and I definitely come at it with a critical eye, wary of grandiose claims as to its effectiveness, and conscious of the additional complexities of intervening in social contexts, which a design training doesn’t necessarily prepare for.

For some potted examples of social design working well, see a paper I wrote recently for the British Council’s  ADF series here, and also the ‘social design talks’ blog, which documents two years’ worth of presentations about social design. For some slightly more reflective writing – and to follow the progress of our project – see our blog here: mapping social design research and practice.

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A lesson in drawing from Lord Nelson

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One of the things that is always cited as a cornerstone of the designerly approach is an ability to visualise: to make ideas tangible by putting marks on paper. I always think this is a bit of a stitch-up on the part of the design community. You don’t have to be a designer to be able to do this, they just find themselves nowadays in a unique position. Most of the rest of us have had the habit stamped out by schooling, which teaches that the only way to express ourselves in a sophisticated and convincing manner is to write reams of words.

However it is such a useful communication tool. Making abstract ideas concrete and immediately digestible is rarely possible through words. And it is also a useful strategic tool: being forced to draw something trips the brain into thinking differently, imposing order on what might otherwise be a random set of loosely connected ideas.

Unfortunately the idea of drawing as a means of expression is usually an uncomfortable one for most people, who will have stopped drawing as they left childhood. It seems an innately childish thing to do. So here is an excellent example of the power of drawing your ideas rather than writing or speaking them.

I’m not a great connoisseur of military history. The standard telling of history as a story unfolding via battles and wars leaves me cold. But recently a bit of Nelson memorabilia – a scrap of paper at the national maritime museum – caught my eye. Alongside a very clever bit of interactive display that showed, in plan view on a huge touchscreen, the progress of the Battle of Trafalgar, was Nelson’s original battle plan sketch. I have no idea how this was used. Possibly he made it purely for himself as a bit of working through thought on paper. But it instantly conjured an image of him sketching, black fountain pen in hand, at a table surrounded by the captains of his fleet. ‘Our lines will advance like so… The enemy line will be split like so… Then: we win!’

He would have had to be pretty convincing in his explanation of the plan, as it was a strategy that went directly against received military wisdom. And indeed he must have been, as the battle unfolded almost exactly as predicted in his sketch plan. This hastily scribbled little drawing could have been the argument that not only secured the agreement of his men, but seared into their brains a very clear plan of what they were all meant to be doing, enabling them to pull off a difficult manoeuvre. And influencing the course of British history.

So, the next time you’re trying to be persuasive, try drawing what you’re thinking.

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Communication breakdown: how Westminster politics can repair its public image

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I’ve been thinking about this revolution à la Russell Brand business recently. He hasn’t historically been known for exercising excellent judgement, however in this case, somewhere buried in all the posturing, is a very valid point. The symptoms are clear: the British public are undoubtedly disengaging themselves from politics. Voter turnout is falling, as is membership of the main political parties. Facts which pose both a legitimacy and a solvency problem for British politics. On the other hand: the National Trust isn’t struggling for members: a fact frequently cited as evidence that Brits are still willing to engage in a wider public life and community. We’re just, seemingly, not that enamoured of politics.

Brand’s cure-all is revolution: a slightly impractical answer that doesn’t address the very real challenge of ensuring we have a legitimate way of getting a government. However, one only has to watch the news or read a paper or even probably ask a random person on the street to ascertain that he is indeed correct in his observation that most of the British public don’t care for politicians. His own diagnosis mainly revolves around the idea that politicians are all corrupt, self-serving ne’er-do-wells, in the pockets of big business and the city. This is a very compelling and easily-swallowed argument.

But my own experience of politicians – and I’ve worked with a few in recent years – doesn’t bear this out at all. Many of them are hard-working, decent, and public-spirited: so why isn’t this their popular image? Well, there are a few rotten apples, giving the rest a bad name. And some have just made silly mistakes. But I think the public would be less inclined to believe that all politicians are ‘on the take’ if they weren’t already so fed up with the political class in general. It is already a faltering relationship. And there is one particular feature which, as with all troubled relationships, I suspect might be causing the lion’s share of the problem: communication.

Communication involves two parties – at least – so let’s start by thinking about ourselves. The problems we’re having aren’t only to do with the kinds of people that become politicians. It’s us as well. We’ve changed. Brand may lament the lack of leaderliness in our leaders, but I’m not sure we want to be led in the same way any more. I recently visited Churchill’s house, Chartwell (National Trust member that I am), which is stuffed with memorabilia and records of his time in power. I reflected on the train home that not only was Churchill a very different kind of politician, but he was dealing with a different kind of public – one that didn’t know about (or turned a blind eye to) the fact that he was, for example, drunk most of the time.

Today, our expectations of communication have changed. We want to be informed, to be consulted. Social media has given us all a voice: we no longer expect to be mute subjects on the receiving end of a broadcast. And we have learnt from the experience of our consumer lives that we can expect to be put at the centre of things. To receive services that wrap around us, fit into our lives.

To return then to the accused party: I can’t think of any way that mainstream politics has meaningfully responded to any of these changes in the world (and MPs being on twitter doesn’t count). It hasn’t adapted.

For starters: it hasn’t updated its tone of voice. Ed Miliband’s conference speech was a case in point. Although the party faithful sitting behind him on camera were all nodding and clapping approvingly at his oratorical skills, I’m pretty sure that to most of the rest of us, he sounded like a parody of a sanctimonious sixth form debating captain. Every time he rhetorically paused and closed his eyes for emphasis I cringed. What an odd, archaic manner of speaking. And Mili-E is by no means the only guilty party.

Secondly, the political classes don’t seem to have cottoned on to the fact that most people are now quite sophisticated in their understanding of political communication, and can spot a dissimulating answer a mile off. Those old rhetorical tactics aren’t fooling anyone any more, so continuing to employ them encourages the fiction that all politicians are liars.

Thirdly, they collectively appear to be choosing to ignore the damage that party political bickering does to politics in general. For example, one may, as an innocent member of the public, switch on Prime Minister’s Questions expecting to hear intelligent and reasoned debate about how the country ought to be run: a great and serious matter. How disillusioned you would be to realise what you’ve actually stumbled upon is a window onto a rarefied members’ club where the main business seems to be jeering, name-calling and petty one-upmanship. Actually – internally – this is a system that sort of works because all the players know the rules. It’s more sophisticated than it seems. But to the outsider it looks like a highly disfunctional waste of taxpayers’ money.

Digging down into the reasons most people can’t identify with politicians reveals a significant communication breakdown. In what politicians say, and how they say it, they’re not, as a rule, connecting with The Public. But I don’t think it should be that hard to fix. There are actually a few relatively small changes which – if adopted – could have a big impact. In communications terms, politics needs to move into the 21st century with the rest of us, to move from an age of rhetoric (which it has worshipped and been steeped in for far too long) to an age of conversation – an art form which involves both listening carefully and speaking honestly, as yourself. Here are three suggestions for how this could be done:

1. Stop campaigning all the time (and collaborate).
No one listens when politicians use parliamentary questions – or any other platform – to big up their own track record, because no one believes anyone who is always the hero of their own story. They could be nudged into dropping this habit quite easily: the Speaker could instigate a new rule, a matter of parliamentary etiquette, that unless we’re very close to an election, campaigning and scoring party political points in the Chamber is considered an abuse of parliamentary time. They may disagree, by all means, but must do so constructively. To win back public confidence they must demonstrate that ultimately they’re all working together – collaborating – to solve the problems of the day. Opposing as a matter of principle is tedious and transparent.

2. Speak honestly.
This means responding to what people are actually saying, or asking, rather than waiting for them to finish speaking so you can say what you were always going to say anyway. It means admitting when you made a mistake or got something wrong. And it means being yourself. The popular politicians tend to be those who have a demonstrable personality – who don’t try to be an everyman.

In practice, this may require a relaxing of party lines: under the informal rules about how far one may deviate from the received wisdom without losing your party’s support, those who speak their minds don’t last too long. Or it may just mean we need a greater plurality of parties.

(This is also a great way of short-cutting bad behaviour by the press. Louise Mensch and Gloria de Piero are both interesting recent examples of MPs who defused public scandal by admitting, in a very no nonsense manner, to an incident in a former life that the press was attempting to batter them with.)

3. Be consultative
Allow people to participate in politics. Ask them what they think, and show that you have understood their answer – even if you disagree. Emailing constituents to canvass opinions before a vote is a great idea. It’s surprising how often people won’t mind a different outcome as long as they were asked their opinion as part of a democratic process.

All this is important because we absolutely need a healthy, happy, functioning democracy. Collaboration, which means good communication, is the only way we’ll get there.

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Talking Furniture: what Art Nouveau tells us about the French

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I’ve just spent the last few months in 1890s France (or at least in the library studying 1890s France, for the purposes of an MA). This is a period more glamorously known as the fin-de-siècle, a generic French term which has stuck to this particular ‘end of the century’, perhaps because the turn from the 19th to the 20th century saw such momentous change, and Paris was its artistic hub. The fin-de-siècle has a very particular allure in my opinion: close enough in time and technology to be very well-documented, but long enough ago to be a startlingly different place. Socially: modern and medieval in equal measure. And indisputably a time of grand visions the like of which we’ll never see again. It was also an interesting moment in the history of industrialisation.

I was reading about design – and the dominant movement at that time of art nouveau – and I was struck by the loaded ways in which objects were described by contemporary critics. People got really upset (or ecstatic) about the design of things as (seemingly) insignificant as chairs and wallpaper. Interior design was such a matter of national significance that a mainstream journalist was heard to say that one particular art nouveau room ‘reeked of the vicious Englishman, the morphine-addicted jewess, or the crafty Belgian.’ It’s hard to imagine anyone describing design in such xenophobically charged terms nowadays – or even caring that much.

Although it’s not mentioned in the above quote, actually the most problematic nation for France at this point was Germany. Not because of what came later, but because of what had just happened. Germany had wiped the floor with France both militarily and economically in the late nineteenth century, and their population was growing alarmingly fast, all of which came as a rather unpleasant surprise to France. And it led to all sorts of German-centred neuroses: around power, health, virility, and the question of how and with what France could still assert its superiority in some way.

I think the answer for the French was art nouveau. For hundreds of years they had been used to seeing themselves as global ‘tastemakers’, and the one asset they could still flaunt over Germany was their general cultural refinement. The art nouveau design movement flowered all over Europe, and its most sophisticated practitioners were probably actually in Belgium. But the country it really left its mark on was France: in Paris (think of those quintessentially Parisian metro stops). The identity of Paris is bound to the fin-de-siècle period – it’s what we all think of when we romanticise it – partly because art nouveau became the hook on which the French hung their national identity at a critical moment in their history: the solidification of the Third Republic. And if you look into French art nouveau this way, through the lens of a German-centred inferiority complex – you discover some quite striking things.

They were obsessed with the idea of French ‘grace, charm, and elegance’ as being innate national characteristics. This was partly in opposition to what they saw as being the hyper-masculine, heavy, Germanic style, and anything perceived as being ‘heavy’ in this period gets very short shrift from French critics. But they were also drawing here on the house style of Marie Antoinette, ‘Rococo’, which, for the French Republic (ironically), was their only available shorthand for power and glory. In order to assert their position as artistically superior they fall back on a time when they actually were: when the French court set the trends that the rest of the world followed.

Critics gloried in the refinement and femininity of French design (and for some odd linguistic reason the language is even more markedly feminine in French than in English). But there were downsides to the Rococo being a feminine style, especially in the context of the national embarrassments of military defeat and economic stagnation which led to a major crisis of masculinity. So they also made sure to comment on the ‘strength’ and ‘vigour’ of French art nouveau. This leads to some quite unusual design statements, where an ode to the grace, elegance and lightness of an armoire will be followed by the reassurance that ‘underneath these forms are muscles.’

They were preoccupied with health and fitness. This was partly a genuine reaction to the increasingly sedentary lives of the people of an industrialised nation: this is when we see the rise of the first bodybuilding magazines. But it was also quite common at the time for writers to use the body as a metaphor for the country. A critic called Hippolyte Taine claimed that their recent fall from power revealed that the French body was truly sick. So the worst criticism that connoisseurs can level at a designer is that of producing ‘unhealthy’ forms. They also liked to read their political ideals into their furniture, which they believed were qualities like ‘reason, logic, moderation’, qualities they definitely did not see in Germany.

It would be quite hard to draw a picture of a table embodying such qualities as health, vigour, femininity, reason or moderation: which shows you that these weren’t factual descriptions at all, but symbolic commentaries. And ones which revealed some important national anxieties.

Unfortunately for France, which put all its eggs in the artistic excellence/ luxury products market, the real industrial powerhouses of the twentieth century turned out to be those that focused on excelling at mass production. France, defensively, fell back on its ‘tastemaker’ laurels at exactly the moment it should have been innovating.

Whilst all this is interesting for being an unusual analysis to put on art nouveau, what is perhaps more valuable is to think about modern-day parallels. In the 1890s, the renewed focus on national production in France came at the same time as some particularly unsavoury outbreaks of nationalism proper (the Dreyfus affair and General Boulanger for those who know their French history!) This rings some bells in terms of the UK today. Recently we’ve seen increased support from government for UK manufacturing at the same time as the rising popularity of isolationist parties and this stupid question of ‘leaving’ the EU. You could see these things as different manifestations of the same spectrum of sentiment: patriotism at best, racism at worst. Now, as then, these nationalist wobbles are in the context of a period of rapid technological change. If the history of France and art nouveau should teach us anything, it is that this is not a time to batten down the hatches and rely on old formulas.

If you want to read a much longer discussion of this subject, you can download the essay I wrote for my MA here (the last one).

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Spotting the propaganda: a missed opportunity

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At the start of the British Library’s Propaganda exhibition, the visitor is introduced to the subject by means of a short public information film from 1949, where a learned older man is explaining to young Jimmy the different means by which propaganda works, and why he ought to think carefully about what he reads. The film ends with an exhortation to the viewer to do the same: to undertake their own research into the propaganda that surrounds them. I felt it was a bit of a shame, then, that the exhibition didn’t quite follow through on this advice.

The popularisation (if not the invention) of propaganda was done in the early part of this century in the service of war, and nation-building, and accordingly the exhibition had amassed a great deal of material around this, ranging from a ‘how to spot a Jew’ film produced by the Nazis, to posters exhorting Brits to buy the products of Empire, and of course the famous ‘Uncle Sam’ image. In the last room the exhibition moved on to other uses of propaganda by the state, in looking at propaganda aimed at improving the health of populations.

Now I understand that any exhibition has a limited amount of space to work with, and also that in this case the topic could be interpreted as to encompass almost any form of delivered information, which would make it impractical to shape into a coherent exhibition narrative. The entire history of painting could be seen as propaganda for the illiterate masses, for example. But the delineation of propaganda chosen seemed to be too tightly defined to really drive visitors to think about its role in their own lives. Namely, it was largely limited to propaganda produced by the state (which is not inherent to the definition of the term), in the service of nation-building/ defense, and it presented propaganda as a rather crude form of persuasion – exhortations in big bold fonts that beat the reader over the head with their message – that mainly happened before the 1980s.

I think it could have condensed all the war stuff – the genesis of propaganda – into one or two rooms, and then proceeded to take a much wider view.

Because propaganda has developed and been used for all sorts of interesting things throughout the 20th century, which didn’t really get a look-in here. Something I personally know a bit about is the battles that have been waged over how our towns and cities should look. I love/ hate the patronising and patriarchal Local Authority public information films made in the 50s explaining why ‘slum clearance’ was necessary (all those ugly Victorian terraces, all jumbled up). I think this debate – why towns and cities have come to look the way they do – is something worth telling people about.

I was also disappointed that there wasn’t very much about civil rights. There were a few shots of Black Panthers, and one interview with a feminist author who had decided not to get married. But overall I felt the stories that were being told – the wars of words waged between groups through messaging to the masses – were the ones we already know a great deal about. Everyone – I hope – is very aware of Nazi persecution of the Jews. (And I’m not arguing this shouldn’t have been a feature of the exhibition, as it’s probably the defining case.) But, by contrast, the anti-womens’ rights movement, for example, is not something that has ever been much publicised – nor was it here. And there are many other groups that are regularly demonised in today’s Britain (the poor? immigrants? travellers?) without question. A more powerful visitor experience would surely have shone a light on those issues.

This would have been useful because the fact is, in Britain at least, propaganda techniques have moved on, are much more subtle, and therefore harder to spot (apart from, perhaps, in The Sun). As a parallel case, think about the complexity of techniques used in advertising today, compared to those of 50 years ago. Nowadays, brands have to work harder to make people buy their stuff than just flashing up a sign saying ‘Buy x!’

In one of the talking heads films recorded with various experts, the journalist John Pilger remarks that from very early on, given the negative connotations that the word propaganda had attracted, an alternative term was coined: Public Relations. Actually, I thought he could have mentioned any other number of media through which the powerful seek to persuade: advertising, consumer magazines, journalism or – the worst culprit – Hollywood films. Numerous films have recently been deployed with some not-very-hidden messaging about the supremacy of the West/ Christian world over the evil Arab – I’m thinking 300, Batman, Iron Man 3, Blade Trinity (where the resurrected Dracula is located in modern day Iraq). But actually this isn’t a new thing: there used to be loads of films demonising the Commies.

So, in summary, perhaps the British Library needs to stage a Part 2. But I did wonder if a more powerful finish to this exhibition might have been to confront the visitor with an array of contemporary media, and, given everything they’d just learnt, apply it to the variety of hidden messaging coming at them in their own lives.

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