IDEA, IDEAL, IDEOLOGY, LOGISTICS OF IDEAS
As soon as idealism in graphic design is mentioned, historians of the subject are inclined to look to a time when art and politics still inspired each other. In this alliance graphic design is considered a form of communication which has an affinity with politicoaesthetic projects: Russian Constructivism, Bauhaus and De Stijl. These experiments were carried out not only with new technical processes, but in these multimedia and interdisciplinary avantgarde experiments the artists were also inspired by sociopolitical ideas. Meanwhile these Great Narratives, as Jean François Lyotard calls them, frequently ideological in nature, have been silenced in the course of socialeconomic globalization.
But has political engagement disappeared from contemporary design practices along with the ideological substructure? Can one still speak of idealism in our postmodern times? Can graphic designers still be engaged in largescale emancipatory political or artistic activities? It seems to me that the concept of 'idealism' is ready for revaluation. And not at least because in the last twentyfive years the world has undergone a qualitative change. As far as design practice goes, the approach of young designers appears to be more innovative than in the past. As a result of digitalization and globalization they are increasingly directing their attention to the invention and design of information systems and interactive environments. To this end the traditional, static visual image is integrated into socalled 'timebased' media. At the same time the boundaries between the various artistic disciplines are becoming blurred: the generally multimedial approach is combined with an increasingly interdisciplinary one. Because of this integration of media and disciplines the mainly passive consumption of images has become interactive communication.
The question is how this conceptually well constructed interactive, multimedial and interdisciplinary approach for simplicity's sake I call this dynamic complex 'intermediality' influences sociopolitical reality, and to what degree graphic designers working from a coherent sociopolitical vision anticipate changes. Perhaps the metamorphosis of the contemporary design culture implies that idealistic inspiration has become something other than the inventive exploration of the space between pictures and text. To test this consideration I will sketch a genealogy of modern idealism from three perspectives: an epistemological, politicophilosophical and politicoaesthetic perspective.
In the first of these I reflect upon the epistemological value and synthesizing power of Ideas, as explained in the philosophies of Plato, Kant and Hegel: What does an idea reveal and what does it synthesize into an ideal? Selfenlightenment and emancipation are of central importance here. From the second perspective, that of Marxism and the Critical Theory, I discuss the unmasking of this philosophical idealism in an ideologicalcritical practice. The crucial notions here are solidarity and liberation. From the third perspective I briefly indicate the influence on artistic practices from the standpoint of the abovementioned intermediality. Here the relationship between critical art and politics comes to the fore. In this literal remembering of idealism, its heart the Idea comes more clearly into focus and the question of the nature of a postmodern idealism after the end of the ideologies can be reformulated. Mainly relying upon the works of Gilles Deleuze, I finally sketch the contours of a contemporary logistics of ideas in which a politicoaesthetic sensibility continues to manifest itself.
1. Epistemological idealism
Kant's systematic philosophy is the ultimate theoretical reflection of the Enlightenment. The French Revolution forms its apotheosis. The storming of the Bastille then ushers in modern politics with its division of power, constitution and elected representatives. The French Revolution in 1789 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 joined together by the Russian Revolution in 1917 and Paris May 1968 are the historical gauges for what is recorded as the 'modern' period which follows. From the time of Kant, politics becomes a diligent collective effort of individuals rationally weighing the pros and cons of their collective actions. They allow themselves to be led by rationally based ideals motivated by the wish to involve a steadily growing number of the population in political decisions and management issues. Equality, liberty and brotherhood are the core notions of this political emancipation.
a. Plato: the idea as 'that which is seen'
Western culture with its orientation towards rationality dates to this Platonism which influenced Christianity, Cartesian rationalism and our current technological rationality. And even nowadays rationality is still imbedded in a visual culture. It is outlined against a ground of images which are for the most part meaningless or selfevident. However some images give pause for thought, while others give viewers ideas by suggesting coherence where it is not expected. Occasionally these images even incite to action. How individuals and groups allow themselves to be led by this combination of sensory images and conceptual rationality is the secret which has always been sought by advertising agencies and graphic designers, as well as politicians and philosophers. This secret is the heart of idealism.
b. Kant: Idea as a regulative principle
Kant makes a distinction between concepts, sensory impressions and Ideas. According to him, knowing, technically speaking, means the structuring of sensory impressions through conceptual understanding. This knowledge can only be gained within the sciences because that is the only domain where one can speak of conceptually regulated sensory empirical input. If limited knowledge belonging to separate areas gets absolutized, thinking becomes entangled in contradictory claims to knowledge. This occurs once one attempts to understand comprehensive totalities of which there are no sensory impressions: the Soul, the World as the totality of the things, God or The Ideal Society. Regarding these as knowable 'things' leads irrevocably to contradictory judgements or antinomies.
Kant explains what role ideas play within this problematical process of knowing. Ideas, namely, only appear in the selfconsciousness or thought when concepts and impressions don't measure up. Ideas surpass knowledge. They provide direction – i.e. make sense and a goal by embracing, as it were, seperated domains of knowledge. And that is exactly what happens in notions such as Soul, World, God or The Ideal Society. These cannot be contained in a concrete image, nor can they be known from a more general understanding. In short, Ideas derive their power precisely from the tension that exists between visual image and conceptual understanding. In order to distinguish between science and art, Kant makes a systematic distinction between Ideas of Reason as concepts without an image and aesthetic Ideas as images without a concept.
c. 'Anspruch (claim) auf absolute Totalität
and the ideal
Thus Ideas give meaning and direction – two connotations of the word ‘sense to knowledge and action, by regarding both as having a finality: they lead somewhere. Having reached this point Kant introduces the ideal. Again it is a question of the completeness or totality of practical action: 'Human reason contains not only ideas, but also ideals, which, however, unlike Platonic ideals with their creative power, have rather a practical power (as regulative principles) and underlie the possibility of the perfection of certain actions.' (KdrV B597/A569). The ideal is an architype: it 'exists only in thought'. Thus Kant regards the ideal no more than the Idea as a reality, but as an attempt by selfconsciousness to regulate its ever inadequate knowledge through Ideas in order to construct an 'ideal' unity. In this sense idealism is unavoidable.
The ideal exists thanks to the tension between what is reasonable and what is real. It functions as a critical criterion of what in moral and political terms is an incomplete reality. In this way idealism, since the time of Kant, has gained a critical potential that reflects the degree to which individuals 'dare to think on their own': idealism is inextricably bound up with critical selfawareness, autonomy and selfrealization.
d. Hegel: the realization of the ideal
With his philosophy of history Hegel is the first to offer a dialectical guideline for the future with a scientific substructure. The present can now be analyzed from the conformity between subjective and objective processes. As a result, the literally discovered order can be extrapolated in the future: it becomes knowable and makable. In this way, Hegel closes the Kantian gap between perceptions and concepts on one side, and ideality and reality on the other. At the highest level of understanding the absolute Idea as final point of his totalizing, allencompassing philosophy the rational becomes real and reality rational. Aesthetically speaking, Hegel's philosophy is the first Gesamtkunstwerk.
Within this Gesamt or system freedom of action is no longer a regulative idea: freedom is realized that is, acknowledged and practised by an insight in the necessary patterns of World history towards which collective behaviour will unavoidably be directed. Plato's 'knowledge is virtue' is given a modernistic translation. But gaining such a complex insight demands systematic training: the people have to be educated. Not by one man, Socrates, but within a complex of institutions. Kant's selfrealization of the individual becomes Hegel's project for political emancipation: a cultural, pedogogical Bildung that for the most part still pervades our current educational system. The end of this dialectically structured, emancipating collective selfrealization 'the end of History' is realized by the politicojuridical institutionalization of the Absolute Idea in the civil state and constitutional monarchy.
2. Politicophilosophical idealism
a. Marx: ideal as ideology
But despite all his criticism of Hegel's ideology, Marx retains Hegel's vision of the necessity of world history as a dialectical struggle between contradictions. The evolutionary emancipation in which Ideas collide becomes an actual revolutionary class struggle. Not the citizen, but the working class becomes the historical subject which attempts by means of struggle to achieve nonalienating, nonrepressive labour.
Interesting here is Marx's insight that being an artist is an example of a nonalienated way of life: artistic work, after all, knows no division of labour. The sociopolitical variation of this socalled 'politicalaesthetic' practice is the communist society. 'Communism is not for us a state of affairs still to be established, not an ideal to which reality will have to adjust. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of affairs.' Apparently the ideal as praxis is always already reality. Actuality incorporates the tension between ideality and materiality.
This politicophilosophical actuality is often inaccurately identified with utopianism. Plato's Republic was not yet an utopia in the strict sense of the word, but Thomas More's Utopia (1526) certainly was. In More already a tension between materiality and ideality exists: he sees his utopia as a 'good place' (eutopos) and as a 'nonplace' (outopos). The nonplace and the goodplace are, just as realism and idealism are, two sides of the coin. However, this vision in the form of anarchism and utopian socialism is rejected by Marxism as a romantic, unscientific project for the future. Utopian thought has to be organized along modern, scientifically underpinned critical lines and lived as actuality.
b. Critical Theory
During the rise of National Socialism and Stalinism two political Gesamtkunstwerken Critical Theory acknowledges that it is no longer possible to practice political criticism from totalistic theory without inaugurating itself a reign of terror. In order to avoid totalitarianism, ideology critical philosophy, as a radical analysis of the existing situation, has to renounce an allencompassing political counterpart. Therefor, by synthesizing Kant and Marx, Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969) transforms Hegel's method into a negative dialectic: criticism is driven only by negation and opposition. Philosophy can no longer offer affirmative positions such as utopia. Adorno regards the ability to endure the resulting indecision as a sign of emanicipation. After deStalinization and during the expansion of the consumer society, the 'counterculture', inspired by the ideas of Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979), will hazard a final attempt to 'install imagination in power' in order, also, to realize nonalienating lifestyles. Again art is one of the main sources of inspiration.
3. Politicoaesthetic idealism
a. 'Der Hang (inclination) zum Gesamtkunstswerk'
How then do art and politics relate to each other? Marinetti's Futurism and El Lissitzky's Constructivism are politically allied currents of art. Picasso, whose revolutionary visual language and bold artistic experiments culminated in the politicalaesthetic statement Guernica, seems to embody the union between art and politics in style when he joins the Communist Party after World War II. The Surrealistic movement, with its manifestos and 'happenings' also provides an example of the union between political engagement and collective artistic practice. But how can the avantgarde develop a political practice as an art practice?
I feel that politicoaesthetic expressiveness does not lie in the explicit alliance of artists with ideologically motivated politics. Rather should the avantgarde derive an Idea of totality from art as a synthesizing activity. For this Idea of totality, one should reconsider the idealism that the 35 year old Richard Wagner already had in mind in 1848 on the Dresden barricades: the 'Gesamtkunstwerk' as a project in cultural policy. However, in order to remain idealistic in a critical sense and avoid totalitarianism, the Kantian 'Anspruch' has to be stressed and not the 'absolute Totalität'.
In Der Hang zum Gesamtkunstwerk (1983) Harald Szeemann therefor remarks that in all the Gesamtexperiments the most important thing is the 'inclination towards': it is "a distillation of art and the wish for salvation", of "fantasies and ideas of intended coherency."(16) In Kantian terms: modern art lives by the grace of an 'Anspruch auf absolute Totalität'. Seen from this perspective, the artistic activities of the Futurists, Constructivists, Surrealists, Stijl artists, makers of performance, Fluxus or Popart bear witness to this 'inclination' not only on an individual scale (Duchamp, Schwitters, Cage or Beuys) but also on a collective one (from the Wiener Werkstätte via Bauhaus and Berlage's community art to Warhol's Factory and the Wiener Aktionists).
b. Politicoaesthetic sensibility: intermediality
The Gesamt works on different levels. While it is represented by one person by means of many media in the social sculpture of Beuys or in Schwitters' Merzbau, in experiments on a larger scale such as Bauhaus or Warhol's Factory it is above all articulated as a cooperation between disciplines and artists. One of its characteristics is that the audience becomes a participant and everyday life its point of orientation. Thus it is a interplay of artistic disciplines and media combined with an active commun(icat)ion with an audience that inspires the Gesamt. I have already referred to this as 'intermediality'.
Is it plausible to state that the intermedial determines an unexpected idealistic dimension of the avantgarde? And could it structure the dynamic impulse of a politicalaesthetical sensibility? In that case, the consciousness raising effect of these artistic practices lies not so much in ideologically determined images as in a creative coherent fantasy to which the audience has been made sensitive. Then idealism first and formost is an appeal to cultivate actuality as the tension between the ideal and the real. The Gesamt appears to be based on a sensibility for differences. In my conclusion I shall further elaborate this as an experience of the 'in betweenness': a neverending interaction which as a result of a ‘fundamental’ openness forms a counterbalance to totalitarianism and totalitarian tendencies.
4. The primacy of differences
a 1968: the end of the ideologies
Around the supposedly ominous year 1968, the Marxist ranks in European philosophy begin to show cracks. Their Hegelian suppositions the primacy of the concept and the makability of history begin to tear apart both epistemology and political philosophy. In French philosophy a transformation from a politicophilosophical to a politicoaesthetic idealism occurs. From the beginning of the 1960s thinkers such as Michel Foucault (1926-1984), JeanFrançois Lyotard (1924-1998), Jacques Derrida (1930), Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995) and the psychiatrist Félix Guattari (1930-1992), inspired by experimental literature and avantgarde art, provide criticism of the Hegelian undercurrent in all the modern 'isms'. Beginning at first from within phenomenology and structuralism, they quickly become their radical critique. Prompted by Nietzsche and Freud, this criticism of the credibility of the Great Narratives the politicophilosophical legitimations of Kant, Hegel and Marx leads in the 1980s to a revaluation of Kant's conception of the role and position of Ideas in his Kritik der Urteilskraft.
b. deconstruction of the philosophy of identity
Little by little differences and marginal groups become more important than similarities and identities. Among feminists, it is Luce Irigaray (1939) and Julia Kristeva (1941) who denounce phallocentric rationality from a critical rereading of Freud and semiotics. Foucault's critique on the autonomous subject, Derrida's deconstruction of History, Lyotard's thesis on postmodern existence in which the Great Narratives have lost their ideological impact and Deleuze's defence of a schizoid lifestyle, are all products of a radical criticism of modernity and identity.
Lyotard's criticism of the Great Narratives forms the deathblow for every universal political pretension and therefor for an universalised idealism. His plea for small contextualized narratives asks for recognition of differences, dissensus and the ‘differend’. For him, as for Foucault and Deleuze, this culturecritical groundclearing always stands outs against an appreciation of the synthesizing and creative energies already has been freed by the avantgarde. Although for many critics, including Habermas, this thinking of differences implies pure Nietzschian nihilism, there most certainly is an 'idealistic' potential perceivable in this radical materialism: it is no longer fed by the materialization or realization of an intended unity. What they do cultivate is a sensibility for an insoluble tension which nonetheless is accompanied by the experienced necessity for giving this tension cohesion and form with others here and now. Lyotard called this paradoxical union an 'immaterial materialism'.
With his criticism of the subject and the prevailing discourses Foucault not only speaks up for the repressed discourses of minorities but also for an 'aesthetics of existence' in which idealism is given an existential and experiental dimension. Subjectivity is no longer an unshakable universal fundament, but a design or stylization of an individual existence to be created again and again with others. This collective practice is constituted by an alert consciousness of the absence of any metaphysical, religious or ideological Gesamt. With Deleuze, Foucault emphasizes the process of becoming. Like Derrida he points out the necessity of continually creating new, but always provisional identities. Identity now becomes a regulative fiction that can only exist as a collective practice.
c. micropolitics of the 'in between': from utopia
to the atopical
Beside the tension between micro and macropolitical forces, that between local and global incites to reconsiderate the role of politics. What is it, in this vision in which the ideal as makable reality has evaporated, in which the future is uncertain and in which, as a result, differences, disputes and differends form the political medium of the here and now, what is it that can still be called idealism in a micorpolitical sense?
An other idealism takes (her) place. More than ever it is haunted and moved by the Idea of the other(s). The place (topos) of the Idea is no longer utopia as a makable ideal or ideology, nor the unfathomable depth of the subject. Perhaps there is no other place for this Idea than in the 'inter' or the 'in betweenness'. As a 'good place' as well as a 'non place' this atopical tension demands a continuous displacement – i.e. delocation and transformation – which is garanteed by the open and provisional quality of the Ideas. In other words: idealism is motivated by an atopical dynamic, in which in contrast with utopia the unrealizable is accepted beforehand. The site of this atopical idealism is perhaps expressed most adequately by Deleuze and Guattari in their very last book What is philosophy? (1991) by means of the notion nowhere: a now/here as no/where.
4. Graphic Design: logistics of Ideas
Certain art practices it goes without saying not all art communicate a sense of community now and here by means of intermedial operations. Through multimedial, interdisciplinary and interactive work ideas which inspire them are communicated to and shared with others. Perhaps it is no longer a question of emancipation, but of making sense of and sensitivizing to the ‘in betweenness’ of postmodern lifestyles.
In the discussions which have recently broken out about the legitimacy of subsidizing art in postmodern, budgetconscious times, the question of the relation between art and politics is becoming ever more acute. In the exaggerated museum rows surrounding the fotoimages of Serrano and Benneton, the question is raised as to whether or not museum policies can still make the public sensitive to individual and collective suffering. The critics feel that the commercialized physical images corrupt the Idea of justice. But what idealistic ‘inter’ests are corrupted here?
Benneton's advertising posters at least raise the issue of political statement and with it of idealism in graphic design. If delocation and transformating is the issue than, perhaps, one can perceive these more adequate in the logistics of I.D. which focusses on a artificial interactivity, than for instance in the graphic logic of Total Design. I.D.’s play with identities and ideas composes the dynamics, stratification and the provisional quality of postmodern identities.
Certainly as far as intermedial interactions in contemporary design practices are concerned, a radical reformulation of 'interesse' is necessary: how is ‘interesse’ expressed in politicalaesthetic Ideas, and how are these put into practice? How does the public get interested in others and how is it moved? What is this being (esse) of the ‘inbetweenness’(inter)? If the cohesion between individual existence, micropolitical ideas and collective action no longer depends on the Great Narrative which used to legitimize collective behavior, what still does move postmodern individuals and groupes?
Is our postmodern reality both materialistic and idealistic? Due to the introduction of the personal computer around 1985 and the development of Internet, public space has been enlarged exponentially, but as a result of the speed with which information word, image and sound can be transferred, and the digitalization of knowledge, communication and transport systems the world has nevertheless become smaller. Can one say that idealism has become virtual and global, materialism actual and local? The inevitability of this 'inter' requires an other idealism: reality is no longer taking place here or there, but shifts from the local to the global, whereas identity implies first and formost the processing of differences and differends. Only an idealism that cultivates openness and the provisional by means of Ideas makes this continuous transformation practicable.
In short, idealism has become smaller and more modest, faster and more provisional. Nevertheless, it does not call into question the inclination (Anspruch, Hang) to universalize. It situates this inclination however between the local and the global. 'Die Anspruch auf Totalität' and 'Hang zum Gesamtkunstwerk' are no longer deeply anchored moral affects propped up by metaphysics and theology, but politicophilosophic and politicoaesthetic orientations to a shared sensibility: a presentday 'sensus communis' for differences, or a 'dissensus communis'. If Kant's attempt to connect knowledge to moral behaviour is revaluated the 'inter' can be understood as a mediatic 'sensus’ communis in postmodern times: the intermedial as a communal experience of the in betweenness. The radiant core of this shared sensibility could be a neverending creativeexperimental, physically based , existentially situated, reflective interactivity. Idealism has become a logistics of sens(a)ble thinking.