Can good design save the economy? A Response

Those who watched the Closing Ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics were presented with a visual display of what British art, design, and music has offered the world over the past century. With an economy still in decline and a government seeking to legislate a solution, an interesting article was published on the online BBC magazine last week (21 November). Titled ‘Can good design save the economy?,’ journalist Andrew Marr presented an interesting suggestion for how design might help in troubled times.

Marr argues that historically, the UK government has recognised that good art and design stimulates the national economy in a time of decline, citing the 1837 government initiative that became the Royal College of Art (originally called the Government School of Design). Marr’s concern is that he has not seen a similar government response during this recession. Instead, art and design are being left out of core curriculum for students, and arts funding has been significantly reduced. This is in spite of the fact that, ‘[h]owever loosely you define design, objects which make life a little easier – or which decorate our minds – are inseparable from current and future prosperity.’ Is the government cutting off the hand that might bring about economic renewal?

The problem Marr identifies is that while the government sees the value of the end product, there is less value given to (or ignorance about) the process required to get to that product:

…it’s actually dangerous to try to place dividing lines between creativity – ideas – and product…And there’s where I think the trouble lies. To invest in art and design means putting public money into areas whose value cannot be captured on a spreadsheet, where concepts like productivity, value-for-money, inputs and outputs – which so reassure the political world – simply collapse. That means faith. It means risk.

I agree with Marr that it becomes problematic when the object sans process receives the emphasis. In my experience as a freelance designer, it was always challenging to explain to clients why a job ‘costs so much’. Where they only saw a website, logo, or brochure, I experienced hours of thinking, sketching, concepting, and ultimately rejecting many bad ideas before landing on what were good ones.

However, while this article raises an important issue and asks an interesting question, my concern lies in one possible conclusion that could be drawn: specifically, when ‘good’ becomes conflated with economic advancement. Is design only good if it stimulates the economy? If so, is its value justified in relation to how the consumer responds? While this is a powerful motivator towards investment in the arts, especially in a time when money is tight, surely, design is also good in a time of economic downturn because of how it feeds our souls and our person. In addition to ‘decorating our minds’ and making our lives easier, good design makes the everyday beautiful and can present us with the whimsical and fun that lightens our spirits in a time of fear and stress.

To me, there seems to be a tension that must be held when we try to relate art and the economy. While good design might stimulate the economy and therefore become a wise investment in a time of economic turmoil, it cannot be reduced to that. The artist or designer who spends time developing their gifts in order to create good design must be seen as more than just a cog in the economic stimulus package. But also, perhaps, with reduced government top-down spending, what we have is an opportunity to see where else human-making emerges within society and what is created and purchased without the weight of public funding or economic progress dictating its end and value. (For an interesting contrast, see ‘Etsy, Folksy and the mania for making crafts’).

How might the Christian understanding of who we are as humans, especially the belief that creating and making is fundamental to our humanity, critique this reduction of good art to economic value?

1 Comment

  • jfutral says:

    This is a long time discussion for me. Always a tough line to balance. For a current take on the topic in Miami:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/08/arts/design/art-and-commerce-meet-in-miami-beach.html?pagewanted=2&_r=0&smid=tw-share

    I agree, even if art could never be demonstrated to provide any economic impact (I am one who has long questioned the value of economic impact of the arts studies, though they make for interesting reading), I would still not want to live in a world without art.

    I would also suggest reading this article talking about how the discussion needs to be reframed:

    http://margyartgrrl.blogspot.com/2012/10/romney-isnt-really-talking-about-big.html

    On the one hand government is a system, steeped in Modernity that it is. As such what is important and valuable to humanity is not always something that a “system” can understand.

    But on the other hand I do believe that art is such that it can withstand the occasional reductionism that needs to take place to help others see it is worthwhile. Sometimes it is just that first hump to get over that needs focused attention.

    We just have to be prepared for the guy who can demonstrate that there is no economic import to art and design.

    Joe

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