In recently watching a rather long but extremely engaging keynote presentation to the 2009 Handheld Learning Conference in London entitled “Reflections on Learning” by Malcolm McLaren, which was a recent assignment for Graphic Design 702 (Methodological Studio), I’ve found myself mulling over his thoughts quite a bit.
As a kind of initial caveat to my reflection, I would say that I see as a genuine challenge before me as a younger designer the idea that creating authenticity in a “karaoke culture” (which he defines as a setting in which meaning is conveyed by proxy and life is lived by proxy) can be done in a way that is essentially positive, uplifting, upbuilding, and progressive (in the best sense). I say this to push against, in a way, the example set by his life, which achieved a kind of authenticity but which is not the kind of authenticity I find attractive or desirable because it “stayed within the system” but just swung to the other proverbial side of the pendulum. That is to say that his work and ideas (a good example is the rise of the punk movement in England) was fundamentally reactionary, subversive, and (in a noble way) destructive. I believe it’s possible to create beautiful authentic work that has a destructive effect on all inauthenticity but which is not in itself destructive, if that makes sense. With that said, I want to affirm many of his points and communicate that they were encouraging and also in many ways inspiring and motivational at a deep level.
His comparison between a culture of necessity (as exemplified by post-World War II London) and a culture of desire (as exemplified by our current culture) was extremely sobering. In my own experience traveling to impoverished countries (parts of Kenya, Sierra Leone, Peru, Ecuador, Mexico, the Dominican Republic) one of the most stinging senses that always comes home with me is how disconnected I am as an American, generally speaking, with the raw needs that exist in the rest of the world. I’m so thankful I live in the US, and have been given the opportunities that I have, but I find it personally important to connect with a deep sense of need and dependence to continue creating authentic designed artifacts because I am connected to this sense of need as a person (and am hopefully continuing to become a more authentic person).
I also appreciated these quotations by McLaren:
“In a karaoke world, you’re free of any real responsibility beyond that moment of performance.” (McLaren, 8:15)
“Authenticity is discovering something that is real, that can only be achieved through a struggle, that romanticizes the messy process…becomes a noble pursuit.” (McLaren, 8:40)
“In a karaoke world, everything and everyone is for sale.” (McLaren, 10:15)
And one of my favorite sections in his talk was where he began discussing ways of becoming this type of person, especially as it relates to the sphere of learning and of the process of becoming. He noted that he found it important
“To be a passionate observer…” (McLaren, 34:30)
“1. How to become a magnificent failure, and 2. How to live one’s life like a flaneur in Baudillaire’s day.” (McLaren, 35:23)
This entire talk reminded me of two people: an author and a painter: Alain De Botton and Andrew Wyeth. In having researched and written a fairly lengthy paper on Andrew Wyeth in graduate school and in writing a creative nonfiction essay in undergraduate school that was the second place recipient of a university-wide prize inspired by Alain De Botton’s books, I find much agreement between the essence of McLaren’s talk and these two figures.
All that said, I found his thoughts on authenticity, the place of technology, and his thoughts on culture generally to be extremely astute and encouraging, and I hope to continue to produce work that can be called “Authentic”. I think that’s probably the biggest compliment I could receive as a designer!