Friday, October 08, 2004

Design ≠ Art

Frequently it has occurred to me that the best political campaigns (I'm speaking of issue campaigns, not candidates, though it's true of both), the ones that, in the modern jargon, "go viral" and become widespread phenomena, benefit as much from the artistry of the political operatives as from technical proficiency. Content, style, timing and method of delivery are subjective decisions, but they determine whether a campaign is run with grace and nuance, or if it seems "klunky" and mechanistic, without effectively capturing the imagination of potential supporters. Even if your side has more money and resources, a luxury I've seldom enjoyed, one still has to piece together the electoral or legislative majority, which on every issue requires a balancing act that cannot be approached in a cookie cutter fashion.

After viewing an exhibit of furniture produced by artists in the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in NYC last month, though, and thinking about the debate therein over the relationship between "design" and "art," I realized my assumption that what I was seeing in the better campaigns was "artistry" was incorrect. What distinguishes the top campaigns is superior design.

Consider the views of Mr. Tuttle:

"A great designer has to know everything (language, history, ethnography, anthropology, psychology, biology, anatomy, etc.), while an artist doesn't have to know anything. This polarity ... is the starting point. But ironically, to really appreciate design, it is not about knowledge, but about the experience of living with the work; you don't have to know anything, and you get its 'information' almost through osmosis. Whereas to appreciate a good artwork, you have to bring and apply absolutely everything you know. Why is that?"

Richard Tuttle,
DesignArt, National Design Museum, 2004

That's a damn good question. It captures a quality that prevailing ideas and messages in politics also contain -- the determinative factor often isn't whether an argument is right in its details, but whether it "feels" true or correct.

Think about the common argument, "Putting more criminals in prison would reduce crime." It's patently false, because breaking up families makes it more likely their children will become criminals, thus increasing crime in the medium to long run, but it sounds instinctively logical, so the argument works even if the facts aren't on its side. Another popular one: "We have to fight the terrorists over there so we don't have to fight them over here." That argument, though utterly fallacious and in fact precipitative of the worst possible outcomes (enraging the Arab world when they otherwise would have helped us fight Al Quaeda), can never be completely argued down because it feels correct. George W. Bush is a master of false statements that feel true, but it's a pastime for the entire political class, on both sides of the aisle. Alternatively, because it is so often "stranger than fiction," the truth itself may sound difficult to believe by comparison to a simpler, more comfortable lie.

Politics is not and cannot be art -- no political operative can become the god-like painter filling in a canvas with exactly the right colors in the right spot. Instead, those in politics must produce messages that people can understand and live with comfortably -- it's important to challenge assumptions, but progressive or other ideas cannot become dominant until they move beyond the challenger stage to promote messages with mass appeal. We must reach deeper into the core of issues to develop arguments so fundamental and powerful that they feel true without anyone having to think about it any more than they do the chair they're sitting on, even if it's a little on the artsy side.

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