XVII.6 November + December 2010
Page: 10
Digital Citation

Oh, beleaguered beauty

José Martínez Salmerón

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Would you agree that one of the purposes of art is to enable us to relate to the world from a position of coherence? This relating to and making sense of all that surrounds us is enhanced when art either reflects abstracted atemporal notions on the one end, or when its constitutive elements are derived from the very aspects of our time.

Literature, as an example, is an art form heavily dependent on narrative—that eminently practical, natural engine of history. On one side of that spectrum we have the Gospels; on the other, we find the work of writers such as David Foster Wallace and David Mitchell. In between are all those classics taught in high school classrooms and perhaps even in university creative-writing courses: Balzac, Dostoevsky, Zola, and so many other novelists whose brilliance is now ignored by most readers because it's somehow eclipsed by the fact that their world, so accurately represented in their fiction, is no longer extant. And therefore their approach precludes us from substantially relating to what they have to say.

And why is our world so different? A scholastically minded reader would object that what unites us across generations is greater than what divides us. Human condition mutates slowly if at all. However, art that shows more than it tells needs to dress up our condition in order for us to be able to fully grasp it—the dress's fabric woven from the mundane specifics of our daily activities.

"Life now is completely different than the way it was then. Does your life approach anything like a linear narrative? Life seems to strobe on and off for me, and to barrage me with input... [Tolstoy's fiction], I enjoy reading, but it doesn't feel true at all. I read it as a relief from what's true. I read it as a relief from the fact that, I received five hundred thousand bits of information today, of which maybe twenty five are important. And how am I going to sort those out, you know?" explains David Foster Wallace in David Lipsky's posthumous profile Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself [1].

So it follows that the type of narrative that increasingly (if slowly) prevails draws its tropes from our fragmented, accelerated society: vernacular language wins over formal dialog, asynchronous structure over linearity, the genuine over the scripted (witness the ascent of reality TV and the decline of traditional dramas)—the current trumps the dated.

Used to fast-cut image production on cinema and television, quick-reading formats in the press, and ultimately the Borgian library represented by the infinite Web, we find that anything that is not imbued with our kind of manic energy, with the postmodern notions that, ironically, modernity enabled, just doesn't ring true. And truth is the one thing we continue seeking.

Consider the Gospels. To this day, they feel fresh. They are narrative par excellence. Why? Even though their structure is somewhat linear, their manifestation is very episodic and fast-paced. Transitions practically don't exist. Description is absent, so the peculiar aspects of Jesus's time and place are somehow sublimated into an utterly practical abstracted story. What remains is the core of the experience and the essence of the message that needs to be transmitted—a message that, on top of it all, refers to the foundational aspects of our common human nature. And what can be more pertinent than that?

Think back: When was the last time you had the presence of mind to stop and, say, reflect on the nature of that overflowing laundry hamper under a faded poster of a long-ago Diebenkorn exhibit at your friend's apartment? Or something similar. Yet contemporary novelists still insist in subjecting their audiences to pages and pages of descriptive detail that gets in the way of the urgency and immediacy with which their messages should be delivered. That urgency is palpable in the language of the ancient Gospels. It's also palpable in the ever increasing acceleration and complexity of our contemporary society.

It's not that novelistic description is wrong. The problem comes when writers use carefully crafted language to hide the fact that they don't know how to tell an engaging story. Nobody's equipped with the equivalent of a 360-degree real-time scanner that immediately ascertains every peculiar detail of our surroundings, as well as the inner mappings of our feelings. And yet, I'm constantly assaulted by literature that reads as if that equipment were standard-issue at the maternity ward. Art doesn't have to mimic or be limited by reality, but it needs to feel as if it operates sub specie realitatis. Let's just ensure that description is pertinent, shall we?

To return to the late and quintessentially contemporary novelist, David Foster Wallace—a writer who didn't shy away from description, but who made it crucial—his prose is in a sense contrary to the style found in the New Testament but, paradoxically, and because of its immediacy and currency, it partakes of that sense of relevance to which I previously alluded. Wallace's novels are not easy, and by strictly commercial considerations their success pales in comparison to the revenue brought in by a Hollywood blockbuster. However, he sought and found a way to write that felt like our way of living, whose formulas didn't draw from the staid tropes of the past.

Someone once said that we are not made for comfort, but for greatness. Wallace's prose is not comfortable, and he knew it:

"Human beings are narrative animals: Every culture countenances itself as culture via a story, whether mythopoeic or politico-economic; every whole person understands his lifetime as an organized, recountable series of events and changes with at least a beginning and middle. We need narrative like we need space-time; it's a built-in thing.... The narrative patterns to which literate Americans are most regularly exposed are televised. And, even on a charitable account, television is a pretty low type of narrative art. It's a narrative art that strives not to change or enlighten or broaden or reorient—not necessarily even to "entertain"—but merely and always to engage, to appeal to. Its one end—openly acknowledged—is to ensure continued watching. And (I claim) the metastatic efficiency with which it's done so has, as cost, inevitable and dire consequences for the level of people's tastes in narrative art. For the very expectations of readers in virtue of which narrative art is art. Television's greatest appeal is that it is engaging without being at all demanding" [1].

So now we come full circle to the opening question: Would you agree that one of the purposes of art is to enable us to relate to the world from a position of coherence?

There are other ways to relate to our world, perhaps more directly than art does. Consider journalism, politics, science. But they can't do what art can. If art doesn't connect you to your environment while simultaneously kicking you above it, it's not art. It's entertainment.

So what does all this have to do with design, or information architecture?

It's a genuine question given that this publication is primarily focused on those topics. For some, the answer would clearly be "nothing." And that's a plausible insight. Yet for others the response would be "everything." After all, don't we arguably contribute with our software-designing work to the machine-like framework of our contemporary daily existence, with its enshrinement of efficiency, its value of all that's measurable, its deep-seated disrespect of aesthetics and emotion? Its deconstruction of all narratives, even the narrative and meaning of our own lives?

We like to say that design is problem-solving, but do we really believe the sum total of our collective activity results in, as David Foster Wallace put it, helping people sort stuff out? Does it feel like we are all coping OK?

Let's be honest: The least we can do is to embrace reality if we want to have a chance to improve it. Know thyself and thy time; capitalize on relatively short-lived but powerful current trends or, conversely, embrace the timeless; aim for greatness, not conformity, both in your daily professional activities and in the way users will ultimately experience the products that you design. Understand that people's attention spans are nonexistent, so you'd better get it together; abandon old cardboard postures in the way a company needs to relate to its customers; be genuine, honest, and fearless; don't take bull from anybody because, really, who has time for bull these days. And above all, be proud of defending aesthetics even if you are not a visual designer.

Why do we need aesthetics?

Apple Inc., anyone? But let's not resort to that cliché, cop-out answer. Life would be dreary without beauty. Lawyers make the big bucks framing the rules of our coexistence. Doctors deal in matters of life and death. Engineers build massive structures that shelter or transport us. All critical activities that ensure our survival. But what would we do with our wealthy, sheltered lives without that for which we all ultimately strive (without that for which survival is sought): beauty and harmony?

Don't give in to those who demand the justification of beauty with data or its subordination to technical feasibility—as if beauty were in the service of bean counting. Beauty, just as truth and goodness, is an end in itself because it's both a transcendental value and something deeply human.

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1. David Foster Wallace quotes are taken from a book review; Mason, W. "Smarter Than You Think." The New York Review of Books, 15 July 2010;

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José Martínez Salmerón is the creative director at Cell Division in New York City. Prior to that, he was the director of visual design at EightShapes and the associate creative director at frog design, having also worked as a creative leader at Yahoo!, the University of California Irvine, and Organic. The list of clients Salmerón has worked for includes Cisco, U.S. Department of Energy, Sprint, Motorola, HP, and Urban Science. Salmerón has written about the intersection of creativity, business and technology for I.D., Design Mind, Global Entrepreneur, and the Newspaper Association of America's "Classified Update." For six years, he played the role of independent trends and innovation advisor for the management team of Japan's premier financial institution, Nikkei (Nihon Keizai Shimbun's Electronic Media Bureau). He has lectured on user experience design at Poynter Institute, San Francisco State University, and University of Málaga (Spain), among other venues. Salmerón holds a Ph.D. from the University of Málaga, as well as a bachelor's in journalism from Spain's University of Navarre.

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©2010 ACM  1072-5220/10/1100  $10.00

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