How to be Amateur
5th July, 2009
The amateur, like the collector, retains a value when everything in our over-commercialized, over-produced world seems valueless. The amateur has a looseness, a lightness of touch but most importantly the amateur creates and produces for love, driven by obsession. This is perhaps most apparent and visible on the Internet, a trove for the discarded and overlooked as the amateurs of the world unite. Likewise various publications have appeared as testament to the currency of amateur. Books such as Photo Trouvee, a collection of 285 amateur photographs found, collected and edited by French photo historian Michel Frizot and the film and photography researcher Cédric de Veigy, is a beautiful example of the numerous brief, blurred, inconsequential and vital moments captured by the amateur, an ‘anthropology of the ordinary’.
An amateur ethos is seemingly at odds with design as business. While it might inform the creative process it does not necessarily follow that it makes for good business. Increasingly, however, the design profession embraces an amateur or homemade aesthetic. This might be interpreted as a way of resisting and subverting the demands of big business but it can also be understood as designers merely embracing a particular trend.
The design professional seeks constant and incessant innovation in their quest for new products and approaches. So while an amateur ethos allows for a more fertile creative process, there may also be more cynical motivations as some designers seek to cash in on the increasing popularity of things limited, handmade and unique. Design and amateur, like design and business have tenuous, often problematic links. By exploring these links we might examine the numerous issues that we must all negotiate in a world in which business increasingly seeks to control all aspects of our lives.
The relationship between design and big business has been difficult to negotiate for many designers. While some, such as Bruce Mau, have attempted to sidestep design’s intimate relationship with business, others have embraced it as an inevitability. There can be little doubt of the corporate and commercial nature of design. It nevertheless remains important, as in many industries, to delineate between corporate forces and the creative imperative of design.
As Rick Poyner notes, a world in which culture and business are inextricably linked creates its own set of problems and difficulties. We must be wary of a culture-business model in which we are dependant “on the drip-drip-drip of corporate largesse.” If we fail to distinguish between creative work done for its own sake and commercial work we might inadvertently be allowing the corporations into the garden shed. We must be protective of our private and intimate creative spaces, our amateur weekend excursions.
Increasingly designers and other creative people are looking for ways to resist the pull of big business. These modes of resistance are varied and complex as designers and other creative professionals seek to find new ways of being in the world. In true utopian style, Bruce Mau argues that designers should “imagine a future for design that is more modest and more ambitious. More modest…in that we take our place in the renaissance team, a group that collectively develops the capacity to deal with the demands of the given project. More ambitious in that we take our place in society, willing to implicate ourselves in the consequences of our imagination.“
Mau would like to change the world by making it all about design but his recommendations drift so much towards the jingoism of corporate jargon it is difficult to take him seriously. He might very well dedicate his latest book to “…all those with the discipline to comprehend the total integrating significance of the 99 percent invisible activity which is coalescing to reshape our future,” but this is change on the level of the multinational corporation. This is not community-based change as it fails to reject the market as the central imperative of modern life, only superficially engaging with resistance.
Heavy with the rhetoric of resistance, Mau is really just embracing a contemporary corporate approach. He argues, “The old-fashioned notion of an individual with a dream of perfection is being replaced by distributed problem solving and team-based multidisciplinary practice,” an approach that may have been lifted straight from a corporate handbook. While it has long been fashionable to criticise the individualism inherent in contemporary culture, embracing team-based corporate models is not necessarily the answer; instead we might look to smaller and more modest community-based models. A more effective approach might be that of individual working from within, contributing to a community.
As the market embraces “creativity” as though it were a new adage, it has become increasingly popular to argue against distinctions and categorisation, to hyphenate the world. Design and art and business become synonymous. We should be wary. As Poyner argues in his essay, “Hyphenation Nation”, “Maybe the time has come to insist on the validity of some of our earlier categories and distinctions – between art and non-art, between instrumental work and work under taken for its own sake. Operating without them is perhaps as effective, as a method of resistance, as looking for a pathway in fog.”
By distinguishing between instrumental work and work done for its own sake and by allowing for a humble, less rarefied conception of the designer and creative professional we might resist the pull of big business. While large-scale social change might be desirable, small and humble creations such as the self-published book often have their own small-scale ripple effect. Increasingly, well-designed and interesting publications are appearing in local and independent bookstores.
An amateur-ethos might just allow for a professional, anxious about their relationship with the commercial world, to work and create from within a community, producing for love and probably losing money. It might allow for increasing failures, out takes and mistakes, experimentation. What the amateur produces are essentially ephemeral out takes, of little value to any one with the exception of the producer.
Just as these out takes operate as footnotes to professional production they also increasingly retain a cultural value. Likewise the creative professional’s body of work will often come at the expense of reams and reams of creative production. The work of Malcom Garrett, peer of Peter Saville and famous for his Buzzcocks album covers, is a pertinent example of this. Ruptures in professional careers often have more value than the stuff of the career.
More and more the professional needs to re-evaluate what is of value and what is to be excluded professionally. For each photo cast aside, each rough draft, each discarded sentence can tell a wholly different narrative. And it is these narratives, as we embrace a humble amateur-ethos, that are of value and importance in their ability to disrupt mainstream corporate notions of design, good design and what creative products should be. In other words many of these out takes may be what is most interesting in a creative professional’s career.
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