Japan, Ego, and Altruism

Over the past few days I have seen probably around 10 “help Japan” posters from various highly talented designers and illustrators, which is maybe a testament to the amount of  time I’ve managed to waste on blogs recently as much as it is to the huge uprising of support. Now normally I get really excited by the potential and occasional manifestation of using creativity positively for charity or “humanity”, and that itself is something which strongly underpins what we have been trying to do with tesseract in the past few months. There is however an extremely valid and pertinent discussion going on about the limits and real life implications of this, which although I had felt niggling at the back of my head for a while, has been really dredged up and put in the lime light regarding this particular poster. I highly recommend taking a glance though this article to see what is being said, and if you don’t mind your head swirling like a muddy whirlpool then go through the comments people have been making too!

The basic thing being asked by some folk is whether designs like these are effective and praiseworthy money/awareness raisers, as they would appear at first glance, or whether they quietly sway into being ego massaging and consumer perpetuating overly aestheticised items? Big question…

Most people would probably recognise consumerism as a major vice that is innate in our society today, and so it comes as no shock that it starts to pervade into charity. It’s a question we have faced constantly in trying to raise money for Anusaran’s building project- “what can we give to people so that they want to donate?”. Threadless is a great t-shirt company from chicago which I’ve been involved with a little for a while now (and they even printed a design which meant £1500 went to Anusaran), and they have produced fundraising tee’s on several occasions over the last few years- the most recent of which we even blogged about– and in each case these shirts have almost unbelievably raised in excess of $100 000 for their cause. Incredible. They’ve very recently started a separate project at causes.threadless.com where a selection of user designed shirts will raise money for charity, which is exceptionally exciting to see since I’ve had a couple of conversations with them about it all over the past year or so.

I actually bought their first fundraising tee which was for disaster relief to Haiti last year. Without a doubt it was an incredibly powerful initiative, but it’s been a strange experience actually owning the shirt. I think I have worn it once. As the writer of the article I linked above puts it, was wearing it partly “some sick, bragging monument to my own willingness to “help”?”. I’m still glad to have bought it, because to be honest I may well have not donated that $10 otherwise (which definitely says more about me than anything else).

Perhaps overall; it’s ideal if people are simply giving, loving and caring- but the truth is that in a broken society the only way this happens is when it is a jolted reaction from guilt, or induced by a consumer/self image edge, and I would have to hold my hands up and say that the things I’m doing for tesseract can sometimes be tainted by that too. It’s a real shame that the designer of this poster (although it really is quite staggeringly beautiful) felt the need to put their logo in the corner, however small and apologetic it may appear. Something I’ve been thinking about recently is what anonymous architecture could look like- and what a challenge it would be to produce something with absolutely no prospect of credit or acclaim. Doing so can’t in any way make the gesture less effective- in fact the majority of children who go through the doors of Anusaran every day will never know and need never know my name or face- so it’s really quite revealing that the acclaim which is so small and insignificant can be so hard to let go off.

I’ll leave you with some thoughts I’ve gathered from various people around various blogs, who say things a lot more succinctly and thoughtfully than I can (although I don’t by any means agree with it all). Oh, and if you like then you can buy art prints for Anusaran over here!

If you want to make a donation for Japan,you can easily do so at red cross.

The poster is simply inappropriately designed imo. Just because a design evokes a strong emotion; it doesn’t mean its the right emotion to exploit. Just because Sex sells, you wouldn’t use it for a campaign for UNICEF or a non-profit trying to aid child poverty.

As a designer and artist, my immediate response to this tragedy and overwhelm is some form of creative expression. It is a necessity for process, brings grounding and thought to the overwhelm of what is barely comprehensible. The most powerful art often comes from dark places, “Guernica” for one.

I admire your challenge to a “consumerist” response: help by buying! But again, if this were a piece of art, and it was part if a fund raising auction for a grim and desperate cause, would the art be too awful to hang on your wall?

The designer cannot think of every response, no more than the artist. The intention is good, the fund-raising successful. And the audience (you) successfully provoked into the important, paradoxical, imperfect questions we all need to face. Paradoxes we need to work with every day, but especially with a crisis and deep tragedy such as this. How do I do the “best” good I can in the world, knowing all actions have unintended consequences?

Thinking about that a little further – I wouldn’t call this poster a successful design. It’s a successful work of art – it’s very nice to look at, but the messaging falls short because it’s missing that bridge between the ‘what’ and the ‘how’. I think as a design that’s trying to communicate a message it’s left too much out, a simple “text DONATE to XXXX to donate $10” would have solved this issue, in my mind at least. In that case you would have the full communication package – the ‘what’ and the ‘how’.

In response to the folks saying the poster could “raise awareness” about Japan’s needs, I’d ask: who is unaware of what just happened over there? Is your opinion of “the masses” so low that you think they haven’t seen a television, magazine or newspaper this week? Awareness is cheap as hell, and easy as hell, and the bane of slacktivism. If you want to give money to the aid efforts, give money to the aid efforts. If you weren’t already sold on donating, but you like this poster… then I guess the designer did their job, but: you have problems.

Art gives us a voice for our survival moments that can help us discover thrival. Memory is a designer for transformation and growth and sustainable change—out of darkness, light can emerge.

Art that has a subject, or makes people feel uncomfortable, or references tragedy, is great. Just because 99% of what you are exposed to makes you feel better about yourself, doesn’t make the other 1% invalid.

You can almost draw the same conclusion to events like Live8 and the like. Should we have to be entertained to start caring about AIDS in Africa? No – but the sad fact is that incentivizing the masses to help out the people right next to them seems to be effective in an age where detachment from reality is the new reality.


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