The Treachery of Images: Design’s Toxic Assets, and the Foundations of a New Future

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Processing (,.,.,.,.,.,.,) is a column by Rick Griffith. Check back every month for a new installment.

You may also listen to this piece in audio form, read by the author:

Unbridled Capitalism (for most) is an abstraction. From the inside it’s hard to see edges—places where it does not exist. In this time when everything being for sale is normal—including the delivery of your purchases to your front door, car or screen—there is healthy competition to serve our best and worst impulses, and we would do well to know the difference.

Design has its own values. See any designer who has discovered this; Horst Rittel, Charles Eames, Milton Glaser, Stefan Sagmeister, Terry Irwin, Sister Corita Kent and Lucienne Roberts have all authored books and various provocations on this theme. I’ve also authored my own introduction to this concern—all for the purpose of drawing out the premise that Capitalism has less (appeal) than we thought. Less values, often less concerns, leaning towards unsustainability, and certainly fewer boundaries. This episode of Processing (.,.,.,.,.,.) aims to talk about (one of) the intersections of Capitalism and culture.

When I use the word culture, I modify or contextualize it with a “time” and a “place”; for example, 1930s London or 1960s Los Angeles—everything finding its own level, certainly if the audience is familiar with the geography and the times. After all, it’s exactly how we remember, how we memorialize places, events and people. With the tales of conquest, and triumph. Unfortunately, our national conscience is bathed in conflict, with its citizens and many monuments, objects and images normalizing aggression towards Americans of color, immigrants, women and the original inhabitants of this continent.

In this geography—the continent—White (European) people have played the major role in the production of images and dominant narratives for the identities of people of the First Nation, Asian people, Black and Brown people. This has included the creation of stereotypes, the theft of products of indigenous wisdom, ritual garments transformed into fashion, sacred practices as recreation, and the massive theft of labor and creativity. And while the genocide of our First Nation and slavery is over, there has been an ocean of commerce—dollars in the trillions, made and spent to continue and extend the same systems of oppression, including cultural appropriation and cultural programming using the work of designers, artists and cultural workers. I believe we can begin to negotiate for the creation of policies which make these practices less probable/profitable by disrupting the future market for the products of a racist past—and a racist present. To reorient our culture from abuse to equanimity. And if it’s going to happen at scale, we are going to have to put demands on our regional governments to help. Because even if we demolish every statue of every racist, there will still be thousands of artifacts that are indexed in our regional institutions under “anthropological curiosity” instead of being called what they are: indigenous technologies.

1. Famous blackface performer Bert Williams posing for Raphael Tuck & Sons’ “Coon Studies” postcard series, produced in 1904 (from Understanding Jim Crow); 2. Al Jolson in Big Boy, 1930 (Warner Bros.); 3. Card from the 1930s game “72 Pictured Party Stunts” (from Understanding Jim Crow); 4. Land o’ Lakes logo; 5. Cleveland Indians logo; 6. Andrew Jackson, proponent of slave ownership, on $20 currency (a proposed replacement of Harriet Tubman was blocked by the Trump administration); 7. Atlanta Braves logo (the team is currently considering changing its name to the Atlanta Hammers); 8. Washington Redskins logo (recalled)—new name undecided.

The graphic design field presents (and promotes the ownership of) images of people in lots of ways (ways that, again, have determined for centuries what people think of women, Black and Brown bodies), while producing symbols of oppression, heroism, hate and beauty. Some of them I call toxic assets, and those assets have meta objects associated with them. As a letterpress printer, I can tell you that our most toxic meta object is the printing plate, the means by which more of these toxic objects can be made. I’m very interested in this aspect of our culture. So interested that I think we might start looking at a way of deaccessioning these materials in principle, and the process with which we should approach all toxic assets in our various study centers, museums, collections, books, web citations, etc.

Printing plate and print for Vigilantes Indianapolis membership card, depicting a lynching tree. Gifted to the author. Date unknown.

For example, this plate represents the utility and ambition of the Vigilantes Indianapolis. The membership card itself—perhaps numbered and signed by an important person in Indiana politics—would give us more information, but this plate tells us plenty. When we (printers) embrace the making of printing plates, we are often engaging in an action that suggests relative permanence in contrast to the setting of hot, cold, or wood type, which is more immediate, focused on utility, speed and on serving a trending or ephemeral need.

As cultural toxic assets, the presence of such things that have been used to harm people on this continent will affect the overall value of a whole if packaged with healthy or desirable investments (to borrow the parlance of financial markets). The whole being American invention, intuition, creativity and diversity.

So here are some policy-related provocations:

Memorializing, Archiving, and Digital Archiving

It’s time to consider a framework for municipal responsibility for the monuments and artifacts in publicly accessible, publicly funded study centers, museums and collections. Much in the same way we are seeing a (healthy) trend towards bilingual signage for public spaces, there should be a trend towards dual expressions (from BIPOC scholars) for monuments that stand on the wrong side of history, and objects that have offended. We can also consider this (dual expression) as an attribute which cannot be separated from the (digital) image of the object, using a technology such as a blockchain. An audit and funding for this concern can be organized as a policy through regional (multi-jurisdictional) cultural funding mechanisms, many of which already exist.

Sheet Music for Eddie Cantor With the Midnight Rounders, O-HI-O. Forster Music Publisher Inc. Illustration by Helen Van Doorn Morgan. Purchased by the author on eBay.

Cost-Benefit Analysis

It’s time to ask who benefits from these collections in any way: Who are the scholars, curators and custodians of these toxic assets? How much public and private money is associated with their care and conservation and, of course—how many of them do we need? Who should possess them and what can we do to mitigate the harm that they can do to our young people who study them? The keepers of these assets should hire/employ/consult with BIPOC scholars in history, art history, design and anthropology, and they could coordinate the quantity of objects in circulation, with special attention to digital packaging and meta objects like printing plates and blueprints.

The Perfect Tense

We (designers and artists) have made enough of this stuff, so I argue that the meta materials to make more of it should be considered hostile to our intention and instead should be transformed by reparative mechanisms into sustainable, future-oriented, networked (shareable) stuff. If hate speech is illegal, then the means of production of toxic assets should be embargoed, transformed and put into new systems of reparations-focused action.

Reparations Thinking

Moving forward, there should be a municipal responsibility to behave in a reparative manner. I’m working on a sketch of how that might work, but the best I can do is call this a type of destabilizing force on the system that harms people in the present with tools and instruments of the past. A reparative approach brings us into a more sustainable future in cultural representations and stories told by art and art-like objects in our public right-of-way and in the various study centers whose work it is to educate. The goal I have in mind is to define the framework of a Social/Cultural Treaty with our cultural institutions and leaders.

In the future, our culture is going to be full of things that we are (going to be) in agreement with—in value, in deed, in the histories we present. We need policy where there is unanimous agreement (consent) so there will be language and voice given to the people who are harmed in the narrative. We need to lean into more scholars of color who can do this work. We need to create more public art opportunities for people of color to respond to the histories of public monuments, objects, namings and places of honor for perpetrators of systems that have done harm. Because it cannot be our highest value to celebrate the most violent and hateful instincts amongst us.

And finally, if we manage our toxic cultural assets better, maybe we will have a better sense of what culture we want to continue to create and express.

Good design—even in a Capitalist system, even in our cultural atmospheres—should have no victims.

Rick Griffith produces a limited-edition print to accompany every issue of Processing (,.,.,.,.,.,.,). Get the latest here, produced in a run of 15.

Accompanying Reading List (with books available here):

  • Caste by Isabel Wilkerson
  • The New Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
  • The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein
  • Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class by Eric Lott

Inspiring Research: