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Not in Agreement
Progress is so messy

by DK Holland


The Simms Taback Award/The Graphic Artists Guild: Given to an individual whose integrity and tireless action has improved the lot of graphic artists.

The Sylvia Harris Citizen Design Award/The FJC Foundation: Supports projects that inform and inspire the public and the dedicated designers who create them, in particular designers of color.

In reality most people (not just extremists) think they are right, that their reasoning is conscious, logical, unemotional, universal and functions to serve their best interest. That’s what we have come to believe in western culture. Yet new knowledge about neuroscience shows us that this is absolutely and totally untrue. In reality, most of us (regardless of our intelligence, education level or self-discipline) are oblivious to the fact that 98 percent of thought is unconscious and therefore not in our conscious control. It’s also not language-based.

The two percent of thinking that is conscious takes lots of energy and time; time we can’t afford since we make the vast majority of our decisions on the spot. Yet because we believe we’ve thought through our positions, we tend to stubbornly stick to their rightness (as individuals and as groups). And we seek out ways to reconfirm our positions (thanks for making that so easy Google) and avoid evidence that we are wrong (the delete button).9

We admire people who we think think quickly and who we think are unwavering in their views (we equate this with sharp, deep intelligence). They must be right—we think. Yet that quick wit is often “shoot from the hip” thinking. And, if you were to analyze what these “sharp thinkers” were saying, you'd see all the holes, flaws and fallacies. Conversely, people we think are hesitating in answering may actually be consciously thinking (e.g., ruminating over their answers), which we erroneously denigrate as waffling, as indecision.

Besides having illusions about what’s going on inside their big brains, we also falsely admire people because of the shapes of their heads. We like broad chins and wide set eyes in males. Central casting reinforces this illusion; leading men and women are relentlessly good looking. Sadly, this is also how we tend to choose our leaders: fast talkers with engaging smiles. And tall. They should be tall—and have good hair.

Add to our perpetual self-deceptions our flawed memories. Once any event happens, just one minute after (or even sooner) that event has become warped. The more we think about it, the more entrenched and altered that memory becomes. And since we love good memories we often do things just to make them. Disneyland is a perfect example of a place made for memories (and photo albums). We humans are dreamers, which is vital to our evolution when we bring our dreams to life.

Artists and philosophers have the ultimate freedom of expression, of dreamtime. There is no critic, no client and no middle man, nor is there a censor placing limits on the imagination. It’s a license to obsess. Creative works have lead to dialogue, some to real progress, de-evolution and everything in between in America.

The public airing of tension has been unique to American culture and it’s an important quality in much of contemporary art. And, since the success of democracy depends on group dialogue and cooperation, we use our creativity to jumpstart the discussion—to explore the hard issues, get beyond the ten-second sound bite.

Artist Eric Fischl, who was raised in the 1950s against a backdrop of alcoholism and a country club culture obsessed with image over content, has found a focus in undercurrents in his work, “that which cannot be said.” After 9/11, he realized artists could help reroute the polarization of America to a positive avenue. He is, in that way, bringing art back into focus. America Now and Here is sparking dialogue through a multi-disciplinary installation/performance experience, coming soon to your hometown during its two-year tour of the United States.10

Fischl has partnered with hundreds of artists, poets and performers such as Laurie Anderson, Billy Collins, Barbara Kruger, Ghada Amer, Anne Lindberg, Sally Mann, Tom Friedman, Feist, DJ Spooky, Damien Rice, Kiki Smith, Roseanne Cash and Chuck Close. Their work is meant to get people thinking, responding, talking together, on their home turf. What does America—this great democratic experiment—mean to us, to you, now and here?

The kick-off of this county-fair-meets-circus was in May 2011, in the heartland, Kansas City. America Now and Here partnered with fifty local community organizations and over one hundred artists of all sizes and stripes from the region to ensure the greatest reach. Young local artists were enlisted as well to act as guides, to facilitate dialogue, to help humanize art. Plays were acted out in public as if they were exchanges being overheard. Guides were armed with ten questions to get the conversation going with visitors such as: What message do you want to send to our country? What is the role that art plays in American identity? All these gestures become great conversation starters and help people relax, pause and truly engage with art; to think about what art is saying about America and to contribute their voice to a national dialogue.

While we humans are very quick to caricature others in very negative ways, we rarely see our own flaws clearly. Dorothy Dunn, director of America Now and Here, says, “We catch ourselves jumping to conclusions. People assume they know the message. We keep it playful, which helps bring people together who never gather. Gets them out of their ruts.”

Standing near artist Anne Lindberg’s Democracy, a typographic word mashup in rusted bent wire, a guide asked a young girl in the crowd, “How does this represent democracy to you?” To which the girl answered, “Because all the words are jumbled together and don't make sense.” A few adults present interpreted that to mean that only a few coherent voices can be heard in a democracy, the rest is noise, lost or repressed. The voices of those underserved, underrepresented often do not get heard. This conversation was off to a good start.

Visual creators—the artist, designer, illustrator, photographer, creative director—each has a gift, the facility to reimagine and unjumble the mess; to create beauty and visualize a distilled, considered point of view; to apply that point of view to even the most mundane communication. We are living in a dangerous time, an era of inequality, division and despair in America. This is how we can help to engage everyone in our country to heal the broken heart of democracy. CA

1.    Healing the Heart of Democracy, Parker J. Palmer.
2.    The Political Mind, George Lakoff.
3.    Bill of Rights
4.    Amateur comes from the Old French (lover of) and Latin (lover).
6.    Healing the Heart of Democracy, Parker J. Palmer.
9.    The Political Mind, George Lakoff.
10.  The 2012/2013 inaugural tour is the first phase of a national experience designed to engage communities large and small across the country for years to come. Holland
DK Holland writes about design and teaches in two MFA design programs in New York, one at SVA and one at Pratt. She is an advisor to Project M and Design Ignites Change. Holland has been the editor of Design Issues since she started it in 1990. She is the author/producer of many books on design as well as Branding for Nonprofits. She is the producer of CitizenME, which creates transmedia tools that engage students in understanding how to become proactive citizens. Holland lives and works in her tiny nineteenth-century restored Italianate house and garden in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.