Citizens and Artists


These days (but also always), it's especially important to consider what it means to be a citizen (i.e., "member of society," not "person of a certain legal status"). If we believe in this whole "American experiment" thing, then, as citizens, we have rights and responsibilities. These are intimately linked: without the concerted efforts of people willing to assume the burdens of responsibility, rights will be threatened. And as I watch the rights of so many being violated, as the very fabric of our society continues to fray, I have to admit that I've been feeling more than a little dispirited. It's easy to feel powerless. But it's so important to ask: as a citizen, what can I do? As a designer, what can I do?

Yes, vote. Yes, write your representatives. Yes, protest. Yes, donate your time and money to causes you believe in. Take heart in any "upswelling of decency." In other words, "run to the flame."

In a talk he gave at Design Week Portland last year, that was how Amos Kennedy explained his decision to move from Alabama to Detroit: a "tendency to run to the flame." What he found there was the devastation of the past, but also a vibrant potential for the future. He goes on to use Detroit as an example for how institutionalized oppression and inequality are designed systems. They "work" as they've been designed to work: creating disadvantage and injustice by limiting access to opportunities, and even basic things like clean water. His point is that design is not a neutral endeavor. Like any powerful medium, it can be used for good as well as evil. Which should give designers pause, and also confidence: it is our responsibility as citizens to recognize these design flaws in our systems, and to work to replace them. (And, ugh, no, I don't mean like this.) As Kennedy argues, it's a question of motivation: do we care more about power and consumption, or community and creativity (by which he means more than artistic expression: the right to live a self-determined life)?

Musician and performance artist (and Portland native) Esperanza Spalding took a similarly bold stance in a recent salon talk at ZGF that I was lucky enough to attend. She argued that art keeps us connected to what it means to be human. The source of the artist's gift is her ability to experience the world in a unique and vivid way. The task of conveying that experience (running to that particular flame) has no fixed template: it demands experimentation and failure. It demands freedom, and is nourished by collaboration. She alternated between embodying this definition of artist—there is no one more alive than she is—and expressing her deep frustration with the consumerist systems that devalue art and its processes. Her willingness to unapologetically stand up for expressions of humanness that don't have a price tag on was bracing and inspiring.

Both Amos Kennedy and Esperanza Spalding want us to be more human; they both want us to care less about consuming. They're artists showing us how to be better citizens.

Ady Leverette was a designer and a principal at Fat Pencil Studio between 2011 and 2018.