Conflicts of Modernism

“The divide between high and low art remains, literally, academic. For decades, elements of high art have been feeing the wellsprings of advertising cluture… [and] lowbrow or vernacular culture has often availed itself of gimmicks, techniques, motifs, subject matter, and styles from high modernism.” [Barme, Geremie. In the Red: On Contemporary Chinese Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. 248]

This is an aspect of China’s modernizing advertising industry that definitively parallels that of the American and European advertising industries. Since the 1950s and the invention of such standard Modern graphic design tools as Helvetica and block-text, these have been embraced by the rest of the world to the point of being almost cliche now. For example, Helvetica is both regarded as the perfect font, and the most obnoxious font – it is such a standard thing, it is impossible to escape from; it is a typographic monster. Much as China seems conflicted (should it embrace and rebel against the party adcult? When the best ads do both, what does that mean?) so too does the European advertising world seem conflicted about Modernist typeface and design. Are such definitively Modern typefaces as Helvetica and similar typefaces irrevocably tied to the negative connotations of the late-modernist period? Is modernism subversive, merely a representation of fascism, fanatic nationalism, and dictatorships? Can design and style be seperated from the ideas that flourished when those designs were created? I think that is the key question inherent to this quote. Understanding the use of party adcult by modern, ‘lowbrow’ culture is difficult because inherent to this is the question of reason.


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