Artemy Lebedev

§ 34. Teaching old fleas new dogs

May 17, 1999

Television is the literature of the illiterate, the culture of the low-brow, the wealth of the poor, the privilege of the underprivileged, the exclusive club of the excluded masses.

Lee Loevinger

Spectators, seeketh the spirit of the poet—should they even be buffaloes! The same particularly holds true for commercial art (which design apparently is). Lest you unleash a stampede of disillusioned consumers by hurting their ears or eyes with poorly orchestrated sounds or rhymes, art should be  effective.

It took the Western industry decades to fine-tune its collaboration with consumers. Making extensive use of the celebrated Russian physiologist Pavlov’s studies, advertising rings the bell with consumers and gets them salivating with glee, their greenbacks dribbling from their open purses. Ding-ding goes a bit of advertising—clang-clang echoes a coin, signaling the successful contact.

In the end we are seeing a nearly perfect couple: in the red corner stands top-notch professional advertising whose recipe was co-written by hordes of psychologists, designers, copywriters and the like; in the blue corner, chafing at the bit, are consumers whose choice seems pretty much predetermined.

A plain truth underlies this harmonious alliance: a product ought to meet demand. And do so aesthetically in the first place. So the industry decided to pick up the thorniest path by trying to make things that work and look good.

Let us now cross the ocean and walk eastward until we are at home. What are we seeing? What popular tastes are being fostered among ordinary folk? What does it love and is prepared to pay for?

By default the folk is the custodian of paragons of the tasteless, illiterate, platitudinous, sleazy kitsch and dull wits. Changing these settings will take years of proper training. The training progress should be gentle but insistent.

Housekeeping tip

Every person needs iodine. Without it, one runs the risk of ending up with an abnormally swollen thyroid gland and passing away from goiter. How is one supposed to make people eat it? Rallying them to go marching to drugstores is no use. The problem was solved in a pretty simple way: long ago governments of all countries of the world adopted a general practice of adding iodine to table salt. Salt is routinely present in everyone’s daily meal, so nations’ health deterioration was more or less put an end to. It’s a fine example of the gentle but insistent way of solving a problem. By the way, if you need non-iodized salt, it’s a rarity these days.

There’s a bit of a problem here, too: the compound of salt and iodine dissolves in a couple of months, which is why the once-iodized salt becomes normal at a retail store. In some countries iodine is added to butter.

In Soviet times the idea that people need aesthetic development still dwelt in the minds of those who were educated before the 1917 revolution. The construction of the Moscow metro, for one, involved the best architects, which helped the first stations win Grand-Prix medals at international exhibitions. Every petty detail was a matter of thoughtful consideration: after all, the metro was expected to see millions of people daily pass under its vaults. The intention was to get commutation to shape public taste, for he who tried the best doesn’t care for the rest.

Below is a description of a prospective metro car for the Moscow metro:

The projected architectural elements and junctions should be made of polished wood, all metal parts should be nickel plated, the windows must have mirror glass frames; if hard, seats should be made from oak to avoid the temptation to paint them (which always contributes to a cheap impression) and reduce amortization.

Source: Kravets S.M., “Arkhitectura vagona metro” (“Architecture of a metro car”). Metrostroy 7, 1933. P. 20

A minimal requirement for shaping taste on a large scale and educating generations is an appropriate state program.

But a state program aimed at teaching taste is a non-profit enterprise that may last for years to show results.

Obiter dictum

Nobody knows what colors make up the Russian flag.

Why is all this blabber about creating the image of the national flag when diverse state agencies sport banners with colors as variegated as patterns of ties worn by government officials? Even banknotes, one of the primary tools of planting ideas in the subconscious, have an exterior more fitting for present wrapping paper.

To get people to buy things, a design corresponding to modern tastes is needed.

So change the tastes first.

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