Who writes cultural history

There is an interesting article in the Sunday New York Times, by Holland Cotter. It asks, through a review of two art exhibitions now in New York, who has the right to define cultural history and enshrine the cultural icons of a certain time. The beginning of the piece frames the primary question he poses throughout the article,

31cott_600“HOW does cultural history get written? Who chooses which portraits will hang in the hall of fame, which art will live on in museums, which books will end up on the classics shelf, which music will be standard fare in tomorrow’s concert halls?

We are encouraged to think that such judgments have lives of their own, are decided by a kind of natural selection. The most beautiful art will prevail, the most ambitious, the most morally uplifting, the most universal in emotional appeal. Everything else is by default of a lesser order. We shouldn’t fret if it disappears.

This view is, of course, wishful thinking.”

The article continues to review the two shows that are defined by certain periods of time or a certain generation of artists. Cotter wonders throughout about the various selections made for these shows, not just who is included but who has been left out. As he says,

“Such revisionism is, perhaps, a curator’s privilege but not a historian’s.” 

This made me wonder about my own version of package design history, and its accuracy/relevance/objectivity/etc.

This blog is in the midst of reviewing 20th century package design history. The design review has gotten to roughly 1940, and as we get closer to the present it is becoming increasingly clear that the selections we make and the demonstrations we use will become more subjective. This is “a” package design history, and certainly not “the” package design history. 

In part, the difficulty in selecting influential work as we get closer to the present, is because the historical record is more complete and therefore the options are larger. But there is another concern. How do I deal with my subjective opinion of one designer’s influence vs. another?

Perhaps that is simply the prerogative of blogging, you make the house rules. And perhaps the decisions I make will become increasingly curatorial and less strictly historical. But having lived through, and personally known many of the influential designers of the last half of the 20th century, its going to get personal.


The image above is “Collection of Forty Plaster Surrogates,” 1982-84, by Allan McCollum, on view in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current exhibition “The Pictures Generation, 1974-1984.”


About Richard Shear

designer, husband, teacher, blogger, father, athlete, author, historian Richard has over 25 years of brand identity and package design experience, with a wide range of clients such as Ahold, Coca-Cola, Hasbro, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, Pernod Ricard and Procter & Gamble. He began his career working with the legendary advertising art director, and AIGA Medalist, George Lois and the British design manager Clive Chajet. In his next design management position at Lippincott & Margulies, he worked with Walter Margulies learning the complex skills of global corporate identity. He then became Creative Director and Partner at Peterson & Blyth, one of the premier brand identity and package design firms of the time. He is a founding faculty member of the Masters in Branding Program at New York’s School of Visual Arts. He publishes the blog The Package Unseen, and has been a guest lecturer at colleges including FIT, Trinity College and Tyler School of Art. He is a graduate of the Tyler School of Art at Temple University. Richard is a Board member of the AIGA MetroNorth Chapter, past President of AIGA‘s Brand Design Association, President of the Package Design Council and a member of its Board of Directors. He is a member of USA Cycling and US Rowing, a nationally ranked masters bicycle racer, and a member of The Saugatuck Rowing Club, the 2010 Masters Club National Champion.
This entry was posted in Design Criticism, Design Practice, Package Design, a leading or trailing indicator and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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