What’s So Special About Interests?

Filed Under: Inspiration , Article , Voice

The poet, humorist and cultural critic Andrei Codrescu, currently displaced in Baton Rouge, continues to help us understand the New Orleans he left behind. In a New York Times op-ed piece Codrescu and photographer Nils Juul-Hansen show us Katrina as expressed by row after row of refrigerators. Full of rotted food, they were dragged by returning natives into the street, where, Codrescu writes, “the rows of fridges lining the streets looked by moonlight like primed canvases ready for painting.”

And painting is what they got. The refrigerator surfaces were quickly covered with art—much of it protest art. Codrescu explains that, “New Orleans music and art have always been inspired by funk.” I’m sure that, as usual, he is dead right in interpretation; but he happens to be wrong in technical detail. Those fridges were not funk. They were not even junk.

I should know. Years ago, when I was editor of a design magazine, a photographer named Joel Witkin walked in with some remarkable pictures of cars and other metal products before and after they were lifted by a monster claw and compressed into a variety of stunning shapes and colors. (The pictures are eerily like those of Juul-Hansen, who shot the fridges both as art objects and, later, as landfill). Struck by the raw beauty of objects lost and found, I ran four pages of the photographs under the head “JUNK” and wrote the following few lines of supportive copy: “Junk can be an eyesore, a business, or an adventure–depending on where you stand. It can also be an experiment in composition, as it is in this group of photographs by Joel Witkin. To the designer it is humbling to realize that everything shown here was once a product.”

More humbling than I had suspected. The copy inspired no protest art, but it did elicit a protest letter from William S. Story, director of public relations for the Institute of Scrap Iron and Steel.

“The pictures are wonderful,” Mr. Story allowed, “but the application of the word “junk” to the material shown in them has produced a few shudders in the industry.

“The material shown is iron and steel scrap—not junk—and the firms who handle this are called iron and steel scrap processors and brokers. There is a legal distinction between the two. ... The scrap man views his product not as the end of the road for an item ... but rather as the beginning of a new life in which it will rise again Phoenix-like from its ashes to take on a new form.”

Well, who knew? I sent Mr. Story a thank-you note, grateful to have acquired a new factoid. But the real lesson I had learned was not the legal distinction between junk and scrap. It was the relentless pervasiveness of special interests.

There is no subject so recondite that its mere mention will escape the scrutiny of trade organizations, lobbyists or pedants eager to make things perfectly clear. The number of special interest associations in Washington staggers the mind and the streetscape, if not the Congress. K Street is not an avenue or a Republican Project. It is a way of life. Lobbying is said to have taken its name from the habit of favor-seeking petitioners hanging around the Willard Hotel lobby in the hope of catching a politician’s ear. It is appropriate, then, that special interests have come to dominate the hotel industry. No hostelry today can survive without having, or claiming to have, a “convention center.” These facilities serve the multi-million dollar events industry spawned by myriad special interests in search of venues to be specially interested in.

Special interests, like other loaded terms, depends for its meaning on who has loaded it and with what. In this respect it is like agenda, from which it has become almost inseparable in rhetoric. Agenda once meant a list of points to be covered. Now it implies a dark motive to be covered up. There is the gay agenda, the big business agenda and the liberal agenda. If special interest is ideology, agenda is master plan. Both are understood to be sinister.

Tip O’Neil is enshrined in history books and quotation anthologies for saying, “all politics is local.” As speaker of the House, he knew there were presidential elections. But he knew too that, while their consequences were national, their operations were not. Politically they trafficked in the issues that mattered at home, which was defined as anywhere but Washington.

Well, to the extent that all politics is local, all interests are special. Are there really any other kind? Food, clothing and housing are general interests in the abstract, but they become special the moment they are translated into cuisine, fashion and architecture.

Every client is the embodiment of a set of special interests. Advancing those interests is the designer's business. As presumed generalists, designers lend their knowledge and skills to the special interests of particular clients. But design is itself a special interest. Why else would there be the IDSA, IIDA and ASID, SEGD, APDF, OBD, JIDA, JID, JIDPO, AGI, DBA, KSID, ABC, ICSID, ICOGRADA, CDF, GRAFIA, BDA .... ?

Or AIGA?

About the Author:

Ralph Caplan is the author of Cracking the Whip: Essays on Design and Its Side Effects and By Design. Caplan is the former editor of I.D. magazine, and has been a columnist for both I.D. and Print. He lectures widely, teaches in the graduate Design Criticism program at the School of Visual Arts, was awarded the 2010 “Design Mind” National Design Award by the Cooper-Hewitt and is the recipient of the 2011 AIGA Medal.