100 years of debate culture
Exactly a century ago, on 16 February 1923, Poul Henningsen (PH) wrote an opinion piece in the national Danish newspaper Politiken titled ‘Kritikens Hensigt’ (The intention of critique) in which he explained and defended his approach as a critic since 1921. In particular, his harsh criticism of the Copenhagen Police Headquarters, which was then under construction, caused a stir among architects. Reviews are restricted to a limited format, and space constraints usually do not allow the critic to explain the underlying line behind their critique.
Thus, PH’s opinion piece, combined with comments in later essays, offer welcome reflections on the purpose and conditions of professional critique and public debate. These perspectives are highly relevant in relation to our debate culture, which we constantly need to maintain – and discuss. They pertain not only to architecture and design reviews apply much more broadly, including to the debates on culture and society that were uppermost in PH’s mind.
Today, there appears to be an imbalance between professional critique and the public debate, which is prone to being blown out of proportion and to lack reason and purpose. The issue of the intention of critique gives me cause to reflect on its implications for our public debate culture today and the current state of more professional critique in the area of crafts and design. Design critique ought to have a clearer voice in the public debate about both inequality and sustainability, which is also a goal for Formkraft.
The intention of critique in the public arena
‘In a tempestuous winter for the field of critique, a storm is also raging in the particular teacup that is the arena of so-called leading Danish architects,’ wrote PH about the profession in which his reviews had caused an uproar. Over the past few years, we have also seen waves being made in the village pond that is home to today’s ‘leading Danish’ culture scene, science and politics. Our current debates about culture and identity, inequality and racism quickly turn into trench warfare, where the duelling sides lob misguided grenades at each other while confusion settles over the public onlookers. Although PH would undoubtedly have enjoyed seeing the fighting spirit, had he still been around today, he would also have been bothered by all the well-intended volleys from both sides that miss their targets due to poor aim and a lack of concern for the wider implications for the debate culture.
The key point of Kritikens Hensigt is that in order to achieve their goal and contribute to the betterment of society, critics must carefully consider what aspects of the issue are relevant to the general public. A critical debate that unfolds in public media must be based on cultural and societal issues that the public recognizes and is able engage in. To PH, aesthetic and technical issues were topics to be debated by professionals, in the format of professional critique. In public critique, these were merely side issues. To his mind, public critique should take aim at social challenges, common institutions and a democratic mindset – issues that everyone can and should have an opinion about if the critique is well-founded and clear.
In recent years’ public debates, the intention has been to address cultural and societal issues related to gender and colonialism. However, over and over again, the critical arguments have been based on topics that are so remote, in time and place, that they lack any resonance with Danish everyday life and on a mountain of concepts that can only be done justice in an academic critique. Even if the theories are academically apt, in terms of communication and political action, they miss their target. When that happens, theorists need to take on the task of translating arguments and examples to a form that is approachable for the general public. Otherwise, the efforts do not benefit the cause, however vital it might be. There are differences in kind between academic critique among fellow professionals and public critique that aims to influence politicians and the general public.
A relevant debate
‘Art is the nervous system of society, and the chaos that intense social development has imposed has the character of a nervous breakdown.’ Today, we share PH’s view that art has the capacity to condense and communicate critique of the state of society. Indeed, art has an obligation to apply its grasp of communication and insight. However, in service of communication and insight, it is crucial to maintain focus on ‘the main issue rather than the side issue’.
Today, we are grappling with a multitude of problems that are present and relevant to the general public including growing economic inequality, discrimination and lack of integration. This is where there is a potential for effecting change through debate and politics. And that is why the highly publicized discussions about 18th-century busts and old, colonial stereotypes used to brand coffee, vanilla and ice cream that have been promoted by artists and scholars in recent years have gone wide of the mark if their intention was to influence public opinion. These examples inadvertently confirmed the prevailing perception of Denmark as a cosy little corner with nothing but luxury problems. It is necessary to find more compelling images of contemporary inequality and unfairness that the general Danish public cannot look away from when they are promoted by artists and critics.
Design reviews in the lifestyle section
A key part of the problem, however, is our current media and debate culture. After all, what is ‘the public’ today, when people follow a wide range of different forum and social media online? PH had a keen awareness of who his audience was and used very different strategies depending on the media context. The general public he addressed was clearly defined as the readership of the newspapers at the time.
Today, it is harder to focus sharply on the audience. For example, it would irk PH to see that design reviews have been relegated to the lifestyle section, if he were to pen reviews today. Architecture critique is elevated to the culture section. Today, it seems almost confusing if design reviews bring up social dilemmas.
Two years ago, Politiken did a theme on design in the public space. A headline from the series, ‘Nye skraldespande ligner boliger for hjemløse’ (New dustbins look like homeless shelters) (Politiken, 6 February 2021), exemplified that even the critic was not accustomed to addressing social issues. (In the online edition, the headline was subsequently altered). But why on earth mix homelessness into a purely aesthetic assessment of waste bins in the urban space? The living conditions of homeless people are part of a shared reality that public critique ought to address, while aesthetics can be left to professionals, unless it can be made more relevant.
Naturally, a debate requires multiple voices, and the number of regular critics of design and crafts is quite limited. Unfortunately, of the entire culture sector, it is probably the most poorly represented field in the public debate. This despite the fact that this is where the challenges with the green transition of consumption are most urgent. Even the fashion debate has more teeth, because the criticism of the fashion industry has become so broad.
However, as long as design and crafts belong in the lifestyle section, the topic is associated with very different expectations of entertaining self-realization and everyday romanticism. In fact, even in his time, PH felt that a special sort of public expectation had become associated with design during the ‘golden age’, when Danish modern was established as a phenomenon, both in Denmark and abroad. The media began to take an interest in the recurring furniture and design exhibitions, and strong expectations emerged for constant news in terms of form, material and, more rarely, function.
Reflections on a shoehorn
The growing media focus on Danish design came with a pressure to present new products. PH cursed this tendency in his piece Tanker om et skohorn (Reflections on a shoehorn) in the Danish furniture industry’s magazine Mobilia in 1960. This pressure for novelty runs counter to the designer’s mission of developing rational standard solutions for everyday use. ‘It hardly makes sense that most of us would be compelled to produce new items for exhibitions almost every single year.’
At the same time, however, PH was enough of a showman to accept that designers should not spurn this public attention. The fact that there was an audience and that Danish design represented high cultural and social ideals constituted a situation that designers should be able to seize and use constructively. ‘However, now we find ourselves in the significant situation where the theatre of decorative art is full. There is an expectant spectator in every seat. Is it not time, then, to put on a performance that gives them something to take home, something that lets each of them leave the theatre a changed person?’
Momentum for design critique in the public debate
Unfortunately, in Tanker om et skohorn, PH does not offer specific ideas on how design should both entertain and change the audience. He rambles on about ‘revolutionary applied art’ that is to undertake artistic experiments and challenge habits and expectations through exhibition projects. However, in the long term, the solutions need to be ‘classic’ to be put into production.
This resembles the current ‘division of labour’ between the field of crafts, which revolves around exhibitions, and industrial design, which is oriented towards to marketplace. What should be avoided, according to PH, is having experimental designs go straight into production and into the market as ‘news for the sake of news’, a mere short-lived fad. That comment is perfectly relevant for today’s agenda of sustainable consumption.
There is a strong momentum for that debate right now, which gives us every reason to build a stronger debate culture for crafts and design and the roles they can play, respectively and jointly. There is no shortage of challenges in our product culture that could elevate design critique to the level of societal debate. As mentioned earlier, this is the intention of Formkraft, but it is a major challenge to elevate discussions from a professional forum to the public arena.
What we might take from PH’s reflections on design critique is the clear understanding of and concern for the general public that underpinned his newspaper reviews. He also had a clear prioritization of the ‘most burning questions’ concerning social challenges, common institutions and a democratic mindset that the public could and ought to have an opinion about. Moreover, he had an understanding of the public’s expectations and consumption patterns. These important insights and experiences related to the debate culture and the public also apply to other aspects of the cultural and societal debate.
Around the world, design critique is developing into a profession in its own right, but it is facing fundamental challenges as it is required to span the full range from elitist, critical design concepts and exhibition phenomena to broad consumption and the advertising culture, which is far more resistant to reform. If industrial designers feel trapped in ‘the machine’ and struggle to avoid designing for overconsumption, that feeling is certainly no less acute among graphic designers who find their livelihood in adverting and lifestyle media. Hence, it is relevant to highlight this critical manifesto from a group of leading graphic designers: First Things First Manifesto 2000.
The signatories of the manifesto encourage their colleagues to prioritize the most urgent societal tasks that graphic design could contribute to. ‘We propose a reversal of priorities in favor of more useful, lasting and democratic forms of communication – a mindshift away from product marketing and toward the exploration and production of a new kind of meaning. The scope of debate is shrinking; it must expand.’ The statement was an update on a similar, previous call from 1964, the very period when PH was addressing a decorative art audience, and consumerism was gaining ground. Since then, however, the advertising and media mill has only increased the pressure, and the calls are more urgent than ever.
There is every reason to heed the call in the graphic designers’ manifesto, also in other areas of the debate on culture and society. It urges us to continue to develop and nurture democratic conversation and new meaning. The debate should be constantly expanded in its range of topics and formats in order to engage the widest possible public. Also, the most urgent and relevant topics should be addressed first: ‘First Things First’. Naturally, we can never fully agree on which topics come first. However, that will itself be the start of a relevant debate.
Moreover, it is crucial to consider what kind of debate and what examples best serve the issues and their resolution. In this, we can find guidance in the principles PH outlines in Kritikens Hensigt: ‘Critique has been and will be based on these, hopefully, clear lines. The interests that are served here are neither the architects’ nor those of the audience but those of architecture.’ Here, we might add the general interests of culture or of society at large, rather than the interests of professionals or the audience. We fail the cause if we do not carefully consider how best to promote it – while also enhancing the public debate culture. We harm important causes if we fail to consider the difference between public and more professional, academic critique.
P.S. Shrewd readers will have noticed that PH violates the very principles outlined above by seeking to address professionals through public critique. This illustrates a core challenge in writing a ‘critique of critique’, which does not have a platform if it wants to call on the public to witness its statement. Formkraft is hosting this debate in a professional forum. It is my hope that the discussion might spread to other professional fields as well and to the public debate.
Poul Henningsen (PH)
Poul Henningsen (PH) 1894-1967 was a Danish designer, architect and social debater.
Henningsen, Poul: ‘Kritikkens Hensigt’ (The intention of critique) (1923). In Carl Erik Bay & Olaf Harsløf (Eds.), Kulturkritik, vol. 1. Copenhagen: Rhodos 1979, pp. 29–34.
Henningsen, Poul: ‘Tanker om et skohorn …’ (Thoughts on a shoehorn), Mobilia, no. 59, 1960, pp. 21–22.
Jensen, Hans-Christian: ‘Designkritikkens hensigt: PH’s designkritik mellem professionsetik og forbrugeroplysning’ (The intention of design critique: PH’s design critique in between professional ethics and consumer information), Anne Borup & Jørn Guldberg (Eds.): Kulturmoderniseringens paradokser: Studier i PH’s kulturbegreber, kritik og praksis. Odense: Syddansk Universitetsforlag 2009, pp. 133–172.