A few weeks ago, while in San Francisco, I had the pleasure of meeting Emory Douglas, the revered graphic designer and Minister of Culture for the revolutionary Black Panthers. For those who might not be familiar with this name, he’s somebody who helped change the face of civil rights, graphic design and political protests throughout the United States and across the world.
He was energetic and informative, without being overbearing. What was most impressive, and endearing, was the passion and freedom with which he spoke about his work. He was lucky enough to build a career around something he was passionate about. To me, Emory Douglas represents everything that is great about working in the creative industries.
This, however, prompted me to ask what we’re truly allowed to talk about as creatives. This is a massive discussion, I realise that, because there’s many layers to it. Firstly, let’s look at agencies. They selectively ignore key issues in the news (i.e politics, religion, race, gender, sexuality, sexism etc.), as they’re seen as sure-fire ways to alienate consumers and pigeon hole your organisation. They do this to maintain clients, and in turn, profits. There are exceptions to the rule though. M&C Saatchi, for example, are firmly tied to the Conservative party. Nobody questions this, in part because Maurice Saatchi (their founder) is the former communications director for the Tories, but also because they are a behemoth of an agency. Thanks to their size and list of clients they’re unlikely to receive many queries from people about their political associations. For smaller agencies though, the danger of aligning yourself to a specific party or issue mean you’ll be forever linked to them. Bad or good.
Considering most agencies keep their reputation at the forefront of everything they do, you’d be hard pressed to find one that is active or vocal about issues like those mentioned above. Reputations are on the line, and so they must protect themselves from conversations they can’t control.
The creatives who work within these agencies must stay away from controversial issues in order to maintain order. “I’ve got to toe the party line ‘cause the party pays my mortgage, pretty much”. With the advent of social media it also means we (creatives) must be careful of what we share with the world in general. I mean, I would hate for my political views to be the reason I lose my job.
As mentioned before though, this is a massive conversation, that is relevant across a range of fields. Even artists must tone down what they do, otherwise galleries wouldn’t show their work and their pieces wouldn’t sell. This isn’t true for all artists, of course, but does raise the question: can the art world, supposedly the most creative of all industries, act out true freedom of expression?
However, it’s not all doom and gloom. Working in the creative industries affords a freedom that many careers simply don’t experience. I’d argue we even take this freedom for granted. But within that, it highlights the need to separate our personal views from the creative work we produce.
So, back to the main question: as creatives, are we ever really allowed to truly demonstrate freedom of expression? Do we have the level of freedom Emory Douglas was afforded? Some would contend that he got lucky, as he was in the right place at the right time, with the right level of passion and motivation. This is not to belittle his contributions to a powerful political movement, but rather to highlight that he was presented with the opportunity and grabbed it with both hands.
Like no other time in history, we’ve got more tools to express ourselves creatively, but not necessarily the outright freedom. Arguably, with more tools comes more responsibility. We can say what we want, but it comes at a cost, both financially and to your reputation. The big question is how much are we prepared to pay, or sacrifice, for our creative freedom?