"The world has cried out against us both, but it has always worshipped you. It always will worship you. You are the type of what the age is searching for, and what it is afraid it has found. I am so glad that you have never done anything, never carved a statue, or painted a picture, or produced anything outside of yourself! Life has been your art. You have set yourself to music. Your days are your sonnets."
— Oscar Wilde, The Portrait of Dorian Gray
“Dude, I’m crying everyday.”
— James Kennedy
How does one begin? How do you start talking about Vanderpump Rules? What makes it so fucking good?
This question animates everyone’s experience of VPR. It makes the show endlessly vital, endlessly demonic. We are all perpetually entering this text; we’re all just starting; we’re all on the verge of arriving.
We could begin with Jax Taylor, a sociopath who looks like a centaur. Or James, a demon who looks like a troll doll. Or Katie, who just sucks. Or Tom Schwartz, Katie’s husband and a human limp dick. Or Tom Sandoval, whose hair makes relentlessly no sense. Or Kristin Doughty, whose soul is broken and who spends at least two seasons in a medicated fugue state. Or Lisa Vanderpump herself, an assemblage of Swarovski Crystals, QVC, and bedazzled blouses. I’d gladly die for Lisa.
We could begin with how perfectly their personalities map onto our current political moment: their pettiness, their petulance, their desperate flailing for attention. The pointless cruelty of Stassi (yes,STASSI) Schroeder.
We could begin with the psychic balm that hating these people supplies. Their suck, their evil, allows us to unload our bile, to tidily and viciously pick them apart. Because no relationship could be as co-dependently dysfunctional as Tom and Katie’s. Because no person could lie so comfortably to themselves and others as Jax Taylor. Because no one could be as blithely awful as Katie Mulroney.
We could begin at SUR’s decor. Ed Droste called it “Edna Hardy,” which gets pretty close. There’s a cursed Pier One ugliness that’s both deeply haunting and perversely charming. Lisa’s taste is garbage but she’s so convinced otherwise that you kind of respect the sheer amount of throw pillows.
We could begin with what SUR stands for: Sexy Unique Restaurant.
We could begin with Tom Schwartz’s family. TOM SCHWARTZ HAS A SET OF IDENTICAL TRIPLET BROTHERS. THEY ARE ALL SCHLUBS AND THEY REMIND ME OF THE HEADS FROM SPIRITED AWAY. THEY HAVE NEVER LEFT THEIR CHILDHOOD HOME AND WE DON’T LEARN ABOUT THEM UNTIL SEASON 5!
We could begin with the deeply fucked relationships between these people and their parents. Every parent believes they’ve done an amazing job, but we so fully know otherwise.
We could begin with the end of season 1. The revelation finally comes out that Kristen cheated on Tom with her best friend’s ex, the galaxy-brained Jax. This is after she spent an entire three months lying and dragging Tom for the same behavior. Jax uses this secret against everyone because he’s cruel, and then (I think) Tom and Jax fight… It doesn’t really matter. It’s the fallout that’s more perverse. It’s Jax’s dead eyes as he admits that he doesn’t care that he betrayed his best friend, Tom, that he doesn’t even consider himself that close to Tom. This might be the most black-pilled moment of the show.
We could begin with how Jax tells Tom every detail of the affair at a beach without remorse, his pupilless eyes staring sharklike across at his friend. He just blankly tells Tom how many times he and Kristin had sex. He gives all of what BravoTV calls “the gory details.” Tom, who is always near tears, is near tears.
We could begin with how Jax cheats again in Season 6! With Faith! Against his now current wife, Britney! Who knows that he cheats and will continue to cheat! This is the most important show of our time.
We could begin with Jax's enormous fat head. He gets fatter and uglier and more bloated across the years, a perpetually distending corpse. In season 2, he squints out from a bruised and doubly bandaged face, the consequence of a nose job and running into a glass door. Someday, mark my words, Jax Taylor will be a senator.
We could begin with Stassi’s horrible Republican family. Her gross father, on his fourth marriage. Her little brother, serving big Damien meets Hitler Youth energy. People are who they are for a reason.
We could begin with Scheana, who deliriously wants to become famous for her realness, but she’s on VPR, so by definition she can only slot herself into the tedious roles offered by the show. In the first several seasons, Scheana clumsily pursues both a married man and a music career, puppeted along by the show’s editing. Along the journey, she gets to play act as half-realized versions of other women: cruel Stassi, needy Kristen, drunk Katie. When eventually Scheana marries the schlubbiest schlub on earth, Micheal Shay, she proceed to scream about how happy she is as only the delusional can. It would all be vaguely tragic if not for Shay, her husband that she divorces on air, a calculated act to hurt him for toppling her dementedly assembled house of cards with his DRUG ADDICTION.
We could begin with Shay, sweet simple Shay. He is a flawed person (as is everyone on this show and in life), but he did not deserve this. You can be a bad communicator who makes kind of lame EDM, and NOT BE OUTED AS A DRUG ADDICT BY YOUR WIFE BECAUSE SHE WANTED TO HUMILIATE YOU. There is nothing wrong with being an addict, but it demands a kind of compassion and empathy that this show is incapable of even imagining. On the season 5 reunion episode, you feel how wronged he was, how sincerely he never liked being on the show, and how this discomfort made him a distant partner. As he struggles to explain to the rest of the cast the complexities of loving someone whose hunger for fame animates her every action, Scheana touches up her make-up. Andy Cohen, God bless him, is surprised.
We could begin with how painfully heteronormative and blinkered this show is. Everyone (except Ariana) desperately wants to get married, to settle down, to become like Lisa, a Boss with a Business and a Family. The secret genius of the show lies in its capacity to critique this fantasy simply by populating its world with garbage monsters. Whether its Britney stammering that she never had a sex with Kristen all to preserve the farce of her engagement to Jax (an increasingly violent goat). Or whether its the horrible, sexless marriage of Tom and Katie’s. Or Stassi chasing after shitty men (one of whom blackmailed her with a sex tape) for 3 seasons. In each case, the fantasy looks more vulgar, more perverse than simply refraining from marriage like Ariana. Watch how consistently disturbed by Ariana everyone is on the show. Despite the elaborate cruelty these people are capable of, their view of the world remains so parochial, so boring.
We could begin with the bizarre, labor practices on this show, which seem illegal. Lisa annually has her employees pose naked for a SUR calendar (or it might be for nothing other than Lisa’s amusement, she does not seem to actually like any one in this cast). Or how in season 6, she sort of snaps at Tom Sandoval for being critical of her micro-managing the new restaurant she’ll run using their name: Tom Tom. For the privilege of like 2% ownership, Sandoval and Schwartz (two enormous rubes) are willing to each invest $100,000. The whole time, I’m just screaming at the screen. You are being scammed! But again, that’s why the show is perversely relevant—everyone’s conning everyone, some are just more consciously aware of doing so.
We could begin with the periphery figures in this universe. La La’s man, who may or may not be married (the other characters shame the fuck out of her regardless). Peter, the SUR manager who just seems sane in proximity to these fucking lunatics, but who probably has some dark secret. Logan, Lisa’s large adult son. Ken, Lisa’s looming husband who genuinely scares me (he once yelled James into brief sobriety). Giggy, Lisa’s Pomeranian, who has alopecia and a tiny pacemaker. Nothing makes sense.
We could begin with Jax’s bizarre insistence on draining his breasts.
We could begin with the music… oh the music. The songs that populate the VPR universe don’t sound like songs… but they also don’t not sound like songs? Here’s a playlist of some of the artists in Season 4: Binks, Kaneholler, Gungor, Hypnospark, Onyay Pheori, 1985 (Featuring Suzy Shinn), AddictIV, Javier Dunn. I could list 50 more and you wouldn’t recognize a single name. Who are these people? What are their dreams? Where did they come from? Azusa? San Pedro? Are they dreaming the same dreams as James Kennedy, as Tom Sandoval, as Scheana Shay? Obviously VPR’s music is cheap, and we know it’s cheap because it’s so blandly anonymous. The desperation to be someone just makes these countless bands, DJs, and singers everyone.
We could begin with a realization. I used to think of VPR as the portrait of Dorian Grey: the twisted and gnarled monstrosity that contained the id of the Obama years. Like the Oscar Wilde story, the portrait ages and deforms according to the vile behavior of its subject. The show began in 2013, and it felt like these goblins resulted from some sludgy evil behind the bland, ageless lanyard class—that these were the hidden desires of sociopaths and the fame obsessed. Now, however, I know otherwise. In 2019, Jax, Scheana, Stassi, Katie, Kristen, and Tom remain inevitable. They will never change, never glow up, never grow up. We, on the other hand, have become alien to even our own selves, obsessively checking the news, obsessively invested in impeachment, in scandal, in the cattiness of a sundowning Boomer. We have grown as grotesque as Jax’s bloated up noggin.
We have become the portrait.
Capital, and Design Pedagogy
Why am I here?
Before I entered RISD’s MFA program in Graphic Design, I taught high school English. This job required many things: lesson planning, endless grading, relationship building, and emotional exhaustion. For me it also meant: instant-fold zines, opinions about handout readability, hopeful (but eventually underused) posters to encourage work completion, and elaborate color-coded grammar lessons.
Above all, teaching was clouded by an endless inquiry into the profession. Does my work at a Rhode Island charter school undermine union labor? Does it unfairly siphon public money away from the larger district? How might investment in technology disguise divestment from other areas? How does a school effectively integrate its student body, and how might my teaching choices better respond to diverse classrooms? How does my privilege complicate these choices? How does one remain empathetic, kind, and creative when the profession encourages overextension and cold efficiency?
After five years of contending with these questions, I went to graduate school for what I thought would be a reprieve. I imagined that the questions of graphic design would not be as paralyzing or knotty as those of K-12 Ed, that I’d now be dealing with answers.
Turns out I was wrong. Now at the end of my first semester, I have found myself hitched to new lines of inquiry, with their own anxieties and preoccupations. Though I haven’t found the reprieve I’d been seeking, the expansive, illegible, and curious experiences of this program hold a special appeal to a student divorced from a past role as a teacher.
Here, I’ve tried to trace these new threads of thought and inquiry. At points they cross, unravel, and weave together, but as a whole attempt to negotiate a way forward. They attempt to make sense of my present education.
Is it clear?
I keep circling this particular question, turning it over, typing it out, printing it on cardstock, folding it in half. In graphic design, an obsession with clarity haunts both process and product. It even haunts the critique space, where the question of clarity asserts itself even in the quiet pauses between voices.
Communication determines graphic design; this is the water in which we swim. And yet, doubt begins to wheedle its way into the creative discourse, and a nagging resistance surfaces. What if graphic design isn’t legible? What if it abnegates control? What if the designer cares little for ease, for visuals? What if design can’t be read? (Do we lose the right to curate logos, to use Helvetica? Do we lose the right to set text along grids?) More importantly, why might we want design not to be clear?
Who is this for?
In popular design culture, clients are the presumed bogeymen and women who kill the nascent avant-garde, walls against which designers fire volley after volley. Just scroll through the Clients from Hell tumblr to uncover the rich vocabularies of confusion and pettiness, contorted by exasperation. The dialectic between designer and client serves neither well; it inspires the worst of both parties, elitism in the former and dilettantism in the latter.
I doubt many at RISD would choose to couch their design decisions in imagined client presentations. And yet, I often find myself adopting a language of concession and defense readily in crits, suggesting a self-imposed eagerness to please—just like that we might have toward a client. On the flip side of the crit, I find myself admiring and critiquing others’ works as if driven by a miniature client-homunculus, lobbing questions like: Why did you choose this color? Does this answer the prompt? Does this page number draw the eye away?
Design, shaped by a capital/crit system, is no longer a playground for voice, messiness, singularity, the expressionistic, the poetic, the illegible, the creative.
Is this what I want to make?
Elegantly serifed ad campaigns feel increasingly like allegories: object lessons in neoliberalism. A Chobani yogurt lid means something—its C’s ball-terminal signaling clarity in the gig economy. Here, bespoke typography arrives with blubbery Art Nouveau flourish—puffed-up, blustery, dandyish. A yogurt cup augers what the poet Anne Boyer calls “the fluorescent yes”— a yes given easily, thoughtlessly, with a Labrador’s goofy grin. The bowls of Chobani’s lowercase B’s announce (absurdly) late capitalism’s contours, its demands of graphic design: roll over, play nice.
Where does a design practice go, anyway?
Published in September, Oli Mould’s Against Creativity parses one possible direction. Through Mould, a line of elegant code, perfect kerning, grids, and riverless text transfigures into forms complicit with “Creative Work”— the toxic spume of the urbanist Richard Florida’s “creative class.” This is the design ethic of Airbnb, Ebay, and Uber: the wave of Silicon Valley graphics. These companies depend on a friendly visual vocabulary, one that smoothes the wrinkles of unregulated capital. Indeed, according to Mould, these companies build cleanly efficient “online architectures” to disguise their alienating cores. After all, “Airbnb doesn’t own any rooms or real estate, Uber does not have any cars on its books, and Ebay doesn’t have any warehouses full of goods.” They all depend on a sharing economy “abstracted from social life” and increasingly dematerialized; as Mould puts it, this economy “encourages us to conform to this mantra: if a small profit could be made lending our unused assets [like our cars, or apartments] to someone with an efficient idiot-proof digital system, why bother giving it away for free?” It’s up to their graphic designers to tailor this “idiot-proof” user experience, to help consumers navigate platforms that have “economized sharing.”
Just like the Chobani label, the bespoke typeface of Uber’s latest redesign wants to convince you. Perfect circles circumscribe the b an e, their geometry just hinting at a smiley face. It wants you to say yes to the idea of the “Creative Class”—deferring to all its legibility and even house style. To do so, however, requires (on some level) accepting an alienating model. Mould characterizes this succinctly:
I don’t like being resentful towards “Creative Work”—doing so unsettles my presence in an MFA program, in a profession that feeds this “precarious” workspace. The anxiety of modern labor already infects my “leisure time, home life and emotional energies. Instead of reading communication design as enervating, as the refinement of voice, ideas, and the imagination, I have begun to see my education as an entry into that precarious Creative Class, where Fiverr.com and other “freelance marketplaces” haunt home offices, leeching elegantly serifed type from the “creative’s” limbic system.
Or would it go here?
James Bridle’s The New Dark Age extends Mould’s discourse to the environment. From Bridle’s (at times alarmist) perspective, the cleanly designed fluorescent yes, isn’t clean at all. The “Creative Class” is not carbon neutral. There are physical stakes beyond the aesthetic when you lay a textbox into InDesign, or stitch a book, or redesign Chobani’s identity. There are servers, cables, and printers—all whirring, all hard at work.
This culture produces liquid data, gushing furiously from graphic design’s spigot. Bridle likens this liquid-data to oil: “It pollutes the ground and air. It spills. It leaches into everything. It gets into the ground water of our social relationships and it poisons them. ... It sustains and nourishes uneven power relationships.” To design is to generate data, massive pulpy globs of it, all stored across expanses of server farms. According to The Independent, as quoted in Bridle, these server farms contribute “about the same carbon footprint as the airline industry.” Digital decisions go somewhere; they inhabit warehouses, they run underneath oceans.
So, here’s the rub: even as the “Creative Class” isolates graphic designers, confining them to the marketplace of the legible, it also tangles them in this digital morass. How close am I to becoming another cog in this all-consuming, ever-enticing machine?
Can I just say “no”?
Is the only reasonable response to these ethical threats to pull a Bartleby and “prefer not to?” In “No,” Anne Boyer’s essay-poem in A Handbook of Disappointed Fate, she lays out the precedence for refusal, for radical resistance, for a protean “No”:
Refusal has a history. From Dadaists to Xenofeminists, the fraught relationship of art to capital has occupied a vital role. Of late, the Walker Reader publishes essays anxiously troubling questions of legibility, aesthetics, ethics, and capital, from Erik Carter’s “Do You Want Typography or Do You Want The Truth?” to Nicole Killian’s “How Will We Queer Design Education Without Compromise?” New streams of questions. A new set of no’s. I want them to tangle my practice, to complicate attempts to be read.
How do we move forward?
The 2018 RISD Graphic Design Triennial ran from October 4th to the 14th, a ten-day blip compared to the three years of work it collated. The exhibition acted as parentheses, bracketing off an education’s fluid aesthetics and beliefs between 2015 and 2018. Which is to say, the show confronted the anxieties animating contemporary design. The curators, Joel Kern (MFA GD 19) and Goeun Park (MFA GD 2019), parsed legibility while resisting “being read.”
Inevitably, the intention to catalogue, to collect, to cohere lays bare all shambolic attempts at clarifying gestures. Kern and Park organized the show around four terms (Play, Critique, Prototype, and Practice) but they become porous immediately. The words themselves—set in a looping half-cursive typeface designed by Park, called “Confetti”—seem on the verge of blowing away, ribbons caught in the breeze.
Less celebratory and more unspooling, the letterforms’ strokes (overlapping and splitting like hairs) inject an additional looseness. “Confetti” demands metaphor: apple peelings, teepeed houses, shredded paper, loose spaghetti, slinkies. Each of these images share a diaphanous character. They relish counter-form and absence, a dissent from “commodity fetishism,” from the Chobani yogurt lid, and from bespoke rebrands.
The character of the type extends to the exhibition catalogue, a compilation of booklets, zines, folded newsprint all serried together in a sandwich bag packed with black-and-white confetti squares. Anxiety hums behind the shapes and letters, a tinnitus of maximalism. Geometric forms, gradients, photography, pattern—every component of the GD tool bag spills onto the catalogue pages. Student essays nestled into designed images nestled into zines.
The designers dodge and hedge, shuffling off closure in favor of the quixotic. They want the Triennial-goer to discern a hierarchy, all while continually squinting for meaning. In other words, this baggy of catalogues is not meant to convince or persuade. It’s meant to unsettle, annoy, grate—a fact made obvious by the inclusion of literal confetti. Whenever one reopens the package, little squares plume outwards, a modernist grid littering every surface, sticking to not only the page but skin and fabric too.
One can reasonably hitch themselves to a reading depending on their position and interests. But, is this the right reading of this show?
What have we done?
To the left of the fireplace in the largest gallery space, the curators hung Emily Scherer’s (BFA GD 2017) WHAT HAVE WE DONE?. The 2017 work was posted to the windows of the Design Center following the election of Donald Trump. At the time, walking downtown, I remember understanding the referent immediately. The work wanted both to indict and connect, to make sense publicly. The question was rhetorical, bitterly knowing the answer. Now, recast as a poster in the Triennial, the question seems to refer to something else—to the institution, to an education, to the design in the show, to legibility, to liquid-data, to clarity, to capital, to art, to design. What have we done?
What do I do next?
Tomorrow, I’ll face a new wave of assignments with new rules and expectations. In response, I’ll think of Anne Boyer’s “Questions for Poets”:
until the revolution comes
is only a list of questions
for each poet
who must mourn in their verse
Throughout this semester, I’ve found myself “mourning” graphic design in my own verse, struggling to untangle a new (and often confusing) education. It’s a similar mourning to that of teaching: one forward-looking, hopeful, and responsive but also skeptical of clarity. The clear answer, the silver-bullet reform, remains subject to a raised eyebrow.