This past weekend, The Wolfsonian-FIU partnered with public radio station WLRN and the Miami Herald Media Company in hosting a Complaints-themed Power of Design festival complete with exhibitions, guest speakers, moderated debates, and even a complaint choir! I personally sat down and vented about South Florida drivers in the WLRN complaint booth set up in our museum café/shop where the general public was invited to air their grievances or propose solutions to problems. It was not quite as much fun as a kissing- or photo-booth, but far more therapeutic.


As part of the Wolfsonian’s Power of Design program, the museum opened an exhibition of provocative posters created by contemporary designers and curated by design historian, author, and educator, Steven Heller, photographed here with Wolfsonian director, Cathy Leff, and exhibition designer, Richard Miltner.

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Titled Complaints! An Inalienable Right, the show provocatively displayed vinyl versions of the works on the museum’s façade and the lobby walls and floor!

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The guest curator, Steve Heller, was also on hand on Friday to talk about the project in a public forum shared with museum curators and staff, and another special guest curator, Todd Oldham. Todd had visited the museum some years before and had expressed at that time a complaint that there was a great deal of “dark” materials in our collection. This was the germ of his selection of Wolfsonian materials for an installation he decided to call “Bummer.” Although displayed in the fifth floor galleries in a more traditional way than Heller’s poster show, there was nothing mundane about the objects he chose to exhibit.

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As a participant in the Collecting Complaints talk on Friday, I had focused on Menneske Pyramide [Human Pyramid], a painting in our galleries by a Danish artist who courageously complained against the Nazis and their invasion and occupation of his homeland. Although I had made the selection before the Russian occupation of Crimea, it was almost impossible for me not to think of Harald Engman’s artistic complaint in the context of those being lodged against Putin’s “pan-Slavic” territorial grab in Eastern Ukraine.

While ruminating on the theme of the Power of Design ideas festival, I began to search through The Wolfsonian library catalog to see what other examples of historical complaints I could find. Here are some of the things that I discovered.

As our collection period begins in the aftermath of the industrial revolution, it seems only natural that the first complaints I discovered had to do with the advent of the “machine age” and it effects on the human workforce. British Arts & Crafts advocate and Catholic social reformer, Eric Gill wrote, illustrated, and printed numerous works criticizing capitalist assembly line production that threw men and women out of work, turned workers into mere cogs in the machine, and alienated the craftsman from his handiwork.



Gill also contributed eleven short essays, printed together with satirical cartoons by illustrator Denis Tegetmeier (1896-1987) attacking such social ills and problems as the inequitable distribution of wealth, labor and leisure, political “machines” that turned voters into cogwheels, and a militarist mentality that reduced men into cannon-fodder.





The First World War was another watershed moment in generating social criticism of Western civilization and culture. In the immediate aftermath of that bloody conflict, a new generation of German social critics arose to complain against the Prussian militarism they held responsible for turning men into killing machines. Willi Geisler (1848-1928), for example, published a ten sheet portfolio indictment titled: Der Künstliche Mensch [The Artificial Man], which not only condemned Prussian militarism, but society as a whole for turning men into robots or mere mechanical men.


The more widely known artist Georg Grosz (1893-1959) similarly produced scathing social critiques in post-WWI Germany. His cartoons and social satires railed against the murder of millions of conscripted soldiers, the neglect of wounded war veterans, the evils of Capitalism and bourgeois values, religious hypocrisy, and social ills such as prostitution.

The Stock Market crash of 1929 and subsequent decade-long depression created a world-wide opportunity for discontent and complaint. The Nazis rose to power on a wave of economic discontent, and their neighbors to the East and West registered their own complaints against rearmament and the revitalization of German militarism under Hitler.



In the United States, most Americans adopted isolationism as a cynical response to continuing political crises abroad, and voiced their loudest complaints against their domestic economic woes. Artists on the Left, including Hugo Gellert (1892-1985), used the depression as proof of the inevitable doom of an evil and morally bankrupt capitalist system that countenanced starvation, mass unemployment, and mechanization.




Conservative illustrators and editorial cartoonists also weighed in on the economic and political debate. Many attacked President Franklin Roosevelt an anti-business “tax and spend” Democrat and lampooned and ridiculed his “New Deal” solutions to the Great Depression.






When the first of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs came under serious attack in Congress towards the end of the decade, even some of the radical and leftist artists who had earlier chastised the President for not going far enough, came to his defense. As conservatives in Congress prepared to pass legislation that would defund the Federal Arts Projects, Hugo Gellert, A. Birnbaum, R. D. Fitzpatrick, William Gropper (1897-1977), and other members of the American Artists Congress published their own set of cartoons defending Federal One programs.





~ by "The Chief" on March 27, 2014.

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