Jonathan Barnbrook has just released the Blackstar design he developed for David Bowie, for Bowie fans to do things with. He released it under a Creative Commons NonCommercial-ShareAlike license: fundamentally, it means you can print the artwork on a t-shirt, for example, as long as you don’t change the design and as long as you do not make a profit off of it.
On the surface it’s all good, very 2016 when all creative interventions seem to float around digitally and effortlessly – so established designers like Barnbrook do well in keeping the finger on the pulse. Give it to the kids, man. Cool stuff.
But it left me wondering. The design itself is brilliant in that it managed to work contextually as a conundrum around the then-imminent passing of David Bowie; outside of this context, though, the design becomes something else. It becomes “just” a star. A black star, an arcane geometrical shape that has traversed times and civilisations – in this case, devoid of any aesthetic intervention, the structural intervention a breaking down into partial, tangram-like, proto-alphabetical shapes (I can just about make “BOWIE”. Maybe).
I am certainly not arguing that Barnbrook’s design is devoid of merit or authorship, it certainly has both in abundant doses, from a conceptual viwepoint; but it is good to be reminded that, in this particular case, the formal essence of the work is a symbol that existed in this precise form long before the creative decision to use it in Bowie’s context. What seems to have happened, then, is the designer took ownership of a generic star shape, essentially the shape we all learned to draw in school at some point, and is now giving it back, terms and conditions and a narrative of generosity attached.
Let it be clear: I am not issuing a verdict on the episode (not that I could or even should), as much as I am acknowledging that the “giving back the black star” gesture is anything but clear-cut. Yet I see parallels with other phenomena on other scales: the World is gradually being privatised and subsequently sold back to us – former owners to begin with. Whenever it’s simply given back, as it often should, it seems like a huge act of generosity.