Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘design’

11 JUNE, 2014

Shepard Fairey on Capitalism, Freedom, Selling Out, and What Makes Great Art

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“I believe in capitalism with some checks to chill out the evil greedy element. Capitalism is a way for hard work to yield rewards.”

In 1989, street artist, graphic designer, and activist Shepard Fairey created his famous Obey Giant sticker campaign, which spread like wildfire to amass a massive following and take on the characteristics of a singular semi-secret subculture. Nearly twenty years later, Fairey’s art reached a critical mass of mainstream awareness when he created the now-iconic Obama “Hope” poster as a tool of grassroots activism, rebelling against a previous administration that betrayed Fairey’s ideas and ideals in just about every imaginable way. At the heart of Fairey’s ethos is a profound commitment to democracy and freedom of speech, which lends his work a new level of resonance today, as debates about net neutrality expose how toxic the intersection of corporate interest and government is for democracy and civic freedom.

Included in the altogether magnificent 2009 monograph OBEY: Supply & Demand (public library), celebrating the 20th anniversary of Fairey’s iconic Obey Giant campaign, is an interview with the artist by the prolific design historian, writer and critic Steven Heller. In it, Fairey discusses capitalism, the deeper ideological unity beneath the seeming dualities of his work, and the question of what it means to “sell out.”

HELLER: How do you reconcile your business, which counts some big corporations as clients, with your wild snipping? Is this the Robin Hood effect?

FAIREY: Yes, I would consider my inside/outside strategy toward corporations somewhat of a Robin Hood effect… I use their money, which becomes my money, to produce stickers, posters, stencils, etc. This strategy was however, the result of my acceptance of the reality of things. One of the most jarring realizations this project has brought about for me is the complete inevitability of supply and demand economics in a capitalist society. I will explain, but I must also emphasize that I believe in capitalism with some checks to chill out the evil greedy element. Capitalism is a way for hard work to yield rewards. When I first started Obey Giant I owned a screen-printing shop and used that equipment to produce my own work as well as doing work for paying customers. Printing is a difficult business and I got frustrated with it. I work as a graphic designer these days which came about because the work I was putting on the street created enough of a buzz that companies began to feel it would resonate enough to be used for marketing. I had created a demand for my style of work that meant that if it was not supplied to the corporations by me, then it would be supplied by other hungry designers. I decided that in doing graphic design I could keep my design skills honed and make enough money to pump even more Obey Giant materials out in public, which I consider truly subversive. This method of financing my campaign also keeps me from having the content of Obey dictated by fine art market forces. Plus, I have been able to convince some of the corporations to invest in the cultures that try to exploit, helping to create a more symbiotic relationship between the creators and harvesters of culture. It’s not an easy game but I’m making the best of life without a trust fund.

Peace Elephant (2008)

Reflecting further on this question of “life without a trust fund” — the complexities of poetry and privilege in the arts, and the often limiting cultural mythology around those — Fairey turns to the question of what “selling out” really means. Coincidentally, Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson had given a remarkable commencement address on the subject in 1990, a few months after Fairey created Obey — a character he considers “the counterculture Big Brother.” Fairey tells Heller:

To me selling out is doing things purely for the money without concern for the consequences to integrity. Let’s face it though, money is freedom. For some it is freedom to buy cocaine and cars… for me, my design earnings give me freedom to produce my propaganda work and travel to other cities to put it up. It is also gives me freedom to keep an art gallery that is never profitable open. People often accuse anyone who does not fulfill their image of fine artist as suffering martyr of being a sell-out. After 10 arrests and having been physically assaulted by the cops and deprived of my insulin on several occasions (I’m diabetic), I can tell you that it is very possible to make money and be a suffering martyr!

[…]

I spend the money and take the risks I do because I want to and I don’t feel that anyone owes me anything. I do feel sorry for myself when I’m sitting in jail but overall I feel it is all very worth it. I feel it is worth it because of the positive feedback I have received from people. Many people feel powerless and my goal is to show that one person can have an effect on things even with limited resources.

Tyrant Boot (2008)

The Robin-Hooding of Fairey’s art isn’t directed just at corporations but also at the government, finding in street art and public space the ultimate arena for free speech and anti-censorship activism. He tells Heller:

I became active as a street artist because I felt public space was the only option for free speech and expression without bureaucracy… I also found the whole idea that you could be arrested for stickering or postering as something I wanted to rebel against. In my opinion the taxpayers are the bosses of the government. I’m a taxpayer — why can’t I use public space for my imagery when corporations can use it for theirs? I was baffled by the idea that companies could stick thousands of images in front of people as long as they were paid ads, but that I could not put my work in the street without being told that it is an eyesore or creates a glut. For the most part, I think the merchants and the city governments don’t want the public to realize there can be other images coexisting with advertising. This is the exact example I’m trying to provide.

Complement OBEY: Supply & Demand, which features a wealth of Fairey’s most iconic and influential work, as well as more interviews and critical essays by Rob Walker, Henry Rollins and others, with this fantastic short film about Fairey’s art by Brett Novak, commissioned by South Carolina’s Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art:

The best art … makes the world feel a little bit less terrifying, it makes things feel a little more intertwined…

This idea that a picture can be the thing that hits the viewer in the gut, that makes their head follow their heart, is such an important concept in my work that, no matter what I’m doing, I like the idea that someone can’t resist the visual allure of an image and, even if it doesn’t align with their political predispositions … the image itself will be beckoning at them to mull it over.

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28 MAY, 2014

Discipline, Quality vs. Quantity, and the Power of Intellectual Elegance: Remembering Massimo Vignelli

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“Quality stems from intellectual elegance, and is precluded from the vulgar mind.”

“We’re all going from point A to point B — how we get there is the conductor’s problem,” legendary graphic designer Massimo Vignelli once said at an event we both attended several years ago. Heartbreaking as it is to learn that, after a long illness, Vignelli has reached his final point B, he lives on as a masterful conductor of design and life, whose legacy endures as a luminous reminder that there is no greater feat of the creative spirit than the marriage of good work and good personhood, talent and integrity, poise and principle.

It is that singular spirit that imbues the 2007 monograph Vignelli: From A to Z (public library) — a sort of alphabet book of the Vignelli ethos, spanning from big-picture philosophy to the practical particulars of various projects.

One of the most poignant parts of the book appears under the letter D, for “Discipline.” It is a message that applies not only to design but to just about every endeavor — an iteration of a sentiment shared by creators as diverse as celebrated composer Tchaikovsky (“A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.”), novelist Isabel Allende (“Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.”), painter Chuck Close (Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.”), beloved author E.B. White (“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”), and Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope (“My belief of book writing is much the same as my belief as to shoemaking. The man who will work the hardest at it, and will work with the most honest purpose, will work the best.”). Vignelli gives the notion his own uncompromising touch:

This is the most important virtue for a designer to possess. Discipline is the god of design that governs every aspect of a project… Without it, it is total anarchy, total randomness, pure chaos. Discipline is the attitude that helps us discern right from wrong and guides us to achieve consistency of language in whatever we do. Discipline is what helps us navigate through the social context in which we operate. Discipline is what makes us responsible toward ourselves, toward our clients, toward the society in which we live. It is through discipline that we are able to improve ourselves, mentally and physically; to offer the best of ourselves to everything around us, including every project on which we work…

Discipline is the supreme state of mind, the master of passion, and the governing structure of nature.

There is no design without discipline. There is no discipline without intelligence.

Vignelli returns to another aspect of the subject under the letter Q, for “Quality or Quantity?,” exploring the relationship between discipline and quality. He shares an anecdote of his formative philosophy that, while rooted in the client business, applies equally to any type of work that involves an external “other” — a client, a collaborator, an audience. Vignelli writes:

Early in my professional life I had to make a decision about clients. I realized that only certain types of clients can produce a consistently high level of quality in their [work]. Other clients never seem to reach any satisfactory level of quality. I noticed that what we call a good client — the one that has vision, courage, and clarity of mind — usually gives a good briefing and lets you do your work. Invariably, they get the best results. The only problem is that this kind of client is rare. The other kind, the bad client, is the one that has no briefing, changes course during the process, continuously interferes with you and most of the time, at the end, is also unhappy with the results. Most clients tend to belong to this category. Therefore, early on I had to make a decision — whether to have a large quantity of bad clients or a few good ones… So I made the decision to pursue quality, even if it was less profitable…

To work for quality requires discipline and determination, from both the designer and the client. It is important that the client understand that your efforts are aimed to achieve the best possible quality for the product, company, or institution. Quantity often follows quality; rarely does the opposite happen. In other terms, quantity almost always follows success. To strive for quality is an attitude that demands tremendous rigor toward ourselves and toward the entire process of a project.

Vignelli considers the notion of “intellectual elegance,” which he discussed with exquisite eloquence in his fantastic interview with Debbie Millman, at the root of quality:

Quality stems from intellectual elegance, and is precluded from the vulgar mind. The great utopia is to have quality in great quantity. To some extent, industrialization can multiply an object of quality in great quantity and make it accessible to large numbers of people. This is the aim of our profession. This is the responsibility of the designers and their clients. This is the ethical commitment that every designer should make and follow. The moral imperative should be to reduce the ugliness around us, the vulgarity that surrounds us, and replace it with decent, unselfish designs. Every day we face this opportunity and we should not lose the chance to take it.

In the section headed S, for “Style,” Vignelli echoes Schopenhauer and returns to this notion of intellectual elegance vs. vulgarity:

Style is a byproduct of a person’s being. It reflects a way of thinking; behavioral patterns, attitudes and, above all, a culture… A person can be primitive and illiterate, but still have a lot of style, because style (or intellectual elegance) is the projection of a person’s intelligence. Lack of intelligence generates vulgarity. We could say that an object has style if the intelligence that generated it had style, had intellectual elegance. Very humble objects, like old tools, had the direct elegance generated by a culture sensitive to the requirements of that tool and its user. Style is the way things, ideas, attitudes take form. Style is the tangible aspect of intangible things.

Vignelli: From A to Z, though presently hard to find, is a spectacular read and well worth the hunt. For a deeper dive into Vignelli’s expansive mind and spirit, see Debbie Millman’s interview with him on intellectual elegance, education, and love, then bid one final farewell with their live conversation, filmed by the late and great Hillman Curtis:

You are missed, Massimo, and thank you for everything.

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23 MAY, 2014

A Visual History of Typewriter Art from 1893 to Today

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How Victorian female stenographers pioneered a unique art form with newfound notoriety in the digital age.

“Art is not a thing — it is a way,” Elbert Hubbard observed in 1908 in what became one of history’s finest definitions of art. Hubbard was writing at the dawn of an unusual new art form, wherein artists were appropriating a new thing — a trailblazing technology — to find a new way of making art. The product and legacy of that is what graphic design scholar Barrie Tullett explores in Typewriter Art: A Modern Anthology (public library) — a fascinating chronicle of “the development of the typewriter as a medium for creating work far beyond anything envisioned by the machine’s makers,” embedded in which is a beautiful allegory for how all technology is eventually co-opted as an unforeseen canvas for art and political statement.

What makes this unusual art form so enchanting is that it blends the compositional drama of drawing with the patterned precision of the machine. But what is typewriter art anyway? The definition, Tullett argues, is both very broad and very personal:

For some artists, it is an object to draw — from the machine itself, to the ephemera associated with it (typewriter oils, ribbon cases and so on) — or an object to make art from, whether that be the music of the Boston Typewriter Orchestra, or sculptural pieces and explorations… For others, however, the typewriter is a tool to draw with; a means of making art.

'Looking Forward' by Leslie Nichols (2010)

Trained as a traditional painter, Nichols now combines texts with images to create mixed-media landscapes and portraits. Her typewriter text portraits are driven by a desire to understand different facets of women’s rights and identity as well as her place, and sense of womanhood, in her own community. Nichols creates large-scale text pieces with hand-stamped oil-based inks and stenciled graphite; smaller, more intimate pieces are produced entirely with a manual typewriter.

The first typewriter, the Hansen Writing Ball, made its public debut in 1870, but it was another four years until a commercially successful machine took off. Much like the bicycle, one of the most immediate and palpable roles of the new technology was in the emancipation of women — not only did the typewriter create a whole new sphere of female employment, but it also provided a medium of democratic political communication outside the patriarchal regime’s circle of censorship. It was, as Tullett notes, a revolution.

As is the case in any cultural revolution, artists were quick to appropriate its medium for their own message.

Untitled by Flora F.F. Stacey (1898)

For nearly a century, it was believed that the very first known example of typewriter art appeared in 1898, seventeen years after the first emoticon made its debut. It was a mechanical “drawing” of a butterfly by Flora F.F. Stacey — an English stenographer and, not coincidentally, a female artist. A short 1904 New York Times profile noted:

Some years ago, seeing a prize offered by a phonographic paper, [Stacey] entered for the competition, and has since applied herself enthusiastically to the idea.

Such competitions were not uncommon as manufacturers and early proponents sought to get the general public excited about and comfortable with the new technology — creative exploration, after all, is the greatest conduit to adoption. In announcing one such call for entries for “Fancy Work on a Typewriter,” a Syracuse paper cited Stacey as an exemplar for entrants:

Flora Stacey, an Englishwoman, has done some remarkable work at machine drawing, and out of her experiences, which have been without competition, some facts helpful to contestants … may be given.

Stacey, in fact, had been experimenting with “art-typing” for several years before her butterfly drawing catapulted her into international fame, as were other artists. The first edition of Pitman’s Typewriter Manual, published in 1893, included several examples of typed ornaments that a typewriter operator could use to embellish his or her work. Though Stacey may have well produced more typewriter art before her famous butterfly, none of it is preserved and the anonymous plate from the 1893 manual is now considered the first recorded example of “art-typing.”

Pitman's Typewriter Manual (1893)

Queen Victoria by an unknown artist (c. 1900), published in 'The History of the Typewriter' by George Mares (1909)

Otto von Bismarck, unknown artist (1898), published in 'The History of the Typewriter' by George Mares (1909)

But first, back to the basics: Lest we forget, the typewriter, like all technology, went from revolutionary in its heyday to sentimental monument of obsolescence in our era. For those born after its mainstream decline, Tullett offers a basic primer on how a typewriter actually works, complete with the proper terminology:

The typewriter is designed to be used in a very simple way. A piece of paper is inserted into the back of the platen (the roller). This then feeds around to the front so that the paper sits behind a colored ribbon, usually black, or black and red. As a letter on the keytop is pressed, a typebar is raised. This then strikes the ribbon to make the impression of a character on the paper behind it. The carriage return moves forward one space, then the typebar for the next character can be pressed. When the end of the line is reached, the carriage is returned (manually), the platen rotates to position the paper ready for the next line to begin and the process is repeated until the page is full.

Tullett notes the unconventional path taken by the early practitioners of typewriter art:

The surviving pieces from this period of typewriter art’s history were created by people with a background in secretarial studies rather than art. Although we have no historical detail about their lives, their artistic education would presumably have been limited to what they had been taught at school, and the representational vernacular.

Though early typewriter art made its mark, the golden age of the discipline was still decades away — it wasn’t until the concrete poetry movement of the 1950s–1970s, best described as concerned with “poetry that appeals to the eye and not the ear,” that the typewriter became a commonly embraced artistic medium.

'Whisper Piece' by Bob Cobbing (1969)

Originally a painter, Cobbing was famous for his sound, visual, concrete and performance poetry, as well as his role as a publisher for his Writers Forum press. In 1968 he founded the Westminster Group of experimental poets (WOUP). He created a link between the silent poetry of text on the page and the audioscapes of sound poetry. Cobbing’s work became more and more experimental as his career developed; almost any mark that could be made and any sound that could be heard were viable ingredients for his prolific creative output.

'Beethoven Today' by Bob Cobbing (1970)

'Textum 2' by Miroljub Todorovic (1973)

Politically active as a law student in Serbia, Todorovic participated in the student uprisings of May 1968; he founded the avant-garde artistic and literary movement Signalism a year later. During his career he worked as a journalist, teacher and magazine editor, and also worked for the Ministry of Culture. He retired in the early 1980s to devote himself to his literary and artistic work, including collages, drawings, visual poetry, mail art and conceptual art. His work has featured in a number of national and international exhibitions.

'O' from The Season Suite, a serial visual poem by Alan Riddell (1975–1976)

Although born in Australia, Riddell was bought up in Scotland and went on to live in Greece, Spain, France and Australia. Originally a traditional poet, he was introduced to concrete poetry by Ian Hamilton Finlay in 1963. A major figure in the promotion of typewriter art, Riddell organized two major shows of work in Edinburgh and London, as well as editing the book Typewriter Art (London Magazine Editions, 1975). For almost fifty years it was the only major publication on the subject. His opus, The Seasons Suite, remained uncompleted at the time of his death.

To be sure, the link between typewritten text and narrative form had been around since the dawn of the technology — it all began in the late 1800s when Mark Twain, a pioneer in more ways than one, delivered his first typed manuscript to his publisher, sparking the intimate relationship between literary thought and typed text.

'the words we use are lovely' by J.P. Ward (1973)

Both a traditional and concrete poet, Ward firmly believed that the old-fashioned typewriter poem (c. 1960–80) should exploit that machine’s nature, rather than what is handwritten or printed. His work thus evinced a fascination with geometry, abstraction and the search for a deeper truth that goes beyond surface detail, looking instead for ‘more elaborate patterns, including semantic ones, requiring only the poets with the patience to find them.’ In the 1990s came the digital word-processor, taking him to different approaches.

Panel from 'Carnival' by Steve McCaffery (1970–1975)

McCaffery’s experiments with the disintegration/reintegration of language began in the mid-1960s. In the 1970s he formed the sound poetry group the Four Horsemen with three other poets. The two panels of Carnival, produced between 1967 and 1975, are among the most significant pieces of typewriter art/concrete poetry/sound poetry ever produced. McCaffery saw it as ‘essentially a cartographic project; a repudiation of linearity in writing and the search for an alternative syntax in “mapping”.’ The work developed and grew throughout the two panels to gain typographic complexity, moving from the simplicity of the red and black masks of a typewriter ribbon to include colored rubberstamped letterforms, carbon-paper frottage, wet-feed electrostatic disintegrations and holograph. A third digital panel was conceived in 2012, comprising a superimposition of the earlier two panels and has been published (in reduced size) as a poster.

Shortly after the golden age of concrete poetry, the punk movement saw in the typewriter a creative intersection of the practical and the political — a medium that enabled the cheap production of texts that could be printed and photocopied for wide dissemination.

'Unusual Love Poem' by Andrew Belsey (1987)

Today, as the typewriter’s sun sets over the horizon of practical utility, what remains is its aura of nostalgic obsolescence — something that imbues contemporary typewriter art with a whole new cultural sensibility that weaves the medium’s nostalgia into the conceptual message.

Selection from 'Typewritten Portraits' by Nadine Faye James (2007)

A British illustrator, James produces work in a variety of mediums, including pen and ink, photocopies, Omnicrom, letterpress, Letraset, typewriters and the occasional screenprint. Her witty and economical type portraits connect her with the earliest typewriter artists and the work they produced over a hundred years ago.

'The Pattern Series' by Vickie Simpson (2012)

Simpson investigates the aesthetics of the handmade. For her, inspiration cannot be found on a screen but only in the physical exploration and making of tactile forms. The Pattern Series asks the viewer to consider the physicality of manual mark-making in our increasingly digitized world.

'Barcelona Love Letters' by Keira Rathbone (2012)

Typewriter Art goes on to illustrate the history of the genre through ample artwork spanning nearly 130 years as well as a handful of interviews with some of the most prominent artists in the field today. It comes from British publisher Laurence King — the indie powerhouse behind the magnificent Saul Bass monograph, the graphic biography of Dalí, and the series 100 Ideas That Changed Graphic Design, 100 Ideas That Changed Film, 100 Ideas That Changed Architecture, 100 Ideas That Changed Photography, and 100 Ideas That Changed Art.

Images courtesy of Laurence King

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