design as a dialog of art?

by Art Chantry:

this is one of the two-bit books you find all the time in used books stores. they tend to be racked in the “art book” section, or maybe the “hobbies and crafts” or “how to paint” shelves. back in the the early post-war era, there were lots of these sorts of things published to act as incentive to expand the wonderful opportunites of “art as a career” and that sort of thing. you can get these often for literally two-bits (25ยข). i think i paid a buck for this.

AC:it’s all ‘art speak’ gibberish of the lowest order. “nature, harmony, simplicity…” you know what i mean. these clowns always write with a thesaurus next to their typewriter and try to say absolutely nothing at all….

the reason i picked this one up initially is that: one) it still had the dust jacket – which looked sorta cool. and two) the stuff inside was all printed in color – not B&W as typically done in these things. and three) the art in this book looked sort of extreme and cool in a 1950′s sort of ‘retro’ way. that’s about it. oh, and it was a buck. cheap is really good.

when i got this thing home, i spent a minute or two looking at it, reading some of it. i tried to figure out WHY this crummy book even existed at all. it seems to have been the results of an ‘art’ competition – conducted in 1959 (this book was published in 1960). or, more accurately, this is called a’ collection of contest winners’ – but ‘other’ art contests – a collection of winners elsewhere. how that worked is anybody’s guess, they really don’t explain it here.

they do go into extensive details about HOW the judging was conducted, the criterea, the process, etc. and they also point out that this is actually the first time the public gets to see the winners of these OIL PAINTING competitions (and not restricted to the intelligentsia of the fine art world, i guess.) but, i doubt that is true. they also mention that this is only “Book I” of a set. “Book II” is in process right now and will contain ALL of the contest entries, and not just the winners. further, they mention that although this is only oil paintings, they will have other volumes dedicated to water colors and “graphics” (which undoubtedly means ‘graphic arts’ – drawings, printmaking, etc. and not “graphic design” which was still referred to as ‘commercial art’ back then.)

that’s the set up. an ambitious regimen of competition to determine the very best artwork in the world (or something). so far as i can tell, they never got past this initial volume. i’ve never seen any more of this series even after 30 years of scrounging through used book stores. so, this project was a big flop, i guess. this book is all there is to show for it, i figure.

so, who WON this ‘oil painting contest’? the winner is on the cover jacket. actually, the image on the dust jacket is only 1/2 of the whole painting. the full image extends around onto the back side as well and comprises the OTHER half of this painting – which is actually the exact same image shown on the front cover FLOPPED on itself. a ‘mirror image’, as it were. so predictable. it’s classic graphic designer thinking – a process art trick/joke. that’s because this ‘winning’ oil painting is done by one of the most famous and important GRAPHIC DESIGNERS (not ‘artists’) of the twentieth century – Herbert Bayer!!

bayer was one of the founders of the infamous bauhaus. he fled nazi germany and started the american bauhaus in chicago in the 1930′s. most academic graphic design historians credit him with being the person who brought eurpoean design thinking directly into the heart of american industrialism. in short, he was pretty much THE man who turned “commercial art” (as practiced by advertising and signpainting for hundreds of years in america) into the elitist “graphic design” language that we all coo about and idolize today. basically, the swiss style (‘helvetica”) and all that nyc ‘design’ crap we constantly see in all the annuals can actually be called HIS FAULT. basically, it’s the stuff that i burned out on completely when i was still a student and totally abandoned. i’ve spent most of my career trying my best to do the opposite of his thinking. oh, and failing miserably, i might add.

however, my personal attitude toward this style doesn’t mean it wasn’t the most important design innovation in american graphic design of the last century. it actually WAS. and herbet bayer was principal in bringing it ashore. i don’t think we would have guys like paul rand to idolize and worshsip if it wasn’t for bayer’s efforts.

bayer was fairly low-key in his self-promotion and didn’t really seem to hustle himself as hard and directly as most successful graphic designers. although the chicago bauhuas qucikly failed, it’s impact reigned forever. bayer became maybe the first real honest-to-god CORPORATE designer in america and may be the man responsible for selling the common-man prolitatirat constructivist style (originally intended – by guys like el lissizky and rodchenko – to be the visual language fo the working class) to the ruling bourgoise corporate

s (calling it ‘swiss’). his efforts to make a living in american capitalism may have inadvertantly corrupted the purity of the contstructivist vision and sold it to corporate america as the big-money decoration style BRAND it became. however, i tend to blame paul rand for that. he REALLY did his damndest to huckster it to american money interests.

bayer wnet on to become the ‘consultant designer’ at the container corporation of america (CCA) and oversaw that incredible ad campaign for them referred to as “The Great ideas of Western Man” series. he hired folks like mark tobey, herbert matter, willem de kooning, herman zapf, lester bell, a.m. cassandre, leo lionni, gyorgi keeps, ben shahn, walter allner, jacob lawrence, paul rand, bob cato, and many many others to do their ideas unfettered in these adverts for this campaign. it’s still considered one of the most important and influential and revolutionary ad promotion campaigns in advertising/design/marketing history. and bayer did it for fun.

so, why is he wasting his precious time entering ‘oil painting’ contests? i dunno. maybe he needed the money? maybe he was a hobbyist and entered for kicks? maybe he thought it was important to show that design is a dialog of art and not commerce (even though he spent most of his professional career promoting the opposite)? i just don’t know.

but the fact he WON should tell you something about professional competition and graphic designers. we know how to win a contest. that’s because we designers spend our entire thinking lives fighting against a world that is nothing but commercial competition. success in design is won in direct battle with massive competition coming from every point of view. the idea that herbet bayer did some crummy oil painting and it WON the contest and was used (here’s the catch) AS THE COVER DESIGN, tells you all you need to know.

the idea that the painting was a mirror image of itself meant it was intended to be a book cover from the beginning. this contest was a business, not some ‘art project’. they wanted to SELL BOOKS. so, bayer simply created a fake oil painting for intended use as a book cover design. whether he did this intentionally or in collusion or totally by instinct and/or ‘accident’ can’t be determined here. but, he knew how to win.

no contest.

…sometimes i think the design industry really doesn’t want us to know this stuff. they spend SO MUCH EFFORT trying to sell themselves to us in ‘art speak’ gibberish (just like these painters presented here) that i think they’ve become their own worst enemies. never buy yer own bullshit. then you just become sid vicious….

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