the cat the glove and a tale

by Art Chantry (

my father was not a “good guy.” among his many rather reprehensible attributes was a certain pathological ‘cheapness’. today’s little graphic item of interest is a sign that he used to have pasted on the inside of his car windshield as a young man. on the other side are the words “press car” (visible facing outward). he claimed he used the “press car” sign to get free parking.

this little sign is one of the few items that i have that belonged to my father. it sort of has been around my entire life and i trip across it once in a while and ponder this strange artifact. it’s been an interesting talisman. it wasn’t until i actually scanned this thing to show here that i noticed that it’s actually ‘signed’ by the artist. amazing, eh?

AC: solution: it's a glove tied to the tail! and it's pointing at YOU!

the history of graphic design has only recently started to be documented by the academic world. it’s a wide open territory and most of it has been, at it’s very best, very poorly documented. there is soooo much that has been lost that we may never retrieve it. in fact, it only very recently (maybe 40-50 years ago) even began to be taught in colleges and universities as a legitimate separate field of study (separate filed from art or architecture or decorative industrial arts, etc.) even when i first began to study graphic design in the early seventies, it wasn’t considered all that legit. it was a ‘hustle’ rather than a ‘profession’. there ahs been an enormous effort by the organized professional groups to give the field legitimacy and linkage to the business world. in fact for decades there has periodically been efforts to require licensing of designers – just like architects – in order to create an elite and protect markets.

things have changed considerably. a field of study that was once considered an offshoot of the printing process (thus the saddling with the term ‘graphic’, as in ‘graphic arts’ – printing) is now taught in degree level programs in amercia’s most prestigious universities. i’ve heard it called “an unfortunate source of income” by academic professionals. you see, it’s a field traditionally populated by people who consider themselves “artists” and wish to make a living while developing their true calling – their “art habit.” i’ve always thought that was silly – like a doctor wanting to support himself as a dentist until they become famous doctors. how does that work exactly? it’s a different field entirely. but the school makes an enormous amount of tuition money off lost little arty kids looking for a way to make a living. it’s a very big business. and some of the programs i’ve encountered over the years ( in some of the most prestigious schools) have been little short of criminal frauds. i’m not exaggerating.

we used to be called “commercial artists”, until we decided it was degrading (to whom? those ‘fine’ artists out there?) for a time, paul (god) rand tried to institute a new term – “art for industry.” thank god that never caught on. but, it accurately describes what we do, so long as we work for corporations like st. paul did. somehow we got stuck with this new term ‘graphic design’. the earliest use of it i’ve found in the title of a book from 1938. pretty radical back then.

this little sign is a great example of the way this stuff was taught for generations. it looks like it was done with speedball pens. judging from the skill involved, they may even have used some sign-painting techniques (like a maul stick and brush.) it’s hard to tell (but i really dig those “R’s”.) you can sure tell that he learned it from reading a book purchased from the back pages of a popular mechanics magazine.

you see, this was where we all traditionally learned this stuff. ‘commercial art’ was taught via mail order. we’ve seen those ads (and laughed at them). “draw binky. earn big money as an artist.” that was how this stuff was taught in america until very very recently. it was the province of correspondence schools. i have a large collection of their books that you received when you signed up. some of them are truly elegant beautiful and extremely well versed tomes on the traditions of the form. sign painting, print graphics, illustration, cartoonists, advertising, printing, etc. etc. etc., all that we need to know came from those books.

this little sign maker person – “L. Remhart” – was a ‘graduate’ of this system. they also spend some time learning cartooning (this is so ‘krazy kat’, that it hurts). i imagine they probably hired out for trade or cash or whatever was necessary to survive. this was the depression era and sign painters always do well even during a depression. just ask woody guthrie – an itinerant commercial sign painter by trade.

since the advent of the computer design programs, the graphic design educational process has been pulling back away from the universities and colleges and slipping rapidly back into the hands of the correspondence schools (or ”manuals’ and ‘tutorials’ as we call them, now), graphic design has is rapidly becoming a wage-slave job like it was 100 years ago. the idea we n

to hire to a ‘trained graphic design professional’ is quickly becoming a thing of the past. why spend all that money on a risk like that when you can buy the program learn it and in two weeks do it yourself for far far less money? or, cheaper yet, just hire some novice who is “good enough” for a tiny tiny fraction of what you’d pay to a professional. in a way, the entire profession has slipped back not just one, but many notches.

at this point in time, we still consider design an “art” (due to the propaganda of the universities teaching graphic design in an ‘art department’.) but it’s in reality a craft and anybody can learn to do it to a competent degree. soon, we’ll have to come up with another new name for the profession of design or we’ll be reduced to a minimum wage level existence – just like we have traditionally been.

this little sign is american graphic design – excuse me, i meant ‘commercial art’ – as it’s been traditionally learned and taught for ever. it’s always been this way. it’s the idea that it’s taught by academia that is new and strange. learning this stuff in ‘institutions of higher learning’ is an abberation. i think it’s headed back to the old ways was faster than we think. i think we have our own digital versions of correspondence schools, speedball pens and mail order ‘graphic arts’ classes already formed, in use and competing with all the efforts that a moribund profession has never really acknowledged.

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