typecast: like hiring a dentist to do brain surgery

by Art Chantry (art@artchantry.com)

Earlier today when i was writing about the wonders of labelmaker, i mention that (before computers) artists did lousy type? well this little essay is all about the official typeface of the art world: duro stencil.

as long as i’ve looked at contemporary art, all through the pop era and into recent efforts today, there was a consistent feature in ‘fine art” culture (not to be confused with graphic design or pop culture). all of the lettering you saw in all of those paintings by jasper johns and robert rauschenberg and jim dine and robert indiana, etc. etc. etc. all used the same type. it was sort of the “corporate graphic standard” type of fine art everywhere. it was duro decal stencil lettering (usually the serif typeface design,because it looked the most familiar to the untrained eye)

AC:yup. like i said, it's the 'fine art corporate graphics standard." i've always found it lame.

the duro decal stencil kits were cheap sets of stencil lettering punched through waxed cardboard sheets in various size letterforms (different “point sizes”). they were available in any hardware store (or presumably art supply shop) for a couple of bucks. they came in 5 different styles (gothic, western, script, old english and roman) and even had printed directions with nifty little demonstration drawings to show you how to do even crisp lettering.

the painters of these olden days (before computers changed everything and turned everybody into passable graphic designers and typographers) picked them up to (presumable) stencil their names on their supply boxes and studio storage. the transition from industrial labeling to fine art corporate typeface was inevitable as a lazy drunken after noon of ‘goofing’ on canvas..

‘fine art’ is a world that is very different from graphic design. i like to observe that asking a fine artist to design (say) a poster is like asking a brain surgeon to do your dentistry. they really haven’t got a clue how to do it, but the ego will allow them to march right in and make a painful mess of your teeth and bite. because you sent so much money on their ignorant efforts, you claim it “genius’ and then brag it up, even though you can barely mouth the words to do so. ouch!

AC:here is what one of the individual sheets looked like. you are probably familiar with them. seems everybody had these in their households at one time or another. this is the "gothic" typeface and not the 'roman' typeface (with serifs - those little 'feet' on the letter forms). the far more popular design used by painters everywhere are the 'roman' lettering. i have some of them somewhere, but i can't find them. just the same, you may already recognize this less popular 'gothic' face from a bazillion bad paintings over the decades (and a lot of good ones, too.)

and just so as to be fair, i would never ask a graphic designer to do a ‘fine art’ piece, any more than i would hire a dentist to do brain surgery on my skull. you crazy? yet, we are so ignorant of these visual disciplines that we get ‘art’ and ‘graphic design’ mixed up all the time. i mean, they look so much alike – pretty shiny tools are the same, everybody wears lab coats, they even both use the term DR.” in front of their names. but, man, there is a huge difference, ya know?

exactly the same thing goes for artists and graphic designers. because so many institutions of higher education began teaching ‘graphic design’ as a (profitable) discipline back in the 1960’s, it’s always been lumped into the ‘art dept.’ for it’s similarities (and perhaps to give struggling ‘fine artist’ a skill do feed themselves in an overflowing marketplace. by the way, the idea of doing graphics for a living to support your fine art habits never works.).

i’ve also encountered ‘graphic design’ departments shoehorned into architecture departments, journalism departments, engineering and industrial design departments and even (at cornish college

he arts in seattle, where i once taught) into the INTERIOR DESIGN department! crazy huh?

it’s just too profitable for art colleges to ignore. all those malcontent art students that parents need to deal with LOVE graphic design departments in their art schools. it allows their parents to think their loser kids are getting some sort of vocational training. as a result, it’s a huge profit center for the schools, but they treat it like bastard child.

in truth, graphic design would best be interred in the literature or anthropology departments. that’s because this is language. graphic designers are masters of a language form that everybody knows, but nobody knows they know it. when we use yellow, it means something. when we use a rough or ratty line instead of a clean straight line, it means something to us. if we use a circle rather than a square, we all instinctively know what they difference means to us. even the written word is basically graphic design – letterforms are little b&w squiggles arranged in agreed pattern that denote specific meanings we have all agreed upon. graphic designers understand and use the vast expanse of this intricate language to speak to popular culture.

our shared popular culture is dominated by this visual language of graphic design. we as graphic designers, use this hidden language to change the way people think about things (99.9% of the time we simply do so for money paid by a client who wants our skills.) we present this client’s wishes to manipulate the reactions and thoughts of the viewers – “buy this product’, ‘go to this event’, ‘vote for this candidate.’ we are mindfuckers. we are very very powerful people in our culture. and we indiscriminately hire out to whomever is willing to pay us to do it. sad, but true.

the ‘fine art culture’, on the other hand is about the artist’s muse, his vision and the marketplace. it’s a private dialog that involves other artists, museums, critics, collectors and galleries and investment. it almost has nothing to do with the popular culture. this fine art dialog drifts in a private world and is almost so rarified as to be illegible to the outsider. it’s almost a conversation wholly carried out outside of the popular culture.

graphic design works in exactly the opposite fashion. the result is that the language of graphic design is likely the truest reflection and the most honest ‘artform’ of our times, the REAL folk art of an industrial marketing culture like our own. 100 years from now, i predict that bulk of the ‘fine art’ of our era will be as forgotten as augustus john (the andy warhol of his day. the books and museums and galleries will be filled with the advertising design artifacts of this era we’re producing in popular culture using graphic design.

this disconnect between the reality of the popular visual language of graphic design and the private dialog of the fine art world combined with the cultural confusion between the two has resulted in a lot pretentious crappy “fine art” and a lot of pretentious crappy “graphic art.” most of this stuff is so lousy in either category that it’s soon toss out .

however, we do have important work on either side that has proven to withstand the test of time and survives. henri de toulouse-lautrec’s poster work is far more studied that his ‘fine art ‘ work. no accident. and the pop art of warhol/johns/rauschenberg is treated with higher deference and market collectibility than the bulk of the ‘fine art’ work of the post war period.

which brings me back to the lettering in their work. think of jasper johns, all those ‘words’ he worked into his paintings. it was all cheapo duro stencils. it was the only typography he knew how to do. it’s as if he never even considered simply LOOKING at the type and trying to draw it. yet, he can look at an egg or a flower or a nude and can draw that. the disconnect between disciplines extends to the point of prejudice in the fine art culture. it became commonplace to simply use stencil – i guess because otherwise you weren’t doing real art (like them graphic designers doing ‘commercial art’)

warhol and indiana and others actually began their careers as graphic designers, so their familiarity with the crafting of typography allowed them the freedom to step beyond the duro stencil standard, but not that far. warhol still resorted to stencil lettering because it made his work look like other people’s art standards. even indiana’s “love” piece used a typeface (clarendon) that strongly resembles the serif stencil in the duro packs.

so, the tripping point for decades between the graphic design world and the fine art world was typography. fine art never learned the simplest basics of lettering. where as the graphic designers were deeply schooled in it’s principles. you can simply look at any painting and see the difference between backgrounds – especially if it has typography in the image.

whenever a fine artist is hired to do a poster (the closest thing a graphic designer does to ‘fine art’) they still trip over that little detail. either they use the stencil lettering or they make an image and simply have somebody put typography below it like a caption on a gag panel cartoon. pathetic really.

so, when museums deign to actually include a poster in their permanent collections, they have to actually MOUNT the poster onto canvas before it enters the collection, thus making it ‘look like a painting’ (sort of.) how funny is that?

we really need to totally rethink this whole schism and set some new semantic standards for these diversely different disciplines. if we don’t we may see rock poster being sold as “fine art prints” and manufactured dross sold as ‘fine design.’

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