Fluff and nonsense

Recently on Facebook I posted the following video by Mike Rich from the Steering YouTube channel. In it he discusses whether Graphic Design could be considered art.

This is an often discussed topic, particularly amongst design students. I certainly have very firm views on the subject, and contend that they are different disciplines. As a result I find it difficult not to be drawn in to such debates.

In response to posting the video, several friends commented with their views—some defensively, some more measured. Most were people who identify themselves as artists, or designer/artists, and their different takes on the topic are interesting.

One considered that if an art work looked like graphic design, or was influenced by it, then it could be considered such. They cited Rauchenburg, Basquiat and Haring. In particular for the latter, they mentioned that in Haring’s Tate Liverpool exhibition last year, he was quoted as saying UK punk graphic design was a major influence to him. Personally I disagree with this view—just because an artwork looks ‘graphic’ does not make it graphic design; an aesthetic, in my view, does not define something’s purpose or context. In a similar vein, a non-designer friend chipped-in asking if some aspects of Barney Bubbles sleeve design for Elvis Costello could be considered art, because they looked like ‘art’.

Another friend who straddles art and design in their practice, spoke about how they felt about their work when producing it for different contexts. They gave the example that if they were producing a brochure or logo it didn’t feel like they were producing art, but if they were creating imagery for the cover of a computer game, it did.

In response to this discussion, Kenneth FitzGerald posted a link to his 1998 Emigre article: Skilling Saws and Absorbent Catalogs. It is a lengthy read, (I was nearly late for work because I was so absorbed in it), but I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in this debate—there is little ground FitzGerald does not cover as he attempts to consider all angles and positions.

The aforementioned designer/artist friend who contested that it felt different depending on what they were producing proffered that it wasn’t for anyone else to judge but the person producing the work. I have a lot of sympathy for this viewpoint. This does, at least, answer the Barney Bubbles question, as he considered himself a designer. Bubbles refused to put his name to his work, and alongside his design inventiveness, was actually as much a brilliant marketer as he was anything else.

(‘Not signing your work’ is an interesting side-step in this debate—I fondly remember Javier Mariscal refusing to sign a Camper children’s shoe box he had illustrated that I wanted to send him for a student auction. Via his assistant, he told me he would not sign it because ‘he was not an artist’ but an illustrator and designer.)

All that said, I do have to put aside the viewpoint that it is not for me to judge, because as an academic who teaches graphic design, and as a design writer, it is for me to formulate some sort of opinion out of such debates—that is, after all, a central part of my job. That doesn’t make my opinion correct of course, as I am at pains to tell my students—an opinion is not a fact, after all.

My artist/designer friend and I ended up agreeing that really, this is fundamentally a pointless discussion. It is one that I believe has arisen from semantic, and arguably, classist standpoints; those of where the word ‘fine’ has been placed in front of the word ‘art’, and where the derisory word ‘commercial’ was placed in front of the word ‘artist’, long before graphic design became a job description.

These two deliniations automatically impose a hierarchical structure and build a framework of elitism around the creative act. As someone who is very proud of their working class background, even if my current socioeconomic status has somewhat distanced me from that of my parents upbringing, such deliberately diminutizing acts of language can make me more dogmatic in my views. Elitism is something I fundamentally disagree with, and its existence in all spheres of life acts like a red rag to a bull on me whenever I come across it.

Ultimately though, who really cares? Such ‘chips on shoulders’ attitudes do not advance graphic design as a discipline, as a field of study, nor its social standing. And let’s face it, there are plenty more important things in the world right now that it would be better to focus attentions on. This discussion isn’t important to the vast majority of people outside of the art and design world or that of academia. Really, we should all—myself in-particular—just move on.

Published by Nigel Ball

Senior Lecturer in Graphic Design

%d bloggers like this: