William Drenttel | Essays

Adolf Wölfli Invents Design Brut?

[Adolf Wolfli, The Cevelar Mary (Funeral March, p.4038), (detail), 1929]

Adolf Wölfli was a mad artist, a schizophrenic who molested three-year-old girls. Born in Bern, Switzerland in 1864, Wölfli died in 1930 at the age of 66. Thus, his life spanned the era of Bismarck, the Paris Commune, the Russian Revolution, World War I, the rise of Fascism, and the great depression of the 1930s. While the world was changing, he spent 35 years in the Waldau Mental Asylum in Bern being a graphic designer. Or so the argument goes.

In his own lifetime, Wölfli established an international reputation as an artist; he later won recognition from Jean Dubuffet and André Breton; and he has influenced contemporary artists such as Jonathan Borofsky, Annette Messager, and Meret Oppenheim. In the seminal work on mad art, Insania Pingens (1961), he stands out as a visionary. Of course, "outsider art" is deeply influenced by Dubuffet's collection of works by outcasts and the mentally ill — what became known as art brut. Wölfli is its greatest model.

Last year, the American Folk Art Museum in New York City mounted a major exhibition of Wölfli's work, and an amazing (but problematic) catalogue, The Art of Adolf Wölfli, was published. Everyone from The New Yorker to Jason Kottke loved it. (A concise biography is on artnet; many of his drawings are on inmostra.)

[Adolf Wolfli, Ria Griganttika-Snake, Australia (Cradle to the Grave, Book 4, p.357), (detail), 1911]

His work, primarily comprised of 45 hand-bound volumes with over 25,000 pages, is filled with prose texts, poems, fantastic narratives, myths, songs, travelogues, musical compositions — an endless collage of calligraphy and illustration to create a description of an imaginary cosmos. There is madness throughout:

"Motto. Forword. Careful: Take care. The most-honored gentlemen, printer K.J. Wiss, Gurten-Gass, Bern: And, the bookbinder, employed by the latter, are hereby politely asked and requested to carefully examine the numbered pages, from page 1 to page 34 at the end of the last chapter in this little book, Notebook no. 5, and to follow my instructions and remarks precisely and punctually. This will not be to your disadvantage. I was frightened in front of my dear darling, when I wanted to marry, anno 1885 in Bern: And, thus, from that hour on, a loon. Probatum, esst: in the sea-bed. Good morning you gentlemen, and ladies:? what do you want, from, me: I am not among the tame: And yet no wild animal. Signed, Adolf Wölfli, Bern." [c.1912]

[Adolf Wölfli, General View of the Island Neveranger (detail), 1911]

There is an interesting art history debate about whether mad art is real art, and generally "outsider art" is included in contemporary narratives of art history. But the recent catalogue of Wölfli's work by Elka Spoerri and Daniel Baumann ventures into territory I have not seen before: an attempt to elevate an artist to the higher plane of being a graphic designer. This argument is made by Edward M. Gomez in his essay: "Adolf Wölfli — Visionary Graphic Designer."

Gomez is an experienced writer, contributing to a book on Yoko Ono (another mad artist?), as well as authoring a long series of books on "new" design: New Design: London: The Edge of Graphic Design and companion volumes on Miami, Paris, Berlin, and Los Angeles. He's also a writer for The New York Times, doing stories like, "If Art Is a Commodity, Shopping Can Be an Art." [He's also a graphic designer, according to his biography.]

I want to quote Gomez on Wölfli because he takes a basic 19th-century-madman-artist and turns him into the model 20th-century visual communicator:

"Throughout his voluminous oeuvre, a number of skillfully developed components of Wölfli's finely crafted drawings call attention to his accomplishments as a graphic designer. And because conscientious planning is fundamental to the practice of design — which, by definition, entails creating order out of chaos or giving meaningful form to ideas, information, or raw materials — the assumption that Wolfli made knowing decisions about how he shaped his drawings and bookworks informs any analysis of his achievements as what is known in design terms today as a 'visual communicator.'"

Gomez also wants Wölfli to be a book artist ("decisive use of the book as his information-storage device and information tool"); a multidimensional visionary ("not as static images, but rather in motion, transpiring in time..., complete with sounds and atmospheric details?"); and a new media designer ("the quintessentially postmodern act of appropriating mass-media images and using them for his own authorial purposes"). In his prose, he works hard to find ways to use the word "design" in every sentence where "artist" appears: "[Genuine artists] produce works of lasting memory and wonder ... almost always — in some discernible and essential if inestimable measure — by design." His conclusion is that "a good artist is a good designer, too."

I am troubled by this argument (and use of language). Adolf Wölfli may well have created form out of chaos. I would hope that designers could learn something from his drawings: the freedom he found in symmetry, the unique "typographic" approach he took to musical notation; and the nutty way he creates beauty out of pattern. But we should not aspire to learn from artists such as Wölfli because he has been artificially labeled a "visual communicator." Graphic designers should worry when "design" becomes the new catchall phrase, an easy description for all artistic endeavors. If we want the words graphic design to mean anything, we should challenge their loose application to everything and everyone.

It's one thing to call Adolf Wölfli a madman. It's even worse to call him a graphic designer.

[Adolf Wolfli, At a Paris Art Show (Geographic and Algebraic Books, Book 13, p.31b), 1915]

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Graphic Design, History, Media

Comments [22]

Any kind of meaningful output is an attempt to create form out of chaos. It is one of the threads that runs through all of of the arts as well as so much of human activity - woodworking, garbage collecting, etc. One of the interesting things about Wolfli is that the struggle between chaos and order is so epic. The immense power of both sides is so dramatically displayed. But, while this may be the case in the reality of many individuals' experience, it is an expression of an emotional state, or the expression of the emotional life of an individual. And the expression of the emotianal life of individuals is not the business of Graphic Design, but of Art. Art and Design make use of many of the same tools and techniques, but that thing being expressed, the signified, is essentially different. This seems particularly clear in the case of Wolfli. That Wolfli was interested in graphic design (making use of ads and other printed material in his work), that he made use of design's techniques, doesn't make him any more of a designer than anything else.

But I'm not sure what you object to in graphic design becoming a catchall phrase for all artistic endeavors. Is it that Graphic Design as an endeavor is currently imbued with a sense of professional integrity that will be lost? Is it that Graphic Design will be thought of as a species of decorative art or some kind of crazy expressive thing? Or that just as Graphic Design comes into being in the mind of the culture, it will be lumped in with some other discipline? I feel that these are some of things I am always trying to clarify for myself and for others, clients. But I am ambivalent about seeing this as a grave problem.
trent williams

Design (the graphic and non-graphic) is a difficult subject to define, given the wide range of its practice. Out of expediency, my preference is to say that design is simply 'making decisions'.

To maintain such a restrictive view of what Graphic Design is is elitist. There are barbershop sign painters in western Africa with no less ability than graduates of the most prestigious design programs in North America. Their work is not inferior -- only different.

Playing the role of word cop and maintaining our special little Graphic Design fiefdom only confuses the issue for the rest of the world. There are numerous designers whose work intentionally looks like outsider art. Steven Byram and Stephan Sagmeister (see note below) immediately come to mind.

Where I have a problem with Edward Gomez's text is in the specifics of the post-mod gobbledygook. The line you quote "the quintessentially postmodern act of appropriating mass-media images and using them for his own authorial purposes" calls attention to itself in that such appropriation was an already common artistic act well within Wolfli's lifetime: Dada, the work of Max Ernst, John Heartfield...

So, once again we look at the pictures and shun the jargon-filled text.

A notable correspondance between contemporary Graphic Design and the Art of the Insane is found in Sagmeister's 1999 brochure for fashion designer Anni Kuan. In it, he creates a hand-made typography out of cloth strips arranged on the floor.

The Prinzhorn Collection in Heidelberg contains works created by patients at the psychiatric hospital in Wiesloch, Germany. One of those patients, Marie Lieb, created designs and typographic arrangements back in the 1890s which are exactly like the Anni Kuan brochure. A reproduction can be found in the Prinzhorn catalogue -- University of California Press/Hayward Gallery.
M Kingsley

Well, who knew?! I agree with you Bill.

As opposed to Kingsley's view, I think restricting the application of the term graphic design - or considering a new term - is essential for the profession to present a consistent and coherent scope of practice. It is not elitism, it is just a manner of defining what is and isn't - without submitting to subjective preferences - graphic design. That it varies from culture to culture, as you state Kingsley, is undeniable but should not be seen as an obstacle to pursue uniformity and clarity.

I don't know if the following applies as well as Wölfli's example (and not to call Scher a madman): I was very surprised, but more disappointed, with the inclusion of Paula Scher's paintings in the Cooper Hewitt's National Design Triennial: Inside Design Now exhibit. Not to diminish the effort of Scher's (art)work, but I don't see the reason as to why it would be included in a design exhibit. It sends the wrong message to the people (non-graphic designers specifically) that visit the exhibit. The fact that a designer made it, doesn't make it design.

Anyway, I see (and like) Bill's point. I am constantly surprised by how upset some people get when designers try to make the profession a bit more "official."

To restrict language is to restrict thought.

Listen, I still have a problem with the idea that Branding is Graphic Design. Everyone seems to be OK with that now -- alright. Fine. I'll go along, even though it still smells like marketing and customer service in designer's clothing.

Is it a level of professionalism that determines what is and is not Graphic Design? If so, how about Peter Saville? A pass through his recent monograph gives me the sense that he's gloriously unprofessional -- but no less the designer.

I don't have any problem with trying to make designer's practice more 'official'. Let 'em take a test, give them a membership card that means 'I know what I'm doing', let's have the secret handshake, whatever. What upsets me is the subjective determination about what Graphic Design is. My Graphic Design is a whole world different than someone at Futurebrand and different than David 'Moondoggie' Carson.

Twyla Tharp claims that Dance is anything you can repeat. What a simple, inclusive and elegant definition -- a conceptual openness that I can see being applied to the wide ranging practice of Graphic Design. Armin mentions the value of not 'submitting to subjective preferences'. Restricting Design's linguistic definition of does exactly that.

As my Semiotics teacher used to drum into our heads: Language is slippery.
M. Kingsley

There was a time after the 1930's and prior to the 1980's that fine artists were seen as professional in the United States, just as designers are seen as professional today. When Richard Serra lost his case to keep Tilted Arc installed in the Federal Plaza in lower Manhattan it opened the door for all sorts of groups to question the knowledge, skill and credentials of American artists.

Because of this I can see why graphic designers would want to associate their practice with professionalism and distance it from the fine arts. The practices are distinct. As another commentator noted, fine art often has the goal of subjective expression or exploration. However, fine art can also have the goal of entering ideas or questions into a discourse, and in this regard art and design are not far from each other. Note Matthew Barney's cross marketing - his sculptures are used in his films and photos so the sculpture value goes up as does the value of the media/performance work. Also artists like Vito Acconci have made successful transitions from a career based in subjective "mad" art to that of "professional" public space design. More on Acconci.

As an artist trained in the "mad" tradition of Yoko Ono, Acconci and others who now teaches at a design school I think it is very important for designers and artists alike to have multiple creative outlets, personal, professional, and conceptual. More.

What a great post--what a puzzling conundrum. I'm not sure where to weigh in here.

I consider myself an "artist," an "illustrator" and a "designer." These definitions are blurry in my mind and blurrier when I try to sort them out into, say, a portfolio. But what I do know is that I think differently when I'm creating art than when I'm creating design (and illustration shares attributes of both). For me the division is something like strategy vs. obsession, or rational vs. irrational. Funny all this talk about "mad art"--I think all true artists are mad, that's what makes them artists.

But does that mean you have to take some kind of measure of a person's state of mind to determine whether their output is art or design? What other criteria could you possibly use? Without the personal history how could you separate an artist who uses words & typography to convey a message, from a designer who borrows from say, Bridget Riley (a very graphic artist)?

What about Japanese (or any other nationality for that matter) caligraphers? Incredible professional skill put to the purpose of conveying a message, but very much imbued with the essence and expression of the artist.

On another note, if you are a graphic designer who obsessively designs until you completely lose it and you cross over to the realm of a mad artist, can you ever go back? Once an artist, always an artist? Would someone have to make a decision in your body of work as to where you stopped being a designer and became an artist, thus endowing one collection to the Cooper Hewitt and the other to MoMA?

Having said all that, I do feel protective about the term "Graphic Design." I have a hard enough time explaining to my mother what it is I do, I'd hate to make it more difficult.
marian bantjes

I both think that art can be design and design can be art, as well as thinking that neither should feel the need to try to be considered the other. So there will always be a subjective line. My personal definition - not an academic one, but one I adopt for my personal distinction - is that what I do is art when my primary goal is to *express* myself. Sure, I may be making commentary about something in that art, but the root of that is to do it in a way to express how I feel.

What I do is design when my primary goal is to *communicate* something. This may be a personal opinion, or it could be a clients brand, but if my goal is to communicate something so that I know the reveiver is understanding my message (versus interpreting my message through my expression), then I try to limit any subjective expression that gets in the way of successfully communicating my message. Not to say design doesn't have subjective expression - hardly. It would be less interesting if it didn't. But that if the expression gets in the way of the receiver understanding the message I'm trying to convey, it will deter from the communication, and become something other than design. (or 'visual communicaton' or 'graphic design' - whatever word you want to prescribe to it) Of course this means there's overlap, and may thing in both sides may be debated as to belonging to one or the other. But I think it serves as a good quick means for myself to distinguish what I am looking at (for example, Sher's paintings mentioned earlier).
Christopher Risdon

I think you raise an interesting issue. To some extent, we are able to know about and appreciate Wolfli's art precisely because we are able to separate the output from the person. This doesn't seem possible for designers. It would be much more difficult to have a mad designer. Because a designer must work with clients, within the context of some kind of business. You can't make a piece of graphic design and say to the world "take it or leave it" as it is supposed you can do with art. Much of what designers do, what they are, is not summed up easily by their output. The output is only a part of a larger process, only part of the role that designers serve. Perhaps this is what is meant when people say design is about "solving problems" or "making decisions."
trent williams

My guess is that this is a subject we will keep returning to on this site. Designers, more than anyone else, have a vested interest in arguing for a limited definition of design because it's the only way to preserve their "professional" position. I can sympathise with this, but it puts an artificial limit on visual expression and it fails to reflect the reality of visual practice across the board as it routinely occurs now the world over. In fact the hybrid, definition-flouting character of so much contemporary visual work, coming from whatever direction, is such an established phenomenon that it's amazing that we still attempt to reinforce the old definitions. (Bill's original post surprised me a little there.)

The idea that art is primarily about subjective self-expression and that this is the overriding characteristic that makes it "art" is a product of the modern period. Most of what we refer to, or study, when we speak of the "history of art" was created before this recent period in much more constrained conditions. It was initiated by wealthy, powerful commissioners: the church, the monarchy, the nobility. And it was created in formalised circumstances by highly trained individuals who accepted this patronage as a way of gaining standing for themselves in society (in other words it was a well-paid job). A lot of what we also call art, from antiquity to the middle ages, was created by people whose names are unknown to us who could hardly be described as pursuing individualistic agendas in their work, even if they gained enormous satisfaction from their mastery of craft and their expressive powers, as they probably did. According to our current definition, none of this qualifies as art.

Personally, I have gained more aesthetic satisfaction, more opportunity for private reflection, more insight into the human condition, and a greater sense of wonder and solace from looking at one Titian than I have gained from looking at a gallery-full of Damien Hirsts. For the fact is that Titian's handling of paint, more than 400 years ago, in the service of given religious and mythological themes, decided by his "clients", is the medium of a complex and, for many viewers, still thrilling sensibility. You don't need to share the religious convictions of Titian's time to connect with these qualities in his paintings. But without this supplied subject matter, this client-serving purpose, as a starting point these paintings would not exist.

I'm not suggesting that design could or should be like this in any literal way, but I cannot see why it shouldn't be possible to endow a designed object with qualities that go far beyond the prosaic communication of instrumental messages. By insisting on a functional definition of design (which, I agree, is often all that's required) we limit it to only its most mundane possibilities. Yet the work we appear to value most, looking at design history, has often offered a great deal more. Speaking not as a designer, but as a viewer in search of rich, interesting and meaningful visual experiences, these restrictions seem to me to be completely counter-productive.

Rick Poynor

Having started this discussion, I am pleased by the level of thoughtful and intelligent dialogue in these posts. I hesitated writing this essay precisely because I did not want start an "art" versus "design" discourse: generally, this is a no-man's land. My argument is slightly, but not insignificantly, different.

Before proceeding, I believe we must distinguish between certain terms, especially "design" in general versus "graphic design" as a specific descriptor. If you re-read this entire dialogue through this lens, the issues move around in significant ways. [One can talk about the design decisions in Titan's work, but I do not believe one would ever call Titian a "graphic designer."]

I am not arguing for a narrow definition of graphic design. I need to strongly disagree with Armin (who began his post by graciously agreeing with me) and with all those who want "graphic design" clearly and restrictively defined in order that "the profession present a consistent and coherent scope of practice." This very use of language is wrong because 1000s of graphic designers will not feel like it includes them; more importantly, it ignores the complexity of design in a larger visual culture. I, for one, have stopped talking about my "practice." I simply do not like the vocabulary and its allusion to an architectural or medical practice. This is my choice; others will find it appropriate. (This is the point Jessica Helfand and I were making in our AIGA Vancouver speech in challenging the AIGA not to reduce the design process to "a 12-step program." Many talented graphic designers will simply not want to be included if this is the way we define the profession.) The fabulous thing about being a graphic designer is the very richness of the community: that the same world can include Armin and Jessica, Stefan and Lorraine, Bart and Julie. I stand against any definition that limits the richness and complexity of what graphic design is. Or as Rick Poynor more elegantly points out, "I cannot see why it shouldn't be possible to endow a designed object with qualities that go far beyond the prosaic communication of instrumental messages."

So let's talk about Paula Scher (or Stefan Sagmeister or Edward Fella or many others). Mad art or graphic design? I believe this is the wrong question. Paula Scher is a graphic designer who chooses to paint works deeply informed by her graphic design. I think she is an artist. I think she is a graphic designer. Where she belongs on this spectrum is between Paula and history. In the meantime, there is intent and context. (A Paula Scher painting at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum is a painting; Paula Scher designing an installation in the elevator at the same exhibition is a work of design.) From my viewpoint, this is a wonderful example of the tension between art and design in contemporary culture. We should celebrate and explore this tension.

This said, I do not think Adolf Wölfli was a "visionary graphic designer" who was interested in "visual communication." Frankly, I think this is nonsense. Wölfli was a madman who lived in an insane asylum in the era of Bismarck; he was neurotic / psychotic / compulsive enough to create 25,000 pages of artistic wanderings long before graphic design became a profession. Applying a contemporary vocabulary of "design practice" to him does not help us understand his work or his life. (He was clearly aware of contemporary Victorian culture and magazines, and added clipping from them to his many collages; an analysis of this part of his work might look at the influence of graphic design from the period.) But Adolf Wölfli was not a graphic designer any more than Titian was. As noted by Mark Kingsley, we "look at the pictures and shun the jargon-filled text."

I would rather that the catalogue for the Wölfli exhibition contained wonderfully well-written essays by talented writers instead of wooden, historical academic writing. This is my critique: I am opposed to the weakest of [(graphic) design] criticism being extended, artificially, to other arenas. It is not good criticism within our own "profession"; and it is embarrassing when extended outside of the profession.

One of the reasons there is so little well-written, intelligent criticism about (graphic) design in our public media is precisely because we let critics write such nonsense about Adolf Wölfli. We need a criticism of our criticism. Without speaking for my collaborators, I believe this is an appropriate role for of Design Observer.
William Drenttel

"One of the reasons there is so little well-written, intelligent criticism about (graphic) design in our public media is precisely because we let critics write such nonsense about Adolf Wölfli. We need a criticism of our criticism. Without speaking for my collaborators, I believe this is an appropriate role for of Design Observer. "

Amen, brother.

p.s. You had me worried for a moment.
M Kingsley

During my late-night reading, I came across this section from Gilbert Seldes' "The Seven Lively Arts" (1924) which seems to be appropriate (re: Titian, high and low, art or design). He is describing his first viewing of a Picasso.

Please forgive the length.

I shall make no effort to describe that painting. It isn't even important to know that I am right in my judgement. The significant and overwhelming thing to me was that I held the work a masterpiece and knew it to be contemporary. It is a pleasure to come upon an accredited masterpiece which preserve's its authority, to mount the stairs and see the Winged Victory and know that it is good. But to have the same conviction about something finished a month ago, contemporaneous in every aspect, yet associated with the great tradition of painting, with the indescribable thing we think of as the high seriousness of art and with a relevance not only to our life, but to life itself-that is a different thing entirely. For of course the first effect-after one had gone away and begun to be aware of effects-was to make one wonder whether it is worth thinking or writing or feeling about anything else. Whether, since the great arts are so capable of being practised to-day, it isn't sheer perversity to be satisfied with less. Whether praise of the minor arts isn't, at bottom, treachery to the great. I had always believed that there exists no such hostility between the two divisions of the arts which are honest-that the real opposition is between them, allied, and the polished fake. To that position I returned a few days later: it was a fortunate week altogether, for I heard the Sacre du Printemps of Stravinsky the next day, and this tremendous movement among the forgotten roots of being gave me reassurance.

More than that, I am convinced that if one is going to live fully and not shut oneself away from half of civilized existence, one must care for both. It is possible to do well enough with either, and much depends on how one derives pleasure from them. For no one imagines that a pedant or a half-wit, enjoying a classic or a piece of ragtime, is actually getting all that the subject affords. For an intelligent human being knows that one difference between himself and the animals is that he can "live in the mind" to him there need be present no conflict between the' great arts and the minor; he will see, in the end, that they minister to each other. 

Most of the great works of art have reference to our time only indirectly-as they and we are related to eternity. And we require arts which specifically refer to our moment, which create the image of our lives. There are some twenty workers in literature, music, painting, sculpture, architecture, and the dance who are doing this for us now and align it in such a manner as to associate our modern existence with that extraordinary march of mankind which we like to call the progress of humanity. It is not enough. In addition to them-in addition, not in place of them-we must have arts which, we feel, are for ourselves alone, which no one before us could have cared for so much, which no one after us will wholly understand. The picture by Picasso could have been admired by an unprejudiced critic a thousand years ago, and will be a thousand years hence. We require, for nourishment, something fresh and transient. It is this which makes jazz so much the characteristic art of our time and Jolson a more typical figure than Chaplin, who also is outside of time. 

There must be ephemera. Let us see to it that they are good.
M Kingsley

I only have the Gomez quotes Bill gives to go on, but I'm struggling to understand his objection. It does appear to rest on a conception of graphic design as something done by "graphic designers", as a professional group, even if it resists restrictive definition and allows a broad range of approaches under that heading. Why do we need to be so concerned about wider uses of the words "graphic design"? It sounds like progress to me. I'm forever looking up the word in the indexes of books about cultural history, only to find it's an area that otherwise wide-ranging authorities overlook.

While I'm not suggesting that we jettison all descriptive categories and I'm suspicious of those who say that we should, it does seem that we risk putting the cart before the horse. The term "graphic design" took hold in the years after the Second World War as a way of describing and promoting an increasingly professionalised form of activity. The idea of the client may have been central to what these designers did, but the essential activity is considerably older, as we know. Isn't the essence of graphic design, as we came to describe it, the bringing together and integration of words and images for the purposes of any kind of communication, usually in the form of printed material. (Nowadays, of course, it doesn't have to be print.) The "design" part refers to the shaping of the visual material according to various kinds of compositional and structural principle, and these principles also apply to other art forms, with painting the most obviously similar in compositional terms.

It goes without saying that I wasn't proposing Titian as a graphic designer, but there is a real sense in which an image such as the huge Assunta altarpiece in Venice is "designed". A much more recent example: whenever I look at 1960s screenprints by Eduardo Paolozzi, which are extraordinary expressions of an urban / kinetic / cybernetic / technological awareness (and which must be due for revival any day now), his brilliance as a "designer" of contemporary imagery overwhelms me. If Paolozzi had had less to say for himself, he might have been a superb poster-maker. He has the same facility in manipulating graphic form and pattern that we see in the best poster design, except that his prints are superior as form-making (quite apart from their intellectual content) to anything I can think of from design and illustration of the time. Only Tadanori Yokoo, another 1960s figure whose work presents design / art complications, produced images of comparable fluency and invention.

In gloomy moments, I find myself thinking that if "graphic design" really wants to define itself as the provider-for-a-fee of all the visual junk that engulfs us (and I know Bill rejects this too), then it's a profession we could do without. More positively, this urge to combine words and images to shape a communication, however mad, is a fundamental human activity in which anyone can participate with varying levels of ability. Our tools increasingly make this possible. Graphic design, much more than institutionalised, gallery-bound fine art, could even be a way of bringing art back into everyday life. It already is.
Rick Poynor

There are times when a discussion of the differences and similarities between fine art and design is very meaningful. Historically we can see a unity of art and design up to the point of industrialization. With royal patronage of the arts everything in society including images, interiors, architecture, apparel and associated objects were unified in their support of the ruling system. There was a linear relationship between designer/craft/artists and their patrons.

We can see in artists like Toulouse-Lautrec a separation of form, technique and function between posters designed as advertising and oil paintings that address the human interactions that happen within the environments advertised. The separation happens at the time of industrialization in Europe and America. Design maintains the ghost of the patron-artist relationship in that of the client-designer relationship while art gains a degree of independence by separating the artist from the collector through an intermediary, the gallery owner.

I would tend to agree with Rick that the Assunta altarpiece is designed. As former Fluxus artist now designer Ken Friedman points out in much of his work on design, the act of designing is as old as the second tool. Someone found that a stick could become both an axe and a hammer - each communicates a different meaning to a viewer and has a more specialized function than the stick did. However, the field of design is recent.

Another instance when the relationship between art and design is important is in the statement; "One of the reasons there is so little well-written, intelligent criticism about (graphic) design in our public media is precisely because we let critics write such nonsense about Adolf Wölfli." Part of the reason is not solely found in the criticism of design. In Europe some trained art historians could during the 1950's and earlier (see discussion of this in the work of Serge Guilbaut) be hired to write the worst tripe in support of terrible painting for the simple purpose of artificially inflating the value of bad work.

To understand and deflate bad criticism in design we have to understand the relationship and function of criticism in other visual arenas.

"Dear Mum,
You may tell your friends, next time they ask, that what I do is provide visual junk for a fee."

To be honest with you, Rick, there's something about that I kinda like.

Having started this discussion, I find myself is the awkward position of being both perplexed and challenged.

My critique of the essay(s) in the Adolf Wölfli monograph grew out of a frustration that such a complex, interesting artist could be written about in such mundane, and, frankly, boring terms. The Gomez piece was the worst of these essays. I continue to believe that this particular piece of criticism is a failure, and that his attempt to superimpose the vocabulary of contemporary design practice upon Wölfli's work was misguided: he attempts to turn Wölfli into a graphic designer in today's terms, and in the language of today's professional practice. I re-read the essay tonight, and it still reads like nonsense (not a word I use lightly) to me.

This conversation, however, has moved far beyond my personal reaction and critique of this particular piece of writing.

Rick Poynor's question is perhaps the critical issue: "(Bill's objection) appear(s) to rest on a conception of graphic design as something done by 'graphic designers', as a professional group, even if it resists restrictive definition and allows a broad range of approaches under that heading."

I do not necessarily think graphic design is something only done by "graphic designers." But I do think of graphic design as a modern idea (here I am intentionally not using the word profession, which operates on another level), even as I appreciate "design" as an ageless activity. I believe, in the use of language, it is helpful to let certain historical usages stand, precisely because they help us articulate and understand history. Thus, there is a meaningful distinction between an 18th century punchcutter and a 20th century graphic designer (although some 20th century graphic designers clearly "punch type").

In this light, I would not call Adolf Wölfli a graphic designer, any more than I would call Titian a graphic designer. On the surface, I believe this is historically inaccurate. This does not mean, however, that one cannot explore the design of space in a Titian painting, or the influence of the design of early 20th century periodicals on Wölfli's collages, or the relationship between the (commercial) drawings that Wölfli sold to buy art supplies and his personal, not-for-sale work. We are suddenly into issues that overlap with, challenge, and illuminate issues of contemporary graphic design and its criticism. Now I am suddenly agreeing with Rick Poynor. And I have no doubt that Rick Poynor could write about Adolf Wolfli as a graphic designer because the quality of the writing would sustain the argument. (I'm perfectly prepared to go look at the work of Eduardo Paolozzi with fresh eyes.)

Yes, let's view graphic design in all of its potentiality. I will even call Titian a graphic designer if, as Rick has suggested, "graphic design, much more than institutionalised, gallery-bound fine art, could even be a way of bringing art back into everyday life." I share his idealism.
William Drenttel

>I'm perfectly prepared to go look at the work of Eduardo Paolozzi with fresh eyes.

if you haven't already come across paolozzi's "moonstrips empire news" and "general dynamic f.u.n." then they're both well worth seeking out.

Bill, I understood from your first response that your intention with the original post was to object to the language of the article and not start a debate about the dividing line between art and graphic design, particularly as it applies to contemporary work.

So I was a little surprised when Rick came back atcha, but then, he's in a different time zone.

But from your second response you initially seem to take a stronger stance on the use of the term "graphic designer" ...

In this light, I would not call Adolf Wölfli a graphic designer, any more than I would call Titian a graphic designer. On the surface, I believe this is historically inaccurate.

but declare yourself open to be convinced otherwise, given an intelligent argument written by e.g. Rick Poynor ...

[...] I will even call Titian a graphic designer if [...]

OK. I guess.

So for you it's not about whether the term "graphic design" is a modern construct which should not be applied historically where no such profession existed, nor is it about whether the term "graphic design" has or should have boundaries in a contemporary context, it's about articles being engagingly and thoughtfully written without resorting to what I shall call, for lack of a more eloquent term, high-falutin' senseless language which serves more as a passport to academia for the writer than as a means of conveying sound ideas to the reader.

In other words, more substance, less "provision of junk for a fee."

Right on, brother!


So if people are generally disinclined to consider Wölfli's work to be graphic design, does that mean they'd be disinclined to call the work of artisans "art"? The delight Gomez takes in calling Wölfli a graphic designer is the same as when some designers (product, automotive, and graphic designers, and architects) call their work art, or when curators fawn over the "art" of ancient Egyptian sculpture. You could include all the other crafts, like pottery, glassblowing, smithing, etc., old or new (does One-Stroke-Painting count?). I wonder when all this started.... Duchamp would have something to say about this, but I don't know what.

Thinking of what Ric mentioned above about looking up the words "graphic design" in indexes of books about cultural history, I have the following text to offer. It doesn't use the the words "graphic design" but instead "communication industries". It comes from the book Empire by Michael Hardt and Antonio Nrgri.

One site where we should locate the biopolitical production of order is in the immaterial nexuses of the production of language, communication, and the symbolic that are developed by the communications industries. The development of communication networks has an organic relationship to the emergence of the new world order—it is, in other words, effect and cause, product and producer. Communication not only expresses but also organizes the movement of globalization. It organizes the movement by multiplying and structuring interconnections through networks. It expresses the movement and controls the sense and direction of the imaginary that runs throughout these communicative connections in other words, the imaginary is guided and channeled within the communicative machine. What theories of power of modernity were forced to consider transcendent, that is, external to productive and social relations, is here formed inside, immanent to productive and social relations. Mediation is absorbed within the productive machine. The political synthesis of social space is fixed in the space of communication. This is why communication industries have assumed a central position. They not only organize production on and impose a new structure adequate to global space, but also make its justification immanent. Power, as it produces, organizes; as it organizes, it speaks and expresses itself as authority. Language, as it communicates, produces commodities but moreover creates subjectivities, puts them in relation, and orders them. The communications industries integrate the imaginary and the symbolic within the biopolitical fabric, not merely putting them at service of power but actually integrating them into its very functioning.

At this point we can begin to address the question of legitimization of the new world order... The legitimization of the imperial machine is born at least in part of the communications industries, that is, of the transformation of the new mode of production into a machine. It is a subject that produces its own authority. This is form of legitimization that rests on nothing outside itself and is reproposed ceaselessly by developing its own language of self-validation.

And Eudora Welty once said, "It is comforting to remember that it is through art that one country can nearly always speak reliably to another, if the other can hear at all."
Jessica Helfand

I am sympathetic to Mr. Drenttel's original position of criticizing criticism's use the term "graphic design" I would agree that Gomez's use of the term is anachronistic and therefore misleading. We could all benefit from questioning our rationale for term usage. I'm reminded of the ubiquitous use of the term "deconstructed" to describe something done to typography. The connection to the philosophical/literary tradition is specious, but we still credit the strategy of sounding provocative. The fact that Drenttel is embarrassed by the misuse of a term, I'd venture, is symptomatic of the provincial values of graphic design criticism generally and not yet another lamentable instance of its soiling. Drenttel suggests "One of the reasons there is so little well-written, intelligent criticism about (graphic) design in our public media is precisely because we let critics write such nonsense about Adolf Wölfli." This is silly. I can think of several good reasons that intelligent would-be-writers avoid writing critically about graphic design. None of these have to do with the seemingly opportunistic abuses of its name. From this account Gomez has painted his garage door red against the aesthetic guidelines of Design Criticism, A Guarded Community. Who really cares right now? Were still stuck in one subdivision among many in the vast suburbia of Middlebrow.

Rick Poynor suggests, "I cannot see why it shouldn't be possible to endow a designed object with qualities that go far beyond the prosaic communication of instrumental messages. By insisting on a functional definition of design (which, I agree, is often all that's required) we limit it to only its most mundane possibilities. "

I thoroughly agree with this. What is fascinating about design history and the various theories that attend "it" is not whether or not a functional definition of design is more accurate but the degree of our insistence on function. We hold onto functional definitions as an occupational imperative and not as a choice made every day. That said, I'm sure Mr. Poynor would agree that we couldn't dispense with functional definitions either. If not the raison d'etre of a designed object, function is a constitutive part of its cultural legibility. In short the trick is not to be too hasty in privileging one definition over another, or at least be aware of your privileging in the act.

Poynor again: "It goes without saying that I wasn't proposing Titian as a graphic designer, but there is a real sense in which an image such as the huge Assunta altarpiece in Venice is "designed".

Now we are entering some dangerous territory. I just finished agreeing with Mr. Poynor and now he has to play the art card, with Titian no less. Hmmm. Saying, in essence that "what we do" is like a Titian altarpiece (or vice versa) is moving dangerously close to meta-narrative. While this is acceptable territory if you're a writer for the History Channel or "GDTV" our own 24-hour channel, it is not the territory of serious design historiography, or shouldn't be. It's also the methods of armchair practitioner-historians like Paul Rand who've done as much harm as good in their From Lascaux to Brooklyn design myth making. This is where design journalism and more rigorous academic methods go their separate ways. I, for one, question the lasting benefits of the former. I think the decibels of our disciplinary desperation are higher in the latter. I could be wrong. I already have to force 19 year olds to question everything they have learned about mechanically reproduced letterform. I suppose forcing them to expunge design meta-narratives is only half as difficult as teaching them design history from scratch.
Will Temple

Jobs | July 25