2 | The Decline of Aesthetics
»Don't try to be original, just try to be good.«
—Paul Rand (1914–1996)
The age of internet and social media is full of blessings. It connects us to the world like never before. Allows us to meet people, we otherwise would never have met in our lifetime, and gives us access to tremendous possibilities of learning and developing. Professionally as well as spiritually and personally. I, for my part, feel enriched and blessed by the opportunities it offers – and the people that became a part of my life this way. I am sure, lots of books have been written about this all already, therefore I would like to pick out one aspect of this big topic that affects me as an artist and graphic designer (and doing so in a slightly critical manner, if you may forgive me): the decline of aesthetics through the internet and social media.
I am teaching graphic design now for over 16 years. For me personally, that was always a tremendous enrichment for my own development as an artist and designer, along with an ongoing source of learning about the art and importance of teaching and careful listening. Like all artistic disciplines, it brings along the question to which extent you can teach creativity, art and design in the first place.
Well, from a graphic designer’s point of view, there is always the technical side, meaning the teaching of the programs like Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator etc. – or the foundations of programing or the printing industry. Those are clearly measurable building blocks of knowledge, as pressing certain keys on the keyboard will have a visibly measurable result on your computer screen.
But how about the creative artistic side of the profession? Is art measurable? Or is it all nothing but a matter of personal taste? And with these questions, we are entering areas less clearly measurable. What makes Picasso a genius? Why is the Parthenon or Falling Waters a greater piece of architectural art than the reststop on Highway 60? And why is a poster or logo by Paul Rand better (and a lot more expensive) than Joe Shmoe’s latest Photoshop composite, he proudly uploaded to Facebook just this morning?
Unfortunately, titles like graphic designer or photographer are not legally protected, so everybody can call himself a designer, no matter if he spent 4 years or more at art academy studying e.g. the laws of color or the intricate nuances of form and proportion (like so many of us) — or just downloaded Photoshop the other week and already and proudly knows how to push its buttons. When I look at the wide variety of so called artists, graphic designers and photographers that grow on Facebook like mushrooms, I can’t help but think of Karl Marx’s “German Ideology” where „nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity … and go hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming a hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.“
Don’t get me wrong, please. I think being creative is an essential human expression, and I encourage everybody to be creative in all its manifold ways. However, I also observe that the tremendous amount of bad design and so called “art” along with floods of iPhone selfies on all these social media platforms, result in the mentioned problem: a decline in aesthetics, as people do not know anymore, how to distinguish between good and bad. Wrong, bad typography has become the norm to the extent, that for a lot of people, correct typesetting and usage of typography started to look wrong. My heart is bleeding …
All painting, photography, graphic design or architecture is in its essence rooted in aesthetics and art. And therefore the language of art and aesthetics applies to them all — and has to be studied. Just like any doctor has to study his profession and the human body, or an architect can’t do without knowing about structural analysis. It is a language like other artistic languages (as music or poetry), that follows its own laws and grammar and unique individual vocabulary. (Please, watch the little clip with Paul Rand at the end of this blog for a little introduction to this vocabulary). However, the different tools of the artist or designer to execute ideas artistically in this context, are nothing more than helpers, but never content itself.
And I think, this is where the confusion gets started these days. In a time and place, where personal computers are found in basically every household, more than half of them loaded with Photoshop or other graphic programs — a time, where digital cameras are part of standard household equipment, and working with them has become as technically simple and easy as never before — people easily confuse tool and aesthetic content.
The tool has become the aesthetic content.
Whether or not somebody speaks the language of art has become irrelevant, if they speak Photoshop. It takes less than a minute to upload the new “master piece” to Facebook, Instagramm or Pinterest and start collecting the precious LIKES, that surely must mean, that one did a good job. And it makes the “artist” hungry for more. I often wonder, if people just want to be nice and friendly, when they hit the LIKE-button – or really like it.
The bigger problem resulting from it, in particular for graphic artists, is that such self declared designers damage the market. Logos offered for 5 Euros, 5 Dollars or 25 Shekels might sound attractive, but in the end they also look like 5 Euros, Dollars or Shekels. There are even websites generating logos for free. I once tried it for my company Hidur Design Works. The results were devastating! But how will people know, if they do not know what is good design and what isn’t? Therefore I keep believing in artistic and esthetic education, like I have done for the past 15 years.
Back in the good old days (however far back you wish to go) learning about art and aesthetics was part of the general education of the individual. What I observe today is, that this aesthetic compass got lost. And I think more then ever, we need to come back to this form of humanist education.
»Good design is making something intelligible and memorable. Great design is making something memorable and meaningful.«
—Dieter Rams (*1932)
When we look at the things that have value for us, we can divide them into two larger groups:
1. Objects and things, whose value is defined through function.
2. Objects and things, whose value is defined through aesthetics.
Take a look around your house. You will most certainly find a large number of objects, that you keep in your home solely for the purpose, as looking at them brings you pleasure. A person’s striving for beauty is an inborn human need and desire. It sharpens our senses and sensitivities and awakens us to the beauty of the world we live in.
In a time, when everything and all is possible, we gotta learn more and deeper about art and aesthetics again – to learn to distinguish between the good and the bad, between the ugly and the beautiful – and the beauty in everything. Because I strongly believe, it will help and contribute to making us better human beings.
»Form follows function – that has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one, joined in spiritual unity.«
—Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959)
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