I approached the specter of a history class with dark reservations. I had visions of armies of boring, unrelated facts invading my brain, demanding that I remember their dates and names. The book is huge: more than 573 oversized pages with smallish typeface and, thank goodness, ample illustrations. It covers things graphic-art-ish beginning with cave paintings and ending with computers. Yes, I did occasionally get bogged down in many names and seemingly unrelated movements. Yet, as the semester progressed, the armies began to prevail, and unexpected transformations in my interests began.
The first new learning that tickled my awareness was that our book itself is, in a way, a work of graphic art. It is not of the high quality (and uniqueness) of the illuminated manuscripts we saw, nor could it compete with William Morris’ Kelmscott Press publications, but its layout is varied and pleasing and has a certain unity, and the illustrations are marvelous. (This revelation makes me a little upset that I used a highlighter when I was still uncertain of the value of the book and course. Margin notes can make re-reading a book more interesting, but a highlighter … not so much … ) As the semester progressed, I began to be more aware of design everywhere, and to be able to relate some of the graphics around me to history we had studied. Helvetica is everywhere. I suddenly became excited to gather a new tidbit about a well-known designer or foundry or new typeface. History began to be part of the present as a result of this class.
The class would have been more valuable if I had discovered at the very beginning that reading the modules first is quite useful. The modules provide a scaffolding for the many details in the book. Even with the clear modules, I’m still unsure of some major movements, such as Plakatstil, and I still need to read and study more. Amazingly, I actually want to read more. History has prevailed and enticed me to the Dark Side.
Of course, this graphic arts history was not presented in a void. We touched on the history of the times in which these graphics were created, learning how politics, culture and technology affected their creation. I would be interested in learning more about the anthropological implications of the history of graphic arts. One interesting theme became apparent: although graphics reflected changes in human culture, they also reflected constants in human nature. Change was inevitably greeted with mistrust and resistance, and the workers at the bottom rung of the publications ladder usually had many complaints. Lessons for us in the present, no doubt: try not to work on the bottom rung any longer than necessary; diversify; and remember to evaluate change with an open mind.
After reading this book and considering this course, I predict that graphic arts will continue in a similar pattern of changing along with evolving technologies and, I hope, continuing to borrow from the ideas of the past. Perhaps a better description for this field than “graphic arts” will be found, a description that combines the fine arts aspects of the field with its powerful and somewhat dangerous persuasive and communicative aspects.
I’m truly glad to have taken this course online. Having a teacher and fellow students who are actually engaged makes all of the difference. The professor’s diligence and generosity with his time helped me learn .. even forced me to learn at times, and to enjoy learning despite myself. By taking it online, I could see thoughts from all of the students, even the ones who might be a bit shy in person, and there was the opportunity to mull over their words. It was humbling, too, to see so many people smarter and more expressive than I am, in one place. I really enjoyed it.
Alas, I still don’t have a definitive definition for “graphic arts.” Is there one?