Spring 1991

What’s this history for?

Modernism and Eclecticism

New York, 23-24 February 1991

The suggestion, by a European interloper, that there was some rancour in the ostensibly anodyne title of this symposium might be impolite, but it can’t be avoided.

In itself, “Modernism and Eclecticism” was a riposte, a final two-fingered salute to a section of the American graphic design establishment to Mildred Friedman, the beleaguered curator of “Graphic Design in America”. Her exhibition had been described in a recent review by its most vehement critic, Philip Meggs, as nothing less than a Stalinist “rewriting of history” which ignored the tradition of typographic eclecticism. That histrionic debate has proceeded without pause for over a year now and Meggs, like a number of the protagonists, was in attendance at this symposium. On this occasion there was no explicit reference to the offending exhibition, but in the ostentatiously “balanced” subject matter chosen for discussion, there was a criticism which, although merely implicit, was unmistakable.

Thus a history of Mad magazine (eclecticism) was counterbalanced by a talk on Ladislav Sutnar (modernism); the billboard in America (eclecticism) by questions to Paul Rand (modernism); the psychedelic poster (eclecticism) by a history of the Visible Language Workshop (modernism). The point was unambiguously made.

On its own terms this was in many respects a fascinating symposium which embodied the strengths and weaknesses of contemporary American design history: it was even more interesting for the light it cast on the diverging tendencies of deterministic and – shall we call it eclectic? – historical method. The schism mirrors the development of the New Art History in the 1970s and was signposted by “Graphic Design in America”, an exhibition which marked splitting of the ways that was probably inevitable.

The background to this curious controversy is well known. Friedman’s massive exhibition was received with stupefied outrage when it moved to New York in early 1990. The offended parties rapidly organised a concerted opposition, lambasting the curator’s bias against the “illustrative tradition in American graphic design” and in particular its failure to show sufficient of the work of, among other, Parrish, Rockwell, Push Pin, and Milton Glaser. The most bizarre incident was the Pauline conversion of Steven Heller, an enthusiastic contributor to the exhibition to London to denounce it at the Design Museum and in the pages of this magazine (Eye no. 1).

It was Heller who chaired “Modernism and Eclecticism”, the fourth annual graphic design history symposium organised by the School of Visual Arts. In a slick warm-up speech, Karrie Jacobs pointedly referred to “this relatively new field of graphic design history”. It is this youthfulness which excited such sensitivity. American design history is moving out of its first phase in which viewpoint was fixed by a tight band of academics, popularisers and enthusiastic designers, prominent among them Meggs, Heller and Roger Remington. Partly as a result of the highly organised nature of the design profession in New York, through the AIGA and New York Art Directors Club, a lot of that history has been of the clubable “Hall of Fame” variety – history as mutual appreciation.

This “Great Man” syndrome was very much in evidence at the symposium, in the crude form of yelps from designer groupies pleading with Paul Rand for a slideshow encore (incredible, but true). It would, however, be churlish to suggest that this school of historical taxonomists has not created a vast body of useful knowledge through scrupulous cataloguing of the visual language of 20th-century America. In Europe, where our heritage is fractured by national differences and lack of systematic study, we should be most envious of this resource.

Nor should it be assumed that the older school of American art historians have no critical perspective: Philip Meggs’s excellent analysis of Eros magazine proved that they do. Yet the absence of any coherent theoretical core has tended to result in a drift into anecdotal pluralism, and where themes have been pursued it has been as an analysis of style and not always of substance or context. The limitations of cataloguing are exposed when we arrive at a disconnected progression of movements or schools which, according to the title of this symposium, are now reduced to two major genera existing in opposition: modernism and eclecticism. Each reflect the two overriding concerns which grind the lens through which all American art and literary history is viewed: on one hand, the strong influence of European culture (a mixed blessing?) and on the other hand, the search for a unique American (i.e. North American) identity.

The term “eclecticism” describes a range of forms which are illustrative, crafted, non-conformist and primarily but not exclusively home-grown. But by placing this trend in opposition to modernism, eclecticism becomes everything that is not modernist, creating a distortion of the truth at least as ugly as that which Mildred Friedman is alleged to have perpetrated. The relationship between these trends is complex and entirely dependent on context. American “eclecticism” evolved out of, in response to, and in parallel with the influence exerted by Bayer, Kepes, Matter, Sutnar et al. To manufacture this artificial split is to step backwards into the sterile definition of design history as a progression of aesthetic schools, this reviving the obsession with separate national identity.

Last year, at the third of these seminars, Tibor Kalman gave a keynote address entitled “Good History/Bad History” written with Karrie Jacobs and J. Abbott Miller. He called for a design history which went beyond such crude distinctions, and looked beyond the artefact to its purpose and the process of its making. Kalman asserted that “A good history of design isn’t a history of design at all. It’s a history of ideas and therefore culture.” Such a history is inimical to the indiscriminate and those who are capable of description but not analysis; it demands of its writer a consistent world view.

It is no accident that Kalman’s intervention was encouraged by a younger generation of design historians who base their work in linguistic and materialist philosophy – a number of them contributed to the catalogue of “Graphic Design in America” They are, however, in the fortunate position of building on foundations laid by eclectic custodians who brought graphic design history to a wider audience, including the apocryphally illiterate group: designers.

In Europe, the problem is the opposite. Design history is confined to academia, and the sort of profession-wide debate engendered by “Graphic Design in America”, could never have occurred. In Europe, we need to create polemical and accessible history which draws on the academic tradition but has as its practical goal the creation of an environment in which design ideas are discussed outside the vacuum of the present. We need a living history, which searches for causes and explanations that enable designers to build on the past rather than re-invent it or ape it as shallow pastiche; and which replaces naiveté with urbanity.

First published in Eye no. 3 vol. 1, 1991

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.