I have walked into more craft stores recently than I imagined a small town with one main street could possibly contain. Perhaps uncoincidentally, I’ve been working as a graphic design intern for an arts center that survives off of workshops like Paint on Pottery or Tie-Dye Tuesdays and whose clientele is usually more interested in “Wow this looks so realistic!” or “How pretty!” than in what a piece really means or feels like (not an isolated occurrence at galleries, as I can see from Nidya’s post a while back).
While attending my little brother’s graduation a couple weeks back, my family met up with an old friend of my parents, an artist who I’ve long admired. I don’t remember the context, but at this dinner he quoted St. Francis of Assisi:
“He who works with his hands is a laborer.
He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman.
He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.”
Since then, I’ve been thinking about what this summer as a graphic design intern at an arts center means to me. It was supposed to be my introduction to the art world, a rite of passage into the creative life. Instead, I’ve found myself wondering whether the work I’m doing is art, craft, or labor, whether creativity has any place in what I do, whether the institution I’m working for or the people we serve are really interested in art or craft, and whether meddling with craft (instead of “art”) was worthy of eternal shame.
Working as a graphic designer is different from working as most or all other visual artists because the client is so clearly and irremovably present. My impression has been that most visual artists these days have at least the semblance of an option to make art that potential patrons would not understand or purchase, but graphic designers function from the position of already having chosen not to starve. Of course, graphic designers have their personal work as well, which, like any other art, is motivated by the designer’s own interests, is concepted by her own ingenuity, is executed by her own prowess, and probably doesn’t buy the bread. This is not the work that St. Francis should have trouble categorizing as art or craft.
Commercial work, however, is less certain. Established designers can pick and choose their clients, but even then the client is always there. Always. For a serious artist to do commercial graphic design for a living is a little like a serious songwriter composing jingles for pet food for a living. While a designer has leeway to interpret the client’s desires to produce strong concept and aesthetics, the work itself is motivated by the client’s desires more than the designer’s. Where does the heart fit when the client chooses the reason for your work? Can Meow Mix be music or the packaging of a sweetener art?
Interestingly, painters and sculptors once stood where graphic designers stand now. In Europe during the middle ages and Renaissance, the only galleries were the walls of churches and the ceilings of cathedrals. Every artist had to depend on patrons, usually, again, the church (or rich people). Art as a field in the time of St. Francis (the 1100s/1200s) wasn’t all that different from graphic design now in the sense that the subject of the work (The Virgin Mary? The Last Supper?) and the purpose (to inspire, to awe, and to strike fear or love of God in the hearts of laymen who rarely saw anything beautiful except in a place of worship or a passing nobleman’s rich attire) were determined by the patron, not by the artist herself. Yet St. Francis obviously believed that artists existed in his time. Why else would he even mention them? Even though Da Vinci, Giotto, and Michelangelo’s subjects were determined by their clients, no artist or art historian would dare say that these great artists were producing mere “work” or “craftwork” instead of “art”.
I am inclined to believe that art historians are not undiscriminating enough and St. Francis would not have been fool (or pedantic and heartless robot) enough to consider the brushwork of Da Vinci the sole reason why his paintings are “art”.
I usually identify as atheist, but I have walked in the Sistine Chapel or more minor but equally ancient churches and felt in awe at the glory of God. I have felt so much beauty and splendor shining at me from every inch of one of those buildings that I could begin to justify the disgusting amount of money and labor squandered on these places of worship while the vast majority of the European population was serfing along in total squallor. I think this is how St. Francis knew the difference between an artist and a craftsman, where he found the artist’s heart: in the power of something manmade to evoke such awe.
Some old religious masterpieces, like the shame and anguish on the face of Eve in Masaccio’s Expulsion, or the part of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel where Michelangelo painted his self-portrait in limp, abandoned skin, are powerful enough to break a heart open and let beautiful, terrible things in or out. No matter that these pieces were commissioned or that their subjects were predetermined, the artists obviously did more than think and act. They felt something about the subjects and embedded those feelings in paint. There is heart in these works of art, tangible, true, and powerful.
I believe that graphic design, just like painting and sculpture back in the day of St. Francis, has the capacity to be a medium of expression for serious artists despite the part that clients play. Not every graphic designer is an artist, but nor was every painter and sculptor during the middle ages and Renaissance. For every work by Giotto, there are hundreds of pieces that look almost exactly alike that were created for the singular purpose of satisfying the patron. These works are sufficient to their purpose, but there’s a reason why they are not remembered as masterpieces.
Even those that were not art, however, have their place. Beautiful things that can inspire are important, even (perhaps especially) when the inspiration is an act of the viewer and not a gift of the object. Beauty to remind us that beauty exists in the world, beauty to move us and remind us that we have souls. While the mass-produced gift cards, do-it-yourself photo-album covers, and novelty items sold at Paper Source may not be art by St. Francis’s definition or that of art historians, these pieces of paper remind anybody who sees the storefront or steps into the shop that beauty and creativity belong in the lives of regular people.
Those identical, Byzantine, baby Jesuses cradled by their identical Madonnas haloed with identical gold paint and surrounded by companies of very similar looking angels that were mass-produced like Model Ts back in the middle ages once stood in separate churches and shone a dazzling array of expensive colors for tired serfs to feast their starved eyes. I like to think that the suicide rate in dead-of-winter Munich would have been significantly higher if there were no cathedral there to shine some religious feeling in peoples’ lives, whether that feeling came from God’s presence or manmade beauty.
Of course, an arts center isn’t quite the same as a church, Paint on Pottery doesn’t claim as much religious potential as scenes expressing the glory of God, and perhaps Stevia is less likely to inspire heartbreak than the passion of Christ, but the existence of projects that seem banal doesn’t preclude the existence of projects with just as much potential for heartfelt creation as the religious scenes that earlier artists brought to life. For example, book jacket design often gives designers an opportunity to bring new depth to a reader’s understanding of the book. The best of book jacket design surely contains heart, surely deserves St. Francis’s recognition as “art”. Much pro bono work, or work for campaigns and organizations that designers truly believe in also has this kind of potential, and in many cases manages to realize it. Even movie posters have tremendous potential to be true works of art, with the capacity to move viewers with just as much force as a great film, although I personally think this potential is for the most part left untapped because too many designers have let themselves settle for the sufficient movie poster that looks like other movie posters instead of striving to create the Mona Lisa of movie posters. Work for a client does not have to be heartless.
And at the end of the day, if packaging sweeteners and contact lenses pays for the roof over your head, where’s the shame in bringing a little beauty to the pharmacy aisles?