In the last decade or so, there has been a noticeable shift in the direction of media and how we utilize and consume it. With circuits and transistors forging a sterile barrier between the artist and their art, many graphic designers have become increasingly jaded by pixel and print production via computers, opting for more hands-on trades like screen printing, letterpress printmaking, and most recently, sign painting. Additionally, with the growing number of grade schools erasing cursive handwriting from their education curriculum, I found it interesting that young designers, many of which whom are the last generation to learn cursive, have a fervent curiosity to learn the age old crafts of lettering and sign painting.
Similar to the purported death of print, handwriting has become something of an anachronism to many children. After all, the advancements of typewriters, word processors, computers, and now, smartphones, provide the ease and agility to create messages faster than traditional writing. Its act prompts the belief that prolonging an obsolete skill curbs our ability to move forward. Ironically, as the avidity to read becomes less and less compelling, there is a sense that society is reverting back to the age of hieroglyphics. Icons and ideograms become shortcuts for authentic metaphors of love or anger. Sending short texts and heart emojis satisfy a void a romantic letter might have filled decades ago. With a diminishing appreciation for penmanship, younger generations may not find value in continuing the craft of lettering. However, for sign painters, the act of practicing letterforms is not only a skill, an art, or even the basis of literal communication. It is the purest means of self-expression.
Learning foundations such as perspective through basic illustration, chemical development of 35mm film, or paste up production for a magazine spread, provide a cognizant grasp on the earliest, most essential understanding of each art process. It demonstrates a linear pattern of thought as our culture transitions from analog to digital, one medium at a time. Likewise, there is similar resurgence in audible media. Not only have vinyl records made a comeback, but another form of audio has peaked interest − podcasts. Podcasts are audio journalism, often containing consecutive episodes on a recurring topic, broadcasted digitally online. Podcasts such as the ever-popular Serial storyline have captivated millions of listeners simply through voice. Just like sign painting, it revives a simpler time of communication and entertainment.
Radio was an intimate medium permeating the homes of America, especially from the 1930s through 1950s. Some social commentators believed the power of radio would create a closer, more informed public, while others, like communications philosopher Marshall McLuhan, believed radio had the power to sway individuals to “irrational forces like fascism, communism, or even a corrupt and bankrupt capitalism.” Today with podcasts, radio is even more democratized as almost anyone with a recorder and an opinion can create their own storylines and intrigue listeners.
Just like the revolving door of fashion, the media of yesteryear always seems to come back into style. It may be in different formats, but there is always the desire to preserve a small part of history. Just like the glide of a brush stroke or the familiarity of an old story, perhaps if a tradition is passed down to future generations, something peculiar and marvelous will grow from it. Indeed, it already has.
Upon entering my freshman year of college, I was assigned to read a book by American artist Ben Shahn. It was a short read, a mere 130 pages or so with pen and ink illustrations scattered throughout. At the time, I had very little, if any, knowledge of who Shahn was or why reading this book served of any purpose to my life. As it turned out, Shahn too, had perplexities as to what context he fit into, as well. He confesses to the reader that he was not a lecturer, nor a scholar of art. After all, he chose to paint pictures, not talk about them. The book immediately radiates a reassuring tone to the amateur artist, hesitant of what inexplicable expertise may lurk inside. It also may alarm the reader to know a skilled artist such as Shahn would not find it worthy to comment on his own experiences. He writes,“What can any artist bring to the general knowledge or the theoretical view of art that has not already been fully expounded?”
Based on a series of lectures delivered at Harvard University in the 1950s, The Shape of Content contains six sections each devoted to artistry: its role in education, form, subject matter, process, abilities, and implications. In his first chapter on Artists in College, Shahn proposes the possibility that “art may be stifled within the university atmosphere” and that “creative impulses may be wholly obliterated by the pre-eminence of criticism and scholarship.” Although I did not fully grasp the understanding of this at the time, throughout years of liberal arts education, many students including myself, felt just that. Every project seemed to be just another competitive race against peers or myself… a triathlon of brainstorming, conceptualization, and execution in order to embody that gilded trophy, that pseudo greatness.
Under many circumstances, this is the reality of a working design professional. There are deadlines to be met, clients to appease, and an insatiable urgency to stay relevant in the field. Shahn not only addresses the changing attitude of art in schools, but the inner critic as well. He implores trust from the skeptic reader, stating, “I feel, I even know, that this first step in rejection is a presence… the moving toward one’s inner self is a long pilgrimage… it offers many temporary successes and high points, but there is always the residuum of incomplete realization which impels him on toward the more adequate image.” Despite its age, The Shape of Content bestows timeless lessons to students in present times. Its telescopic view into the innermost thoughts of an artist underscores the emotional and physiological warfare that comes into effect when an artist parallels his art with his own sensibility and ethics.
Rooted in the belief that form and content are one in the same, Shahn describes these inseparable entities as “the expression and the remnant of self,” suggesting that for as long as any substance of life or creation existed, there was form. He claims that there is a divide in higher education among students who are instructed to avoid any awareness of content, and critics who outright dismiss it on the basis of “bad taste.” He connects this divide with the Platonic views of representational imagery. This suggests that representational imagery is merely a copy of a copy, where form expressing the content of life, its affairs, or its familiar emotions is inferior to catharsis from abstract form. Instead, Shahn believes that at times, representational imagery is needed to demonstrate human emotion in social realism, such as exposing situations of discrimination or struggle. Although he conveys these artistic philosophies through the medium of paint and illustration, Shahn concludes that, “The incidental items of reality remain without value or common recognition until they are symbolized, recreated, and imbued with value.”
Why did I re-read The Shape of Content? This powerful piece of literature channels Shahn’s fiercely liberal stances on education, immigration, discrimination, organized labor, and other cultural injustices through anecdotes and lessons to young aspiring artists. His views on the arts in college are still relevant and applicable today, despite its publication date nearly 60 years ago. Regardless of course track, for a developing intellect, it is imperative to learn to analyze, write, and speak about art. Reading The Shape of Content not only articulates a sense of comprehension and taste, it encourages others to conversationally add depth and meaning the to objects, people, and ideas in our lives, everyday.
On the lower level of Marywood University’s Learning Resource Center in Scranton, Pennsylvania, lives an illustrious trove of eclectic dimension. Stacks and stacks of centuries-old magazines, carefully sorted by month and year, wait to be divulged and devoured. The publications span a wide variety of content, everything from anthropology to zoological studies. Marywood houses some of the earliest issues of the most notable and highly circulated magazines of the 19th and 20th centuries, including Ladies’ Home Journal, Reader’s Digest, LIFE, TIME, The New Yorker, and Harper’s Magazine. As works of art and literature, these (barely) hidden gems not only exhibit intricate typographical elements, esteemed illustrations, and intriguing narratives, they are also physical representations of early American life.
Persuaded by the triumphs and laurels of Benjamin Franklin and his many prospering trades, specifically his livelihood as a Colonial-era printer, James Harper and brother John attained apprenticeships to pursue the Black Arts as a means to a fruitful life. What the Harper Brothers did not realize was the scopic publishing empire brewing before them. By 1850, HarperCollins, as they would later be known, began producing its first successful run of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. The content reflected interests of the time including picturesque tales by Charles Dickens, John Milton, and the Brontë sisters, poetry by Romanticist William Wordsworth and Fireside poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and commentary on society, business matters, history, art, literature, and other generalities. Physical copies of Harper’s dating back to their first press run in the mid-19th century are found within Marywood University’s collection.
Additionally, through access on the library’s online journal database, subsequent materials can be researched. One can zoom in on illustrations and text from Harper’s to examine finer details as well as locate related publications. However, to handle the tactile quality of the preserved pages, for many people, is a superlative experience. It also brings into question the conflict of browsing versus searching. While searching on an online database indicates that the user can specifically pinpoint their resource or interests, browsing through stacks demonstrates an entirely different actuality: one where the user simply stumbles upon useful information through curiosity and chance.
Harper’s Magazine was followed by a ravenously political publication, Harper’s Weekly: A Journal of Civilization. This magazine was the most widely read publication of the American Civil War, filled with commentary on war strategy, foreign policy, and slavery. It was also the mainstay of political cartoonist Thomas Nast, whose popularization of the Republican Party elephant, the Democratic Party donkey, Uncle Sam, and modern representation of Santa Claus, made him one of the most influential artists of the Golden Age of Illustration. For that reason alone, Harper’s Weekly’s satirical depictions of race relations, industrial and agricultural livelihood, presidential elections, the economy, and other cultural controversies make it a robust example of early American life. Though it is not specifically stated why, Nast made his last contribution to Harper’s Weekly in their Christmas edition of 1886. Shortly after, he fell into financial destitute, and died from contracting yellow fever after a stint in Ecuador as Theodore Roosevelt’s personally appointed counsel general.
Seemingly headed for a completely new direction, Harper’s Weekly was then followed by Harper’s Bazar: A Repository of Fashion, Pleasure, and Instruction. This introduced the United States to the first fashion magazine. Its ornate title with flourishing illustrative elements and hand-lettered typography radiate a Victorian femininity that no doubt appealed to late 19th century women. First produced in 1867, Harper’s Bazar was the go-to resource for current clothing trends, hairstyles (as pictured to the left), and other fashion forward issues. Harper’s was ahead of their time, gaining the attention of a widely untapped market. Since many women stayed at home engaged in domestic responsibilities, fashion magazines such as Harper’s Bazar opened up recreational time, retained their interest in modern style, and gave women a little something to gossip about. Although the layout, newsprint, and color has changed drastically over the years, the message is still relatively the same.
Much like women’s magazines, children’s magazines became a growing interest in the world of art and literature. To appeal to a juvenile crowd, Harper’s Young People included illustrated stories, plays, poems, songs, activities, and an opinion column. Midway, the magazine changed its name to Harper’s Round Table, which seemed to be suited more for a young adult crowd. Its loquacious stories, dramatic plays, tips for stamp and coin collectors, as well as a photography club and updates on sports news made for an appealing publication for youths to enjoy. As a whole, the content was indicative of what youths did for fun back in the 19th century, whether it was forming clubs, collecting objects, or general schoolyard roughhousing. Again, similar to the content in Harper’s Bazar, not much as changed. The publication only ran from 1879 to 1899, but like its related reads, its artwork and typography make it a great example of early magazine production.
If you have some time on your hands, or if you need to do any scholarly work, I encourage you to take part in exploring this often overlooked part of the library. From a design perspective, to examine how layout, type, color, and overall branding transformed from decade to decade makes for some spellbinding comparative research. Marywood University’s collection is not only vast, its publications are tangible artifacts that transcend time and are worthy of a second (or first) look.