¶ … Art and Design: Why the Graphic Designer is not the Same as an Artist
In the 20th century "art" began to veer away from traditional norms and standards and take on a more commercial aspect, utilizing the means of mass production to become "designer" art. Therefore, it is natural that one might argue from a technical standpoint that graphic designers should be considered as artists. This paper will argue, however, that graphic designers are not artists because "art" as defined for centuries has a unique purpose to which graphic designers do not attend (Wolfe, 1976).
Graphic designers are not to be considered artists for the sole reason that art, according to the greatest playwright in the English language, is that which mirrors (or reflects) reality (Shakespeare, 1973). Art can be of any medium (painting, film, narrative) so long as it performs this task. The primary purpose of graphic design is not to "hold the mirror up to nature," as Hamlet says the artist should do, but rather to create visually arresting images whose purpose is typically not artistic but rather commercial. This point is essentially proven by the fact that the term "graphic designer" was not coined until a book about the advertising designer W.A. Dwiggins was published in 1922 (Margolin, 2000). The term has always been more associated with commercialism than it has with the ideas of artists, such as Shakespeare, Wolfe, Dickens, Van Gogh, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Vasari, and many others.
There is an art to graphic design, which has been defined by scholars and training schools as "visual communication" (Smith, 2008) -- however, the intention and purpose of graphic design is what separates it from the generic term of "art," which has had more of a social and/or spiritual function throughout history (Johnson, 2003). Yet, in the 20th century mass production and a consumeristic, commercially driven art society combined to produce a unique development in the modern world -- the emergence of the graphic designer. The graphic designer provides the "dressing" for the communication of the seller to the buyer: the graphic designer is like a sign maker or print maker in older days. As Circar and Sonwalkar (2008), "Graphic design was born of art and technology (printing)." All that have changed are the tools and the possibilities. And while it can certainly be stated that there is an art to every job, it must not be asserted that a graphic designer is a proper artist, if the proper definition of the artist is to hold.
The confusion comes with the establishment or fragmentation of the art world in the 20th century. Fine art, high art, low art, abstract art, design art, fashion art, Dada and any number of variations of these different types essentially transformed the way that moderns view "art." Yet, the centuries old definition of "art" never changed: Hamlet's assertion still stands. Artists reflect nature and show us who and what we are: the action of the artist is social. The graphic designer on the other hand tends to show us what we ought to buy (by developing attractive logos, ad campaigns, etc.): the action is essentially commercial and emphasizes not so much some aspect of nature but rather appeals to the senses in an aesthetic way that is divorced from "enlightenment." Another famous English writer, Charles Dickens, built upon Shakespeare's definition of art, when he said that art should "entertain and enlighten" (Glavin, 2003, p. 180). Hollywood producer David Selznick agreed and spent his career bringing books to the Silver Screen, offering reflections of nature through the medium of film. By way of contrast, it may be stated that Selznick employed graphic designers who worked on titling, layout, framework, typography, etc.
Also known as "communication design," today's graphic design field is meant to assist in the conveyance of information: thus, graphic designers work on physical as well as digital images and their work ranges from the "design of books and magazines" to posters, motion graphics, signage, business cards, brand designs, ads, software, mobile apps, animation and much more (Cezzar, 2015). Essentially, the field is broad and graphic designers are used in almost every line of work that involves marketing or communication of...
Moreover, the sophistication of graphic design can further serve as an argument that there is an "art" to the work that must be understood by designers (Frascara, 1988) just as the art of crafting a plot must be understood by novelists and the art and theory of line and dimension must be understood by painters. Yet, the "art" of graphic design is not what the argument is about: what it is about is whether graphic artists hold the mirror up to nature, as proper artists must do according to Shakespeare's definition.
And in this respect, the answer is no. Although the graphic designer may in fact work on a design as part of an ad campaign that does do something to reflect nature -- such as an ad that comically points out the differences between the sexes or an ad that evokes the tragedy of suffering in certain parts of the world -- the graphic designer's primary purpose is not in the formulation of the idea behind the reflection, but in the illustration or in the arrangement of the visual effect.
However, in so far as the graphic designer does take part in the formulation of the reflection of nature, it may be argued that he is in fact being an artist. Such is the argument of Meggs and Purvis (2012), who assert that all art is basically "visual communication" and has been such since pre-historic times, when cave drawings appeared on cave walls. Their theory is that any work that expresses a visual message may be considered art and therefore any individual who engages in the practice must be considered an artist. While there is merit and logic to this argument, their basic definition of art is anything which is created. The primary purpose of the creation does not alter the value or nature of the creation. In short, their definition is general and does not reach the profound levels that Shakespeare's does.
To better understand, therefore, why graphic designers are not to be considered artists, it is important to understand the relationship between art and culture throughout history, as well as graphic design's place in that history. In Western civilization, art was most emphasized by the Greeks and the Romans and then by the Roman Church throughout the Middle Ages. Architecture, sculpture, painting, writing, music making -- all of these modes of art reflected some spiritual reality. In the modern era, the separation between reality and art was made complete in the 20th century as world wars and philosophical subjectivism made abstract art into something fashionable. Artists, formerly patronized by the Church in the Old World, looked for employment by the new leaders of society -- the corporations. Thus artists took their talents into the commercial realm of society, leaving behind the cultural/social/spiritual side for economic stability. Graphic designers thus may be said to be artists who emphasize design over art, or rather that they hold the mirror up to fashion rather than to nature.
Now, if nature once again becomes the fashion and graphic designers are employed to reflect nature rather than design fashion then they may be ipso facto regarded as artists. What it comes down to is the functional purpose of the art, which makes the artist. In this sense, one might suggest, as Margolin (2000) does that there is "a continuity between art and design" and therefore the possibility for "cross-over from one to the other" -- however, it is the "reasons for making art or design" that constitute the difference between art and design (Margolin, 2000, p.3).
Thus, in discussing whether art is design or whether design is art, one may state that design can be used in the composition of a work of art, or that art may be used in the composition of a design -- but the two must remain distinct in terms of purpose. Where the purpose is to convey a narrative that reflects nature/reality, then that work may be considered art. Where the purpose is to facilitate an advertisement or even the "frills" of a work of art (such as a film or book), the work may be considered graphic design. When a graphic designer takes part in the conceptualization of the work, which is meant to hold the mirror up to life, then the designer may be said to become an artist. But these distinctions must be made if a proper sense of art and its grandeur, ambition, beauty, and truth are to be preserved for future generations. Already in the last century did "design" deliver a blow to "art" by usurping its place in the "art world" through the work of fashion artists (Wolfe, 1976). But a true appreciation of the purpose of art is all that is needed to…
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