Today, I wish a happy birthday to someone who passed before my time but has had a great impact on me. I covered him in a Cultivators of Inspiration post a while ago, so this should come as no surprise. On this day in 1880, Thomas Maitland Cleland was born. He went on to be one of the foremost designers and illustrators of the early 20th century. I have a large collection of his work, including his writing. In celebration of his 132 birthday, I share with you the final bits of an address he gave to the American Institute of Graphic Arts in New York on February 5th, 1940, bound and published as Harsh Words by T.M. Cleland. The world is always changing, but some things hold true from generation to generation. Hard work and effort will always be an integral part of success.
But of all the perils that lie in wait for adolescent artists there is none more seductive than the bewildering array of ologies and isms that leer and beckon to him at every crossroad of his journey. Just as isms and ologies have taken the place, in social and political life, of right and wrong; so have they become the accepted terms of the arts. In fact, nonsense is now so universally the language of art that it is nearly hopeless to try to make oneself understood in any other.
Brood mare to all of these extravagancies—and I have lived to see many of them come and go—is that one which achieves the super absurdity of calling itself “modernism”; and none has been expounded and exploited in more contradictory and antic ways. To deliberately call oneself “modern” is no less ludicrous than something an old Danish friend told me years ago about a line in one of the books of a very prolific writer of historical romances in his country. In a tale with a medieval setting this writer had one of his knights in armour cry out to another: “We men of the middle ages never take insults, etc.”
Embraced with fanatic enthusiasm by many architects and designers is the current quackery called “Functionalism.” It, in common with its many predecessors, offers a new gospel for the regeneration of our aesthetic world by restricting all design to the function of its object or its materials. Like the new religions and philosophies that have paraded in and out of our social history for countless generations, it purports to be an original concept. It has brought to us such gladsome gifts as concrete boxes with holes in them for buildings, chairs of bent pipe with no hind legs, glass fireplaces, beds of cement blocks joined by structural steel, the queer agglomeration of unsightly edifices we call the World’s Fair and many other specimens of stark and forbidding claptrap. Unless all signs are misleading me, it is another mass vulgarity like the age of golden oak and mission furniture, even now on its way to the junk pile or the attic, perhaps to be someday rediscovered there and dragged out by future generations in search of quaintness.
It seams to me, ladies and gentlemen, that all art was modern when it was made, and still is if it is suitable to life as we now live it; and I look in vain for any applied art worthy the name that was not also, in some sense functional. From the buttresses of a gothic cathedral to the gayest Chippendale chair one finds, upon analysis, a perfect work of engineering perfectly adapted to its purpose. If this were not so, these things would hardly have endured for so long a time. So that common regard for function when has always been the basic principle of first-rate design, assumes the impressive aspect of a religion, with high priests and ritual, by the simple addition of an “ism.” As students and beginners in search of truth, we are today being pushed and pulled about by no end of such bogus preachments—familiar faces with false whiskers—old and common principles dolled up with new names and often used to account for incompetence and laziness.
With my younger colleagues still in mind, I ought to say something of the practical problems that we encounter in professing and practicing one or other of the graphic arts. We are, or should be, if we are really artists, more concerned with what we give to our art that with what we get out of it. But we have to live—or think we do—and to do that by the practice of art is certainly no easier now than it ever was. If anything, it’s a little harder. Beyond that inner satisfaction with what we can give—and there is only a little of that and at rare intervals—the only two things to be got out of art are money and fame; and I daresay there are few of us who would not welcome a little of both. But we must compete today with a great many of those who work for nothing else; and who, under the banner of one or another of these isms of which I’ve been prating, can concentrate upon that unique objective unhampered by any serious interest in art itself. They are devotees of success, like their commercial brethren, and by means of the same promotional paraphernalia they succeed so well that one is tempted at times to believe that the only living art is the art of self promotion.
Another curious development of these times is the classification of artists according to political ideology. We hear now of “left wing” artists. As nearly as I can discover, these are to be recognized by their contempt for any sort of craftsmanship and a peculiar inability to keep their drawings clean. They make penury—the unhappy lot of nearly all artists—a pious virtue, and they are not infrequently big with pretension to being the only serious interpreters of life and truth. These are balanced on the other end of the political see-saw by a school of “economic royalists” who have made of art a commercial opportunity. As Industrial Designers with large staffs and control boards and troops of indefatigable press agents, they have welded art and commerce so successfully that it is nearly impossible to tell them apart. Somewhere between the two is the artist: and he is as often as not a forgotten man. Not quite poor enough to be picturesque or heartrending, just well enough off to keep his collar and his drawings clean, he must nevertheless spend an exorbitant part of his life and energies in worrying about bills.
And now to stop the clamor of the butcher, the baker et al, to whom must we sell our graphic arts? For the most part, I suppose, it will be to publishers, industrialists and advertising agents. The publisher is a pretty decent sort, on the whole, but if he is a book publisher, he can generally be recognized as such by the fact of having very little money to spend on art. In my own experience, the most generous and appreciative customer for our wares has been the industrialist. What you do for him can often increase his profit very materially, and he is not slow to recognize that fact.
The advertising agent, speaking very generally and with the particular exception of one very dear friend in mind, deals largely in what might be called scientifically organized fraud. I am aware that to say this now is to risk being called a “communist transmission belt”—whatever that may be. It has even been suggested that by these animadversions upon advertising, I am biting the hand that fed me; but I suggest that I am biting the hand that I have fed until I am fed up on feeding it. It may be that you will find, as I sometimes have, in the ranks of these shock troops of deception, sympathetic and amiable client for your work who can deal differently with artists than they deal with the public—but not very often. Each of them employs what is called an Art Director whose importance is derived, not so much from art as from the financial size and number of advertising accounts towards which he directs it. It is his duty to furnish you with what he calls “ideas,” upon the theory that an artist is not mentally up to having any of his own. Ten to one he will end by altering your drawing to give it the “wallop” thought to be essential to all advertising. A public already groggy and half blind from the incessant battering of advertisements with a punch, will hardly notice the difference.