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The Old New Thing, Again

Elbert Peets, in his essay "The Century Of Progress":

"Familiar" and "different" are the aesthetic scales of most minds. The familiar is beautiful until it becomes chic to prefer the different.

Constant readers remember me talking about how the idea of the new is more palatable to people than the actual new thing. This way of phrasing it expands on that: the love of the new and the old alike are merely expressions of fashion, or as Milton Glaser put it when talking about it from a creator's perspective, loyalty to a style:

It's absurd to be loyal to a style. It does not deserve your loyalty. I must say that for old design professionals it is a problem because the field is driven by economic consideration more than anything else. Style change is usually linked to economic factors, as all of you know who have read Marx. Also fatigue occurs when people see too much of the same thing too often. So every ten years or so there is a stylistic shift and things are made to look different. Typefaces go in and out of style and the visual system shifts a little bit. If you are around for a long time as a designer, you have an essential problem of what to do. Incidentally, it's popular for designers to claim they have no style but this is generally not true. Most good designers have developed a vocabulary, a form that is their own. It is one of the ways that they distinguish themselves from their peers, and establish their identity in the field. How you maintain your own belief system and preferences becomes a real balancing act. As a career progresses the question of whether you pursue change or whether you maintain your own distinct form becomes difficult. We have all seen the work of illustrious practitioners that suddenly look old-fashioned or, more precisely, belonging to another moment in time. And there are sad stories such as the one about Cassandre, arguably the greatest graphic designer of the twentieth century, who couldn't make a living at the end of his life and committed suicide. But the point is that anybody who is in this for the long haul has to decide how to respond to change in the zeitgeist. What is it that people now expect that they formerly didn't want? And how to respond to that desire in a way that doesn't change your sense of integrity and purpose.

Emphasis mine. The reason he says "deserve" should be clear: such loyalty will not be rewarded, but will simply be yanked out from under you. What matters is loyalty to one's sense of observation and insight about what is going on around you and why it is the way it is.

I enjoy digging up trailers for movies from years past as an exercise in studying contrasts and evolutions in style.. The way trailers were cut in the 1980s doesn't remotely resemble the way they are cut now. One wag put together trailers for popular movies from the last few years in the styles of decades past, which inspired a big laugh from me. The reverse is also true: I snickered a little when I saw Warner Brothers cut together a trailer for its re-release of 2001: a space odyssey, because it made an attempt to market the movie in ways that would seem trendy. They did not try to turn it into an action film, but it was still amusing all the same to see some of the techniques of modern trailer-making — the editing to beats of music, for instance — surface for something that didn't need it. In fact, the original trailer for 2001 holds up surprisingly well, if only because the movie it was designed to promote has passed into timelessness. (For a real laugh, check out the original 1977 Star Wars trailer, which begins with the intonation "Somewhere in space this may all be happening right now," and reminds us that George Lucas was best known for American Graffiti beforehand, a movie emblematic of a worldview that Star Wars displaced from public consciousness with extreme prejudice.) But what I see more often than not are attempts to make people aware of something in a way that is concomitant with what everyone is already familiar with.

I try to be self-conscious of how we try to raise attention for things, especially when we do it by comparing it to other things. We don't really have much of a choice but to do that, because otherwise it's difficult for people to figure out how to even hold such a thing in mind until they finally have a chance to get around to dealing with it. Most people are busy, are not aesthetes by trade, and can't be bothered to make up their own minds until after the fact, if ever. These are not evils any more than the second law of thermodynamics is. But they should make you question what it is you're trying to do by calling attention to your work. If your work was conceived along the lines of trying to extend naturally from what's familiar, it's always going to be in the shadow of its own marketing. It won't be able to live up to expectations, because expectations are always unbounded and forever expanding. Better to underpromise and overdeliver, I guess.

The other thing that comes to mind is Peets's assertion that at times it becomes chic to prefer the different. If you have something that is hard to fit into a bucket, that sheds a label the minute it's applied, do not wait around for it to become chic to prefer things that are different and assume that is your moment. Such a change has nothing to do with the broadening of minds, or the introduction of a healthy skepticism about popular things. It is fashion, and fashion eats everything. The punk look used to be a direct expression of poverty: you safety-pinned your clothing because you couldn't buy new stuff, and it was easier to blag a safety pin than a whole new pair of pants or a shirt. Now it's just another look. Whatever meaning it had was erased; whatever real alternative view it represented was gone. If it's chic to prefer the different now, that doesn't mean your different is going to have its day in the sun. And what happens when everything is "different", and nothing is actually unique?

The phrase that goes around these days: "You do you." Meaning, don't wait for other people to come along and validate it. (Note that insightful feedback and critique is not the same as validation.) Do it because the thing itself has value to you, and not because you are dissenting as a way to attract the attention of those who find dissent a nice thrill. That thrill soon fades.

Tags: creativity 

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This page contains a single entry by Serdar Yegulalp in the category Uncategorized / General, published on 2019/04/30 17:00.

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