27 Apr 2021 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)


      Intentionally bad typography: this meme has been circulating for at least six years.

"Authenticity" is one of the topics in my Critique Workshop. We see many works of book art that are made by people with a lack of training or experience, but with a lot to say. As educators we see lots of that. Some of the most powerful work I've seen was made by inner city teens in a series of Center for Book Arts (CBA) summer workshops titled Cultural Autobiography, conducted by Cheryl Shackleton Hawkins 1993-2000. 

Work by Antonia Pocock for the exhibition Student Work and Cultural AutobiographyCenter for Book Arts, Sept. 1 to Oct. 31, 2000.

Sometimes we see works that are done by highly skilled practitioners in a style that appears to be untrained. Is it simply fake outsider art, or does the intent of the creator play an important role in critical evaluation? Is it important that the viewer knows what the creator was trying to achieve? Does the medium in which it appears make a difference? Does it matter if the target audience is Artworld insiders or the general public? 

This issue arose close to home last September, when CBA published "A New Manifesto for Book Art Criticism" as a full page ad in The Brooklyn Rail, as a web page, and as a PDF

When I first saw it I sent an email to CBA asking if was done by a volunteer or a student, noting the inconsistent line spacing, justification, and other typographic issues. A reply came quickly: 

            "This design was created by knowledgeable, professional designers who are highly regarded in their field. And from a contemporary design perspective it is right on point. The word spacing, hyphenation, and box outlines are all conceptually related to the content of the manifesto and the history of artist’s book criticism."

I was confused and mystified. What is the conceptual relationship of ugly typography that is hard to read to a manifesto advocating criticism of typography and design?  Was that the point? Was this meant to be criticized? Or to be seen by a specific audience? Was it a joke? I've read some artist book criticism, and written some, as well as conducting Critique Workshops for four decades. I needed to ask for advice from those who know more about typography, so I wrote to a few typographers, including the designers of the manifesto. Robert Bringhurst, author of The Elements of Typographic Style, was the first to respond:

            "Professionalism has its pitfalls as well as its benefits. You of all people will recall the distinguished economist Arthur Okun’s observation that 'anyone except an economist knows without asking why money shouldn’t buy some things.' I fear it’s also true, in the present climate, that anyone except a 'cutting-edge typographer' knows lazy and incompetent typography when they see it.

            "I was delighted to read that the CBA plans a new periodical, the Book Art Review. But its 'New Manifesto for Book Art Criticism' delivers a self-contradictory message because it’s incompetently composed.

            "Four of the fifteen paragraphs in the manifesto are set with the 'block justification' switch turned on. This forces the last line of a paragraph to fill out to full measure, at the cost of outlandish word spacing in all lines from first to last. This is what you see in the bottom paragraph of the first and second column, the top paragraph of the third column, and the final bulleted paragraph, farther along in the third column. First-week design students often make mistakes like this. Anyone who charges money for doing typography, or who undertakes to teach the craft, ought to laugh at such errors, or scowl, as their temperament permits. But to defend such an error is blatant self-incrimination.

           "The justification and word-spacing in the other eleven paragraphs of the manifesto is also pretty lousy, and this is because the typesetter failed to set the justification parameters to reasonable values. Tuning a justification engine is slightly more complicated than just turning a switch on or off, so I don’t expect typography students to learn it until the second week of instruction. If they don’t have it down by the third week, I will start dropping hints that they should consider a different profession.

           "Those are the two most obvious problems with the design and execution of the manifesto. It would also help if the authors could spell the name of the poet Stéphane Mallarmé – the only authority they quote. And it would help if the text were set using text figures (old-style figures) rather than lining figures. Lining figures belong in classified ads. They do not belong in books nor in any discussion of book arts, nor in a proposal for a book arts periodical.

          "Incompetence per se is not hard to repair, and institutions like the Center for Book Arts were created for just that purpose: to teach those who are willing to learn. Proud and defiant incompetence is something else again. Those who broadcast their ignorance and insist they have nothing to learn (like a certain American president I can think of) are a menace to their fellow citizens.

           "The claim that the design of this manifesto 'was created by knowledgeable, professional designers who are highly regarded in their field' and that 'the word spacing, hyphenation, and box outlines are all conceptually related to the content of the manifesto and the history of artist’s book criticism' is just pretentious nonsense. The setting is incompetent, and anyone whose eyes are not stitched shut can see that this is so."

Next I heard from Ellen Lupton, Design Chair at MICA and Senior Curator, Contemporary Design at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum:

            "Whether the effect successfully communicates its own confidence is a matter of opinion. This design is an example of what is sometimes called 'default modernism.' Just because the designers know what they are doing doesn't mean that readers necessarily get the joke."

Wael Morcos, Partner at Morcos Key, wrote:

            "It’s part of a design movement self-dubbed “critical graphic design” using graphic design as methodology for research into other disciplines like politics, sociology, sustainability… Sometimes the formal interpretation is surprising and detached from the needs of a corporate client. Sometimes it’s just another affectation, an attitude, a trend. I personally don’t buy the argument that if it’s rigorous thought, it has to be unpleasant to look at or deliberately confusing."

The final word came from the manifesto's designers, Jas Stefanski and Lauren Thorson of Studio—Set, who also designed the new CBA Website and this spiffy animated Instagram post for the Center's annual benefit, which takes place May 11. They clarified the objective:

            "In regards to your question, it was not intended to be a joke nor look like outsider typography. The typography emphasizes the immediacy inherent to newspapers, mass produced/circulated printed formats, etc."  

After reading the replies to my query I had a better understanding of why I was confused, and an appreciation of how difficult it can be to communicate an idea typographically when readers come to the page with many different perspectives.

Minsky is a book artist, curator, and historian. Founder of Center for Book Arts, Incorporated 1974, the first organization of its kind. He serves on the CBAA Book Art Theory subcommittee. The Richard Minsky Archive is at Yale.


  • 02 Jun 2021 9:25 PM | Peter Tanner
    Ever since I had the chance to talk with and discuss book art history with Richard Minsky in a break out session at 2021 Contemporary Artists' Book Conference I have appreciated his candor even more than in his previous blog posts. I will not address the question of the “inconsistent line spacing, justification, and other typographic issues” because they are not my bailiwick (I have seen so many odd things on both the internet and late 19th century advertisements that I just take it all in with a grain of salt).

    The conceptual questions that Minsky raises at the beginning of his post sound like a debate that could be had about Cy Twombly’s work, especially the questions of outsider art, intention and audience, but I do not want to address these concerns here.

    What I question is the CBA manifesto and its actual assertions versus practice. When I found this manifesto I was really excited as a book arts researcher. The manifesto states:
    “Book art production is more prolific now than ever before, yet critical writing about book art and specifically about artist books lags far behind critical writing about other media. Few publications devote space to writing about book arts. Reviews of artist books often consist mostly of descriptions of the book rather than a structured analysis.”
    It goes on to elaborate on many themes with which I am very much in synch. I wrote to them to get involved because it says:
    “If you are a writer with an interest in writing about the book as an art form, we would like to hear from you.”
    They replied saying send us a proposal. I asked for guidelines. They sent me guidelines for submissions. I read it and it came across as only wanted reviews from contemporary book arts exhibitions. I emailed and asked if that was the case, especially because I live somewhere in the Styx where covid has closed most exhibitions and access. They never replied back.

    After the 2021 Contemporary Artists' Book Conference where I met several of the manifesto signatories I wrote again, with an academic article/proposal ready for them to review. I said:
    “I have an article that I would like to submit for your consideration but it is not a review of a current work, it is more of an academic article that raises questions about the application of theory to book artistry.”
    Their reply:
    “Perhaps for something more academic, the Book Theory Blog would be appropriate?”

    I think what they are proposing is an excellent idea and opportunity. However I am not sure that they are ready to implement what they are proposing when their main principals include new research proposals like:
    • Acknowledging that the way we tell the history of book art needs to be expanded, revised, and annotated because of our culture’s changing perspective.
    • Acknowledging that there is no single model for proper criticism, but that critical writing should generally entail thinking about subject; maker; image; text; typography & design; binding structure; printing method; other physical attributes; time and place of origin; and quantity produced.

    Yet, after making these claims, when an academic paper is ready to be sent to them that questions assumptions about book arts history in a critical way they said “Perhaps for something more academic, the Book Theory Blog would be appropriate?” Is it just me or is there something a little off here other than the “inconsistent line spacing, justification, and other typographic issues”?
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