Last year designer Art Chantry, known as much for his uncensored opinions as his band posters and album covers, capped a nearly 40 year career with the book, Art Chantry Speaks: A Heretic’s History of 20th Century Graphic Design. In it he questions the stature of the likes of Paul Rand and lauds great yet unsung everyday designs, such as Dixie Cup packaging. Chantry has well over two dozen examples of his vibrant, unapologetic work for the music industry in the AIGA Design Archives.
We spoke recently about what it means to speak design language, the current state of visual culture, and his advice for design students today.
You refer to yourself as a “cultural propagandist of the lowest order” and “a mindfucker for hire.” Are all designers “mindfuckers?”
As graphic designers we are masters of a graphic design language that we use to change people’s minds about things. Buy this product, go to this event, vote for this candidate. When we use yellow, it means something. When we use a square vs. a circle it means something. Graphic designers are expert (supposedly) in understanding this language and using it for a client to manipulate the consumer into changing their mind the way the client wants it changed.
So, we fuck with people’s minds all the time. And we do if for other people—for money! We seldom weigh the cultural pros and cons of our clients; we simply take the money and move on to the next client. I think we experts of the design language are very, very powerful people. But we sell that power to whomever will pay us to do their bidding. That makes us very, very dangerous people, too.
I chose graphic design as my medium of choice back in the ’70s because even then I could see that the dialogue of the art world had switched over to the design process. The fine art world still can’t see that. One hundred years from now, the stuff in the museums will not be the Naumans and Koons and Kiefers. It’ll be the stuff we are making in the design language. That’s just reality.
Can design ever be considered “Art?”
No more than a dentist can be called a doctor. Or maybe I should switch that around. They look alike, they use the same tools, they speak the same words, they even wear lab coats and use the Dr. in front of their names. But would you want a dentist doing brain surgery on you? And worse yet, would you want a brain surgeon drilling on your teeth? No way. Different dialogues with different discussions about different things.
Since WWII, the art world has been slowly turning back to the design discussion. But the art world can’t do design. Even Picasso made lousy posters. Sure, they had nice illustrations on them. But the poster? Stinko. And the design world makes bad art (at least until Warhol and the pop artists started to design fine art). Do we remember Toulouse-Lautrec for his paintings? Sorta. But we fight tooth and nail for his posters. These definitions have no more meaning.
No, design can’t be art any more that dentists can be doctors. And vice versa. Let’s keep it that way. And water is wet.
When I show your work in the History of Graphic Design class I teach, the concept of postmodernism clicks for most students. How do you feel about being identified with this movement?
We are all postmodernists in 2016. There is no way to be anything else. Every subculture or mainstream culture, high or low, is constructed of old, unoriginal thinking. But we’re masters of juxtaposition. Duchamp made this so utterly clear, and that was 100 years ago. Of course, when you’re drowning in the middle of this ocean, you can’t see the beach from ten feet under.
We’ve basically been in a long period of cultural decay since WWII. Cultures live on a crude bell curve (I learned this in anthropology). They start, they grow, they peak, they slip, and they fade away. We peaked around WWII. Since then we’ve been slowly curving down the side of the bell graph. It’s not a smooth slide, it’s still full of ups and downs. The high points are what we call high decadent cultures. All decaying cultures have interesting stylized decadent periods.
But since WWII we haven’t been coming up with new ideas, we’re simply taking old ideas and applying them in new ways. This goes for the arts and the sciences and the culture in general. Taking the old and applying to the new is called appropriation. All of our work since WWII has been appropriation. It’s the hallmark style of the postmodern era of decadent modernism. We mix and match crap all over the place. It’s a crazy mosh and none of the ideas we toss around are new at all. I know enough about history that I can point to whatever it is you’re “creating” and tell you who did it first and better 100 years ago. It’s pretty funny in a classroom to point at students’ haircuts they think are so hip and tell them who designed them and when. Blows their minds.
Do you have heroes, design or otherwise?
Yes, of course. My heroes tend to be outsider monkey-wrenchers who really kickstart cultural trends. But in reality there are no “great men,” merely blowhards who stand on top of everybody else’s work and grab all the credit. It bothers me that the “fine design culture,” a distinct subculture within the larger language of visual culture, has adopted the art world fantasy of the “great man theory.”
Have you mellowed at all with age?
No (obviously). I’m getting more disappointed with age. I’m much sadder about the human condition. Our greatest achievements rot in obscurity while lesser bullshitters grab all the good stuff first and proclaim themselves brilliant. The modern world makes me cringe. And I helped create it. That’s hard to live with sometimes. It makes me want to hide.
Any advice for today’s design students?
Carry a gun.