Saturday, October 27, 2018

Commercial art from 30 years ago: Graphis Annual 83/84

    Walter Herdeg, ed.  Graphis Annual 83/84 (1983) Just what the title says. A survey of applied art as used in advertising, illustrations in books and periodicals, logo and trademark design, packaging, and so forth. Graphis was one of the premier magazines for commercial artists. I used to buy it from a shop across from OCAD back then, to inspire my students. What’s interesting is how dated these examples are. Commercial art is slave to fashion and fad. Which prompts the inference that fashion itself is just another form of commercial art.
     In any case, fashion and commercial art feed on each other. Both are always a step or two behind the current styles in entertainment, which in turn is behind the latest developments in the arts. There was a nicely done weekly fashion news show on TV  a few decades ago. Most of the news covered fashion shows in New York or Paris or wherever. The background music was relentlessly blandified disco. This at a time when the prevailing music styles were acid rock, reggae, and hiphop. The intended ambience was of up-to-the-minute awareness of how the cool life was lived, but the actual effect was to make fashion seem hopelessly naive and, er, old-fashioned.
     Nevertheless, the Graphis annual is worth looking through. Not only as a record of bygone visual styles and assumptions about marketing, but because commercial art surrounds us in a way that fine art does not. Commercial art has become our  habitat; fine art is confined to cathedral-like museums that we enter with hushed voices and unarticulated expectations. Yet our taste has, I think, been shaped by the commercial art that has become the seen but unnoticed visual environment. ***

Friday, October 26, 2018

Photos as Social History: New York, Sunshine and History

    Roger Whitehouse. New York: Sunshine and Shadow. (1974) New York from 1850 to 1915, in photographs. A splendid collection of photos, with informative captions, adding up to a social and economic history of the city. We forget that New York began as a scattered collection of villages and hamlets, which were absorbed into the city as it expanded northward from its beginning on Manhattan Island. The early photos show buildings surrounded by fields. The roads were surfaced with gravel and mud. The elegant streets of middle and upper middle class houses became slums when their former residents moved ever further away from the city centre.
     Study and contemplation of these photos shows, I think, why New York became the world class city that it now is: from the beginning, its residents focused not only on making money, but on using that money to invest in amenities. Modern accounting methods would not have justified ventures such as the building of the street railways, or of apartment and office blocks at a country crossroad. Some of the earliest mansions of the oligarchy were built in the middle of fields, but the streets were already laid out to accommodate the carriages and cabs and streetcars that followed the first builders.
     Reproduction of the photos is above average for the 1970s. Whitehouse has done his research. A secondhand-book sale find, given to me. A keeper. ****

Humans Survive: After Doomsday by Poul Anderson

Poul Anderson. After Doomsday (1962) Not a post-atomic-holocaust novel. This time, it’s the aliens who have destroyed Earth. Sterilised it, in fact. But a handful of Earth ships that were in interstellar space have survived, and these preserve Earth’s heritage even while they hunt and eventually find Earth’s killers. Typical SF pulp from the Golden Age (1940-60s), with its plausible but hokey science of FTL travel, its motley collection of alien civilisations, its courtly love romance between hero and heroine, but unusual in its assumption of women’s equality to men (within a strictly 1950s moral framework, however).
     Anderson’s not only a skilful craftsman (the story moves along at a nice clip), he’s also wildly inventive, albeit within a rather limited understanding of sociology and biology. A sterilised Earth would no longer have any oxygen, for example, for without green plants there would be no regeneration of the oxygen that would have been bound to carbon etc when the planet burned. The aliens just aren’t alien enough: they are really just humans with funny body-plans and peculiar bio-chemistry. Of course, inventing a truly alien psychology is by definition impossible: we can imagine only variations on our own. But within these limits, Anderson’s a cut or two above the rest.
     This is a relatively early book, clearly a potboiler, but an above average example of the genre. I enjoyed reading it. **½

Saturday, October 20, 2018

The Tipping Point (Gladwell 2002)

     Malcolm Gladwell. The Tipping Point (2002) Gladwell developed the book from an article in The New Yorker, and it shows. While the whole text is interesting, longeurs do threaten to set in before the halfway mark. Extending the text to book length required adding examples, which means repetitions. I read the first four chapters over a couple of days, then took almost three weeks to finish the book.
     Gladwell examines the tipping point in a social context, and identifies the factors that trigger a “social epidemic.” His bibliography suggests that he didn’t look at chaos theory, else he would have realised that he was discussing a classic chaotic system: a network of feedback loops that can change size and state very rapidly when one or more variables reach some threshold.
     It’s a tricky business identifying those variables and thresholds. Gladwell is most interesting (to me, anyway) when he discusses how experience established some of them. For example, Hutterites have found that when a colony reaches 150, it must fission. They’ve made it a rule. Just why group size has a negative effect on how well the group fulfills its goals when it passes 150 is “not well understood”. A priori, there is no reason to suppose that communication should become compromised at this size, but that’s what happens. The group size effect is important for management theory and practice: Gladwell has a case study that examines how one company rigorously enforces the group size rule when organising project and expanding capacity.
     Gladwell is most interested in how insights into several factors can be controlled to trigger social epidemics. Marketers love the book for this reason, as the pre-title blurbs make only too clear. Group size, message “stickiness”, and the behaviours of key figures he labels connectors, mavens, and salesmen are key factors. He wrote the book before the rise of Facebook and other social platforms, which have magnified and accelerated social epidemics. For this reason alone, the book is worth reading. It certainly clarified my thinking about why and how Facebook has exacerbated tribal divisions.
     Despite its age, the book is not outdated. Recommended. ***½