This is the monologue for the most recent episode of Why? Radio: ““Text as image, image as text: How one artist uses language to combine art and literature” with guest Alexandra Grant. Click here to listen to the episode.
There is a wonderful documentary called Helvetica which is about, as you may have already guessed, the font by the same name. It goes into detail about how Helvetica was designed and gives example after example of how it has become the most commonly used font in the world. You would think that a movie about a typeface would be miserably boring. It’s not. It’s fascinating and it gives all of us a chance to think about letters the way that font designers do—as tiny little pieces of art that are designed with forethought and care.
We are at an amazing point in the history of text. Never before has the average person had the ability to choose for themselves what their printed pages should look like (or, if we are being honest, had access to their own printed pages at all). Never before have average people developed personal relationships with a text style, regarding some with contempt and others as representing their own literary personality. People have done calligraphy for millennia, of course, and the medieval illuminated manuscript still creates an ideal standard that we see referenced in films such as Shrek and Snow White. But these were tools of the elite, of those who controlled the production of knowledge. Today, every person who creates a resume has to decide between Times New Roman and Garamond, between Calibri and Arial, between serif and sans serif, even if they don’t know what a serif is.
And there are consequences of their decision. No one will ever hire an applicant who uses Comic Sans MS for their resume and nothing annoys professors more than getting papers printed in an ornate script. As recipients of these documents, we don’t just regard the text as unreadable, we judge the author as being of poor judgment and character. Only an unprofessional idiot submits a document like that, we think, and lord, you should hear us rant about it to our colleagues. The fact is that all art reveals both our character and our time of life. There is something sweet about a first-year undergraduate with a Monet poster in her dorm room, but no one wants to see it in her home when she’s thirty-five. There is more leeway for the display of Egon Schiele’s Seated Woman with Bent Knee, a common choice for the more artsy student, but not much more. That painting can only take someone through grad school. After that, it’s time to move on.
Am I being a snob? Absolutely, and I will be one of the last people to discourage anyone from loving good art. But what interests me here is that we, right now, feel the same way about font choice that we do about wall decoration. We imbue them with meaning and value. We consider some more sophisticated than others. We regard them as more than just products of industrial design, but as personal statements. They are aesthetic objects even if, most of the time, we take them for granted.
On today’s show, we are going to talk about the role that text plays in larger works of art, and we are going to blur the difference between paintings with words and words that are themselves the subject of painting. But before we do that, we should probably think about text in itself. What does a block letter do to us emotionally, what limits do italics place on our imagination, why do we think that an ornate script is prettier even though something like Helvetica is both more delicate and more precise? How do we control the viewer with the font choices we make and why do we lose the viewer when they have different aesthetic expectations than we do?
These are tough questions. But they are all built on an even more difficult one: how do you separate text from the meaning of the words it communicates? It is easy for me to see the aesthetic value of Arabic because I can’t even decipher its sounds, let alone understand its meaning. But it is incredibly difficult for me to look purely aesthetically at the Latin alphabet because I always hear it in my head, and if I understand the words, as I do with English or German, than the meaning of the language eclipses the experience of looking at it. How hard would it be to create a beautiful painting of the word R-A-P-E to an English reader? Could anyone create a relaxing image of the letters D-A-N-G-E-R? Words are inherently concrete. The only way to make them abstract is to jumble them or block their meaning.
Our contemporary world requires us to have a philosophy of text, an understanding of the printed word and our relationship to it. We have to see typeface, not just as a vehicle for communicating information, but as an extension of our individual and collective identities. Like all art, fonts are created to help present and interpret the human experience. We won’t understand who we are if we don’t recognize them for what they are, a dialogue about what it means to live and flourish in a text-dominated world. Yes, it takes effort to see them this way, but no art is visible without contemplation.
Follow the author on Twitter at: @jackrweinstein