A week ago last Friday, graphic design “rock star” Stefan Sagmeister came to Denver as part of a tour to promote his new book, Things I have Learned in My Life So Far. The event was sponsored by the Colorado chapter of the AIGA (at one time the American Institute of Graphic Arts, but a quick look at their web site leads me to believe they’ve abandoned the use of the full name). Although I’m no longer a member of AIGA, I still get their e-mails and I did want to hear Sagmeister speak because he is legendary in the design world – and because his creative thought process is so many light years ahead of mine, it’s seriously depressing. This image is probably the most famous example of his work, in which the text for a poster promoting his 1999 AIGA talk was carved into his skin by an assistant with an X-acto knife.
I started out this post with the intention of talking about how much I enjoyed his presentation. He talked about some of the things his design firm works on, which includes a mix of corporate work, personal work, and “socially responsible” work, which is paid for by the proceeds from the corporate work. The bulk of the talk was about the new book, which involves large-scale public design renditions of 20 truisms noted as musings in his personal diary. Lots of them sounded slightly familiar: “Everything I do always comes back to me” being a variant on “what comes around goes around,” but as he said, when put into his own words, had much more meaning beyond the familiar slogan. Others that had resonance for me personally are “Thinking that life will be better in the future is stupid. I have to live now.”, “Complaining is silly. Either act or forget.”, and “Money does not make me happy.”
But while searching online for the full text of the 20 things, I came across this posting on the Creative Review blog, which included the entire list along with a short blurb about a gallery exhibition that was recently mounted to show the work in New York. The most interesting thing about this post was the lengthy discussion that followed in the form of blog comments. Some of them were quite vitriolic in their response to Sagmeister’s work, calling it “banal,” “wet humanist posturing,” “self-indulgent,” “bumper-sticker philosophizing,” and equating it with “fridge magnets.”
I immediately began to question my own response to the work, which initially had been quite positive. Am I then a shallow person, because I simply enjoyed the work at its face value and failed to subject it to “a perpetual process of critical inquiry?” Should I be more demanding in my expectations of someone who enjoys this kind of stature in the design world? And why do I always let others influence what I think?
While this is an example of a response to design work, which has a somewhat different purpose than fine art (although that’s a debate for another day), it’s exactly this kind of response that makes artists afraid to put themselves out there. It seems there are always those who are quick to tear down the efforts of others, while perhaps not taking any risks of their own. I’m not saying there isn’t room for criticism, but why can’t things just be seen for what they are instead of being lambasted for what they’re not?
For my part, I think the 20 things are just one person’s attempt to find ways to make life more bearable, and if they help someone else to take a minute and look at things with a new perspective, then so much the better. We can’t expect everything someone does to fix all the ills of the world, even if he is a celebrity in his field.