Steven Heller gone too far?

matha_standun's picture

A Chairde,

Weird and wonderful things have been going on in here:

http://www.typophile.com/forums/messages/30/16916.html?1064708452

We've been discussing and debating and arguing about Steven Heller's fear of Fraktur. There's a bit of a whisper, now, of an open letter/ pamphlet to express our love for what he sees as "ominous" and "frightening" letterforms evoking "iron-fisted authority".

Anyone interested in a collective cri de coeur set in Fraktur?

Matha

bieler's picture

Matha

Heller has always seemed a pretty much a populist to me. Publishing crap on the latest trend. Why would he be concerned about fraktur!?! And why would we want him to populize it? Let's keep some of the good stuff to ourselves. Yes, Steven, should be very afraid. Nasty stuff that fraktur. Stay away, far far away.

Gerald

hrant's picture

> why would we want him to populize it?

It's not that Heller is Obi-Wan/our_only_hope or something and we want him to endorse blackletter. We just want him to stop defaming it. It's hard enough to revalidate blackletter without a generally respected pundit stating it's beyond salvation.

My own reason to want a revival of blackletter is a desire to enrich the typographic palette; I want to [eventually] see books set in blackletter. The roman is stagnating.

I'm ready to write something up, but will only actually do it if we get like 10 or so others to commit, including some big names, like maybe Bain. Then we can put something powerful together and get all the magazines to run a story. The point shouldn't be to lambast Heller (it's not like it's all his fault), but we can use his stance as a prominent example of what people should reject.

hhp

bieler's picture

Hi

Nothing wrong with sublimation, Hrant. You, more than most, would understand that.

Gerald

matha_standun's picture

And why would we want him to populize it

We wouldn't, but we don't really want him populizing the idea that it's something sinister either, do we?

...we can use his stance as a prominent example of what people should reject.

Exactly.

M.

johnbutler's picture

Apologies to everyone for my late reply to this thread. This response uses styled text, so it's best when read on the typophile site and not in email.

I own a copy of Heller and Fili's Typology and consider it a nice piece of work. It helped me to navigate all the subcurrents in modernism and what led up to them. It's got some great examples especially from the early part of the 20th century, including a few blackletter works. So you can imagine how frazzled I was when I read Heller's article. It's now two years old, so our responses are a little behind schedule, but it does need to be addressed.

Heller's full article can be found here. In it he writes:

German Fraktur type (as opposed to other medieval gothics, such as Old English) still evokes iron-fisted authority. The words

hrant's picture

Great post, John!

> Fraktur was considered Romantic and feminine.

Maybe this is a digression, but:
If you mean that historically most people thought fraktur was romantic (not sure about your capitalization) and feminine, I don't know enough to counter that. But to me "Antiqua" (or Roman, or whiteletter) is much more feminine; even though blackletter is narrower, its great angularity (especially in styles like textura) gives it an essentially masculine being. "Romantic" though I'd agree with.

> chirogaphic blackletter design.

Blackletter doesn't have to be chirographic. In fact I've noticed a tendency among blackletter revivalists to rely too much on chirography. That's basically swimming against the current, and it just makes it harder to dump the historical baggage. We need to distill blackletter into its structural, typographic essence.

I have no doubt that blackletter needs reform to be revived as a text style (like by taming the caps), and the chirogaphic ghosts can be exorcised along with its archaic features in one fell swoop. And as much as spinning efforts (like getting Heller to back off) seem distasteful and/or tangential, they're really the fuel of such reform.

(BTW, thanks for the warning about the styled text stuff - good netiquette.)

hhp

John Hudson's picture

There is a popular and strange impulse to expand blame for the Holocaust beyond the individuals who executed it and extend it to everything they saw, read, touched, drank, smoked, ate, discussed, thought about, no matter how incidental.

This is not a new impulse. During the Nurenberg trials, one of the American prosecutors drew attention to such impulses and warned against them, especially when they involved shifting responsibility for the holocaust onto those 'who had not done enough to prevent it' rather than those who actually did it.

hrant's picture

During the "Old Europe" opposition to Gulf War II, I was at a park in Montrose (an Angloer-than-average area) and I overheard two moms talking politics. One of them ended up saying: "The Germans should talk! I mean, with what they let happen." Talk about a coping mechanism.

hhp

John Hudson's picture

I bet he'd oblige if you agreed to be professional.

What profession are we talking about? Although Heller poses as a serious design historian and commentator, everything I've read by him suggests that he is simply a journalist. The Fraktur article is a case in point: extremist, poorly researched, emotional ('What typeface says "nigger"?'). Of course, most graphic design writing is journalistic, but type has often been blessed with a much higher level of scholarship. We have serious historians and commentators like Robin Kinross, Peter Bain, and Paul Shaw who have written knowledgeably about the modern history of blackletter, and whose books and articles are read by a small number of type afficionados, and then we get a journalist like Heller who writes an hysterical account of an entirely personal reaction to fraktur, which gets read by a thousands of AIGA members.

hrant's picture

> To put Fraktur types fully back in good favor or to lambast Steven Heller?

Mine is to create an atmosphere where people can use blackletter for projects without fear of being called anti-Jewish. Lambasting people who strike down blackletter on spurious grounds is one good way to do that.

I think it would be great if you invited Heller here, although I'm not sure what making money has to do with it.

hhp

John Hudson's picture

Mine is to create an atmosphere where people can use blackletter for projects without fear of being called anti-Jewish.

I suspect that the best way to do this is to start using blackletter types, but to do so in a strategic manner. Heller -- and presumably other non-experts -- is able to distinguish between German fraktur and 'other medieval gothics, such as Old English', even if his terminology is shaky. One of the great things about Peter Bain and Paul Shaw's publications is that they have begin to educate people about the incredible variety of blackletter types and writing styles, and the development of the style in countries other than Germany. This, coupled with some understanding of the history of the late Middle Ages, reverses the 'national identity' trend of the 20th century, and properly situates blackletter as an aspect of 'international gothic' culture, which flourished in western Europe immediately before the renaissance. Gerrit Noordzij's essays on the Burgundian style are another contribution to this fuller understanding of blackletter.

This suggests to me that a parallel to this educational approach would be to start using blackletter types of French, Spanish, Italian, etc. origins and influence: types that undermine the identification of blackletter with Germany and hence, however erroneously, with National Socialism.

hrant's picture

"Professional": Certainly, being insincere is generally good business.

--

> do so in a strategic manner

Yes, and I have the perfect ice-breaker: a book about Yiddish.

> start using blackletter types of French, Spanish, Italian, etc. origins and influence

But would such historical subtlety help to convert the layman? I doubt it.

hhp

bieler's picture

John

I've been collecting and printing blackletter on occasion for well over twenty years, ever since I discovered its purity. The only insinuation I've ever encountered was someone thinking Koch's Neuland was nazi-like!!! and that was just a matter of typographic ignorance. I put this kindly... just stop talking about it and do it.

Gerald

"I suspect that the best way to do this is to start using blackletter types"

johnbutler's picture

Gerald,

If by "John" you mean me, I'd love to print something, but:

a. I'm not set up for it.
b. I've not got a good topic that I could add important new contributions to.
c. I've not got the time.

One day I will own my own shop. For now I'll keep doing the type programming stuff.

hrant's picture

Does blackletter have to be letterpress?

hhp

hrant's picture

Anyway, if anybody ever has a project where a new "mainstream fraktur" font would be just the thing, please keep me in mind: I'll work my rough sketches all the way to a font.

hhp

bieler's picture

John (Butler)

I was referring to John Hudson's post. Your post #172 was greatly appreciated, by the way.

Referring to Hrant's post... Um, why would anyone in their right mind do anything letterpress? but also, whatever would be a "mainstream fraktur"? Mainstream for Anglo-America? Doesn't sound like you, Hrant.

Gerald

hrant's picture

> why would anyone in their right mind do anything letterpress?

Hey, you make a living at it!

Anyway, I was reacting to John Butler's post right before mine. In fact I think a Fraktur revival might stand a better chance using offset.

> whatever would be a "mainstream fraktur"?

It's tricky ground, certainly. To me it means a face that combines curves and angles (the way the fraktur subclass of blackletter does so wonderfully), and uses the extender space much more richly than Roman (see the blackletter lc "h" for example), but with individual letters that have conventional structures - like none of that funky lc "y" stuff, and certainly caps that can be deciphered easily.

BTW, I can be mainstream when it's for a greater good. I'm not an artiste.

hhp

bieler's picture

I kind of like the fact that Fraktur is a bit outlawed. I kind of like the fact that few typographers are concerned with it. Or that the general public is freaked out by it. Or for that matter give a rat's .... what Steven Heller has to say about it.

I still don't get why we would want to popularize something so precious, and then let it get watered down by morons (apologies to all genuine morons).

Gerald

John Hudson's picture

...see the blackletter lc "h" for example...

Please, let's be precise: there is no single blackletter model for a lowercase 'h'. I'm guessing from the context that you mean fraktur.

hrant's picture

Gerald, you have a point, but...

John, I was talking specifically about the descender - blackletter "h"s of any category have it almost all the time. Look for example at pages 6-7 of Bain's book.

hhp

John Hudson's picture

Gotcha. Yes, this seems to be a close to universal feature.

hrant's picture

More insight into Heller's Head:

Recently he wrote a review of the book "Beirut's Memory" for Print magazine. It was fine, except for an innocent-seeming mini history of Lebanon that reeked of political propaganda (at least to somebody with a nose sensitive to that), buttressing the distortions of the powers that be. I wrote a reply, and it made it into the current issue:

"
I was delighted to see coverage of the book "Beirut's Memory" in the
July/August issue ["Double Exposure," p. 98]. Sadly, this delight was
matched by disquiet in reading Heller's encapsulation of Lebanon's 17-
year civil war. Living that war as a non-Arab Christian in largely Muslim
West Beirut, I learned to glean the true motivations and mechanics of
political propaganda. Even if I suppress my tendency to assume the
worst, I have to note that virtually every single clause in Heller's history
seems strongly skewed to validate the American perspective, if not
U.S. foreign policy per se. This does not help.

I'm sorry that my first letter ever to PRINT isn't strongly related to
design, except perhaps in this way: Graphic designers seem to have
developed a burning desire to be politically relevant, but the degree
to which they can avoid being manipulated depends most of all on
their political sophistication.
"

They did however make two [telling] edits:
1) "Heller's history" originally had both in capitals.
2) I used "zeitgeist" (a carefully loaded term), not "perspective".

To the credit of Print though, they didn't allow the use of my letter as as excuse for more spin. That's what almost stopped me from sending it in: the fear that it would be capped by a "carification" from Heller...

hhp

hrant's picture

There he goes again!!
Now that the System is after Iran for real*, Heller is ramping up the rhetoric towards his [self-]assigned demographic: soft-headed designers. In the current issue of Eye magazine** there's an interview with a young Iranian woman (living in Europe since age 14) who has put out an interesting comic book about her childhood during the Islamic Revolution. Any ambivalence in the interviewee is quickly redirected (carefully read the questions, more than the answers) towards a tacit condemnation of The Enemy... Who needs subtlety when your audience has the political sensitivity of an earth newt?

* http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/3341233.stm

** An otherwise stellar issue - a typographic gold mine, this one.

hhp

piccic's picture

I think there is a consideration to be made. I investigated the fascination I myself had with the Blackletter, in subsequent times, and I felt it was difficult to completely separate it from Nazism. Even a pretty childish old idea for some type designs of mine was related to it.

I feel like there is a general perception of it associating it with Nazism, which keeps going on, independently from what bad journalism (which here in Italy is the majority) may be pushed to sensationalize.

So Heller may be annoying to accultured designers, but my own doubt is he may reflect a feeling to which a large portion of people keep clung to: something along the lines of "Adolf Hitler was not a human being" or so.

In this way my fear is it would effectively be very hard to "undemonize" Blackletter, as much as it is hard to "undemonize" the figure of Adolf Hitler or treat Nazism with more historical fairness.

The fact is that Blackletter seems to be in many ways a "dead type style", in the sense Ancient Greek or Latin are "dead languages". So, as you try to make it live in modern context, you are prevented by many obstacles.
How many times I'd have wished to use it for food packaging. But they would never allow me to do so.

What do you think?

hrant's picture

Concepts -unlike crazy humans like Hitler- don't die.
They can go dormant. And they can be redeemed.

hhp

Joe Pemberton's picture

What's the real agenda? To put Fraktur types fully back in
good favor or to lambast Steven Heller?

Has anybody invited Heller to respond here? I think it'd be
interesting to hear if he still feels that strongly. He's very
active in other online fora (AIGA, Speak Up). I bet he'd
oblige if you agreed to be professional.

Joe Pemberton's picture

By professional I meant the *corporate america definition,
though Hrant's interpretation made me chuckle...

After re-reading Hrant's first post here, I see that he
already answered my question, which I respect. I should've
read more carefully.

For what it's worth, John Butler and John Hudson, you've
put some meat on the credibility of this thread and I'm
willing to listen to.

* In corporate America speak, 'professional' has another
definition, which is something like: dress and speak
appropriately. Have some manners and if you have alterior
motives, just don't let them show. Keep them shielded by a
rational tone. Oh, and don't chew gum.

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