Impersonality in type

George Horton's picture

Here is an idea, intentionally simplified to a point beyond the possibility of its being true.
There are two kinds of admirable art. One produces pleasure for the recipient insofar as he is a recipient of a certain kind; let's call this art "good", and the better the kind of person, the better the art. The other produces pleasure insofar as it is good and then insofar as it is perceived as not aimed at any particular kind of recipient, even if it could in fact only please an audience of the recipient's kind; let's call this art "great", and the more apparently impersonal the art and disinterested the pleasure the greater the art.

So how does type ideally respond, in making verbal art physical, to greatness? It cannot now be a matter of matching the personality of the writing, since a fundamental quality of the art is its refusal of directed personality. Here's a famous example to focus thought, from a response to tragic death in Cymbeline. The stanza is wholly inappropriate, and in the last couplet meta-inappropriate:

Fear no more the heat o' the sun,
Nor the furious winter's rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta'en thy wages.
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

fontplayer's picture

Say what?

It certainly will be interesting to see what a real answer to this will be.

So how does type ideally respond, in making verbal art physical, to greatness?

By being transparent?

Yeah, that's the ticket. I'm sticking with that answer. Are there prizes?
; )

George Horton's picture

I hate to sound like a cafe philosopher, but what is transparent? Either something marked as neutral for historical and geometric reasons, like Helvetica or Sabon, or a non-choice, like Times, which certainly doesn't stop seeming a non-choice just because it's botching great art, or a genuinely functionalist design like Unger's Gulliver, which at 11 or 12 point would cease to be functionalist - beyond 10 point type can't abdicate from the possession of character. None of these versions of transparency would work.

I suspect that one thing the type needs is a kind of traditionality, a perceived removal from the present without exoticism - as Shakespeare in the stanza above is traditional in his removal from the Marlovian "mighty line" and reversion to unpastoral but rustic rhyme. Another necessary thing is dignity, a combination of unimpeachable austerity and high purpose, not nostril-flaring classicism but granite inhumanity. But I'm not going to answer my own question, because I don't know the answer.

If you want a simpler question: what typeface do you use to set one of Shakespeare's mature plays? Or, if none of the existing faces are suitable, which do you modify and how?

hrant's picture

Using your definitions above:
For type to be good, for type to be type, it must not be great.
Although everything contains Art, in [text] type it must be unwitting.

Transparency: I started writing what [I thought] it means
to me, but immediately realized that I actually don't know! :-/
I tell you guys public discussion motivates thought
and refinement of ideas, and you don't believe me.
(Well, I'm sure some of you agree, but still.)

hhp

fontplayer's picture

Honestly, I kind of thought you might be kidding...but I see you are one of those people with lots of brain cells. My apologies.

I'd just pick something I liked. Something like this with the funny 'a' would make me feel like it was from some other period, but still it's pretty and has lots of styles for versatility.

jlg4104's picture

I think you're onto the tension between what people used to try to call "universal" themes and those that are more "particular." The problem is that we know that all artifacts are "marked" culturally. But "culture" is not something you can essentialize-- cultures always interact, overlap, intersect, etc. We can speak of "American" but also "Western," of "urban" but also "Parisian." And those are just a couple among thousands of cultural markers-- from the extremely broadly dispersed (middle-class technologically-savvy culture) to the extremely local (neighborhood culture).

Also, consider that even on this forum you have members of a certain culture-- wildly divergent as their "cultural backgrounds" may be, you have people here, who, in one of their signature cultural practices, think and talk about typography. They (we) will construct discussions about type in that light; you might get a different discussion of, say, what type looks "good" or "great" among a group of high-school students in the Bronx or among fishermen in Thailand. (Or they might just wonder why the hell you're asking.)

So... for me, what makes any typeface good or great or just interesting is that it combines some formal features and some cultural markers in ways that make some kind of sense to me. I don't just mean, "I like what I like"-- I DO try at least to think about why I like what I like. I won't go as far as Plato and say that if I like it, I MUST believe it's good (so, if I like something bad, I must believe the bad is good and therefore have my head screwed on backwards). But I hope the two line up in some way.

jlg4104's picture

As for setting Shakespeare's plays... One problem is that Shakespeare, like any author from "the past" whose works people still read, is paradoxically detached from us culturally (we don't live in Elizabethan England, most of us anyway) yet part of contemporary culture pretty much worldwide (he's read and has devoted fans and scholars of his work in every corner of the globe, pun semi-intended). So... we can't presume that there is a "period" typeface that must be suited, nor a "contemporary" type that we might like but which cannot be suited.

Given that quandary and all the preceding cafe philosophy I've just blabbed, I'd actually probably just default to a something that says, "Here is some writing that is richly textured and greatly admired by many people. It's not sacred, and it's not the best or only great writing in the world. But it deserves to honored as well as transmitted clearly."

Of course, that just sounds like a bad imitation of Bringhurst on picking any type. But there you have it.

fontplayer's picture

Transparent:

To me it means I don't notice it. My favorite reading experience was in 1969. In one night I read the Hobbit and the Trilogy of the Ring. As the sun rose in the morning I was closing the book, and a great sadness was a surprise emotion. There was no more. It was over.

I don't remember anything about the font. (But if I did, I'll bet I wouldn't have finished all four books in one setting)

George Horton's picture

For type to be good, for type to be type, it must not be great.
Although everything contains Art, in [text] type it must be unwitting.

I think that the most complete artistic impersonality always consists in just this perceived unwittingness - in the recipient's non-perception of any mind behind the art. So type should be great. As for transparency: exactly!

The problem is that we know that all artifacts are “marked” culturally
This view doesn't pay attention to the real psychology of response to art, especially verbal art. Essentially: sometimes you don't notice the marking, and this seems to happen rather more with some artist-recipient combinations than others, and also more with some artists than others.
Shakespeare: It’s not sacred, and it’s not the best
WHAT?? :-)

Nick Shinn's picture

Shakespeare in print: type responds to the personality of the publisher.
Sure, the market has some say in the matter, but the publisher is most influential in determining the nature of the marking.

Don McCahill's picture

> My favorite reading experience was in 1969. In one night I read the Hobbit and the Trilogy of the Ring.

Wow, you must be a fast reader. The Hobbit I could do in a night. But I want a straight week to read the trilogy, and a month if I am pretending to have a life.

fontplayer's picture

Wow, you must be a fast reader.

Although I read a lot when I was younger, there may have been another factor.

At one point earlier in the evening I remember feeling the sensation of hurtling through space at an infinite speed in all directions at the same time. This may have had something to do with a hookah pipe party I had been invited to (silly naive me never thought to question what was in it).

I read the story every winter for the next 7 years or so before I felt like giving it a break.

George Horton's picture

I remember feeling the sensation of hurtling through space at an infinite speed in all directions at the same time... never thought to question what was in it
DMT.

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