You are reading Typologia, by Frederick W. Goudy

IV : The Force of Tradition

THE TYPES of Garamond, Bodoni, Didot, Caslon, Baskerville, and other well-known faces [or type founders' imitations of them] have been available for years to printers generally, and practically any piece of printing required can be done adequately and satisfactorily with one or another of them, old as they are. It is no less true, however, that the wearing apparel of the citizen of Shakespeare's time was adequate and suited to his times, and might, so far as practicality is concerned, be just as suitable for our own. But there is the matter of "style" to consider, and just as in the matter of clothes, styles in types change capriciously.

Printers have been loyal to the masterpieces of the early craftsmen and have hesitated to heed seriously the experiments of modern designers of types. But why carry loyalty to the point of disregarding all newer designs, when possibly some may be equally meritorious? Is it true, as has been said, that designers are at best mere amateurs and their art comparatively a humble one? I do not hold to this view.

The type designer is no mere amateur. The amateur is concerned mainly with problems of esthetics ; the professional is concerned with the problem of a livelihood ; the type designer must attempt to solve both. It is true that type design as a separate vocation is practiced by few independent craftsmen, because hitherto, for such work, too little remuneration has been offered to attract artists capable of original effort.

While there is just now a greater interest in the design of types than ever before, there seems also to be a concerted movement by many printers to use letter forms which plainly show that the designers of them have chosen to disregard or override [unwisely] the best traditions of the type designer's art. For myself, I firmly believe that the best types for our use must be newer letter forms based on the shapes fixed by tradition, fresh expressions into which new life and vigor have been infused, creating new types which are characterized by severe restraint & which exhibit the poise and reposeful quality that are always pleasing. But, I am asked, just what do we mean by "tradition"--what is "tradition" that we should bow to it?

The need or demand for a new or useful thing exacts careful consideration for its construction and its material as determined by what it is to do, and at the same time excites a desire for its ornamentation, both construction and ornament reaching comparative perfection only after slow and gradual evolution.

The choice of details exercised by a worker with fine and delicate perceptions will endow with a special beauty any work of utility he touches; a vulgar workman can never decorate, because his perceptions are vicious and his choice and selection of details are erroneous. The artist expresses himself in the choice he makes.

An ornamental form once found delightful invites repetition; it is handed on from generation to generation, until finally, firmly established by use, it has become a traditional form. Tradition itself, however, is merely the ladder by which we climb, the working hypothesis that saves us from despair because it is all we have to go on. If we obey tradition, even though our efforts at first are crude and archaic, our work will rest upon a firm foundation.

Almost always, early ornamental forms were symbolic ; though their original significance may later have been overlooked or forgotten, frequently with loss of much of their interest or character, there still remain of them today the abstract developments in which inhere the dignity or simple beauty that will enhance the appearance of the thing adorned.

There was a time when the artist was both artist and craftsman, himself the executor of the things his genius created. His imagination and handicraft were much occupied with devising and making more beautiful the necessary implements of everyday life. His imagination developed with increased and varied experience ; the technical difficulties he met, and his mastery of them, led to the selection of the tools and methods which he found best adapted to the work in hand, and inevitably brought about the formation of noble traditions. I do not mean by this that tradition is a mere collection of cut-and-dried rules or precepts by which we are to work ; tradition is a rich and varied store of tried methods and improved processes.

While rules and precepts show beginners what others have found it wise to do, tradition itself goes more deeply into the very principles of art and life. The aim of art is to make a useful thing beautiful as well as useful ; tradition not only teaches the best way that has been found to do it, but shows also the metes and bounds of man's endeavor reached at the moment, the walled boundaries within which the imagination of the craftsman may have full sway. His work need not be dull or uninspired because seemingly restrained. A wholesome respect for the thought and effort that has brought about a tradition will go far to prevent the perpetration of eccentric solecisms.

Tradition invites spontaneous excursions of individual taste and fancy within her established limits, yet leaves the artist free to attempt consistent, reasoned, and dignified essays to enlarge her borders. Since no one man can possibly exploit all the treasures brought to light, others who follow him will find ample room to exercise all the originality of which they are capable. It is in the fire of research and study, link by link, that the chain of tradition is forged.

Just as a language, said Bishop Trench, "will often be wiser, not merely than the vulgar, but even than the wisest of those who speak it," so a tradition which has embalmed and preserved the thoughts and experiments of generations of workers must be superior to the efforts of beginners in a craft, or of those ignorant or disdainful of the requisite knowledge.

The beginnings of any handicraft take note only of pleasing utility, but as requirements become more and more complex and must be satisfied, and new ideas come which must find expression, greater subtleties of design and invention appear, until finally the tradition of the craft has reached us adorned & enriched for our use. Yet tradition is not to be followed solely for its own sake ; the logical framework of a craft, the general rules that control it--these with all the acquisitions of thought, feeling, & experience are ours to carry forward by new essays, and the additions we make will enlarge the legacy of tradition which we may bequeath to those who follow us, just as we inherit and use the traditions that have come down to us; we benefit by the labor of the skilled artisans who have blazed the way; in our hands is the key with which to unlock those ancient storehouses with their accumulated treasures, the gold of truth dug from the mines of the past. To accept medieval tradition, however, without adding something of ourselves to it, is mere affectation ; "it is no longer tradition if it be servilely copied, without change, the token of life." The dogmas of tradition, therefore, are flexible and are to be enforced lightly, that they do not wholly imprison us.

Genius is the expression of a strong individuality, and extends the limits of a tradition instead of attempting to invent a new one. Genius cultivates old fields in new ways. While a designer of strong artistic personality may modify the laws of tradition more or less according to his strength and ability, he is nevertheless seldom free from its influence ; in fact, few great artists have ever become great by deliberately disregarding tradition. Once in a blue moon an individual designer will distinguish himself by his personal choice and unusual treatment of details, by some new thought or method, or by a fresh sentiment or point of view; his fertile imagination finds new expressions for new feelings and thereby his work marks a new epoch in art.

Happily, the imaginative faculty is not confined to the few, since in some degree it belongs to all, a common heritage that grows with use. A sound tradition directs the imagination and confines it safely within the bounds of reason. On the other hand, original and creative invention of a high order is a form of imagination that belongs to comparatively few workers.

Memories of beautiful things that at some time have deeply stirred our admiration are the seeds from which invention springs ; in the mind are stored up impressions to be created into new forms, the splendor or poverty of which is determined by one's mental strength and ability. Invention demands that we soar above mere caprices of fashion.

Years ago, in an article on "Style in the Composition of Type," Mr. Updike said that "style in printing does not permanently reside in any one manner of work, but on those principles on which almost all manners of work may be based." This, to my mind, is only another way of saying that tradition is a safe basis upon which to work ; for a good tradition is the ultimate result of the application of fundamental principles. The recognition and successful application of those principles has been the mark of all the great printers and type designers of the past, as it must be of all those of the future. Types may present an appearance of novelty without necessarily losing the grace of tradition.

The immediate business of an artist may be the practice of but one craft, but unless his interest is concerned with the whole range of art, he will fall short of attaining the fullest ideals of his own. If he would express in his work vivacity, charm, invention, grace, and an interesting variety, he must cultivate a fine taste and a liberal spirit by a study of the masterpieces of all the arts. He will thus gain a breadth and depth of vision, an insight into fundamental principles, and the courage to face technical difficulties. He must learn, however, not to imitate masterpieces, but rather to follow the traditions on which masterpieces are reared. Tradition, we see then, is a matter of environment and of intellectual atmosphere. The continuous efforts of generations of cunning workers along one line led naturally to the accumulation of knowledge, increased ability to design, and greater manual dexterity, so that certain ways of doing things have come to be recognized as the best. Therefore, it is only by following good and tried traditions that craftsmanship of the highest order can come.

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