A government agency unveils its new logo. A geometric abstraction, it intrigues some but baffles many. Eventually, the inevitable question: my tax money paid for this? Finally, the handwringing once the exorbitant fee is revealed.
The government agency is the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism. The logo was created by the respected Chester, Connecticut, firm of Cummings & Good. And the fee? Cue that special Dr. Evil voice: ten...thousand...dollars!
That's right, $10,000. It is all depressingly familiar, another in a long line of stories that demonstrate the suspicion -- if not outright hostility -- with which Americans view art and design. Particularly if they're paying for it.
The tourism commission's new logo conjures up a surprisingly broad range of references. The Bridgeport-based Connecticut Post, which broke the story ("$10,000 logo prompts head-scratching"), quoted some locals who saw images as various as "a double set of theatre curtains," "a bunch of speakers, very loud speakers," as well as film reels and fountains. Peter Good, the designer, intended to suggest "one entity with four divisions": arts, culture, tourism and film. I personally assumed that it was a riff on the letter "C."
The Connecticut Post, sniffing blood,has been all over this story, which provoked a deluge of angry my-kid-coulda-done-that letters. It followed up with a fire-breathing editorial beginning "We wuz' [sic] robbed!" calling the episode an "evident case of daylight robbery of taxpayers." Even the New York Times picked up the scent, solemnly quoting the state budget director on the tourism commission's "entitlement mentality" and adding, of course, that he could not make out "heads or tails" what the logo was meant to convey.
Connecticut has become a scandal-happy place as of late, with its embattled governor resigning earlier this year amidst a firestorm of accusations of financial impropriety, including accepting thousands of dollars of free renovations on his summer house from favor-seeking state contractors. Indeed, when the executive director of the commission had the temerity to defend her design investment, she had her $118,451 annual salary published for her trouble, as well as the fact that she is married to the former state Senate minority leader. Logogate! Still, the $10,000 price tag -- $415,000 less than the mayor of Bridgeport was accused of accepting in kickbacks several years ago -- doesn't seem to warrent this level of fuss.
What ratchets up the excitement level is the emperor's-new-clothes element: a bunch of clever "artists" trying to put something over, once again, on the decent people. Here's a quote:
The abstract total-design logo is the most marvelous fraud that the American graphic arts have ever perpetrated upon American business. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, these abstract logos, which a company (Chase Manhattan, Pan Am, Winston Sprocket, Kor Ban Chemical) is supposed to put on everything from memo pads to the side of its 50-story building, make absolutely no impact-conscious or unconscious-upon its customers or the general public, except insofar as they create a feeling of vagueness or confusion...Yet millions continue to be poured into the design of them. Why? Because the conversion to a total-design abstract logo format somehow makes it possible for the head of the corporation to tell himself: "I'm modern, up-to-date, with it, a man of the future. I've streamlined this old baby." Why else would they have their companies pour $30,000, $50,000, $100,000 into the concoction of symbols that any student at Pratt could, and would gladly, give him for $125 plus a couple of lunches at the Tratorria, or even the Zum-Zum? The answer: if the fee doesn't run into five figures, he doesn't feel streamlined. Logos are strictly a vanity industry, and all who enter the field should be merciless cynics if they wish to guarantee satisfaction.
That's Tom Wolfe, in his high From Bauhaus to Our House mode, quoted in 1972, the year he was a judge for the AIGA's Communication Graphics competition. He would no doubt agree with Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., who once accused abstract artists of conducting "a conspiracy with millionaires to make poor people feel stupid." And just to prove how far we haven't come in the last 30 years, the most popular remedy for the disaster has been that same old warhorse: let's have a contest! A professor at Housatonic Community College volunteered his school's graphic arts students, saying they "would have jumped at the chance to have some hand-on involvement in a real design project," adding that, after all, "art is about inclusion." And lest anyone feel excluded, others have gone the professor one better, suggesting that the contest be open to schoolchildren of all ages.
Despite the evidence of curvy check marks, dots-and-circles, and dozens of other successful abstract logos that have become part of our visual landscape since Wolfe issued his pronouncement, it's clear that we designers still risk being cast, despite our best intentions, as witchdoctors, trafficking in voodoo and incantations. What designer wouldn't sympathize with the embattled Peter Good, and his partner, Janet Cummings? "People see an end product and have no idea of the process," she told the Times, no doubt through gritted teeth." It's like any modern art. People say, well, I would have done that -- after the fact."
Meanwhile, Connecticut's new governor, M. Jodi Rell, has scrambled to distance herself from the debacle: according to her spokesman, "The governor's office was not involved in this decision. But it certainly could have found better ways to use $10,000." If you're an elected official in Connecticut, you can get a perfectly decent little patio put in at your house in Litchfield for that much.
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