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Art is Everywhere
It’s not just in museums and galleries.
Over the weekend, Adrianne and I watched a fantastic new documentary by Anton Corbijn called Squaring the Circle. It’s about Hipgnosis, the legendary design agency in London formed in the late 1960s by Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell, or “Po” to his friends. I knew I was going to love it before I even saw the trailer because so much of their work has been etched into my brain over the past four decades of my life. The work they did for Pink Floyd alone would have made them industry icons, but they also worked with Led Zeppelin, Paul McCartney, T Rex, Yes, Genesis, 10cc, and a ton of other bands over the course of their 15-year run.
There’s a great Noel Gallagher quote towards the beginning of the movie that really resonated with me. He says, “What I love about vinyl is the artwork. Great photography and graphic design and great imagination. Vinyl is like the poor man’s art collection.”
I’ve waxed poetic for years about how much I love the work of artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Mark Rothko, and all the rest. But the truth is, sitting right alongside them and to me just as important are designers like Reid Miles, Hugh Syme, David Carson, Chris Ashworth, and, of course, Storm and Po from Hipgnosis. There’s plenty of work that’s been done by designers or “non-traditional artists” that’s worthy of just as much attention as the masters. But because that work is attached to a commercial product, we seem to hesitate to acknowledge it as art. I think calling something Art with a capital A is simply a matter of perspective. In fact, if you’d like to learn more about how tastemakers and gatekeepers define what is and isn’t valued as art, check out the brilliant HBO documentary The Price of Everything.
I remember having a conversation a few years ago with Cey Adams, whose work I would also include on the list of game-changing designers I mentioned. We were talking on the phone and he was telling me about sitting in the control room with Chuck D having conversations about the covers they were creating for bands like Public Enemy, The Beastie Boys, and Run-DMC. He said that to them, what they were creating was art, not just product. They were creating a new visual aesthetic or language that really helped to define hip-hip as a new art form in music.
It’s pretty clear from the Hipgnosis documentary that Storm and Po set out to make art rather than product from the beginning. I think they saw the bands almost as patrons for the art they wanted to make, rather than as clients for whom they were working. In some cases, they would take ideas or creative direction, but in other cases it seemed like they were more of the mind of “you get what we give you and if you don’t like it, someone else will.” That seemed especially true for Storm, who kept a box of concept art that bands had rejected and he would subsequently try to sell other bands on. When asked about it, he responded with something like, “a good idea is a good idea.”
One of the other fascinating things was how the work was actually made. It seemed to be based around an idea that Brian Eno called “scenius,” which he defined as “the intelligence and the intuition of a whole cultural scene.” Put simply, scenius is a group of people who share their talent and ideas. We see examples of it throughout history in areas of art, science, and culture and it really debunks the “Great Man Theory” that genius only happens in isolation. Hipgnosis was a perfect example of scenius in action. Beyond the revolving door of musicians and interesting characters that seemed to orbit around them, not to mention an incredible amount of psychedelic drugs, they each brought unique skills and experience to their creative process and brought others in to fill in some of the gaps. Storm was more about concepts and ideas, while Po was the primary photographer, which is ironic since it was Storm who taught him basic photography while they were at art college together. Po describing the first time he saw an image that he had just taken 30 minutes before fade up in a tray of developer as “alchemy”—and deciding then and there that he had to be a photographer—is something that is all too familiar to those of us who started in an analog darkroom.
I’ve sometimes wished that I would’ve focused more on photography rather than splintering my interests over so many different things. Then again, that diversity has become a massive strength at this stage of my life. So many people focused on only one thing and that thing went away or changed so much that it alone is no longer enough. I think being so varied in my skillset and my interests has allowed me to pivot not just in what I’m interested in, but also in response to audience expectations or how a given industry has changed.
Regardless of the medium, I do seem to keep coming back to resonating with the idea of art for art’s sake or making because I want to see what I make in the world. Maybe that’s why I enjoyed the film so much. Despite the vast amounts of money they made in a very short period of time, that was never really the goal, at least not for Storm. Po loved money, but as he says in the film, he wanted to make money and be successful so that he could keep doing creative things. In that way, money was merely the tool that allowed them to keep making. I get that. I’ve never thought about making money as the primary motivator for making art, despite the fact that monetization of any kind is where I typically get stuck.
If there’s a theme or a takeaway for this Iteration, I think it’s that there’s value in exploration and reflection for its own sake, without any sort of expectation as to how I can “use it.” Maybe that’s enough. Maybe it’s okay to take a break from the relentless head-down pursuit of creating more and more content and instead just watch and absorb and reflect on the work and process of others, whether or not it leads somewhere. Because of course it will, it just may take a while.
Thanks so much for reading.
Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis)
Anton Corbijn on Squaring the Circle, Hipgnosis, Album Covers & Kurt Cobain
Album covers by Hipgnosis
Storm Thorgerson | Designing The Impossible
Storm Thorgerson Interview (Pt. 1)
Storm Thorgerson Interview (Pt. 2)
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