Tradition Herbert Spencer

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TRADITION: PRISON, CLICHÉ OR BASIS OF GROWTH?

THE "ART AND SCIENCE of Typography" conference, organized by the Type Directors Club of New York in Silvermine, Connecticut, and the World Affairs Center, New York, in April 1958, was the first international gathering of its kind. Herbert Spencer (b. 1924), representing Great Britain, was one of seven principal speakers-from Italy, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, and the United States-invited to analyze the status, function, and responsibility of typographic design as a medium of communication. As founding editor of the journal Typographica (1949-1967), Spencer had rapidly established himself as one of postwar Britain's leading advocates of modernist typographic practice by treading a judicious line between the conservative traditions of the country's bookish printers and the dynamic contemporary needs of ephemeral commercial printing, which he believed to be in pressing need of reform. Spencer's paper-the conference's opening address-argues that contentious new typographical tendencies such as asymmetry and the "free spatial disposition of types" have their basis in inviolable principles of composition.-RP To the artist, the architect, the writer, the composer, I believe tradition is vital to his creative activity. But excessive respect for tradition becomes traditionalism. And traditionalism kills true tradition. What, then, is tradition? Tradition is a living, active and vital force in Creative activity. It consists not of a code of rigid conventions but of principles based on accumulated experience. These principles we inherit, make use of in our work and modify in the light of our own experience, and then hand on to succeeding generations. Tradition is an inheritance we cannot avoid but which we can easily misinterpret and abuse. It imposes obligations and restrains our formal innovations, yet I do not think we can regard tradition as a prison. It is, I believe, the only sound basis of growth. But it is vitally important that we should clearly distinguish between tradition, which may exercise a healthy restraint upon our innovations, and traditionalism, which is indeed a prison, or perhaps more accurately, a cemetery-a graveyard of dead ideas and decaying conventions. Traditionalism is the negation of tradition. It is the real enemy of healthy tradition. Traditionalism is the product of men devoid of creative ability and incapable of original thought who fail to grasp and to understand the essence of tradition, andwho seek therefore to arrest and petrify and preserve the formal expression of tradition at a particular moment. Traditionalism is tradition mummified. It is tradition reduced to a collection of lifeless conventions. Traditionalism is fostered by men who do not understand tradition but who are awed by it. The creative artist and designer must always and inevitably oppose traditionalism and those who engender it. The questions raised or implied in the title of this talk are essentially questions of the twentieth century. They are twentieth century questions, not because such issues could not have been discussed in earlier periods than our own, but because the vastly accelerated pace at which established methods and techniques are today being developed gives such questions a relevance and an immediacy peculiar to the present time. Scientific and technological expansion is today imposing on the printed Word and the printed page changes in its presentation more fundamental than any since the change in the fifteenth century from manuscript to type. And we are today witnessing and experiencing not a single change but a whole series of changes, of revaluations and reassessments, and a challenge to established concepts of design and typography. It is essential that we should fully appreciate the present tempo of change; in order to ensure that we do not inadvertently ourselves become supporters of conventions which change has made sterile. What we have to grasp is...
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