I was talking to a recent college graduate and asked what she had majored in. When she told me that her degree was in graphic arts, I wasn't really certain what the term meant or what she was going to do with such a degree.
I contacted Professor Douglas Dowd of Washington University. He is a professor of art and American culture as well as the Faculty Director of Modern Graphic History housed in Special Collections at the university library. He said that the term graphic art is really too broad to be as descriptive as it should be. The graphic arts can include a broad range of art forms which are usually two dimensional and can include calligraphy, photography, drawing, painting, printmaking, lithography, typography, silk screen painting and even more.
When walking through the Craft Alliance studios in Grand Center, I noticed a department of graphic design and asked the instructor, Aaron Holderman about what he was doing and he said, "Graphic design and computer-aided design are defined by using technology in the production and reproduction of human artifacts. Historically this has taken on many forms, changing with emerging technologies. In my current work I use computer design software to create 3D models.”
Thinking more about the original question, I looked up definitions of graphic art on the internet and found that throughout history, technological inventions have shaped the development of graphic art. Going back to Egyptian times, hieroglyphics on papyrus were used to communicate and in the Middle Ages, scribes wrote manuscripts preserving the religious belief with room for drawings as inserts.
Gutenberg invented an improved movable type mechanical device known as the printing press in 1450. His printing press facilitated the mass production of text and graphic art and eventually, replaced manual transcriptions altogether.
In later years, the invention and popularity of film and television changed graphic art through the additional aspect of motion as advertising agencies attempted to use kinetics to their advantage and of course the invention of the personal computer changed the entire scene.
Professor Dowd gave a talk recently at Washington University and talked about The Modern Graphic History Library. In it is the Walt Reed Illustration Archive which features more than 1400 artists in 140 artwork pieces, 8,000 periodicals, and 250,000 tear sheets from popular magazines from the late 1800's to the early 20's. Dowd says, "The Walt Reed Illustration Archive is a goldmine of exploring visual culture".
Within this collection are the periodicals which Al Parker's family donated to the collection. Nowhere is there a place for periodicals such as those of Al Parker who was considered a rock star among illustrators of this nature.
Also at Washington University is the Kranzberg Illustrated Book Studio directed by Professor Ken Botnick who is a nationally recognized book artist. His students take a far step back from computer generated graphics and use equipment of 100 years ago to make letter press hand made books. One of the students in the book studio says that at first he was a communications major, but wanted to take a course in graphic design to better understand the field of communication.
St. Louis is also home to two nationally recognized comic artists, Ted Huizenga and Dan Zettwock.
So what does all this mean and does it answer the question, "what does a degree in graphic arts mean?" To me, it means that this young graduate has a multitude of options to use graphic art to communicate ideas and make an impact on society in one way or another whether it be on a poster, creating a logo, hand creating an art book, illustrating a magazine ---the sky is the limit in the field of graphic arts.
Nancy Kranzberg has been involved in the arts community for some thirty years on numerous arts related boards.