Cover Art: for posters or for books?

Art & Lit
Photo/LeighHarris
Photo/LeighHarris

Cover art is being plastered around like wallpaper. You can’t walk past Blackwell’s without seeing a print of A Clockwork Orange, probably hanging by the dripping eye and little red mouth of The Great Gatsby original. Mugs with the Penguin Classics design are getting clichéd even for English students. Right now, cover art is everywhere – except on what we are reading.

The rise of this cover art memorabilia is part of the ‘vintage’ trend that sells so much knitwear and black and white postcards. The sad fact is that, in the digital age, this art form is dying out. Like record covers before them, cover art is being shrunk down, compressed into a tiny icon on a screen and cut from e-readers which start on page one. Fifty Shades of Grey readers didn’t have to rip the front cover off their book on the tube because so many had their encounters with Mr Grey through Kindles.

So will this art one day only line the shelves of Urban Outfitters and not Waterstones? Will the phenomenon of cover art – so big that it has its own proverb reminding you not to judge the book by it – last at all? Fitzgerald liked the Gatsby cover so much he actually wrote it into the story and Tesco have reportedly turned down books when covers didn’t fit their store colour scheme; the slashed cover of Psycho was chilling even before Hitchcock got his hands on it, and Chip Kidd, the artist behind the Jurassic Park dinosaur skeleton, has been called ‘the closest thing to a rock star in graphic design’.

True, book covers aren’t always so powerful. The Italian Harry Potter, with Harry wearing a rat-shaped hat, is just strange and the guide Unlocking your Bowels for Better Health could have done without the pile of chains on the front of it. But even aside from this there is an argument that all cover designs spoil a book. Walter Pater said, ‘all art aspires to the condition of music’ and e-readers may help destroy the distinction between matter and form.

The whole relationship changes when there is nothing physical to cover and the little icon on Amazon becomes a signifier divorced from the point-of-sale – very different to designs like the Pelican cover for John Berger’s Ways of Seeing where the text starts on the front. This shift is generally attributed to the big bad age of technology. Cover art is about playing with that rectangular space, but the internet undermines that challenge, with unlimited room for hyperlinks, reviews and galleries of pictures.

Moreover, when your selection process is done by a search bar, the design shorthand for genres becomes unnecessary; you don’t need the pair of swinging heels to tell you it’s about Emma who goes on dates with rubbish men or a blood smattering to mark a thriller.

But this isn’t actually anything new. Allen Lane, founder of Penguin books, said his books were to have no pictures, especially no ‘bosoms and bottoms’ on the covers. Lane’s paperbacks were green for crime stories and orange for other fiction, and and were intended move away from art. When Lane stood at the train station with nothing to read, his brainwave was about accessibility, movement and cheapness – the same things as the electronic book market.

The internet also gives designers a whole new paint box with which to make books into art. Webbs’ work for Oliver Sachs – a series of covers that need to be displayed as a six to get the full jigsaw picture – work best on a screen, while Posavec’s Literary Organism gives a book’s text its form in a new way; he visualizes a book as a branching flower of themes, which is closer to how we understand narratives in the age of information.

But while cover art as we know it is dying, where will the line be drawn with these new art forms? When there is so much scope in the evolution of e-readers, is it inevitable that graphics, animation or sound find their way into the tablets? Or is that getting too close to film? Maybe, even when technology has such grand visual possibilities, all those who read so that they can make their own worlds would rather be left with texts starting – nice and bluntly – at the words Chapter One.