Habitual Contempt and Helvetica

Habitual contempt doesn’t reflect a finer sensibility

It’s been 15 years since design doc Helvetica came out, which means it has been 15 years since I noticed this quote in the background of their interview with designer Stefan Sagmeister. In that decade-and-a-half, my memory contorted the quote just enough to make the source impossible to find—I’d turned it into “habitual cynicism does not reflect a refined sensibility,” which I guess was closer to the insight I’d needed at the time. Snarkiness and cynicism were very much still in vogue I when I was trying to find my voice as a pop culture writer in the mid-2000s, and my jumbled version of the quote played a major role in my realization that advocating for the things I enjoy is a more valuable contribution than explaining why popular things are actually awful.

To celebrate the documentary’s anniversary, film and visual art collective is streaming Helvetica for free worldwide for the next week, which was as good an opportunity as any to track down the actual quote. Turns out it’s part of conceptual artist Jenny Holzer’s Truisms, 1978-1983, which to my modern eye is a real mixed bag of statements, from Tao-inspired wisdom (“at times inactivity is preferable to mindless functioning”, “the most profound things are inexpressible”) to misguided self-indulgence (“exceptional people deserve special concessions,” “giving free reign to your emotions is an honest way to live”). Even if I disagree with about half of it, though, it strikes me as a list worth spending some time with. Given how much a misremembered version of one line has impacted me, it’s bound to have some other useful prompts.