Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Vocabulary Test

Before moving on, a final word about illustration as a matter of diction. Some have questioned my impatience with the term, as if I were embarrassed or frustrated by the act of illustration itself. Am I ashamed of my own family? I think this an excellent question, and the sort of challenge that such musings ought to provoke. To which I say: no, I’m not putting on airs. I love the very functionality and utilitarian criteria that such images are subject to. Rather, my objection to the term has to do with its narrowness and simplistic connotations. I rue the fact that such a varied functional and aesthetic territory should be fated to a linguistic assignation in English that ties it to embellishment—a naughty thing from a modernist perspective—and textual subservience. I don’t really want to replace the word with some cloying alternative, which is why I used a self-mocking tone in the passage in question. I don’t ache for legitimacy. Far from it. As a critic, I just wish we had a more capacious word in English for such broad imagistic territory.

A sub-theme will emerge from these notes about language, which is that more specialized meanings have developed within the visual community for certain of these terms, and that these meanings can be isolated empirically by looking at visual examples. With luck, the incapacities and secret territories of such terms may be exposed as we go.

Image: Al Parker, advertisement illustration, American Airlines, April 1957. I love this thing, which integrates figure, settting, and costume into a fabulous rhetorical statement about the glamour of air travel. I guess you could call this a clarification or an embellishment, but that would be a funny way to start the analysis. Not especially helpful. What’s more from a cultural point of view, I’m not convinced that the exchange between Al Parker, the supervising art director for the agency on the account, and American Airlines provides the most important source of potential insight about this picture.


Jaleen Grove said...

Hmmm, "embellishment...and textual subservience".

I don't actually interpret the classic definitions of illustration like this at all. I would suggest that "illuminating" is not equivalent to embellishing, nor is explicating text equivalent to being subservient to it. I think these are value judgments that have been imposed on the literal meanings by people who had stakes in not letting illustrators get the upperhand socially or economically in the 19th and 20th Centuries.

Take the case of illumination, which is largely thought of in terms of handpainted medieval manuscripts. The gold leaf was considered by the people of the era to directly symbolize God, like the Burning Bush, like the command Let There Be Light. Gold does seem to glow with its own light from within, and early theories of physics even state this. The Word and Light are inextricably linked, not one above the other - the first use God makes of the Word is to define light. Therefore, the illumination of manuscripts was just as holy as the scripture. Think of the frescos in the nave of the church - they are all illumination, and not even a line of text - they were accompanied by oral tradition. From this point of view, written texts were the embellishment to the images - remember, pictoral media precedes the written. It is simply impossible to separate the two into hierarchies, no?

Bob Flynn said...

Yeah, I understand what you're getting at. For me, it would boil down to whatever this new word would be...and what new pretenses it might carry. I'm probably more cautious after having done similar thinking about comics and graphic novels and seeing a similar thought path. "Graphic novel" was made popular by the publishing industry to get comics into bookstores, so the motivation is different. But the idea was to get people to take comics more seriously because the subject matter was more mature or something, even though I'm not sure that was WIll Eisner's intent when he coined it. Now "graphic novel" is a very wishy-washy term...very hard to define, except for its hierarchical superiority over the comic book.

Bob Flynn said...

Not to stir the conversation away from "illustration" just yet, but I would argue that the would "cartoon" also carries a lot of unwanted baggage. Especially when you start to speak of second-class status and hierarchies. Painting-->Illustration-->Cartooning... going down the ladder. The closer you get to popular culture, the less respect you get from the art community as a whole. By deciding to call myself a "cartoonist," some might argue that I've willingly taking a step down.