Monday, November 19, 2007

Brief Note on the Primacy of Pictorial Function

Checking in post-symposium. A good time was had by all. We made an audio recording of the thing, which will be podcast and/or posted as a transcript. I'll provide some highlights presently.

In the meantime, I would like to engage some comments courtesy of Jaleen Grove in response to the post of my evolutionary chart for commercial images. I quote her below in italics:
So for me, it doesn't make sense that you call illustration "interpretive" (yes!) but then say the message/content PRECEDES it - how can it? It is not a message or content until it takes the final form as an illustration (data and text might really actually precede... there's a nuance for us; I don't think we can treat all four terms as synonymous).

And so.... this leads me to qualify the idea that illustration is occupied with reportage, explication, didacticism, etc. If all illustration is indeed interpretive, then all illustration is creative and theoretical and even personal, and therefore it cannot help but be _expressive_ as well as didactic. And it is the expressive aspect that drives stylistic and aesthetic qualities, which I would suggest illustration is ALSO occupied with, equally; qualities that, while they help the didacticism, actually operate in excess of the message too.
I willingly concede that a list of primary purposes cannot hope to include all attributes of an individual work, let alone a creative enterprise. But why should it be expected to? The challenge before the field ia lack of analytical discourse. My aim here is to articulate some basic analytical language to frame discussion. I don't think it's debatable that illustration is a responsive activity. A text, a unit of content, a required subject is presented to the illustrator with an expectation that a tailored interpretive thing will come back. That this process can be collaborative, that tracking it can be complex, that the resulting product may be in some way "personal" or "expressive" does not change the function of the image: communication in the service of the larger work. I would argue that function must be separated from style. The insistence upon illustration being personal and expressive has led us into the blind alley of "Hey, this is art, too!" Illustration may be artlike, but it is not, in the philosophical sense, art. The distinction may be unwelcome, but better to be clear than not.

The last point will require more explication. More soon. Thanks for the comment and engagement. Keep it coming.

Image: T.D Skidmore, fiction illustration in Collier's, October 17, 1931.

1 comment:

Jaleen Grove said...

Oh I am so glad you will podcast the audio! Thank you!

It is kind of you to take up my comments.

As always happens when talking about looking, we get hung up in the inadequacies of verbal language. I think I need to explicate this word "function".

I am absolutely in agreement that the primary task of illustration is to communicate. But I disagree that you can split style from function. Style IS function. You cannot have a functioning function without style. Style is visual rhetoric - it is how the communication, the function, happens.

But let me now say, "function" as I am using the word is different from "purpose". I am considering how the image does its job within itself, where style is a necessary component and indivisible from its totality. In contrast, I think you are working on how the image fulfills its purpose outside of itself, where, yes, it is possible to consider it abstractly, without style as a component. That is, I do not think function can be separated from style, but I'm willing to consider that purpose may be separated from style.

So - may I propose a vocabulary rule, where "function" refers to the image's innate properties insofar as those properties contribute to communication;
and "purpose" refers to what the object is intended to do?

I see the slippery slope you are trying to avoid - that illustration becomes sucked up entirely into the art for art's sake, it's art because I said so, it's my personal conception of xyz and therefore good --- all that way of thinking that gets in the way of communication and purpose-fulfilling.

I think we can consider the expressive, though, without falling away from communication, since expression is a form of communication. The key is not seeing "communication" and "expression" as opposites. Instead, I propose a sliding scale, where the poles are not communication vs noncommunication (expression, style), but denotation and connotation, which are never pure either/or, but mixed in greater and lesser degrees.

I'm not sure what there is to fear about considering the "artistic" in illo. So long as we treat of all images as communicative and have a pedagogy of how to cope with the slippery slope (which we seem to be developing right here and now), I think all visual creators have something to gain from it. Trying to keep art and illo apart seems futile at a time when the two are converging in practice (although not in artscene marketspeak articulations - I have an essay on this at

The art/craft divide is a false one, that for a century or two has led to nothing but confusion and misery over all the exceptions. They are in fact absolutely unstable and arbitrary categories - the dialectic is brilliantly critiqued by Raymond Williams in his book Marxism and Literature. But I think you will disagree with me, since you seem to have a firm idea of what art is!

That said, I still think it is useful to examine, as you are, the purposes for reproduced images. The framework laid out in the chart has given rise to this discussion, for instance. So it is doing its job. Hopefully the chart can evolve with the conversation.

So here's another suggestion: can we add another lineage in there somewhere for the evolution of reproduced images whose purpose is gallery exhibition? This would descend from the print cultures devoted to selling of decorative prints - often repros of high-art paintings that were made with the intention all along to make money as prints - for poorer people to hang as art in their homes. Then it would borrow from advertising in the early cubist art in Picasso and Braque, then in dada, then on to Warhol and Rauschenberg. Alongside that is the "art calendar". Then we get the "limited edition" offset art print, and then zines and postmodern art quoting the idea of the multiple. And now, digital print by both conceptual artists and interior-decorator artists. And fine-art graphic novels and stickers, and other highly illustrative-looking gallery art being issued in printforms for mass distribution....

Basically I suppose I am saying that instead of looking at illustration as art, why not look at how art is illustration-like? (Note I did not say "illustration"). That is, it is made for a client (a gallery, or an as-yet unidentified buyer but one whose needs, taste and pocketbook are already known). Its purpose is to satisfy that market, to play the part of an Objet d'Art, manipulating the language and values that audience employs (ie, communicating).

I see you cringing at this Pandora's box!! But that's my point. The categories art-vs-print are not feasible. It feels like we are only half-informed if we don't take on the complexity. We are stronger in our theorizing if we acknowledge it and make it our own... and in doing so, get closer to what illustration really is/isn't. I think we are close - we agree on the communicative purpose, at least. By integrating the art side into the chart, we can simultaneously include it and keep it at bay. If you leave it off, it will continue to haunt us. How can you say it is not art if you haven't shown where art is in relation to everything you're covering?

This is so excellent.... don't get me wrong, I love everything you're saying and it is helpful, making me really think through my ideas...