Monday, November 26, 2007

Last Week's Comments & Response

My diagrammatic offering of late plus other musings have prompted some comment that I would like to address. This is the obvious benefit of blogging, insofar as the exchange of insights and perceptions should, at least in theory, advance the discussion.

As a preamble, I would like to make the argument (as an apology in the classical sense for these recent assertions) that all good criticism begins with description. The world of commercial or purposive images has suffered greatly from a lack of description, both from the exalted precincts of Art and the mean streets of Commerce. We use words like illustration and rely upon shared definitions when few exist. The thing to which we refer grows obscure, because the language form itself serves as a scrim upon which assumptions and biases are projected. So I shall persist in these attempts to pin down language and patterns of thought, because clarity will resist us until we have some first principles established. Prior to such establishments, we will amuse ourselves with biographies and anecdotes, but we will lack a proper discipline to advance.

On to our commenters, an accomplished bunch.

I have encountered some resistance to my attempt to divide the tradition of purposive image-making into two great branches: illustration and cartooning. Certainly I have tossed out these ideas in relatively under-articulated form, so lacking a robust essay to support them, I recognize that I am vulnerable to charges of over simplifying. More on that in a moment.

Bob Staake, who certainly represents a synthetic perspective in his own work and career, writes in an email:
interesting way of breaking down cartooning versus illustration, but you're making such broad generalizations here. both art forms are incredibly nuanced and there are many cartoonists who incorporate an illustrator's point of view i their work while others view their doodles as nothing more than hieroglyphs intended to push forward a narrative story. same true with illustrator who work from a more "cartoonish" perspective, or even through the role as graphic designer. i think part of the problem in analyzing an art form in this manner is that it tends to come out saying a cartoonist does this, an illustrator does that -- and in the real world, it's just never that tidy and neat.
I take Bob's point. But I think we can identify purposes and patterns of thought that do amount to distinct traditions, and I also think that distinct value sets are embedded in those traditions, which I will explicate in a more formal setting to come. But for the time being, if we accept the argument that the presence of nuance and complexity in particular works or ouvres foreclose the possibility of sustained analysis resulting in meaningful categories, we also accept the unserious status of these forms as they are currently engaged, or not engaged, by cultural critics and scholars. I am a purposive image-maker, and I know the nuance to which Bob refers, but I am also a writer on these subjects, and I don't accept that because it's difficult to draw distinctions that we should shrink from the task.

Meanwhile, the persuasive and indefatigable Jaleen Grove offers a series of insights. Most significantly she takes me to task about using functional and purposive as de facto synonyms. I take the point, and acknowledge that the shared noun and verb forms of function add to the confusion. So I am exploring the use of purposive as the decisive modifier, and so far I like it quite well. So thanks.

Meanwhile, Jaleen adds in response to my assertion that such images (illustrations) are not art in the standard philosophical sense:
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!
There's much to engage there, but I will restrict my thoughts to this notion that I may have something "to fear...about the "artistic" in illo." Not a matter of fear, but of clarity. First of all, artistic and art are not the same: birthday cake decorating is often artistic, but rarely art. But let's assume that the issue is Art, not its more promiscuous adjectival offspring.

As with M. Staake's objection, the diversity of contemporary forms and burgeoning complexity makes it more important to be clear about antecedents and analytical tools, not less. And the modern foundations of what we call art in an academic sense--that is, what art museums and art historians and the professional officials of art organizations mean when they use the term--can be traced to Immanuel Kant's concept of the beautiful as outlined in Critique of Judgment (1790) and elsewhere. Aesthetic objects do not have purposes. Purposive objects have purposes. Thus purposive objects are not art objects. If this seems terribly reductive, I will be eager to hear a better explanation for the undisputed fact that art museums do not collect works of illustration and cartoons except in rare and localized circumstances, and that ilustrators and cartoonists do not appear in standard art history texts.

The assumption in many discussions of illustration by illustrators and their boosters (and boosters they typically have been--not critics, for exactly the reasons outlined above) has been that art scholars and officials are wrong and narrow-minded. But what if their policies are in alignment with art theory? What if they are right within that framework?

If I am guilty of having a "firm idea of what art is," I will add the obvious point that since art is a product of culture, its outlines and status are negotiated in various times and places. My "firm idea" is based on the cultural practices of a profession that goes by that name. Shall I ascribe these facts to bad faith and hostility, or simply to an indifference borne of philosophically inscribed limits? The latter is the simpler and more useful explanation.

I will add this, to be expanded upon another day: we are further ahead to define purposive images as non-art in the Kantian sense, because a) they are, and b) a parallel culture, with its own rigor and significance, is waiting to be created for the more open-ended analytical world of cultural history.

Finally, David Apatoff, a productive and insightful blogger, and great resource for illustration history and informed appreciation, comments:
I am a little surprised that you suggest the hey day of women's magazine illustration ended in 1955. That's before Bernie Fuchs... or Bob Peak even got started. It is before editors and art directors such as Mayes, Ermoyan and Gangel began devoting double page spreads in oversized magazines to illustration innovatively presented.
I was less careful in my language than I should have been. I did not mean to say that periodical illustration broadly speaking crested in those ballpark years ending in 1955, but rather that women's magazine fiction illustration did so, and I would grant another 5 years to 1960 without objection. But the leading edge of periodical illustration shifted to visual journalism after that time, most notably in the visual essays that ran in Esquire and Sports Illustrated, a landmark example being Robert Weaver's essay for Esquire on Jack Kennedy's presidential campaign in April 1959. The Boy-Girl School of periodical illustration did not survive the decade, except in an exhausted form.

Image: Norman Rockwell, Double Take, Saturday Evening Post cover [citation forthcoming].


John Hendrix said...

In this conversation about visual objects, we must do the difficult task of ignoring the actual form of the object.

I think the distinction that DB is making between art, illustration and cartoons has nothing to do with how the lines are made or in what tradition the visual style hangs upon, but upon intentions. Look at an image and then ask, "What happened right before this was made?" You might get one of these answers:

a) Artist saw a beautiful sunset/woman
b) Artist ended a 4 year relationship abruptly
c) Artist received a phone call from an Art Director

Images are made with purposes, and that is what should be read from the "commercial images tree" and not as a lineage of style. A complete visual genealogy of style from comics to illustration to gallery art would be an impossible task.

One might be able to argue a clearer correlation between Comics and Art, instead of Illustration and Art, because in both cases the artist is the sole generator of his content. If you qualify that comics cannot be Art because the function of narration invalidates its purposelessness, then one must throw out Hopper and Bingham and countless other story-telling Artists.

Jaleen Grove said...

Well now, here we have come at last to the crux of the matter that I have been devoting my scholarly attention to in my own work. You say, "Aesthetic objects do not have purposes. Purposive objects have purposes. Thus purposive objects are not art objects."

This is where I completely and utterly disagree. You are correct that Kant was a big pusher of this idea. You are right that museums and art historians have traditionally adhered to it. But that does not make it true. Remember, Kant, museums, "art history" and even "Art" are all the same age - they developed together, in conjunction with the beginning of late modernism and the Industrial Revolution and the end of the Enlightenment. Therefore, the definition of art has to be seen against these wider - and historically epoch-specific - social developments. And these developments have indeed been in bad faith and hostility - not indifferent in the least.

I refer you to Larry Shiner's book, The Invention of Art. We did not have Art before the 18th century (Alan Gowans and Preben Mortenson make similar arguments). We had some trades called Painting, Architecture, Sculpture (which was a subset of architecture) and so on, all made as objects with a purpose in the sense that it wasn't made ONLY to look at aesthetically or for the artist's self-expression. Then with the late 18th century came a valid desire to find new ways of expressing reality and felt experience - hence, Romanticism, and the idea things could be aesthetic in Kant's sense, that is, not concerned about satisfying a client's needs (or the public's expectations) but rather the artist himself in his lonely garret. But please note that aesthetic statement and and personal artistic satisfaction are purposes too! It is social class snobbism that pretends that some production is "for a purpose" and some is not. A major reason for the invention of "art" is that the rising bourgeoisie - to which artists aspired - needed to have new status symbol commodities. Artists could not be seen as tradesmen if they were to be accepted as gentlemen, so they had to emphasize art not as a job but as a scholarly pursuit, one of intellectual work, not handiwork. This found ready acceptance, since the nouveau riche had a vested interest in appearing sophisticated in taste and education. What has been accepted in museums as "art" has been intentionally selective in order to bolster the values of the upper classes - remember, art museums weren't even open to the working classes until quite late in the 19th century. If you look at who was writing the art theory that got preserved into the present day, it is all bourgeois middle class men - Ruskin, Baudelaire, etc. Hence, the eventual evolution by the late 19th century of "good taste" comprising exclusively of avant garde and "useless" objects (called useless to preserve the myth that they were socially, morally and intellectually superior), and "bad taste" comprising of traditional, easily understood, sentimental, and just plain technically impressive objects. The "bad taste" is where so-called "mere" illustration ended up, which included not just commissioned artwork, but also fine art academic paintings whose purpose was to depict history, entertain, caricaturize, and basically do all the things that "pure" aesthetic appreciation eschewed. It is correct to say that the gatekeepers of "high art" are "right" to keep out the "low", according to their own tradition. But if one persists in keeping art and illustration separate, one persists in this classism, which prevents a real inquiry and evaluation of both underdogs and elites, because it conjures up all the oppressive prejudicial thought that relegated things to the "low" and "high" in the first place. In fact, the boundaries of art are being constantly negotiated by museum curators, boards, and the public, because this categorical divide is so shaky and, quite frankly, untenable today. This is partly why "art history" is becoming "visual culture studies".

So to me, cake decorating is indeed art. I cannot divide art from artistic (defining it here as "art-like"). Taking as a hypothetical example a particularly excellent cake, it is comprised of skill and personal expression according to the same formal properties and social properties that Michelangelo, Rodin, Odilon Redon, Norman Rockwell and any other creator ever used: colour, volume, shape, line, symbolism, appropriateness, charm, talent, innovation, and personal meaningfulness for the maker and/or patron. There is neither art nor the artistic, but rather _objects made using aesthetic principles_. Some are for eating, some are for contemplating - these are different, but equal, purposes.

I'm trying to treat all images as purpose-ful, to restore a discourse of what is active in all image-making, see what they do socially, in terms of whose interests they serve, what silent tasks they perform. If we pretend "art" has no purpose then we stay blind to what it is doing as a status symbol, as a political voice, as interior decoration, as a theoretical statement in itself. If we pretend illustration/cartooning is not art (ie, that its aesthetic properties can be dismissed as secondary), then we stay ignorant of how it "clicks" with the spirit of the times, how it arrests the attention of its audience, how people identify with it, how it achieves appropriateness, how it manipulates emotions and thought, in short, how it performs its priority of good communication.

Essentially, I argue that in order to properly analyze the categories of illustration and cartoon, we have to deal with the fluidity of boundaries, rather than make the fences higher. "To be clear about antecedents and analytical tools" entails acknowledging that antecedents and analytical tools are anything but clear, and that to try to make them so (that is, rigid in definition), is to create more confusion. Instead, they must be articulated for how they are effectively used, not what they "are". It is precisely THE ACT of negotiating the boundaries that defines the categories, not deciding where the boundary "is" for once and for all. I think that pin-point is mythical. The movement of gray areas ARE definition, not anti-definition.

How can any cultural inquiry be parallel, that is, separate, from another? When things spring out of the same social conditions, so interconnected that stuff made by the same person falls on both sides of this dialectic, they are inextricably intwined. While I whole heartedly share the desire to build a theory of illustration, it just cannot be done well if it doesn't also acknowledge and account for how it is predicated on other image creation, especially since practitioners share some of the same training.

Because I am proposing shifting gray areas as boundaries-without-borders (rather than black and white fences) I am able to agree that illustration and cartooning do have differences in style and trade traditions and values. Our articulation of that is important and valuable. But it cannot happen in a vacuum unto itself, which would leave us vulnerable to having to name A Definition, to which we would be constantly saying, "Oh, except when...". Any discussion must necessarily be couched in specific temporal and contextual circumstances. We'll understand better what a particular cartoon "is" if we know WHY it came to be classified as a cartoon (and continues to be classified - it's never a finished process), not simply that it CAN be classified in a particular way just because something before it was slotted similarly.

This is exciting. I feel like we're hashing out the methodologies for a whole field... there is room, no doubt, for both our approaches to work side by side, or even be integrated.

I look forward to the next development!

Bob Flynn said...

The discussion thickens, and deepens. I like John's take on the issue: an artist's intent. I feel like that was one of the big things I took away from art school, in terms of how I distinguished my artwork from what was going on in the painting studio. But how would you ever be able to quantify or qualify an artist's intent, without directly asking them?