Friday, November 30, 2007

On Purposive Images and Analytical Separatism

Jaleen Grove has jumped back into the conversation about commercial or purposive images versus art images. I had suggested that art and commercial images have distinct cultures and better to treat them differently for purposes of cultural analysis. Jaleen objects in very serious terms:
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.

Well argued. Yes, it is possible and may be valuable to apply overarching analytical processes to all images to see what kicks up. And yes, Art with a capital A does engage in a sort of special pleading about its own status, based primarily on habit and momentum at this point. And yes of course it is all historically contingent and made up.

All that said, there is an enormous cultural and institutional history in play here. I have observed such histories at work in both studio and art history academic contexts. They are extremely powerful contraptions--not in the conspiratorial sense, but as a matter of massive financial and habitual inertia. I have spent too much time arguing for inclusion in the face of indifferently privileged cultural players. It's exhausting, it's insulting, and finally, it's wrongheaded. I don't want to be included; I want to be left alone to practice my craft and build audience. Design departments and cultural studies encampments (as distinct from art history) tend to be more hospitable districts, although there are exceptions. I do think that art history will prove more durable as a discipline and resistant to visual culture studies encroachments than Jaleen suspects. Finally I think my arguments stand on the merits: the instrumentality of purposive images does distinguish them from disinterested ones. Certain ambiguities in certain settings cannot, in my view, obviate this foundational insight. To be sure, more close arguing in more formal settings than this blog will be required to satisfy Ms. Grove and others who may object to these contentions.

And yes, the world is big enough for separatism and universality, so I will look forward to more argument and application of other methodologies to these objects.

For the record, the aesthetic properties of purposive images provide some of my favorite pleasures in life.

Image: Package design, New Shinola Scuff Armor for white shoes. A product of Best Foods, a division of Corn Products Company, Indianapolis, Indiana. Circa 1960.


Bob Flynn said...

While I despise the hierarchical ordering of "purposeful" art versus "art for artsake", I tend to agree with you that they are indeed different beasts, and should be regarded individually. If not for the instuitional divide, then for practical purposes alone. No reason why they can't share the same space, but there are fundamentally different mechanisms at play, worthy of seperate analysis. Funny, I'm tempted to say "seperate but equal", but then it starts sounding like segregation now, doesn't it? Tricky territory, for sure.

I happened to be in a book store, flipping through a book laying out who have been deemed the superstar gallery artists of the early 21st century. At a gut level, I had a hard time relating to any of it....the cutting edge art world must be an interesting place to reside these days. I know these artists have an underlying purpose in the creation of their art at a whole, but I'm not sure it matters as much on a piece to piece basis. And they usually do everything they can to obscure purpose.

Anyway, I totally see where you're coming from, Jaleen, and you argue it well. But to get anything resembling true analysis (science, history, economics, etc...) you have to have to make categorizations. And while there surely is a spectrum (fine art can be illustrative, illustration doesn't always have to be obvious in it's communication), I think DB is making a useful distinction, here.

John Hendrix said...

The Enlightenment fractured how we understand our world, forever separating the ideas of the heart from the stuff of the earth. Faith and Wonder placed in the lower story and Nature and Law placed above. Francis Schaffer has argued that ( albeit, on theological grounds) humanity hungers for a "unified field of knowledge" - minus the dividers that modernity now embraces without question.

Art deals with the collision of the Heart and Hand, and is mixed up in this schism. I do see the need, as Jaleen suggests, to see all things endowed with the artistic as "art". But, I also am tired of carrying the cross and screaming to the ivory tower "Hey, illustration is really ART TOO!"

Are we not arguing two sides of the same coin? Art and Illustrations are made for separate purposes, but also with equal significance and value? Eventually, the lines may disappear on their own... do we look at the Sistine Chapel as an illustration today?

Jaleen Grove said...

This debate has been working its way through the back alleys of my head over the last while, in part because I have a paper due for my Cultural Studies class on methodology and what an appropriate methodology for studying not just illustration but illustrators would be.

And wouldn't you know, one of the voices in my head pointed out that it is damn hard to wrap one's mind around stuff without making categories.

I dream of a way to organize thought without falling into the trap of repeating the mistakes of the past.

Maybe we need to categorize in order to critique the categories. Maybe THAT is the true purpose of categorizing - not actually to clean it up but to force it to get messy. This actually serves to highlight the contentious areas, where there lurks otherwise hidden power structures and problems.

So maybe I can get on board with the categories in this kind of reverse-analysis way.

If nothing else, it provides something to take to illustrators and others and ask, "Do you relate to this?" If a large number say yes, then that in itself is useful for letting us know how illustrators self-conceive, what hierarchies they themselves might inadvertently promoting. What other feedback have you had, by the way?

I haven't given up on converting the ivory tower yet. I joined 'em so I could beat 'em from within. I think that's been the problem - as DB seems to agree - that there has been no illustrators in the academy has meant no voice. Quite honestly, most younger historians are on board. But they have no vocabulary or knowledge of applied art perspectives, so they keep inadvertently perpetuating the discrimination.

This is a discussion I will be returning to for a long time to come.... thanks for helping out, all of you.