Wednesday, March 5, 2008
Illustrators and Culture
On of the cleavage between past and present experienced in the periodical illustration field between 1950 and 1965, much may be said. On the narrow subject of professional cultures, certain things cannot be avoided. The photograph above shows a talented bunch of fellows. Many have taken the train in from Connecticut to attend the Society of Illustrators event at which this photograph was made. This is a thoroughly bourgeois group. They are making good money. They are held in high esteem. And in their work they create pictures which narrate American Dreams from an unmistakably majoritarian perspective, in accordance with the wishes of the their clients. I am fond of going to the Society but I am also alienated by it, in part because the things on its walls provide an ethnographic study of Mens Club sensibilities, 1920-1950. It reeks of yellowed privilege. You cannot get around this. It's a museum of sorts, and much of it is damning from our perspective.
Many 60s era illustrators and later recoiled from this culture, including Weaver and his aesthetic progeny. It's hardly surprising that they did, given the tumult of the time and the radical shifts in the marketplace, which came to value more pointed perspectives and techniques in a shrunken and more competitive print media landscape.
That said, it will not do to blithely set aside the work produced by the profession during the preceding period and before on such a cultural basis. In fact, I would vigorously argue the opposite. The visual output of illustrators as representatives of a majoritarian cultural segment provides an opportunity for contrast with other visual industries, including the gallery system and its products. We have ignored huge swaths of cultural material to the detriment of our understanding.
Finally the transparent grubbiness of commercial art should not be contrasted with the opaque grubbiness of high art on moral terms. Rather, these parallel systems are worthy of reflection as complicated human enterprises with intriguing points of contact and divergence. Nobody really has the goods on anybody else.