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.


Bill Koeb said...

I appreciate your post. I completely agree with you on the issue of hanging art or free standing sculptural art v. printed art. They are different pursuits with different demands.

In looking at the group in the above photo, I have to ask, if you really think they made work that represented a majority. I don't know if there was a majority in the country at the time these men were illustrating. There was the South, which I am finding has a much more complex history and more diversified population than I had previously thought. California, where I am from was filled with a vast variety of cultural, economic, and social groups at any point in its history. Even my parents, he a son of white, lower middle economic earners, born before the depression, she, the 9th daughter of a family of 10 whose parents both came from separate parts of Spain, northern and southern, born in the middle of it. Looking around the country, I would think one would be hard pressed to find any kind of majority in any part of the country.

I think the truth is that it was the illusion of a majority. The stuff of ad men's sales pitches. I think the illustration work of a lot of the illustrators of the previous generation, not all, but a lot, were painting an idealist view for their clients, rather than illustrating any real majority viewpoint.

Anyhow, I think it is always easier in the old days. Like when I was a kid, life was simpler.

If anything, I think a lot of the younger illustrators were trying to express what they saw, not some idealized, candy coated world. It's almost like the Punk movement v. the Glam rockers, or Disco. Disco was the ideal, pretty world, and Glam rockers were the rich, Punk and Rap rebelled against this. What else could they do? Does the younger generation's dissing of the status quo lessen their work, not in my opinion. To me they are all part of a tradition of laying it down and reinventing it. I see it happening now, it will continue to happen, in every media.

I don't know if this is a coherent response to your piece, I wrote the first part a few hours ago and just now was able to get back to it. Thanks again for the insightful observations and great pictures.


david holzman said...

I thought I would comment, as I was a student and later an employer of Robert Weaver (as one of my instructors as at a short lived program in Woodstock
Bob Weaver was the most intelligent illustrator and teacher of same. His understanding of everything determined what he made as art and what he taught.
When he offered me coffee in his garden I only wish I could have taken it with me to savor the conversation forever.