Monday, April 20, 2009

I & R 3: Avant-Garde and Twitch

What follows ought to have been composed for a much longer format than a blog post. It’s a little sprawling, but it lays out some ideas that I’ve wanted to sketch for a while now. Here are the last of my reflections on the dyspepsia of illustration, and an attempt to locate possible causes of same.


I’m attracted to commercial visual culture as a subject of study in part due to issues of class. As in social class. Illustrators in the modern period have produced work for consumption by the middle classes. Lacking a genuine aristocracy (as opposed to a category of people with gobs more money than everybody else) our culture has always been dominated by commercial forms. It’s worth reviewing Clement Greenberg’s sketch of modern cultural development in "Avant Garde and Kitsch":

Kitsch is a product of the industrial revolution which urbanized the masses of Western Europe and America and established what is called universal literacy.

Prior to this the only market for formal culture, as distinguished from folk culture, had been
among those who, in addition to being able to read and write, could command the leisure and comfort that always goes hand in hand with cultivation of some sort. This until then had been inextricably associated with literacy. But with the introduction of universal literacy, the ability to read and write became almost a minor skill like driving a car, and it no longer served to distinguish an individual's cultural inclinations, since it was no longer the exclusive concomitant of refined tastes.

(Greenberg continues) The peasants who settled in the cities as proletariat and petty bourgeois learned to read and write for the sake of efficiency, but they did not win the leisure and comfort necessary for the enjoyment of the city's traditional culture. Losing, nevertheless, their taste for the folk culture whose background was the countryside, and discovering a new capacity for boredom at the same time, the new urban masses set up a pressure on society to provide them with a kind of culture fit for their own consumption. To fill the demand of the new market, a new commodity was devised: ersatz culture, kitsch, destined for those who, insensible to the values of genuine culture, are hungry nevertheless for the diversion that only culture of some sort can provide.

Save for the nose-wrinkling, Greenberg is quite correct. Early mass culture was manufactured in part to meet economic opportunity. Its producers also sought to create cheap new cultural experiences–new human expressions–appropriate for an urban context. And yes, the manifestations of this new culture were often modified versions of pre-existing forms. One cannot imagine the modern situation comedy television show without Moliere. But culture is always evolving. And to note that economic motives played (and continue to play) both creative and circumscribing roles in the story does not invalidate it. Rather, it makes it more interesting. The intersection of technological change, commercial opportunity, distributive innovation and aesthetic skill provide a dynamic equation worthy of close study.

I’d argue that Greenberg’s “genuine” culture is just desacralized religious culture, which–as modernity advances–bequeaths its “ultimate concern” (in the language of Tillich) to the arts. This genuine culture dispenses with the explicitly religious, even as it retains the notion of a spiritual quest. God dies, and leaves a whiff of metaphysics behind.

And yet. Mostly, art retains its prestige because of its alliance with the upper classes, (which, not incidentally, traditionally controlled religion). Today’s art establishment sees itself as progressive. In academic-ideological terms, it might be. But structurally speaking, art relies on its proximity to class and wealth. That is: art hangs out with money. Old money. Classy new money. Philanthropic money. Serious money.

That an alliance–or something more simply transactional–exists between the ruling classes and the art establishment does not seem open to debate. That connection may be growing thinner, and might be powerfully vulnerable to changes in the tax code. Pull the exemption on charitable donations, and perhaps things will change. But only somewhat.

I have a little populist streak in me, I guess. I simply prefer the popular arts. I enjoy them not because I think they are more authentic–they’re not–but because they lack pretense. I attribute this to the utter secularity of these arts. Popeye cannot not have a metaphysics, unless spinach be asked to do serious work indeed.


Commercial culture is never convincing about anything beyond the here and now. It’s completely presentist, and committed to making a sale: shave and a haircut / two bits. Secular mass culture may be empty, or cheaply aspirational. But nobody has ever burned down a village over it. (Though that should hardly be taken for innocence. The here-and-now has included profitable bigotry and loads of pictorial mischief.) But popular works are embedded in the everyday–they tell you things about your culture straightforwardly. Even–especially–when the news is bad. I like that.

Illustrators and cartoonists work for the middle classes. They narrate, spell out, amuse, tweak. But these functional territories do not sit beyond the bounds of taste. On the contrary. In the absence of art-theoretical preoccupations, taste provides a crucial differentiator. Charm, wit, elegance: these are markers of refinement, of style. The critic Clive Bell, author of that slippery concept significant form, once suggested that the best way to cultivate visual taste was to go to a decorative arts museum and contemplate chairs: which is best? Indeed, it is a useful exercise.

Consider midcentury illustrated magazine spreads. On what basis shall we compare works, if not in terms of taste, of visual panache? Assuming that the content is significantly outdated, why would we do such a thing at all, if not to experience and contemplate visual pleasure?

In this respect Greenberg’s account contains an error. To claim that popular works–examples of kitsch–lack seriousness (or alternatively, pretense) is not to argue that they lack rigor. The fetching ditty has been fashioned, even as it sounds tossed off. At this late date who would argue a) that Rodgers and Hammerstein did not make significant contributions to American culture, and b) that John Cage did? The Broadway song travels from brassy show to arty jazz and back. The best commercial visual work can support similarly diverse readings–grounded in cultural function, bound to then-contemporary social relations, available for aesthetic experience, limited by the bounds of arguable interpretation.

Much has changed since the publication of "Avante Garde and Kitsch." But the seriousness of cultural and academic engagement with visual works from the commercial tradition remains stunted. That such works were generated for the middle classes for commercial purposes has a great deal to do with it.

I will confess that my own interest in these things has something to do with the forbidden cultural pleasure of contemplating them. Having grown up in a place that lacked “culture,” but which was dominated by culture (the ersatz warrior culture of high school sports) I have always wondered about the crucial stuff that remains invisible in plain sight.

Illustration somehow has managed to be everywhere and invisible at the same time. Illustrators have typically emerged from the bourgeoisie to produce works for the bourgeoisie. “Advanced” culture does not pay attention to such stuff. It’s almost as if you need night vision goggles to see it all. (Of course at this late date media forms have become completely enmeshed, and their audiences extremely sophisticated. Really, who needs Dada when you can watch Adult Swim?)

The work of illustrators has served commercial interests and directly addressed consumers, who have been perfectly happy to be addressed in this way. By playing to and with the commercial classes, publishers and illustrators created a new realm in practical opposition to high culture. The word kitsch is poorly suited to describe such material, because it presupposes that works from this new realm are categorically objectionable. As a term, kitsch enshrines the judgment of the high cultural ruling class. Thus, illustration was (and largely remains) vulgar.


Which brings us to the subject of resentment. The exclusion of illustration from respectable high cultural precincts has stung. Many illustrators have battled a persistent self-loathing, muttering to themselves how they’d reposition themselves as painters if only they could break free of the clients and the checks.

I don’t want to be rated as an illustrator trying to paint, but as a painter who has shaken the dust of the illustrator from his heels! –N.C.Wyeth, from a letter to his mother, September 13, 1915.

Such protestations may suggest guilt and shame, emotions which often yield resentment. Historically speaking, illustrators’ self-image is a big subject, worthy of much more research and reflection. But for a host of reasons, the culture of illustration fostered resentment in other respects. Until the mid 1950s, stylistic expectations limited the available visual choices for illustrators. Except for the smartest and most adaptive, like Al Parker (who I think really saw himself as a designer in pictures, as opposed to an illustrator in the standard sense–an advantage in these respects) most illustrators operated in a box of sorts. The forties and fifties saw an explosion of American variants of modernism. Illustrators were trained in traditional modes, and especially periodical illustration continued to call for traditionally grounded work, even as the end of that market loomed. The folks who worked in jazz packaging(David Stone Martin, Jim Flora) and animation design during those decades assimilated modernism very successfully. Editorial work in the Color TV era adapted conceptually and visually. But many illustrators have continued to work in traditional modes for specified markets all along, and workaday realities plus the inexorable shrinkage of such markets have produced alienation, disorientation and yes, resentment. The phone just doesn’t ring as often. And now that the money is gone, the compensatory power of market rewards can’t salve the wound of cultural separation, even exclusion.

Western visual modernism was a world-historical cultural achievement. For more than 50 years, from the end of the 1880s through the early 1940s, visual thought occupied a leading position in Western culture. The commercial arts played a modest role in these developments, and exploited the opportunity they afforded to create new experiences of lasting value. The best of the commercial practitioners generated work of distinction that transcends its moment and function. We can argue about when modernism lost its nerve and thus its force, but its centrality to 20th century culture cannot be denied.

Some in our field have begrudged or disputed the claims–or more accurately, the status–of modernism. The debate in this space about discussions of the merits of Gary Panter and Kerry James Marshall have captured the sense of such challenges. I recognize that David Apatoff has diverse tastes, and that he himself is not an anti-modern. But echoes from the “pot of paint flung in the face of the public,” Ruskin’s memorable diction re Whistler, have not died out. Traditional heel-diggers-in have never been without an audience, from Kenyon Cox to Thomas Hart Benton to scores since. To be sure, an insistence upon appropriate craft cannot be negotiatied away. But relevance is the more important question. The draftsmanship of Leonardo can be (and is) replicated en masse in Chinese art schools (which may have dented their nation’s trade imbalance through the mass importation of plaster casts). What makes Leonardo Leonardo is not that he could draw, but that he could think with his mind and eyes and hands in a way that propelled his culture forward in available, powerful ways at a given moment in time. Of course that moment is gone. Contemporary Da Vincis obviously won’t practice painting, an antiquarian activity in the 21st century.


Illustration as a communicative mode long predates illustration as a profession. The latter was a creation of technology, distribution, demographics and economics. The people who got good at making functional pictures between the American Civil War and the one we fought in Vietnam were just lucky to be alive in a century when such work commanded high value. But illustration in a market economy is just a kind of commerical picture-making. Its value is always contingent on the realities of the moment, which are relentlessly shaped by advancing technologies and entrepreneurial realities. The page will soon yield to the screen. Alas, illustration did not develop a theory of itself in time to respond to these new realities. It has only a set of practices. Which has produced more disorientation, alienation, and resentment.

Illustration is finally aligned with knowledge, not taste. It harkens back to illumination, to shedding light. Discovery is always current, never precious or preserving. Insofar as I am committed to consideration of the field and its history, it is to shed light on our time, not to enshrine a bygone era. The resentment I have sought to identify and decry is that of a past mourned, and more significantly, a present resisted.

I will try to provide image citations in coming days.


mahendra singh said...

I especially liked this:

"illustration did not develop a theory of itself in time to respond to these new realities … only a set of practices. Which has produced more disorientation, alienation, and resentment:.

That really nails it for me. We (fully-trained) illustrators are as doomed today as a classically-trained Greco-Roman sculptor would have been when the Roman Empire began to disintegrate.

For myself, I focus mostly on an elite market of educated tastes. Although 50 (or even 25) years ago this market was considered middle-class, it is evolving into an elitist upper class and this is where my artistic style & sensibilities gravitate naturally. This market will shrink, inevitably, and in perhaps 50 years, will become the sole preserve of antiquarians and super-rich collectors — the Medicis 2.0, perhaps?

Change and decay and rebirth are the natural order of things, the visual traditions that we love so much will mostly vanish for a long time but that is all (quite literally) immaterial! The human impetus behind them will always muddle through!

The spirit of Lascaux is in our genes!

Please continue these researches of yours, very fruitful I think.

DB Dowd said...

Mahendra, you are wise to recognize the inevitable cycles of taste, even to celebrate and mourn them--simulaneously! I'm not certain that an antiquarian position awaits all graceful realists: the related arts of illusion (theatre and film, especially) will continue to require such spectacles. But literary or textually-based visual experiences may well grow rarer, as you suggest.

600 Series said...

This was a really enjoyable read. And this is my new favorite bon mot:

"Popeye cannot not have a metaphysics, unless spinach be asked to do serious work indeed."

Owen Hunter said...

Hey, this is great!

I studied illustration in school but found myself gravitating away from it, as it played into the 'evil capitalist empire' that was busy tearing itself apart at the seams while I attended college. I began to scramble in a panic towards painting, assured by mountains of art history books that this was the true path to spiritual enlightenment.

I needn't repeat what you've just written, I just want to thank you for an eloquent and positive interpretation of such things.

Good riddance to false idols.

Owen Hunter said...

This isn't exactly related per se - but it does show an interesting connection between illustration and the fine arts.

David Hockney is probably the single artist who most dismantled my preconceptions of art and illustration, mostly through his books 'The Secret Knowledge' and a series of conversations titled 'Hockney on 'Art.'' The fact that he is such a highly regarded painter today is quite telling, considering that his sensibilities, those of optimism, representation, and a logical understanding of process. However he has been mythologized among the ultra-rich, he is an exceedingly pragmatic and helpful individual in his writings and dialogues.

As his career progressed, and following his 'joiners' which earned him a great deal of acclaim, he says he began to insert the concepts that he learned back into painting. What came forward was a highly simplified style in which landscapes were presented on a more frontal, vertically oriented manner that engaged the lateral movement of the eye - resulted in an image that was viewed in a similar fashion to a map. They resemble landscapes by El Greco, to be sure. But from what I've seen from the work it ultimately amounts to a highly literate form of cartooning.

When an artist in any medium puts forward his or her ideas and creations in an effort to educate, it helps to form connections between that medium and the entirety of human beings' artistic endeavors.

DB Dowd said...

Owen, thanks for your comments. Yes, Hockney is an intriguing figure: somehow a workman, a dandy and a promoter all at once. And the painting-versus-illustration conversation can seem at once vital and ludicrous.

I have been working in another patch of the garden in recent months--it was helpful to be brought back to this material. Fresh percolation...