Sunday, November 6, 2011

On Shedding Light


I spoke with the graduate students at MICA last week about the marginalized position of illustration and cartooning in the cultural precincts of high art. I’ve commented on the phenomenon before. But since that time I have generated a data set and evaluated the question empirically. (A formal presentation of this material is slated for release as an essay, date uncertain. For now, you’ll have to take my word on it.) I crunched numbers for leading art history departments, museums and art publishers for a recent calendar year, taking as data points each course, exhibition and publication. I got over 5000 data points.

At what rate did illustration show up? In calculation A, If the material mentioned word-image relationships, illustrations, comics, anything, I counted it. In calculation B, I kept to a stricter definition, with credit restricted to exhibitions, etc., that addressed illustration explicitly, and to some degree on its own terms.

The generous reckoning came in just below 4 percent. The stricter standard tipped the scales at under 2 percent. Such scores make plain that illustration does not rise to the level of art as measured by those tasked with defining and regulating the meaning of that term. That’s an empirical reality.

Moreover, when illustration does make the paper, it’s because somehow the individual case has transcended illustration.

We did a quick tour through Kant and disinterest theory, which helped to create the modern conception of an art object. The cultivation of taste requires that aesthetic judgments be free of entanglements. If I’m trying to sell you a Greek statue, my opinion on the question of its beauty is of no value. Fair enough. But a parallel difficulty emerges in the aesthetic consideration of useful things. How can we judge beauty when utility dictates form?

There are sound philosophical reasons for why illustration is a poor fit for the halls of art. To fight those arguments–let alone their cultural momentum, now two centuries and change later–is to tilt at windmills. No–worse. It is to pine for a status best unsought.

Illustration “as” Art, I concluded, is like sitting in bad seats and eating cold food at a beautiful dinner party.

So: to hell with the need to transcend illustration. Let’s embrace it for what it is, a tradition of illumination, of shedding light; an ideology of nonfiction, a commitment to veracity. The cultural act of illustrating a text (or representing a body of knowledge, or giving form to a viewpoint) is an altogether different game than snapping the suspenders of the bourgeoisie.

Illustration and cartooning, the two great families of purposive (or useful) images, comprise a vast corpus of cultural material. This stuff goes unlooked at and unpondered to our detriment. I showed the students a selection of images from the visual history of Jim Crow and asked, why haven’t educated people in a pluralistic society looked at these things? Because they’re not art?

Really?

It sez here: we are in need of an increasingly curious and grounded view of visual culture which addresses the functional, captures the embedded, explores the vernacular, describes the technological, engages the commercial, values but contextualizes the aesthetic, and finally, identifies and interprets the visual rhetoric used in modern communication.

And so I pose the question to the Marylanders (and others perhaps): having begun the day as a heroic artist, independent, expressive, essential; having been informed in the hours following lunch that rather, you are a light-shedding illustrator, contingent, interpretive, in-relation-to:

Do you accept your demotion?

Discuss.

13 comments:

Lisa Perrin said...

This is a subject I feel pretty passionately about. Coming from a Fine Art background where “Illustration” was used as a dirty word I have always struggled with my place in the Art Hierchy. I think our conversation in class last week really explored an issue with the way I had been thinking about Illustration. I was one of those people who said they wanted to “elevate illustration,” wrongly thinking that bridging that gap to the glamour of Fine Art was what we needed to do as Illustrators. But to do that ignores the rich history of this field. Illustration is intrinsically different from Fine Art. It has different goals, applications, and concepts driving it. Illustration does not need to be Fine Art. It needs to be Illustration. Lets celebrate what makes this genre different.
It is no demotion. It is a just a different job title. And I like this job. That is why I chose it.

Sara Barnes said...

Demotion would imply that there is some sort of shame associated with the title of illustrator, of which prior to this class I would have perhaps winced. But, with a fundamental understanding that illustration is different from fine art, I personally found it helpful (and relieving!) that illustration should be looked at in a different manner. To understand it in terms of a visual culture is much more interesting and indicative of society and the world, (rather than fine arts self-contained nature).

I think that viewing illustration through a fine arts lens diminished the obvious accomplishments and importance that our field plays in helping a culture to not only explore its past, but as a looking glass for how it currently sees itself. There is an importance and a social responsibility to think critically and understand the ramifications of illustration, which starts with being able to talk about it in certain terms.

Jennifer Yoo said...

Many people think that “illustration” is the word only used as a “commercial” art that is used to embellish, clarify, or decorate something in a magazine and children’s book. Moreover, most of the peopke see illustration field as for funtional use but don’t see it as an asthetic object. It could be true that in the beginning of the history of illustration, it was all about commercial, giving information to the public. However, when illustration develops more, it becomes more than just an illustration, another form of art.
Fine art and illustration should treated as a same level form of art because they both thinking innovatively and they want to express their thoughts in their illustration and art piece. All illustration and all fine arts are resulted from skilled labor. Moreover, illustration are both enhance the work they are meant to adorn and is good enough and meaningful enough to stand alone as separate works of art. Therefore, I believe that it is the time to open up our mind and think about more of the meaning of illustration so that we don’t have to think that illustration exists just to communicate with people. So, no demotion, I think it is our job that we have to create powerful illustration to make a better and stronger field.

Aehee said...

After we talked about a hammer in last class, I've been thinking about the functionality of illustration that degrades its aesthetic value.
I've never considered a hammer as a beautiful artifact. I didn't display the tool, but put it in the storage and recognized its necessity whenever I needed to use. Definitely it's functionality make this object being forgotten and not being cherished.
If this functionality is an aspect of illustration, I think, this is our job, as illustrators, to make this kind of functional object special by having our authentic sensibility connected with consumers(publics, audiences, readers, or buyers etc.)
In my opinion, this authentic sensibility is derived from experience which is totally independent from one another. In that manner, we, as illustrators and artists, all have power over our own creation and also have control over its relationship with people.
saying illustration is demoted by its functionality is just seeing illustration exclusively with one dimension. There is aesthetic sense mingled with functionality. So illustrators have a great condition to take advantage of its practical aspect as a means to communicate with people in everyday life and to shape(or change) the cultural path of this world .

Jun Cen said...

I was a little bit surprised when I acknowledged that this kind of bias exists in the United States, where the illustration industry has already been so mature. But this situation is quite the same as what I have seen when I was a printmaking major. My thoughts change quite a lot now. I feel quite excited about being an illustrator, in this so called “marginalized” field. Let’s try to think about it in a positive way rather than complaining that we are marginalized. As the development of media and technology, great deal of opportunities and challenges open up to visual communicators. I kept sharing my friends the example of the interactive cell-phone application the singer-Bjork made for her new album. Collaborating with a group of visual communicators, she released ten apps for all the songs in the album. The apps are incredible combination of music, visual art, animation, technology and interactive design. I feel excited that visual communicators are developing their field. We can also find exciting examples in illustration field-this specific area in communication art field. The newspaper I worked for give the opportunity for the home illustrators to do special coverage using visual communication methods. This means illustrators have more autonomy than before.
The idea of being marginalized is a little old fashion to me, because there are plenty of things (including some alternative explorations ) that we can do. If others challenge us that our works are not art, we could proudly response that how could you arrogantly say that a thoughtful visual communication is not art!

Su said...

Though there is a relatively small number of research or exhibition on illustration. There are lots of books showing and discussing it. I prefer using words like “isolated” or “categorized” rather than “marginalized” simply because the commercial nature of illustration makes it eye-catching and therefore “centered”. I agree that illustration has been taken for granted in daily life. Its significance as a form of art is hided by its function—to promote something else or satirize some phenomena. The true function offers an easy way to contextualize illustration, which makes it appeal superficial. Comparatively, fine art is usually contextualized based on profound historical events, theories and social ethos, which makes it appeal transcendent. I think many scholars would prefer to study art in a serious and orthodox manner. Obviously, illustration or commercial art won’t be their first choice. Since I cannot expect a self-respected scholar with a general interest in art would draw a historical timeline showing when Mickey Mouse, Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny, Betty Boop was born. The satirization and absurdity of cartoon make it accessible only to people with special interest like animation, pop art and probably, social science. I believe that there is large number of sociologists studied on topics of relationship between commerce with consumers, and media with audiences. Illustration might fit into their research field because of functionality. I hope that the cross-boundary definition can help to contextualize illustration and give it an identity. But I also enjoy the indistinct edge between illustration and fine arts and the freedom derived from that uncertainty, which makes experimentation possible.

Jess Somers said...

As Sara posted, it was indeed relieving to remove ourselves as Illustrators from the conversation of Fine Art, to claim our own context, and to validate the functionality that defines our practice. It is exhausting and demoralizing to be forever muscling our way into the Fine Art conversation, and then only if we somehow 'transcend' our field. These standards of evaluation will always find us wanting, because they were never meant for us. Illustration must be examined in the context of its own distinct history, function, and aesthetic strategies. In establishing this kind of autonomy, we are finally able to create a more accurate framework for critically examining Illustration.

That being said, I think problems arise when we sever the ties between Illustration and Fine Art too sharply. This new distinction could easily become another way to narrow the conversation about Illustration, when our goal in this MFA program is to expand it. For instance, my work has found more ready homes in galleries than in magazines. My process is one of self-reflection, although the finished pieces are narrative and communicative. Must I 'choose sides'? Is there room in this new definition, which liberates Illustration by separating it from Fine Art, to acknowledge the overlapping, the blurring, the mingling of these two practices? What do we do when this distinguishing line is tested?

Jessica Somers said...

As Sara posted, it was indeed relieving to remove ourselves as Illustrators from the conversation of Fine Art, to claim our own context, and to validate the functionality that defines our practice. It is exhausting and demoralizing to be forever muscling our way into the Fine Art conversation, and then only if we somehow 'transcend' our field. These standards of evaluation will always find us wanting, because they were never meant for us. Illustration must be examined in the context of its own distinct history, function, and aesthetic strategies. In establishing this kind of autonomy, we are finally able to create a more accurate framework for critically examining Illustration.

That being said, I think problems arise when we sever the ties between Illustration and Fine Art too sharply. This new distinction could easily become another way to narrow the conversation about Illustration, when our goal in this MFA program is to expand it. For instance, my work has found more ready homes in galleries than in magazines. My process is one of self-reflection, although the finished pieces are narrative and communicative. Must I 'choose sides'? Is there room in this new definition, which liberates Illustration by separating it from Fine Art, to acknowledge the overlapping, the blurring, the mingling of these two practices? What do we do when this distinguishing line is tested?

DB Dowd said...

Sitting in BWI, monitoring this discussion. The conversation is progressing nicely. First, please recognize that my use of the term "demotion" comes with a wink, just as "rising to the level of" should call attention to itself. As we discussed last week, if we rotate those high/low distinctions 90 degrees, maybe we can get to horizontal comparisons of this/that.

What are we after here? Jess raises quite valid concerns about the creation of a new garrison, cut off from other sources, too well-defended for its own good. Agreed! To insist upon analytical clarity is not to secede from the culture. Rather, it is to establish a position in positive terms.

Just so you know: many practitioners would be horrified by this discussion. What do you mean I'm not an artist?!?

But these exchanges aren't about people or status or qualitative judgments of any kind. We're exploring ways of discussing, of understanding, certain kinds of artifacts which operate in culture in particular ways.

Ding said...

It’s very impressive to hear such an presentation about the role of Illustration in today’s market. I do agree that Illustration exist mainly to have certain function, saying illuminate people. However, I think it can definitely be put into the category of art as well, but more as a art that is affordable to the mass audience. For me, it is totally unnecessary to distinguish fine arts and Illustration. In fact, at the very beginning of existing art, those famous pieces of fresco in the cave is something functioning similar to Illustration. They are not so much self-generated, but something to record the tool and the animal in daily life, then inform other people. Another example of the master piece in the fine art history is the Sistine Chapel fresco done by Michelangelo, which is actually a commission by Pope Julius II. All those art work are so precious because in the past, art is very far away from the normal people, most painters, sculptors and so on work for the wealth and which make art something symbolic of the high level and weathy. However, in nowadays, more and more people are educated much better than before, which means most of them has the ability to appreciate the artwork. Art, as it functions at the very beginning, is a media to convey information, either it is very private or it is for the mass audience. So I think there is not a very obvious gap between fine art and Illustration. What Illustrator cares more about is the audience. As an illustrator, I think we do have to be a good observator of the society, and a sharp view of the world. We are similar to writers, the difference is just the media. We got lines, shapes and colors, and we should use them to produce visual information to people. It is an Age of Information now, so our existence is more and more important. One thing we need to do is, try to think closer to a designer, who knows what the customers want, (sometimes even the customers don’t know) . The other thing is we do have to improve our skills continuously to make our “word” more and more powerful. A hammer is needed by everyone, and it can be and adorable tool as well!

Ding said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nargol said...

I have experience in Fine art as well as Illustration and I dare to say that fine art is one step easier than the illustration. I am not saying that it is easy, but just easier.. Illustration is based on the same standards than any other art fields and must follow the same rules and uses the same media but it has to go one step further and solve a problem, come up with a new idea within an idea and it has to be smart and be subtle about the matter at the same time.
Coming from a place that not so many people are trying to be artists and there is a huge misunderstanding among people about art (not here in the US) I have to say I can't care less about what people think of illustration. If I was supposed to think about that I would never be in an artistic field.
So I agree with Lisa and Jess and basically everyone, so far we address the problem but I don't know how we can resolve this problem or even where to start..

Jaleen Grove said...

Great discussion, everyone. Keep it up! Slowly, the old art-prejudices are eroding. Illustrators spent too long staying out of the conversations - glad to see people standing up for what they do. Don't think of illustration as "art-minus-____", but art-PLUS-______".