Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Let's Tell a Story

Sitting in a hotel room in Baltimore, having forgotten to charge my phone before heading out. So I’ll kill two birds as I wait for the battery icon to get all happy and green.

In my talk last night at MICA, Whitney Sherman asked a question about the relationship between midcentury design and the work I had presented.

Certainly I have spent plenty of time with material from that period over the last ten years, beginning with our acquisition of the Al Parker collection. I responded to that effect. But, I added, my affection for such work goes beyond postwar nostalgia. As a designer, I think that the economic limitations imposed by printing budgets, etc., created useful constraints. The two-color problem is a gift from God.

Without much comment, I offer a few images of an ensemble of Harry Beckhoff original illustrations published in Redbook in 1949. For present purposes, the period gender politics are not of concern; I’m focused on the carpentry of the images and the narrative they deliver.

Wit + economy + grace + discipline = something special.

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?


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?


Saturday, November 5, 2011

Baltimore Lecture Nov. 8

I will be speaking this coming Tuesday, November 8 at the Maryland Institute College of Art. The talk is a companion piece to the graduate seminar I'm teaching at the school to the new MFA students in Illustration Practice, which I mentioned in my last post.

I'll be talking about the history of illustration, and specifically the reportage tradition. But I will also–really primarily–be discussing my new Spartan Holiday project, now weeks away from availability. The poster at the top of this post, designed by Bryn Freeman, includes an image from Issue No. 1, Shanghai Pictorial. (The same image is shown below, sans text.)

The talk is scheduled for 7:00 pm on Tuesday the 8th. It will take place in the Main Building Room 110. If you're in the Baltimore area, please stop by!

Thursday, November 3, 2011


I am midway through an as-yet unmentioned moonlighting operation. This fall semester, the Maryland Institute College of Art has launched an MFA program in Illustration Practice. The program, organized to address illustration as an expanded field, is being led by Whitney Sherman. Whitney invited me to take a stint in the Critical Issues seminar this fall, joining Stephanie Plunkett and Joyce Schiller as sequential guest hosts. I’m batting third. So I’m flying to Baltimore and back four Tuesdays in a row. (Yes, that’s a long day.)

As readers of GT know, I have invested in working out critical approaches to purposive images. I’m committed to the humanist enterprise, and I value clear thinking. Illustration (especially) and cartooning (to a degree) are signficant but under-theorized cultural forms. The invisible-in-plain-sight quality of the non-conversation plain bugs me. So I was eager to find a way to respond to Whitney’s invitation with a yes.

My sense of mission in the enterprise has been confirmed by early results.

In advance of my first session, I wrote to the group: We work in a fascinating field. We get to make things–draw them, write them, paint them, stage them–that comprise the very culture we live in. Together, we produce the creative tissue of our own times. Those things that we make represent us. They make an argument for certain values. And when I say values I don’t mean morals; I mean assertions of priority and relative worth, of some things being more important than others. What things are important to you? More importantly, what does your work say is important to you? As you begin to explore these questions, ideally you move into a position that enables you to plant your flag, so to speak; to identify your position in a creative landscape.

Then I made a specific request: Here’s what I’d like you to do for Tuesday’s class. I’d like you to bring several items. One, a representative work of your own that you’ve made somewhat recently; two, a work you admire and find relevant that was produced before 1900; three, a work that you admire and find relevant that was produced between 1900 and 1950; and four, a work that you admire and find relevant that was produced after 1950. So something of your own and three historical works. These works can be paintings, prints, drawings; magazine or book illustrations; cartoons or comic strips; stills from animated films. Your call. Print them out at sufficient size so that we can look at them easily.

Going back to reread that letter just now stunned me, because what rolled in suggested a response to a very different prompt.

I won’t bog us down in particulars, but approximately 90 percent of the material presented consisted of standard issue (mostly) European art history, or slightly more “liberal” variants of same. Almost everything was a painting. Representative examples: an Abrecht Durer self-portrait; Frieda Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Monkey (1938); Odilon Redon’s Ophelia (1902), Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss (1907-08), a couple of Modiglianis, an Edward Hopper, Hokusai’s Wave (where are those royalties, a colleague asked the other day); a creepy Balthus (is there any other kind?), a Degas, a Monet, etc., etc.

What is there to say about this corpus of material, under the circumstances? First, we can identify all of it as academically-approved product. The students saw those slides go clicking by in somebody’s art history course. Second, the geography. I have not yet noted the fact that a number of students are Asian (as in, from Asia, not “ABCs” or American-born Chinese). There are students from China and Korea.

While everybody took a break, I wrote these headings on the board: United States; Europe; Asia. Then I started writing names under those headings. There were a few under the first one: Hopper and Jacob Lawrence, who also made an appearance (shown here, The Builders, 1947). We had to add a category for Mexico: Kahlo. There was a giant clot under Europe, and a solitary entry under Asia, a Japanese. I asked how this could be.

(As an aside, I will note that many of the images, though art-historically sanctioned, were among the more accessible artworks. Hopper was an illustrator before he began making illustrative paintings; Klimt has a pop dimension (Byzantium for posters); Kahlo has become a pop personality; Modigliani buffed a style with more fervor than many illustrators. I could go on, but I’ll stop.)

There were a few contemporary illustrator types in the data set, and Aubrey Beardsley made the cut, but aside from those, the traditions of illustration and cartooning were absent. Assesment: to now-apparent geographical bias, we added a blinkered view of visual culture. I started filling in names in a second color, denoting a different tradition: McCay, Outcault, Messmer, Disney; Pyle, Wyeth, Parrish, Leyendecker; singularities like Rockwell, Tezuka, Posada. Dot dot dot!
I asked the students to take another crack at the problem this week. They made an altogether different run at it, to positive effect. They seemed much more at ease. Their natural affinities and affections had been validated.