Monday, September 10, 2007

Vocabulary Test

Before moving on, a final word about illustration as a matter of diction. Some have questioned my impatience with the term, as if I were embarrassed or frustrated by the act of illustration itself. Am I ashamed of my own family? I think this an excellent question, and the sort of challenge that such musings ought to provoke. To which I say: no, I’m not putting on airs. I love the very functionality and utilitarian criteria that such images are subject to. Rather, my objection to the term has to do with its narrowness and simplistic connotations. I rue the fact that such a varied functional and aesthetic territory should be fated to a linguistic assignation in English that ties it to embellishment—a naughty thing from a modernist perspective—and textual subservience. I don’t really want to replace the word with some cloying alternative, which is why I used a self-mocking tone in the passage in question. I don’t ache for legitimacy. Far from it. As a critic, I just wish we had a more capacious word in English for such broad imagistic territory.

A sub-theme will emerge from these notes about language, which is that more specialized meanings have developed within the visual community for certain of these terms, and that these meanings can be isolated empirically by looking at visual examples. With luck, the incapacities and secret territories of such terms may be exposed as we go.

Image: Al Parker, advertisement illustration, American Airlines, April 1957. I love this thing, which integrates figure, settting, and costume into a fabulous rhetorical statement about the glamour of air travel. I guess you could call this a clarification or an embellishment, but that would be a funny way to start the analysis. Not especially helpful. What’s more from a cultural point of view, I’m not convinced that the exchange between Al Parker, the supervising art director for the agency on the account, and American Airlines provides the most important source of potential insight about this picture.

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