Sunday, November 25, 2007

Last Week's Comments & Response

My diagrammatic offering of late plus other musings have prompted some comment that I would like to address. This is the obvious benefit of blogging, insofar as the exchange of insights and perceptions should, at least in theory, advance the discussion.

As a preamble, I would like to make the argument (as an apology in the classical sense for these recent assertions) that all good criticism begins with description. The world of commercial or purposive images has suffered greatly from a lack of description, both from the exalted precincts of Art and the mean streets of Commerce. We use words like illustration and rely upon shared definitions when few exist. The thing to which we refer grows obscure, because the language form itself serves as a scrim upon which assumptions and biases are projected. So I shall persist in these attempts to pin down language and patterns of thought, because clarity will resist us until we have some first principles established. Prior to such establishments, we will amuse ourselves with biographies and anecdotes, but we will lack a proper discipline to advance.

On to our commenters, an accomplished bunch.

I have encountered some resistance to my attempt to divide the tradition of purposive image-making into two great branches: illustration and cartooning. Certainly I have tossed out these ideas in relatively under-articulated form, so lacking a robust essay to support them, I recognize that I am vulnerable to charges of over simplifying. More on that in a moment.

Bob Staake, who certainly represents a synthetic perspective in his own work and career, writes in an email:
interesting way of breaking down cartooning versus illustration, but you're making such broad generalizations here. both art forms are incredibly nuanced and there are many cartoonists who incorporate an illustrator's point of view i their work while others view their doodles as nothing more than hieroglyphs intended to push forward a narrative story. same true with illustrator who work from a more "cartoonish" perspective, or even through the role as graphic designer. i think part of the problem in analyzing an art form in this manner is that it tends to come out saying a cartoonist does this, an illustrator does that -- and in the real world, it's just never that tidy and neat.
I take Bob's point. But I think we can identify purposes and patterns of thought that do amount to distinct traditions, and I also think that distinct value sets are embedded in those traditions, which I will explicate in a more formal setting to come. But for the time being, if we accept the argument that the presence of nuance and complexity in particular works or ouvres foreclose the possibility of sustained analysis resulting in meaningful categories, we also accept the unserious status of these forms as they are currently engaged, or not engaged, by cultural critics and scholars. I am a purposive image-maker, and I know the nuance to which Bob refers, but I am also a writer on these subjects, and I don't accept that because it's difficult to draw distinctions that we should shrink from the task.

Meanwhile, the persuasive and indefatigable Jaleen Grove offers a series of insights. Most significantly she takes me to task about using functional and purposive as de facto synonyms. I take the point, and acknowledge that the shared noun and verb forms of function add to the confusion. So I am exploring the use of purposive as the decisive modifier, and so far I like it quite well. So thanks.

Meanwhile, Jaleen adds in response to my assertion that such images (illustrations) are not art in the standard philosophical sense:
I'm not sure what there is to fear about considering the "artistic" in illo. So long as we treat of all images as communicative and have a pedagogy of how to cope with the slippery slope (which we seem to be developing right here and now), I think all visual creators have something to gain from it. Trying to keep art and illo apart seems futile at a time when the two are converging in practice (although not in artscene marketspeak articulations - I have an essay on this at

The art/craft divide is a false one, that for a century or two has led to nothing but confusion and misery over all the exceptions. They are in fact absolutely unstable and arbitrary categories - the dialectic is brilliantly critiqued by Raymond Williams in his book Marxism and Literature. But I think you will disagree with me, since you seem to have a firm idea of what art is!
There's much to engage there, but I will restrict my thoughts to this notion that I may have something "to fear...about the "artistic" in illo." Not a matter of fear, but of clarity. First of all, artistic and art are not the same: birthday cake decorating is often artistic, but rarely art. But let's assume that the issue is Art, not its more promiscuous adjectival offspring.

As with M. Staake's objection, the diversity of contemporary forms and burgeoning complexity makes it more important to be clear about antecedents and analytical tools, not less. And the modern foundations of what we call art in an academic sense--that is, what art museums and art historians and the professional officials of art organizations mean when they use the term--can be traced to Immanuel Kant's concept of the beautiful as outlined in Critique of Judgment (1790) and elsewhere. Aesthetic objects do not have purposes. Purposive objects have purposes. Thus purposive objects are not art objects. If this seems terribly reductive, I will be eager to hear a better explanation for the undisputed fact that art museums do not collect works of illustration and cartoons except in rare and localized circumstances, and that ilustrators and cartoonists do not appear in standard art history texts.

The assumption in many discussions of illustration by illustrators and their boosters (and boosters they typically have been--not critics, for exactly the reasons outlined above) has been that art scholars and officials are wrong and narrow-minded. But what if their policies are in alignment with art theory? What if they are right within that framework?

If I am guilty of having a "firm idea of what art is," I will add the obvious point that since art is a product of culture, its outlines and status are negotiated in various times and places. My "firm idea" is based on the cultural practices of a profession that goes by that name. Shall I ascribe these facts to bad faith and hostility, or simply to an indifference borne of philosophically inscribed limits? The latter is the simpler and more useful explanation.

I will add this, to be expanded upon another day: we are further ahead to define purposive images as non-art in the Kantian sense, because a) they are, and b) a parallel culture, with its own rigor and significance, is waiting to be created for the more open-ended analytical world of cultural history.

Finally, David Apatoff, a productive and insightful blogger, and great resource for illustration history and informed appreciation, comments:
I am a little surprised that you suggest the hey day of women's magazine illustration ended in 1955. That's before Bernie Fuchs... or Bob Peak even got started. It is before editors and art directors such as Mayes, Ermoyan and Gangel began devoting double page spreads in oversized magazines to illustration innovatively presented.
I was less careful in my language than I should have been. I did not mean to say that periodical illustration broadly speaking crested in those ballpark years ending in 1955, but rather that women's magazine fiction illustration did so, and I would grant another 5 years to 1960 without objection. But the leading edge of periodical illustration shifted to visual journalism after that time, most notably in the visual essays that ran in Esquire and Sports Illustrated, a landmark example being Robert Weaver's essay for Esquire on Jack Kennedy's presidential campaign in April 1959. The Boy-Girl School of periodical illustration did not survive the decade, except in an exhausted form.

Image: Norman Rockwell, Double Take, Saturday Evening Post cover [citation forthcoming].

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