Friday, November 30, 2007

On Purposive Images and Analytical Separatism


Jaleen Grove has jumped back into the conversation about commercial or purposive images versus art images. I had suggested that art and commercial images have distinct cultures and better to treat them differently for purposes of cultural analysis. Jaleen objects in very serious terms:
It is correct to say that the gatekeepers of "high art" are "right" to keep out the "low", according to their own tradition. But if one persists in keeping art and illustration separate, one persists in this classism, which prevents a real inquiry and evaluation of both underdogs and elites, because it conjures up all the oppressive prejudicial thought that relegated things to the "low" and "high" in the first place. In fact, the boundaries of art are being constantly negotiated by museum curators, boards, and the public, because this categorical divide is so shaky and, quite frankly, untenable today. This is partly why "art history" is becoming "visual culture studies".

So to me, cake decorating is indeed art. I cannot divide art from artistic (defining it here as "art-like"). Taking as a hypothetical example a particularly excellent cake, it is comprised of skill and personal expression according to the same formal properties and social properties that Michelangelo, Rodin, Odilon Redon, Norman Rockwell and any other creator ever used: colour, volume, shape, line, symbolism, appropriateness, charm, talent, innovation, and personal meaningfulness for the maker and/or patron. There is neither art nor the artistic, but rather _objects made using aesthetic principles_. Some are for eating, some are for contemplating - these are different, but equal, purposes.

I'm trying to treat all images as purpose-ful, to restore a discourse of what is active in all image-making, see what they do socially, in terms of whose interests they serve, what silent tasks they perform. If we pretend "art" has no purpose then we stay blind to what it is doing as a status symbol, as a political voice, as interior decoration, as a theoretical statement in itself. If we pretend illustration/cartooning is not art (ie, that its aesthetic properties can be dismissed as secondary), then we stay ignorant of how it "clicks" with the spirit of the times, how it arrests the attention of its audience, how people identify with it, how it achieves appropriateness, how it manipulates emotions and thought, in short, how it performs its priority of good communication.

Well argued. Yes, it is possible and may be valuable to apply overarching analytical processes to all images to see what kicks up. And yes, Art with a capital A does engage in a sort of special pleading about its own status, based primarily on habit and momentum at this point. And yes of course it is all historically contingent and made up.

All that said, there is an enormous cultural and institutional history in play here. I have observed such histories at work in both studio and art history academic contexts. They are extremely powerful contraptions--not in the conspiratorial sense, but as a matter of massive financial and habitual inertia. I have spent too much time arguing for inclusion in the face of indifferently privileged cultural players. It's exhausting, it's insulting, and finally, it's wrongheaded. I don't want to be included; I want to be left alone to practice my craft and build audience. Design departments and cultural studies encampments (as distinct from art history) tend to be more hospitable districts, although there are exceptions. I do think that art history will prove more durable as a discipline and resistant to visual culture studies encroachments than Jaleen suspects. Finally I think my arguments stand on the merits: the instrumentality of purposive images does distinguish them from disinterested ones. Certain ambiguities in certain settings cannot, in my view, obviate this foundational insight. To be sure, more close arguing in more formal settings than this blog will be required to satisfy Ms. Grove and others who may object to these contentions.

And yes, the world is big enough for separatism and universality, so I will look forward to more argument and application of other methodologies to these objects.

For the record, the aesthetic properties of purposive images provide some of my favorite pleasures in life.

Image: Package design, New Shinola Scuff Armor for white shoes. A product of Best Foods, a division of Corn Products Company, Indianapolis, Indiana. Circa 1960.

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