Sunday, January 13, 2008

Art and Commerce: Kant & Re-Kant

It would be difficult to identify a more thoughtful and attentive blogger for general audiences in the realm of popular images than David Apatoff, who writes Illustration Art. If you do not read it, I recommend it heartily. Apatoff writes well about images—a difficult thing to do—and provides fascinating “backstory” material about commercial work and the people who make it. I’m frankly not very good about posting links, but Illustration Art is impossible to ignore, and thus it appears to your right.

Recently David wrote a cheeky/cranky post called A Holiday Quest for Mitigation, in which he invited readers to coax him to abandon his position that much of the Museum of Modern Art’s drawing collection (viewable online) is “unmitigated crap.” He posted provocative examples to defend his stance, including an Ed Ruscha drawing.

I wrote a comment on this thread, chiding Mr. Apatoff for his over-the-top diction. It reads, in part:

[It is regrettable that you use] language like "unmitigated crap." Part of the reason that illustration has yet to find its place in serious writing and thinking about visual images is that its proponents often suffer from a crusty form of anti-modernism which is beneath you… Illustrators, by and large, are engaged in a different cultural activity, which is why museums like MOMA do not collect them. One can be diffident in the face of these things, even irritated, but harrumphings of the sort you have dumped on your readers here play to their biases and lower the standard of discussion, which you have done so much to elevate.

David responded thoroughly, thoughtfully, and gamely, as I would have expected:

It seems to me the central dilemma of judging art in our era is how to balance open mindedness, tolerance and respect for different tastes on the one hand against vacuity and total lack of standards on the other. Both extremes are essential; if you forsake either charybdis or scylla, your taste and judgment (and even your enjoyment of art) will suffer…

Nice image!

Apatoff continues:

People have been schooled to believe that all art is valid, and besides a sensitive person wouldn't say things such as "unmitigated crap." You might legitimately add that such terms will be counter productive because I am more likely to be dismissed as a "crusty anti-modernist." That is why every once in a while I try to remind people that I like Christo, Beuys and a host of other more avant garde artists.

I think that at this particular moment in the history of art in this country, the greater danger is from permissiveness rather than from intolerance. You would probably agree that the vast majority of money, fame, headlines, museum space, academic attention and respect all go to contemporary abstract and avant garde art, as opposed to illustration, commercial art, comic art or other pictures tainted by capitalism and traditional skills.

Note the regrettable flourish of “pictures tainted by capitalism and traditional skills,” which does not add to the argument, and in fact calls attention to the uncharacteristically sour spirit of the preceding list: money, fame, respect, which “all go” to x. More significantly, David makes the following point:

We would probably disagree over whether museums ignore illustration because it is a "different cultural activity." After all, museums reach out to embrace the different cultural activity of graffiti artists, Polynesian craftsmen, the mentally ill, children, outsider artists, and computers. Apparently the only cultural activity that is too "different" to tolerate is art in the service of commerce. I view that as more an act of hubris than taste or principle. In the face of such an art establishment, it is difficult for even a judgmental lad like myself to feel guilty of intolerance.

Agreed: this is a vexatious reality. And it does cause otherwise temperate folks to blow their stacks. For some reason and for many people, visual art provokes frustration, anger and even a sense of personal affront. Bad movies and novels are just that: things that people set aside or simply avoid. Visual art, by contrast, seems to really rile people, leading to the sort of exaggeration that launched the exchange I’ve been recounting.

For example, such diatribes often cite the obvious “total lack of standards” in contemporary art, when of course there must be standards of some sort. That is, the sum total of artists who wish to display their works in rarefied locales exceeds the total number of opportunities; ergo, some fail. Standards or criteria of some sort are in play, because the curators must have a methodology of yes and no. The formalist or communicative criteria that many viewers would assume to be in play may count for less in the academic culture of the museum and kunstalle; instead, the intellectual heritage of the avant-garde often places more importance on the cultural positioning of the work (e.g., its bourgeoise-tweaking potential) than its intrinsic qualities. The ultimate problem is not a lack of criteria, but disagreement about which criteria ought to be in play.

But David’s implicit question stands. Why is it that art museums as traditionally defined eschew illustration and commercial art forms? (MoMA does in fact have a design department, but it does not collect illustration qua illustration, but rather as a pictorial component of design, as in, say, a Vienna Secession poster.) The answer is complicated, and involves a set of ideas and cultural practices which are 150 to 200 years old, but not older. I don’t think the reason is hubris; I think it’s a philosophical distinction that few people are really aware of, even those who reason on the basis of such distinctions all the time.

For the record, I would like to state that I do think that commercial or purposive image-making is a different cultural activity. I have arrived at this conclusion after long observation and reflection. It is the best explanation for the gigantic blind spot David rightly decries.

I have written about this distinction recently, in my contribution to the catalogue for Ephemeral Beauty: Al Parker and the American Women’s Magazine, 1940-1960.

I am working on a longer form exploration of this. For now permit me to quote my Parker essay at some length:
Al Parker rose to the height of his profession in the war years and after. During the 1940s and 50s, until television began to supplant magazines as the dominant medium, Parker brought in an average of $10,000 a month, typically earned on three to four assignments. He enjoyed the status of a celebrity among the public, and was rightly regarded as a tireless visual innovator by his peers. How should it be then that Parker is virtually unknown today? Certainly history is replete with celebrated figures justifiably demoted by later opinion. To be sure, the romantic Westport School illustrators were widely loathed by the expressionist Manhattan-based visual essayists, led by Robert Weaver, who eclipsed them starting in the late 50s. As Marshall Arisman has admitted, “We all considered Al Parker the enemy.” And Weaver, et al., while presiding, through no fault of their own, over the near-death of the American periodical illustration market during the decades after 1960, set the critical terms for thinking about the discipline during the same period. Parker was relegated to old-boy status. Yet recent academic engagement with mid-century popular culture and increased recognition of Parker’s achievement by contemporary illustrators have improved his standing.

That said, don’t expect to run across Al Parker in accounts of American art history. The most dogged booster of his achievements could not manage such a trick. In fact, it is possible to compile a long list of important artists and works from commercial culture which do not appear in standard art history texts. But it is always a mistake to do so. The terms of exclusion tend to be institutional, and no amount of jumping and arm-waving will overcome them. Besides, there is a much more interesting approach, which takes the alleged deficiencies of popular images and turns them to analytical advantage for purposes of reflection.

The intellectual foundations of the modern conception of art grow from Kantian aesthetics. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant argued in The Critique of Judgment (1790) that the experience of the beautiful is a disinterested one—that an art experience can be identified as an art experience because nothing is at stake beyond the aesthetic pleasure of the moment and the resulting cultivation of taste and refinement. That is, art experiences aren’t for anything. And the objects that provide the ground for aesthetic judgments must not betray “an end.”

Kant writes, “Beauty is the form of the purposiveness of an object, insofar as it is perceived in it without representation of end.” Purposiveness refers to the intentional forming of an object, representation of an end to a visible function. Kant offers the following amplification in a footnote:

There are things which in which one can see a purposive form without cognizing an end in them, e.g., the stone utensils often excavated from ancient burial mounds, which are equipped with a hole, as if for a handle. . . . They clearly betray by their shape a purposiveness the end of which one does not know. . .one relates their shape. . .to a determinate purpose. Hence. . .[they provide] no immediate satisfaction at all. ( Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, edited by Paul Guyer. Translated by Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews. Cambridge University Press, London, 2000. “Analytic of the Beautiful,” No. 17, “On the ideal of beauty.” p. 120.)

Kant’s utensils cannot be beautiful because they are useful. The exclusion is categorical and immediate.

This brings us back to images that appear and—crucially—function in the popular sphere. Illustration in particular is unruly and difficult to organize. It’s ephemeral. Since such images are created for “purposive ends” they cannot claim the status of philosophy or the pursuit of first principles. They tend to attract fans, as opposed to critics. For lack of meaningful interpretive stakes and few institutional or curatorial contexts, serious thinkers have tended to disdain the field. This is especially true of periodical illustration. The best writers—most notably Steven Heller—have provided thoughtful chronicles. Yet theoretical approaches have been few. In sum: high cultural precedent, awkwardness, snobbery, and ubiquity—the stuff is everywhere, after all—have stunted reflection on these works that have played a significant cultural role in our society.

In fact, the intermittent high cultural engagement with figures from the world of illustration—Norman Rockwell, to cite the best example—often only makes things worse by creating a sense of exemption. Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post covers may be philosophically inadmissible, but they transcend their category. But the category ought to command our attention, because it provides the terms of the cultural exchange, between the producer(s) and the audience. We are better off engaging the subject of mid-century mass market magazines before rhapsodizing or carping about the merits of Rockwell, because the loss of context minimizes the meaning of the original experience and, ultimately, the achievement itself…

[The question of ] pictorial function…gets to the heart of commercial image-making, the broader world in which Al Parker operated. Consider that commissioned images in the public sphere are, contra Kant, fundamentally concerned with performing a task. Editorial cartoons, animated films, magazine illustrations, encyclopedia figures, comic strips, illustrated packages, boxes of flash cards—they all must earn their way into the commercial sphere by satisfying the needs of their users and sponsors.

I would submit that all commercial pictures must perform at least one of four functions: to inform, to persuade, to entertain, and/or to activate, or decorate. (Activate is a good modernist word, insofar as it suggests the intentional creation of visual interest, which is both broader and more self-aware than the idea of decorating something.)
What follows is more academic and might strain the patience of the general reader, so I’ll spare you. But suffice to say for now that function does matter. The categorical exclusion of works from the commercial tradition can be traced to the modern conception of art itself, revealed by the antiseptic white boxes in which it is presented—contamination by purpose is a distraction at best. That’s not the whole story, but it’s a decent chunk of it, as least as it applies to habits of mind in the high culture industry. Better to step around than to flail against.

Images: Lyonel Feininger, Five Figures, 1906 (courtesy of MOMA online; this image did not appear on the Illustration Art post referenced above); James Gillray, Britannia between Scylla and Charybdis, or The Vessel of the Constitution steered clear of the Rock of Democracy, and the Whirlpool of Arbitrary Power, 1793; Elzie Crisler Segar, Popeye and Barnacle Bill reaquaint themselves, Thimble Theatre, December 3, 1933; Jupiter information graphic, courtesy of Graphic Tales in-house staff, 2008; Al Parker, cover, Ladies Home Journal, December 1944; John Chapman, engraving, Immanuel Kant, date not available; Jim Flora, cover illustration, Research & Engineering, January 1956.

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