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.

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