Sunday, November 6, 2011

On Shedding Light


I spoke with the graduate students at MICA last week about the marginalized position of illustration and cartooning in the cultural precincts of high art. I’ve commented on the phenomenon before. But since that time I have generated a data set and evaluated the question empirically. (A formal presentation of this material is slated for release as an essay, date uncertain. For now, you’ll have to take my word on it.) I crunched numbers for leading art history departments, museums and art publishers for a recent calendar year, taking as data points each course, exhibition and publication. I got over 5000 data points.

At what rate did illustration show up? In calculation A, If the material mentioned word-image relationships, illustrations, comics, anything, I counted it. In calculation B, I kept to a stricter definition, with credit restricted to exhibitions, etc., that addressed illustration explicitly, and to some degree on its own terms.

The generous reckoning came in just below 4 percent. The stricter standard tipped the scales at under 2 percent. Such scores make plain that illustration does not rise to the level of art as measured by those tasked with defining and regulating the meaning of that term. That’s an empirical reality.

Moreover, when illustration does make the paper, it’s because somehow the individual case has transcended illustration.

We did a quick tour through Kant and disinterest theory, which helped to create the modern conception of an art object. The cultivation of taste requires that aesthetic judgments be free of entanglements. If I’m trying to sell you a Greek statue, my opinion on the question of its beauty is of no value. Fair enough. But a parallel difficulty emerges in the aesthetic consideration of useful things. How can we judge beauty when utility dictates form?

There are sound philosophical reasons for why illustration is a poor fit for the halls of art. To fight those arguments–let alone their cultural momentum, now two centuries and change later–is to tilt at windmills. No–worse. It is to pine for a status best unsought.

Illustration “as” Art, I concluded, is like sitting in bad seats and eating cold food at a beautiful dinner party.

So: to hell with the need to transcend illustration. Let’s embrace it for what it is, a tradition of illumination, of shedding light; an ideology of nonfiction, a commitment to veracity. The cultural act of illustrating a text (or representing a body of knowledge, or giving form to a viewpoint) is an altogether different game than snapping the suspenders of the bourgeoisie.

Illustration and cartooning, the two great families of purposive (or useful) images, comprise a vast corpus of cultural material. This stuff goes unlooked at and unpondered to our detriment. I showed the students a selection of images from the visual history of Jim Crow and asked, why haven’t educated people in a pluralistic society looked at these things? Because they’re not art?

Really?

It sez here: we are in need of an increasingly curious and grounded view of visual culture which addresses the functional, captures the embedded, explores the vernacular, describes the technological, engages the commercial, values but contextualizes the aesthetic, and finally, identifies and interprets the visual rhetoric used in modern communication.

And so I pose the question to the Marylanders (and others perhaps): having begun the day as a heroic artist, independent, expressive, essential; having been informed in the hours following lunch that rather, you are a light-shedding illustrator, contingent, interpretive, in-relation-to:

Do you accept your demotion?

Discuss.

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