When the renowned French film director Jean Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to”, I’d like to think he was defending against what many consider the derivative nature of illustration, a presumption that an illustration may not stand alone as ‘fine’ art; it must derive from and serve a written text. Once, we were practitioners of an honored and well-rewarded profession which often entailed being a client’s ‘hired hand’. We identified as artists that proudly earned a living from our work, while suffering the derisive monikers ‘art whores’ and orphans of the fine art world from our more ‘noble’ but struggling artist acquaintances.
However, since the early 1980’s, as studio employment quickly became history, we embraced our newfound freelance status and the value of personal expression in pursuit of market share and creative legitimacy. In fact, the publishing industry soon grew to expect illustration that exhibited ‘personal style’, the illustrator’s ‘brand’ if you will. Ironically, many illustrators became pegged to a particular ‘look’ which was and still is subject to trends, demanding periodic paradigm changes in order to remain competitive. This is a mixed blessing in a way, as it gives us the opportunity to continually re-invent ourselves and grow artistically and intellectually. Yet, with rare exception, has our work received the classical honors bestowed upon painters, sculptors or installation art scavengers by museum curators or self-described connoisseurs. And those rare exceptions generally occur within the walls of our professional societies and/or specialty museums with a single mission. You won’t catch an illustrator invited to exhibit at the Venice Biennale for example, unless he/she presents their work with some obscure title or statement of its raison d’être.
Do the story-images we create really need to be labeled as ‘merely’ illustrative? Are the stories and messages we offer any less artful or poignant than their baroque-framed siblings? I don’t think so. In my opinion, the best editorial illustrators are those who infuse their own interpretation into an assigned work so that it not only illuminates the text it accompanies, but stands on its own as an intriguing artistic expression. Though photography has reshaped our playing field, it has also freed us from the need to be literal, so we may unabashedly draw and paint what we see and imagine with our considerable technical skills and our own brand of reality. Which makes me recall an odd little incident during a visit many years ago to Ohio State University, where one of my sons was a visual communications undergraduate.
It was Parent’s Weekend and a tour of campus included a visit to the Fine Arts Building and chitchat with some of the professors. They proudly showed us the fully equipped painting and sculpture studios and ‘by the way’, here is our graphic arts department. It was a bare-bones room with chewed up old drafting tables, assorted tools and outdated textbooks.
I didn’t think much of this discrepancy until we left the building in the wake of a break period in which students filed quickly onto the quadrangle. What struck me is not that I recognized the graphic arts students by the tracing pads, rapidograph pens and small t-squares they carried, but that in a lemming-like way, the ‘fine arts’ students and graphic arts students proceeded to assemble in two separate groups on opposite sides of a path that divided the quadrangle. For a school with 50,000 + students, it seemed rather provincial and led me to wonder what encouraged this odd behavior?
Was it an unspoken directive of the professors, the university system itself, or a tangent of the art gallery/museum world informed by such sentiments as, practitioners of fine arts and illustration ought to be labeled and judged as two different species?
Having taught at a major university and seen the same phenomenon occur there (not encouraged by me!), I wistfully wonder whether all artists and the institutions that train and educate us, will one day come to realize how much more we can learn from each other instead of wasting time and energy building and maintaining invisible barriers that separate and define us throughout our creative lives.
Like the universal language of music that soothes and nurtures our souls, art is and should be understood as non-denominational and essential to our very survival.
Note: For the curious who want to know: my illustration was inspired by Benjamin Franklin’s 1754 political broadside.