In Defense of Illustration

Posted in Art and Criticism on October 27, 2011 – 5:40 pm
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Early in my arts “education” I ran upon the rather curious disdain by the intelligentsia for anything deemed “Illustrative”. While I somewhat understand this distinction…I am flustered by its’ decidedly negative connotation. I remember doing a paper on the most-excellent Mexican artist Jose Luis Cuevas, in which I referred to Cuevas as an illustrator. Of course the TA (teaching assistant) who graded my work was quick to point out that the artist in question “is not an illustrator”. I found this response rather pompous considering the context was in referring to Cuevas’ first introduction to a large audience … his illustrating a re-release of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”. I (apparently mistakenly) have always considered visual artists who illustrate books to be illustrators…that may not be all that they are, but it is something that they have delved into (examples:  Folon, Homer, Warhol).

I have always considered the moniker of illustrator to mean that we are dealing with someone who can actually draw…unlike many who graduated from the art departments at major universities during the 60’s/ 70’s. When I think of illustrative work I think of highly stylized works the likes of Leyendecker (who I love) or Nagel (whom I despise). We can see several examples of “fine artists” who have an extremely illustrative style…the photographer Herb Ritts comes to mind. [Ritts’ portraits of the celeb-of-the-day aren’t the clever analogies to the com modification of celebrities by Warhol, but the end result is the same for me…although Ritts subjects are quite vapid in comparison to Warhol’s.] There are also artists who primarily work as illustrators who seem to supersede the category itself…Ralph Steadman comes to my mind.

It seems that the distinction of degrees comes into play somewhere here. Norman Rockwell is definitely an illustrator, but images such as the civil rights piece  “The Problem We All Live With”  (above) certainly transcend the genre. I would say that Thomas Hart Benton‘s highly-stylized works are definitely illustrative, but they are categorized as fine art. Both of these artists delved into the social upheaval of their times and both have been poo-pooed for their decidedly regional and mundane subject matter. To the other extreme we have “artists” like Damien Hirst who (despite his efforts) can’t paint or draw…and Jeff Koons who has others “manufacture” his repulsively ugly works. Which are the real artists…and who are the posers?


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