Monday, July 24, 2006

a sow's ear

self portrait 1 - flickr warhol

A week or so ago I read on an illustration blog (and I can’t for the life of me remember which one – credit, someone?) a comparison of fine art and illustration that was primarily in defense of illustration. It got me thinking (always a dangerous thing) about that age-old 'what is the purpose of art?' debate.

As a student at a university that had fine arts (visual arts) and art education departments I was aware of the tension between the two – i.e. many fine arts students had an arrogant air of superiority whereas art education majors were hefting around chips on their shoulders about their supposedly less serious role -- but as applied arts (illustration, graphic design, etc.) are usually the territory of technical/community colleges and polytechnics (at least in Canada and the UK as they are not normally considered academic fields) I didn’t realize that the same suspicion existed between illustration and fine art. After all, illustrators are working artists, unlike a lot of fine artists, and their craftsmanship, imagery and execution are often superior, so where’s the problem?


Apparently the problem lies in intent ... or at least understanding of intent. The popular view of avant garde art is that it’s a sow’s ear dressed up as a silk purse. And who wants to see a sow’s ear hanging on a gallery wall? Since illustrators are producing work for people and for a purpose, the idea of art for art’s sake may seem counterproductive and often downright pretentious to them. It’s easy to see the intent of illustration: illustrators work for a client on a project-by-project basis for a clearly-defined outcome. But why would anyone take photos of people’s feet in bathroom stalls, hang them in a gallery and call it Art (besides me)? You can’t hang it on your dining-room wall (at least, most people wouldn’t) and isn’t that what fine art is all about? Decoration? After all, illustration is all about print media. Isn’t it?

That’s where mainstream thinking falls down, but it’s not a place where most people go. It’s a lot easier to point a finger at Todd Janes ironing shirts on a downtown Edmonton street and say, “That’s art -- how? I could do that!” using dramatic abstract paintings in people’s houses and lovely pictures in children’s books as the measuring sticks. But this assumption of intent is flawed. Most people, including illustrators who feel they have something to prove (fortunately that’s not most of them), feel that it can’t be art according to the rules. But they’ve read the wrong rules.

Art, meaning cutting-edge, avant garde, performance and conceptual art (not the kind of painting I do) is not about producing something for the eye, like illustration, it’s about producing something for the brain. Some of it works and breaks open widely-held conceptions about not only art, but anything society holds as an unquestioned value. Some of it fails miserably. Same as any other form of fine art. The beauty is in the risk-taking: the courage to explore new territory and "go where no man has gone before." Where do you think art or illustration would be right now without the Impressionists, the Cubists, the Abstract Expressionists? They were the avant garde of their day. And like some applied artists of today saying "I don’t get it," once upon a time there were smug arseholes cooling their heels in their Paris printing shops, discussing the paintings at the Salon des Refuses and declaring, “It’s not pretty; it doesn’t have the same skill as the work of our lithographic artists. Those losers will be laughed out of town, especially those charlatans Cezanne and Manet.”

Then there was Picasso. Then there was Duchamp. And so on. That sow’s ear hanging on the wall may not be the work of the next Pollock, but both artists come from the same place of exploration and envelope-pushing. The intent is as different from illustration as apples are from oranges. Or silk purses from sow’s ears. The real question should be, which intent is more important? (Can of worms now open and available for sampling.)

21 Comments:

Blogger Brian the Mennonite said...

I immediately begin to think of the heirachy of many different areas of life. The area of faith and belief for instance, which is something closer to my understanding than fine art.
Through the years I have been involved in a lot of the same kind of us vs. them thinking. In the last few months, I have all but tossed in the towel from all faith viewpoints.
I've tried the whole reduction method, which is what I think you were attempting to do by looking at what the history of art is, but I found that by reducing it, it dissolved into something so small that I was no longer able to focus on, even under the scope.
I've probably completely missed your point, but that is, in a way, the beauty of art isn't it...the beauty is in the interpretation.

24/7/06 5:06 PM  
Blogger andrea said...

I like the analogy you draw, Brian. And I also like how you call it 'the reduction method.' I like to think that in reducing something to its most basic form you can see it for what it truly is, bells, whistles and fancy garments removed, rather than lose it altogether. I guess it depends on the context.

It may sound like I'm trying to bash illustrators here but far from it. The way I see it, there's room for both because their basic intents *are* different. There's no value judgement intended -- rather I'm trying to point out the futility of value judgements. Case in point: we don't pass judgement on a language we don't speak because we don't have enough understanding of the language to make that judgement. I'm just trying to make the language a little clearer to those who don't speak it.

24/7/06 7:14 PM  
Blogger Brian the Mennonite said...

You never come across as a basher of any sort. Your intentions are always clear and I appreciate the way you draw from your life experiences to fulfill the burden of proof. Your intelligence is intimidating and your wit inspiring. We are blessed to know you. When I speak of you, I call you friend...

Enough said...back to drinking Irish whiskey. :) hick

24/7/06 7:49 PM  
Blogger tlc illustration said...

Being on the illustration end, I am aware of the art vs. illustrator (as pseudo artist at best - prostitute at worst) conundrum. I agree with your point, that they are different things serving different purposes - and shouldn't engender the conflict that seems to come up. I have a couple of quotes that I use in the children's illustration classes I teach - that underscore the perceived emnity. I'll see if I can pull them out to quote accurately and post them on my blog.

24/7/06 10:08 PM  
Blogger kyknoord said...

My view is that Art is like wine. The more exposure you have to different kinds, the better you are able to appreciate the subtleties. If the idea is simply to get pissed, then any old box wine will do the job and similarly, if you're just wanting to fill a space on the wall, you aren't really after something that will fire up the cortex to any degree.

24/7/06 11:55 PM  
Blogger Belinda said...

I love the expression, "I may not know art, but I know what I like." Because, to me, that's really what it's all about. If someone appreciates it, and it functions in a way that brings pleasure...well, dangit, that's art. For art's sake.

And seeing as I own TWO Andrea Pratt originals, I obviously know whereof I speak. Ahem. ;-)

25/7/06 1:09 AM  
Blogger Magic Door said...

I agree with your identification that conceptual (and that end of the spectrum) stuff is for the brain - my difficulty with it is that it is lumped in with everything else as 'art'. I've always felt that painting/drawing/illustration and the more 'conventional' 3-d artworks were grounded in skill and craft to present a visual result. Whether that is the translation of an artists viewpoint (realist to abstract or whatever)or selling artistic skill and technique to a buyer (as in the Renaissance as well as modern day 'illustrators', there is still a link to that 'creation'. So much of the ideas/installation/concept stuff is what takes headlines and fills galleries in the name of art and replacing more visual work when I think it should be classified as something else. Verging on the waffle now, so I'll stop.

By the way, I really like the richness and pattern in your work.

25/7/06 4:28 AM  
Blogger Frivolitea said...

I think you have a begun a wonderful discussion here. I really like your idea that some fine art is for the brain as opposed to being for the eye. Good point. By the way, I love the name of your blog. It carries hints of things non-mainstream and non-conformist within it. I will be back to visit.

25/7/06 6:09 AM  
Blogger carla said...

This is, of course, one of those discussions that could go on forever...I'm sure you've perused the many "definitions" of art that have been created over time. I do think that there is tremendous energy in avant garde art that pushes the boundaries and is driven by concept and vision to re-evaluate art. Ultimately, I think there is no absolute definition, especially when that definition often varies depending upon its provenance...the artist may have one defintion and the viewer may have another. Is art something so pure that it is between the artist and the product, or is art only validated by the public's reaction? There are so many variables...but I think it is exciting when an artist's passion gives birth to something that others connect with and find inspiring, compelling, beautiful, and so on.

25/7/06 7:24 AM  
Blogger andrea said...

Brian: You were drinking Irish whiskey *without me*?! What kind of a friend is that?? :) You are a gracious and open-hearted guy. When I think I'm going to be skunked -- there you are! Excuse me using my comment back to you as a platform for more lecturing.

Tara: I can hardly wait to see the quotes. I guess it's just human nature to compare and quantify oneself against others who are similar. After all, the Greeks hate the Turks and the English hate the French (and vice versa) more than almost anybody else! :)

Kyknoord: That's a point I hadn't thought of. When all you're getting is black velvet Elvis and dogs playing poker shoved down your throat and the poster dept. at Wal-Mart is the closest thing you have to an art gallery in your town, then it all becomes relative, doesn't it? And if you have no clue that there is a wider world of art out there, then you pass judgement based on what you know. I'd better shut up before this launches into a discussion about the failure of our schools to properly educate our children in the fine arts...

Belinda: What can I say? In simplest terms, you nailed it. And since you have such *excellent* taste in art then you must be right! (I like what you know.)

Magic Door: It is a vast and confusing spectrum, isn't it? My own taste in art runs to using conventional media (painting, collage, etc.) to say unconventional things in a beautiful way. I unabashedly like eye candy and that seems to be my default motivator as a painter and a consumer of art, but if it makes me think, too, well then *that's* art. For me. The term 'art' is way too broad, but then within that vastness is a freedom that hardly exists in other disciplines.

Ornamentea: Thanks. Maybe this could be called art for the brain, too! I might post on where I got the name for this blog...

Carla: Some of Brian's Irish whiskey would go nicely with this discussion don't you think? Brian? (Garcon!) Are you listening? Your argument reminds me of the "if a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?" discussion. (Hope I didn't just mangle that to death.) The layers and subtleties are what makes it all so fascinating to me.

25/7/06 9:14 AM  
Blogger Laini Taylor said...

Hi Andrea! I knew the blithe tone of my post was bound to be a little offensive to some artists, but I want to be clear that I do NOT disdain fine art. I get defensive because of the dismissive way fine artists talk about illustration, so what do I do? Turn around and do the same thing! Stupid. But, I am a deep admirer of fine art, and not only "pretty" fine art. I thought the shoes in bathroom stalls were wonderful. It kind of reminded me of the guy in Amelie who collected thrown away photo booth photos. Loved it! I think the disdain comes into my "voice" because in fine art there can be so much pretentiousness, often where there is no clear skill, and whatever thought or philosophy may or may not have gone into the creation of a work, if it's invisible to the viewer, I don't know... to me then it only exists in the mind of the artist, and that's fine as far as it goes, but to pretend it is an integral part of the work of art, just because they stand next to it and say so... I don't buy it. I'm not articulating myself well. I should just say I appreciate a lot of installations and abstract art and leave it at that. But I can't leave it at that. When I feel like an artist is sort of using their arcane art as a platform from which to sneer down at the unsophisticated masses, I get irked. I saw a lot of that in art school, and I see a lot in the galleries here in town. I also see a lot of fabulous painting, sculpture and conceptual art. I also see a lot of crappy dull derivative illustration. But, when someone left a comment on my post that said, "The goal of fine art is to change the world, The goal of illustration is to decorate it," I think I snorted coffee out my nose. THAT is the kind of attitude that riles me! (Your post, here, is very articulate and thoughtful, by the way, and I feel a strange need to reiterate that I really love your paintings.)

25/7/06 5:34 PM  
Blogger Within Without said...

Hi Andrea.

An incredible post with feeling, intelligence, first-hand knowledge and sensitivity, among so many other things.

I don't feel qualified, obviously, to touch on the finer issues, although I've learned a lot from your post and from the comments.

What I DID do was walk around my place and look at all the objects of art I have hanging on my walls.

And I believe it's a combination of both fine art and illustrative art. And I love different pieces for both the different reasons you describe, the intents.

Some simply please my eye, the images...I have a picture I took myself of the sun shining above the clouds at a Manitoba lake.

I have a giant pipe-shaped painting called Pipe Dreams 1984 in a George Orwellian theme.

I have a painting of a snake charmer I bought in India, and a wall hanging made out of light cloth portraying the kama sutra.

I have a small framed piece that shows musicians, made out of fine wood, with a see-through backing.

I have a lithograph (I believe that's what it's called) of a paper boy and his buddy delivering the newspaper that I once delivered as a boy myself and which I now work for.

I have several coloured caricatures done by my best buddy, Homo Escapeons (I think you know he's a blogger) of me and my two kids.

Art's important to me, but I'm not going to pay huge amounts to have it. If something catches my eye visually, then I'll have a closer look. If it depicts something that makes me happy or gets me thinking or stirs me emotionally or intellectually, I'll be interested.

If it does both of those things, I'll like it.

I think I'm more into fine art, paintings like yours, because to me they feel more individual, something I'm taking that's personal from that artist.

The technical production involved with the other kind of art, the illustrative kind, seems to me to be somehow less personal, less unique, more a product than a piece. But I have some, so obviously it had an effect on me.

Thanks for a very thoughtful, informative topic.

25/7/06 8:33 PM  
Blogger HildaRose said...

Yes, the can of worms! As a professional illustrator, I ponder the art/illustration question a lot. Mostly because I admire the artist that I don't believe I am. Illustration to me, is clearly defined as creating a visual that communicates a specific idea to a specific audience. It is usually an idea identified by a client but it can also be personal work directed at a particular audience (eg children's book). The success of the illustration is therefore easily evaluated. It must get the correct message across to the people it was intended for. If it is a children's book then to the child, an editorial then to the reader.

I don't really know what 'art' is. How I have defined it is the same as illustration except the message is intiated and directed from/to the artist themselves. It is not vital that a specific audience receives the message, it is not created using the semiotics of a particular audience. It is created for 'self' as an expression of self, a self belief or an exploration into an area of self interest. This does not mean that others cannot not understand the messages sent but this is not mandatory for the success of the piece. There is no means to evaluate art because there are no standard criteria to make art. There is nothing to evaluate it against. The success of the piece is in the heart of the artist. Others can enjoy it, look at it, understand it but can others evaluate it?

I do believe that the difference lays in the process and purpose of the creation. It is in the 'brain' work. Neither intent is more important because each intent is different. Sometimes when I am hungry I want Chinese, sometimes fries.

26/7/06 4:27 AM  
Blogger Toni said...

I read this last night but was to tired to think and post.
I suppose we will always have the age old question what is art. One of the things I have found by owning a gallery at one time and now working in a gallery everyone has different tastes. people buy art because it speaks to them. they sometimes don't realize it because some are thinking they are looking for something to match the couch or room. But in the end it speaks to them through color, design, composition, emotion, spiritually, and a deep rooted feeling inside them. What speaks to one person does not to another. It doesn't matter whether it is realistc or abstract, illustration style or painterly. People buying art do not ask the gallery owner is this an illustrator or fine artist. They are all artists in their eyes. What they do want to know is what was the artist thinking or what inspired the artist to create their piece. And on a lighter note they also want to know how old the artist is. Now there is a topic for you, does age make a difference?

26/7/06 6:48 AM  
Blogger andrea said...

God, I love these comments!

Laini: I couldn't agree with you more about the superiority complex of the fine artiste. (You should read my post entitled 'Socket' for my early experiences with that!) I think all the in-fighting is completely unnecessary and smacks of disrespect and closed-mindedness on both sides.

The quintessential arrogant artist was played to a T by Max von Sydow in Hannah And Her Sisters. I love the scene when the filthy rich rock star (Daniel Stern) wants to buy a piece of 'important art' and visits the great one's loft, willing to pay the earth for something prestigious to hang on his wall, but the artist sends him on his way because the Stern character is not 'worthy' enough to own one of Frederick's pieces.

The thing is that the flip side of having the kind of chutzpah and originality it takes to do breakthrough stuff is arrogance and a huge ego. So without the yin there is no yang, if you catch my meaning.

Within Without: Believe me, it's all just smoke and mirrors! :) Now I want to take a tour of your place -- sounds interesting and highly personal, which is what I think an art collection must be. There is intellectual art for the important galleries and museums and art journals and then there is art that people buy. As an artist one must choose. Only occasionally do the two intersect. For some of us the goal is to tread a middle ground. For me: I want to sell, but I'm not willing to pump out what sells best if it's not what I want to do. It's a constant struggle: the landscape painter vs. the more experimental painter within.

HildaRose: Aha! So what you're saying is that the difference between art and illustration is the client! And in art's case the client is the artist him/herself. I love that! I think you've nailed it when you say that there is no means to evaluate art because there are no standard criteria to make art. That must be why it continues to be such a contentious topic amongst both the initied and the uninitiated. And it's also why there is this vast freedom in which artists can take risks.

Toni: What I've noticed about purchasers of art is that once they decide they love a piece then even before they buy it they have 'made it theirs' in their minds. And then they can't live without it. Few consumables have that kind of power over the consumer, which is why I think that once a person has bought a piece of art it can become an obsession. They want that 'fix' that owning their passion brings them ... so they go out and buy more. In spite of the bombardment of images we now get in our modern world, there is still nothing like that physical evidence of beauty in one's own possession. It's booty that makes a personal statement about the owner as much as it does about the artist.

One question, Toni: How old does the average purchaser *want* an artist to be, because no matter what it is, that's what I'm going to be! :) If Hollywood wants 'em young, they make 'em young. What do art buyers want? (See, I'm learning something about this marketing biz...)

26/7/06 7:42 AM  
Blogger Toni said...

Andrea you are so right about for some who buy art that it is a fix like a drug habit. I've seen that at the gallery.

As for the age factor of the artist it varies. For some buyers they want the artist to be the same age as themselves feeling there would be more of a connection to the art. Some buyers want someone older feeling that artist has been around for awhile and still loves what he/she is doing and has improved over the years. Some think a younger artist might be collectable down the road and older artists are collectable.

I feel the majority of buyers without realizing it want to feel a connection and age is one of the most deciding factors. I have also seen older buyers (70's and up) buy from the young artists. Almost as if they are reminiscing their youth. Perhaps we should start a whole new post on the age factor.

Think about what art you are really attracked to then notice the age of the artist. Are they your age? Say an eight year span either way. Or are you attracked to art of someone older who would be a mentor for you. And how about someone who is younger? Does it make you feel like you missed something in your youth?

Questions to ponder!.......

26/7/06 9:25 AM  
Blogger Within Without said...

I feel so privileged to be involved in this discussion among artists...

Andrea, you could have a tour of my place any time, but somehow I don't think you want to fly here for a viewing.

I could always take pix and email 'em! Suffice to say I have no plan and the Queer Guys would laugh me out of town, I'm sure.

But every piece is special in one way or another and I love them all. Thanks for the education!

26/7/06 5:03 PM  
Blogger Caty said...

I guess artistic expressions are endedless. And that you can express ideas with images. I don't considere a kind of art "more important" than another ones is just that when you see some artistics expressions I ave to tell myself: I could have had the same idea, (like Duchamp..) expres it in the same way and NEVER, but NEVER would be in a Gallery or Museum.......about comtemporary art, some people say that it is your trajectory that will make the difference....(something that you are known or not already)

Artist are often wonderful persons, often very egotists and unkind, like some scientists as well...:).......) thinking they are doing "very important things" that it is true in a way, but humility is the difference I guess.

I love art! of almost any kind (yes, I don't like everything..:)....) and sometimes I love artists, or some of them........:)

27/7/06 2:58 AM  
Blogger Calvin said...

Im not nearly as vocal as alot of people here. I pretty much just love what my eyes love from an artistic point of view. :)

27/7/06 7:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A splash of paint can be an illustration or a splash of paint can be art.The difference is in the human mind. The power of speech to make one right and one wrong. Human beings are the most stupid animals of all.

2/8/06 5:24 AM  
Blogger ValGalArt said...

I lOOooove this post! I have been priveledged to work with some major artists that you might say what the bleep is that crap? But they are in museums and I am not! I was lucky enough to work with some amazing minds like Al Ruppersberg a conceptual artist that we silkscreened posters on glass, aluminum, steel, lead, fabric, plastic flags and anything unusual or uncommon you wouldn't think of these materials as medium for a poster and he filled the Corcoran Gallery in 1987 or 88 with these unique objects with sayings like Why should I worry and What should I do and Why do we fail? I wasn't confused by this I was happy that this amazing mind could get shows where most of the art wasn't even saleable!!! I loved it! Joseph Kosuth had us silkscreen words on enormous pieces of glass and John Boskovich too! Ed Ruscha, Ron Davis all these guys would get these galleries to put up the money for shows and prints and there is something so impressive about stuff that is not easily understood. Now I don't make art in anyway remotely connected to any of these guys but I learned so much from them and It's awesome that people get to make art for art's sake. I LOVE that!!!!

2/8/06 4:28 PM  

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