Tuesday, June 19, 2007


Cultured people are often offended by the vulgarity of illustration. Rocket ships blasting off, bombs exploding, damsels in distress-- such uncouth material could never qualify as fine art.

Yet, Homer, Chaucer and Shakespeare loved sex and violence just as much as the authors of lurid pulp magazines did. Simone Weil noted in her famous essay on Homer's Iliad, "The true hero, the true subject matter, the center of the Iliad is force." She could easily have written the same thing about a Superman comic book.

Many great artists have been fascinated by the aesthetic possibilities of force:

Explosion by Leonardo da Vinci, circa 1515

Leonardo da Vinci had a fondness for drawing explosions and cataclysms. His 16th century efforts to conjure up violent, powerful images seem almost quaint today. Here, Leonardo draws a picture of two battling armies:

Then he tries drawing a picture of a great big violent storm:

Then he says, "Ah, I know! How about if I draw two armies battling during a great big storm? That would really be cool!"

Leonardo's notion of power comes across as sweet and harmless measured by today's standards, but it was clearly not for lack of trying. If he had only known about exploding space ships, he would probably be drawing them right alongside Alex Raymond (above).

If you start disqualifying art due to uncouth subject matter, artists like Leonardo will end up in the dumpster alongside the illustrators. Better that we should focus on the quality of the image without getting caught up in censorious notions of suitable content.


Anonymous said...

I'm glad you made this post DA. I think it goes to the heart of a major difference between the Old Masters and so-called "fine artists" of today, whose work is mostly made to sell in galleries and appreciate in value--i.e., it is "investment grade" art.

Number one, all the Old Masters could draw out of their head quite well. After seeing so many "fine artists" of today, I can tell you definitively they cannot--they need something to copy. This puts a serious dent in their creativity. Also, since they are trying to make a general appeal to sell their work, they either make it as non-controversial as possibe, or as controversial as possible, take your pick. It all leads to rather boring work or ridiculous nonsense.

Number two, the great masters of the past were all illustrators--their designs graced public monuments and churches. They told stories of their cultures and religion because they were paid to do so. Today's fine artists are not illustrators, ususally just good copyists. And they are now rewarded for depicting just about every other culture and religion other than their own--chinese peasants, american indians, buddhism, etc, or they criticize their culture and religion. There's almost nobody who is doing the work of documenting and upholding the present culture (finding what's good) or using their imaginations to present our culture and religion as something positive.

There are an increasing number of realist painters today with excellent skills, but with little imagination or real interest outside of technical accomplishment. To me, the most honest artists really are illustrators now, people who paint heroes and heroines, who can and do use their imaginations, and whose work generally upholds traditional values, such as the preference for good over evil. They may not paint contemporary life or religion per se, but its all we have until somebody comes along to do that too. Its a sad state of affairs, to be honest. In order to break through, it will have to come outside of the gallery system.

Anonymous said...

as you repeatedly lament the disability of contemporary artists to draw out of their head, I would like to advise you of the work of Dino Valls, a Spanish painter who never uses models or photos but paints all of his puzzling pictures solely out of imagination.



Anonymous said...

I'd like a clarification on the realist artists that only care about technical accomplishment. What about Gerhard Richter? What about the evidence that old masters such as Jan Vermeer and others used a camera obscura to achieve their results? This idea that old masters were all illustrators doesn't really wash either, it's too general a statement and seems to be used as a result of hindsight and possibly from the proliferation of mass reproduction of their works in art books. Yes, they reproduced scenes from the Bible but what other imagery could an artist think of doing in those times.
I don't think an exchange of funds for artwork necessarily means you're an illustrator. In my mind illustrators are people like Alex Raymond, Barron Storey, John Buscema (if you want extraordinary power of visual recall John was the man), Bill Sienkiewicz..etc, etc., it's a profession that rose out of commercial demands in the late 19th and early 20th century.
It's a worthy topic of discussion because this battle between the merits of fine art and commercial illustration have been going on for quite sometime now.