Saturday, June 25, 2011


Artistic confidence is a valuable asset when it is warranted, but a terrible liability when not.

Unfortunately, the nature of confidence is that it blinds us to whether it is warranted or not.

Picasso's huge ego was an asset when it gave him the courage to break with stale traditions.  On the other hand, Julien Schnabel's ego did him no favors when it led him to claim, "I'm the closest thing to Picasso that you'll see in this fucking life." Confidence can be the Jekyll or Hyde of art.

Artist Markus Lüpertz certainly had the confidence to stand up to his critics. When he erected his latest public artwork -- a creepy, 60 foot sculpture of Hercules with one arm, a big nose, blue hair and a stunted body-- the New York Times reported:
in the past his work has been, to put it kindly, misunderstood. One piece was smeared with paint and covered in feathers. Another was beaten with a hammer. Another was removed altogether after protesters demanded it be taken down. “It doesn’t matter,” said Mr. Lüpertz....“The general opinion of my art is that it is rejected. I attribute this to a lack of intelligence among the people.”

 Some of Lupertz's confidence comes from avoiding nay-sayers:
I only work with students who admire me and think I am great.  If I am not the one that takes their breath away, I don’t feel like working with them, because this would be a waste of time. It’s not about their individualism, it’s about my individualism. It’s not about their genius, it’s about my genius.
Lupertz shows us that confidence can transform bad art into immense, unavoidable bad art.

At Stone Mountain, Georgia, sculptors Augustus Lukeman and Walter Hancock defaced an entire mountain with a sculpture the size of three football fields.

The sculpture, which depicts heroes of the Confederate Army, was sponsored by the Ku Klux Klan and the United Daughters of the Confederacy.  As a work of art, it exemplifies the struggle between a pathetic lack of talent and disgusting racism.  Most artists might look for a more inconspicuous location for such a struggle-- perhaps hidden in the back pages of a personal sketchbook.  But if you have unquestioning confidence, you try to assert your position bigger and bolder and more permanently than anyone else's. 

The jackhammer and dynamite are apparently favored tools of the overly confident.  Consider this awful sculpture of chief Crazy Horse, currently on its way to becoming the largest sculpture in the world:

The sponsors of this statue hired sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski in 1948 to begin reshaping a mountain into a figure larger than Mount Rushmore.  The head of Crazy Horse alone is 87 feet tall.  The scale model pictured here in front of the despoiled mountain is so bad, an artist with any  judgment would have returned to the drawing board.   But confidence never heard the Turkish proverb, "No matter how far you've gone down the wrong road, turn back."

Confidence has served many artists well, giving them the strength necessary to undertake difficult projects and make bold decisions.  Illustrator and art teacher Sterling Hundley reports,
I've had students in the past ask me the question: "Do you think that I am good enough?"
My answer: "If anyone could say anything in that moment that would keep you from pursuing your dreams, then you should find something else to do with your life."
This is surely true.  On the other hand, when writer Flannery O'Connor was asked whether college writing programs were discouraging young writers, she responded "Not enough."  This is surely true too.

Distinguishing between helpful and unhelpful confidence is one of the greatest challenges facing any artist.  When is it Jekyll and when is it Hyde?  If there is a formula, I lack the confidence to articulate it here.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


Once upon a time, the world's largest media companies bragged in full page ads about their upcoming illustrations:

From the back cover of Life Magazine.  When was the last time you saw an ad like this?

Magazines urged readers to spend more time studying illustrations:

This was all driven by economics, of course.  The general public followed the work of top illustrators and made purchasing decisions based on their art:

Before the invention of movies and computer videos, illustrators were the George Lucas and Steven Spielberg of their day. They created magic images that captured the public imagination and shaped public taste.  They invented cultural icons:

This was the great power of stationary images in an era before people learned that pictures could also be made to move and talk.

Like the Cecile B. DeMille of his day, Gustave Dore (1832-1883) shaped the world's image of epic stories such as the Bible, Paradise Lost and Dante's Divine Comedy.  His books (and his visions) were everywhere.

Celebrity illustrators were were richly paid for their contribution to the mass entertainment industry. Charles Dana Gibson, who created the popular Gibson Girl, went from being a cartoonist for Life Magazine to taking over the entire magazine.  His work enabled him to retire to his own private 700 acre island. Illustrator Henry Raleigh earned enough from drawing illustrations for three or four months to spend the balance of the year traveling the world lavishly with family and friends. He spent freely, giving away thousands of dollars. He maintained a yacht, owned a mansion and kept a large studio in downtown Manhattan.

Those days are gone.  Like a huge peristaltic wave, the mass entertainment market has moved beyond illustration to other media.

There is nothing surprising about this.  The golden age of illustration began in the 19th century by crushing  the old fashioned wood engraving industry, which could no longer retain an audience when compared to color photo-engraving. Later, silent movies could not hold out for long against sound movies.  Black and white movies were similarly vanquished by color movies.  It remains to be seen what will happen with 3D, or 48 frame per second movies, or the next development after that. 

This evolution seems to be powered primarily by the economics of mass marketing.  There will always be a significant role for still pictures, but a medium that talks (and therefore doesn't require the consumer to read text), that moves (and therefore doesn't require the consumer to imagine the implications of a moment isolated by a static drawing), a medium that completely fills our sight, sound, olfactory and other senses, allowing us to passively absorb, seems to have a natural advantage over a medium that doesn't fill in all the blanks for us. 

I see no prospect of this trend reversing itself, barring a global electromagnetic pulse (EMP) from thermonuclear war that renders all electronic viewing devices useless.  If nuclear winter ever comes, illustrators can look forward to returning to their historic birthright as the powerful shamans who make magic images on the cave walls.

But for now, I think it is important to emphasize that, while illustration is no longer the centerpiece of the entertainment world, and the great peristaltic wave took celebrityhood and money with it, it did leave the "art" portion behind.  And that, my friends, is the most important part.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011


Last week the Society of Illustrators opened a wonderful exhibition of pulp magazine covers from the 1930s and 40s.  The show includes nearly 90 paintings of scantily clad damsels in distress, hooded fiends with elaborate torture devices, and futuristic space heroes.  This is probably the most emotionally uncomplicated art you will ever find: big, juicy paintings with the open heart (and emotional maturity) of a 14 year old boy.

Some of the paintings, such as this gem by the great Baron Leydenfrost, are executed with astonishing skill:

But most of these pictures are painted with a technique as vulgar as their content. There was no room for subtle colors and elaborate compositions on a magazine rack crowded with competing pulp magazines.

The girls on these covers always seemed to be in peril, and ripe for rescue by the proper hero.  

Young male readers were tantalized by the prospect of what lay beyond those slightly parted dressing gowns or those strategically torn shirts.  They pored over these illustrations for clues to what awaited them someday.  It's a mark of their innocence that their best plan for winning such favors was by rescuing a girl from space monsters.

If you're looking for a holiday from moral complexity, pulp art may be just the oasis for you. In fact, the owner of this marvelous collection, Robert Lesser, calls it “escape” art.  But its simple mindedness is the source of both its joyful strength and its gnawing weakness.

Which brings me to my question of the week: Is it okay to like pulp art?

Let's put aside that this stuff is politicallly incorrect.  My question is focused solely on artistic merit. Is this stuff anything more than “chewing gum for the eyes”?  What are we to make of art that is not particularly well painted and does not challenge us mentally or emotionally, that raises no questions and doesn't expand our vision, but is undeniably likable for nostalgic reasons?

Beryl Markham cautioned us about the temptation to look over our shoulder at simpler, bygone days:
Never turn back and never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour.... Passed years seem safe ones, vanquished ones, while the future lives in a cloud, formidable from a distance. The cloud clears as you enter it. I have learned this, but like everyone I learned it late.
This is a worthy sentiment, but I nevertheless think pulp art is a valid art form.  The moral obviousness of these pictures gives them an ethical virility that you won't find in more sophisticated art. They are akin to religious paintings from the age of faith, which left no ambiguity about who was the bad guy, who was the hero, and which blonde needed to be rescued.

The fact that such ethical clarity is an illusion doesn’t mean it isn't art.