Monday, June 01, 2009

Don't Get Me Started

(left, art by Alphonse Mucha, 1905)

I'll get to Mucha in a moment, but I'd like to say that David Apatoff's Illustration Art blog has been one of my faves the last couple of years. I don't always agree with everything he says, but I respect his views, which are genuine and well-said. His most recent post is about Peter Max. Although I'm not a fan of Max's pop art work, David eloquently makes a point near and dear to my heart about illustration vs. fine art. With apologies to David for the copy/paste, here's what he said:

"Artists and critics always chafe at the restrictions imposed by patrons or censors who interfere with the artist's original concept. In fact, it seems that illustration is held in lower regard than "fine" art mainly because the illustrator's vision is subject to the whim of some client or art director. There is some truth to that criticism, but Peter Max demonstrates how the lack of restrictions can be just as hazardous to the quality of art.

In my view, Peter Max, along with Andy Warhol and Leroy Neiman, are good examples of artists whose work was spoiled and made rotten by excessive freedom. Today's fine art scene offers far more examples of artists whose self-indulgent, decadent work has little relevance or value outside their own cloistered circle. When the world provides resistance to an artist (whether in the form of a tough deadline, or a client's demands, or poverty, or totalitarian censorship) it can have a beneficial effect on the art. As the old proverb says, 'the wind in a man's face makes him wise.'

Artistic freedom can help or hurt art. But if great art can be produced in a prison cell or a concentration camp, it's silly for the fine art community to suggest that it can't also be produced within the constraints of a commercial art studio."

May I offer a "hell yes"? Way to go, David. I couldn't agree more--which brings me back to Alphonse Mucha. The art pictured above is Mucha's response for a 1905 Moet & Chandon champagne advertisement. It's commercial art all the way, but is it any less a piece of imagination, craft, design, and inspired execution at its finest because it was created for an advertisement? And where does it say that a curator or pseudo-intellectual has to validate something that beautiful for it to be considered art for the ages?

Several years ago, I had a heated exchange with a reknowned local 'fine artist' who specialized in ill-conceived installation sculptures. He was staring at a piece of illustration in a gallery and asked my opinion. I gave it to him, and he responded, "The trouble with illustration is that it can never be art in the highest sense because it always answers to someone. True fine art doesn't answer to anyone and therefore will always be a higher calling."

Those were fighting words.

After I reminded him of the numerous city council and political hoops he had to hop through for approvals, and the gallery collectors whose dollars he relentlessly chased, I offered the following gentle morsel: "Just because you masturbate on a wall and fool yourself into believing it's got value doesn't mean you're an artist." Maybe not one of my finer moments, but I'm still proud of that one. I still believe the very best commercial illustrations of a superior talent like Alphonse Mucha doesn't need a curator or nostalgia to validate it.

In the end, let me say as a proud, working professional illustrator, that it's not just the interaction with terrific art directors, or the answering to deadlines, or to problem-solving, or to strife, that can perhaps shape a piece of commercial illustration into something potentially special. ALL of those things are potentially huge, positive factors, but it's always about an artist's singular, skillful human response to a moment and to a context. That response must not only solve a problem and serve a client, but it must be strong enough to withstand the repeated scrutiny of that client's corporate masters and the timeless, infinite scrutiny of a potentially worldwide audience. And if in fact, that artist's response can pass these tests and not only maintain its pure expression, but in fact, be emboldened by these challenges and embrace those challenges to transform into something transcendent.....then which art is really 'the higher calling'?


Blogger Kyle T. Webster said...

What a great post. Thank you for this - I greatly enjoyed reading it.

11:51 AM  
Blogger E.M. Gist said...

Can I get an Amen. And I disagree, it is possible that is one of your finer moments. Sometimes a little well placed vulgarity is need to get someones attention(not to mention the metaphor, intentional or not).

12:05 PM  
Blogger Pablo Defendini said...

Oh, man, what a fantastic post. Yes, yes, yes! Yes on all points, yes to eternity!

I'll back a Greg Manchess, Gary Kelly, and yes, a John Picacio over some dumbass Damien Hirst diamond skull any day. And twice on Sunday.

I agree with EM Geist, btw—I'd keep that moment in your greatest hits pile, if I were you.

12:43 PM  
Anonymous Jeff Fennel said...

Two things Amigo:

1. "ill-conceived installation sculptures" is redundant.

2. I usually end these discussions with "The Masters were illustrators". Oh, then sometimes "Fool!"

Great observation about all the approvals those guys need by the way - brilliant.


12:59 PM  
Blogger leemoyer said...


Jeff's point about the masters is well made. I tell everyone that every piece of "Classical" art that they swan and drool over was illustration. The Sistine Chapel, Illustration. Portraits, illustration.

It is my contention that Maxfield Parrish putting prints of his work into the hands of the common man was the most important force in the ghettoization of illustration.

When both the church and the secular rich were no longer the only people who could have ART, then they could insure that what the common man could own was NOT art.

And then generations of pretentious hacks and faddish sensationalist poseurs could tailor the Emperor's clothes as they saw fit.

SO the rich want a cow chopped in sections and held in Lucite? Great to see that money don't make ya smart.

Give me a Mucha, a Leyendecker, a Wyeth. And speaking of Wyeths, can you even imagine a 3-generation dynasty of Hirsts? Of Warhols? Of idiotic installationists? Actually, now that I come to mention it, it might be a great Fox family drama...

2:04 PM  
Blogger John Picacio said...

Kyle -- thanks for visiting. Glad you dug it!

Erik -- Hah! You crack me up. Thanks, man. :)

Pablo -- Nice to see you! Really kind of you to say. Just found your design blog recently -- it's terrific! Need to add it to the blogroll. "Greatest Hits".....hah! ROFL. :)

Jeff -- Priceless. Yes, yes.

Lee -- Well said, man!!

3:08 PM  
Blogger Brian W. Dow said...

a bit late, but here goes...
I've always felt that great art is that which affects you in a profound way. I've seen Renoir and Mucha, Parrish and Picacio, Rockwell and Michelangelo. All have touched my heart in profound ways and are equally capable of bringing me to tears for the beauty I've found there. Beauty really is in the eyes of the beholder, and in response to the boneheads who continue to belittle illustration and illustrators, I'm kinda reminded of the wisdom of one Leonard McCoy when he said,"what he has said is unimportant, and we do not hear his words.'Yeah, that works for me.

7:47 PM  
Blogger Mair said...

Excellent post, John.
I absolutely agree with your point of view as an artist and art lover.

Brian's post - it is as if he read my mind...

1:21 AM  
Blogger John Picacio said...

Very kind of you, Brian. And thanks again, Mair. :)

7:36 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Thanks for the nod, John. I have enjoyed exploring both your blog and your web site.

On the subject at hand, I certainly agree with you. It's hard to pinpoint exactly when artists started to believe that it was dishonorable for art to simultaneously be useful or serve a purpose, but I think it's fair to say that such views are the exception rather than the rule over the long history of art.

As the recession chews away at the funding for such frivolous nonsense and the US is forced to become more serious, it will be interesting to see what happens to "art for art's sake."

7:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've always felt that people who feel the need to slice and dice art in categories of fine/commercial or highbrow/lowbrow -- whatever the medium -- are generally trying to sell you something. Most often it's "fine art".

I don't need a narrower definition of art than the creative endeavors of men. From the cave paintings at Lascaux to the song a sixth grader just made up for fun, it's all art.

You can debate its merit and quality for eternity, but this need to strip the very term from a work is a way of elevating mediocre work.

9:00 AM  
Blogger John Picacio said...

Hi, David -- Thanks very much! As always, you leave us with something this case, that last THERE'S some food for thought, huh? :)

Hi, Mark -- Yes, yes, yes. Couldn't have said it better!

8:44 PM  
Blogger Lee said...

I really appreciated reading your comment about Mucha as well as your thought on "artists" like Andy Wahrhol. I was in Prague last weekend, and I visited the Mucha museum. I have to say that his finest work, "The Slavic Epic" is in an old castle deep in the countryside of Czech. I saw a study completed for those twenty canvases and it was as compelling as any of the works of any of the masters. It seems that simply because he was able to support himself financially, his work has been deemed unworthy. What a shame it is; art is creating something special regardless of whether it's a book jacket cover, or a gigantic oil painting. It's just a real shame we do this to ourselves.

1:45 PM  
Blogger John Picacio said...

Very well said, Lee! Thanks!

10:39 AM  

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