Don't Get Me Started
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'?