Tuesday, November 26, 2013

YOU CAN'T DO THAT WITH WORDS, part 1

Here at the good ol' Illustration Art blog, we have great respect for words.  However, every once in a while it's good to remind ourselves that pictures do thing that words cannot.

Lines can be fashioned into letters of the alphabet, or they can be set free to play in the wilder meadows of drawing.  If lines are hardened into letters, their function becomes clear and unavoidable: to form words and sentences, marching in straight rows, obeying the commands of their master, punctuation.  But when a line is still free and retains its original primordial wildness, it can do countless things in countless ways.

For example, you might use words to convey a message such as "television corrupts youth."  But look at how the line of the great Lou Myers plays with the same theme:


You can't do that with words.

Lines that have been civilized into letters and words can never return to their pagan state.  Language is rule defined, so it becomes unintelligible as it approaches chaos.  But the lovely, wild line of art remains at home in chaos.


Friday, November 15, 2013

ART IN PENULTIMATE TIMES

Yesterday, the 5th Annual Doomsday Clock Symposium was conducted by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  During the Symposium, one of the lecturers shared Harold Edgerton's photographs of the world's first atomic explosion.

Edgerton, an MIT professor, received a top secret contract from the US government to film the first bomb test in the New Mexico desert in 1945, as well as several subsequent tests.  He invented the rapatronic (Rapid Action Electronic) camera, with a shutter speed of just two milliseconds, to capture the very instant the nuclear blasts ignited.  These ghostly images were taken from seven miles away in the desert to protect the camera from being incinerated: 

The beast Extinction, unchained for the first time

Edgerton's photos remind me of Phil Hale's skull paintings:



As nuclear weapons proliferate, it becomes more difficult to run the calculations on the Great Actuarial Table and come up with a happy ending.  After all, we can never un-learn the science of how to inflict catastrophic harm.  That knowledge can only become more widely disseminated, easier to use and harder to prevent.

The math suggests we're living in penultimate times.  What role can art play under such circumstances?  Can it raise our consciousness?  Humanize our attitude toward nuclear technology?  Provide us with solace for what appears to be an inevitable fate?

Art and death have been best friends since the very beginning.  Our mortality is one of the greatest inspirations for art.   Yet, despite all the effort that generations of artists have spent contemplating individual death, they have never quite figured out how to react to death's ugly big brother, total extinction.

Oh sure, there have been pretenders along the way.  The Black Death in Europe had the potential to end the world, and it inspired artists such as  Bruegel, Bosch,  Chaucer and Defoe.

The Triumph of Death by Bruegel
However, the Black Death ultimately helped to usher in the Renaissance by breaking  the grip of a repressive feudal system and an autocratic church, thereby awakening the modern western mind.

As another example, the genocide of World War II was pretty damn impressive.  At the end of the war, Picasso (who had painted the slaughter at Guernica a few years earlier) visited the extermination camp at Birkenau where 20th century technology had been employed to massacre over a million people.  He walked the camp in stony silence and left oppressed by the inadequacy of art.

The front gate at Birkenau, circa 1945
That night he turned to his friends and muttered, "We had to come here to understand.  To think that painters once thought they could paint 'The Massacre of the Innocents.'"

Until now, even the worst slaughters have been redeemed by the possibility that a surviving audience could bear witness to (and perhaps give meaning to) the tragedy. That slender consolation may no longer be available.

Artist Ralston Crawford was commissioned by Fortune Magazine to witness and illustrate one of the first atomic bomb tests in the south Pacific in 1946.  Perhaps his senses were damaged by the blast, for he came up with this laughable reaction:


Another artist, Enrico Baj, sensed that the jig was up and urged in his manifesto that traditional painting be demolished and that art be re-invented to respond to the new reality.  However, despite the sincerity of his intentions, his art was not up to the challenge.



Today an occasional museum exhibition will work up the nerve to take on this biggest theme of all. Artists such as Isao Hashimoto make their point effectively with hard data, while artists such as Carol Gallagher take a very personal and emotional approach and Jonathan Fetter-Vorm has prepared a graphic novel about the first Trinity explosion.  Some of these efforts are more successful than others, but they are all well-intentioned.

The ancient Greeks tragedians understood that even a doomed person retains enough control to elevate his or her fate from mere misery to the dignity of tragedy. That's not much, but if it's the only way to extract salvation from despair, it's important.


Friday, November 08, 2013

THE CHANGING ETIQUETTE OF THEFT


Recently a west coast illustrator was outraged to discover that her art had been used without her  permission by a corporation, Cody Foster Inc., for its line of Christmas ornaments.   The illustrator complained that the stolen art was "100% mine" and launched a publicity campaign attacking the plagiarism of her work:


However, during her publicity campaign it was discovered that the illustrator herself had "borrowed" someone else's copyrighted work to make her illustrations.





Her double standard is consistent with the highest traditions set by today's master artists.  Jeff Koons repeatedly "borrowed" other people's images to create his masterpieces, but when he discovered someone borrowing from him, he became indignant and sued for copyright infringement.  Similarly, Andy Warhol shamelessly borrowed images from others, but the Andy Warhol Foundation aggressively pursues anyone who attempts to copy Warhol's copies.

Apparently, the part of the human brain responsible for recognizing irony has atrophied as a result of exposure to contemporary art over the past 50 years.

 In the 1960s, Pop artists such as Lichtenstein and Warhol regularly used images by other artists but slept soundly at night believing that, although their images looked nearly identical, the underlying "concept" was different.

Lichtenstein explained why his version (on the right) is not a copy: "What I do is form, whereas the comic strip is not formed in the sense I'm using the word...."

Since the 1960s, the language of borrowing has become more glib, even as borrowing has become more blatant.  The Museum of Modern Art sniffs,
The recontextualization of familiar images from television, film and advertising suggests that the meaning of those images might not be intrinsic and unchanging but rather culturally constructed and context specific. 
In addition to "recontextualization," borrowing has been justified as repurposing, transformative use, sampling,  augmentation, or sometimes just plain old appropriation art

In such a complex world, no wonder the etiquette of borrowing has become confusing.

There used to be a natural defense against appropriation; art required technical skill, and  if you couldn't paint like Caravaggio, you couldn't appropriate his work. But in recent decades the role of technical skill has diminished while the ease of mechanical copying has increased.  The barricades against appropriation quickly fell, along with the old moral prejudices against it.

Today information technology indiscriminately captures vast oceans of images; it delivers them to us instantly from anywhere in the world, and empowers the least talented among us to duplicate them, alter them and even animate them in ways that the original artist would never permit.   Our attitude toward these pictures has changed because Google Images, Tumblr and Instagram have led many to believe that untethered images buzz around randomly in nature, like subatomic particles.  Today we seem to spend more time managing and tweaking pre-existing images than we spend creating important new ones.

In fact, a growing number of artists manage streams of information the way previous generations of artists managed pigment on a palette.  Data is becoming the raw stuff of art, and the low challenge for  the artist is to manage that data with just a little more taste and style than a search engine or data mining software might manage it.

The etiquette of borrowing will continue its radical transformation and it will be interesting to see where it ends up.  But no matter what happens, one universal principle is likely to remain unchanged: it will always be less of a crime for fine artists to steal from "commercial" or "low" artists (such as illustrators, product label designers and comic strip artists).  The Museum of Modern Art celebrates this phenomenon as "appropriated images from popular media and culture." Some things just don't change.