If a man has a talent and cannot use it, he has failed. If he has a talent and uses only half of it, he has partly failed. If he has a talent and learns somehow to use the whole of it, he has gloriously succeeded, and won a satisfaction and a triumph few men ever know.
- Tom Wolfe
- Tom Wolfe
Do you ever get that feeling you’ve got this new job that you somehow get tongue-tied trying explaining what it’s really about? Then people laugh at you and go “What??” Well, that’s sort of what happens when some decided to open up a discussion regarding…
Yes! “Fine art vs. Illustration”!
Are you a fine artist, or would you consider yourself an illustrator? For fun or profit? Is one better than the other?
Yes folks, I will warn you in advance that this is likely going to be a fairly pointless discussion. Still, I do hope that towards the end that you might have learned something.
The topic began when forum-goer Andabatae posted that he was doing some research for a paper about the differences between Illustration and Fine Art - How they clash, why and who mainly focuses on concept art” and “Does comic art go against art the likes of old master paintings and modern fine art?” The usual.
Andabatae remarked that some artists such as Ashley Wood, Kent Williams and Yoji Shinakawa, have managed to cross the “fine line” between these two "labels".
Additionally, Anda’s notes that he’s been receiving some flak during his fine art classes that most of his work blatantly shows his influences to be mostly from illustrators and other artists whose work has a big presence of narrative and reason.
Meridiani, a helpful forum-goer, begins with the well-meaning reply that, “... there are only a few things that distinguish illustrators from fine artists (and they're blurry at best.) One has to do with order of payment; illustrators are contracted first and then do the work. Fine artists do the work first and then struggle to sell it (though commissions really throw a wrench in this distinction.)
“Another has to do with the preeminence of the story or 'product' (in illustration you can't make dramatic changes to these simply because it makes for a better image.)”
Additionally, Meridiani supposes that gallery owners pimp artists to the pretentious upper crust, whereas publishing houses will whore you out to the increasingly image hungry masses and “… Chances are you're going to get fucked either way, and yet in the fine art world, everyone is a necrophilia, so there's an added bonus that they'll try to fuck you again after your dead.”
The discussion’s off to an interesting start, eh? Andabatae agreed to most of what was said, however he states that there’s a lot more to the debate than that. Apparently, a lot of the criticism that he got was directed at how his worked mimicked the so-called ‘comic book style’.
“It gets at me a lot when that happens because surely, illustration is just as emotionally valid as fine art as it’s done with fairly similar intentions. Does it not more rely on the artist themselves?”
Kev Ferrera, one of the senior members of the forum, offers some… interesting advice:
“Fine art is sold in a Fine Art gallery. That is its definition. If illustration gets sold in a gallery it becomes fine art.
Fine Art was a distinct category from everything else. It was a political distinction drawn by ideologues circa 1900-1920, coinciding with the rise of illustration... The camera also played a part because ideologues can't see the poetic components of art; they just see the literary components, which dovetail with their "social realist" interests. Thus they could not see a significant distinction between, say, Waterhouse's Lady of Shallotte and a photograph of a similar event.
If you read Howard Pyle, Harvey Dunn, or Robert Henri's notes, they make very plain the difference between photography and illustration.
The depression and the rise of films effectively killed illustration as the bete noir of the "fine art community". Since the fine art community is ideology based, they simply have chosen new "oppressors" to rail against as time has marched on.
The Fine Art community has now effectively hated on everything it could get its hands on, including itself. And now we are at the end of the cycle.
Lady of Shalott Sample of Realist/Representational Art
Which is why the distinction between Fine Art and Illustration is falling away and "realist" work is becoming popular again. There was never a distinction in the first place, only a false one.
Read Thomas Wolfe's the Painted Word. This is not to say that the twentieth century wasn't a marvelous time for the invention of new decorative schemes. All of which have been taken up by Architects and Fashion designers for their work.”
Wow. Thank you, society! People just love to put name everything, don’t they? And people sure do love to argue. Laqueatores, another forum-goer, has this to say about the subject:
“I agree with everything you said, just not quite on this one… I don't think that fine art is necessarily confined to 'gallery space' - so to speak. In my view, Fine Art has as much to do with the spirit of the piece (as most dictionary definitions will echo) as the way it is commercialized.
This, of course, makes it more fuzzy.
In fact I think separating the two terms (Illustration and Fine Art) is in itself very problematic, and taking a "vs" slant on the whole thing is, as far as I can see, going to end up as something polemical rather than academical.”
Andabatae then offers his perspective:
“If you take that look. You kinda start to realize that even most gallery artists would fall under commercial artist as its in their intent to sell their work and gain profit. Boxing ones self into an area once they realize what the consumer is looking for and sticking to reproducing similar looks. Self marketing.
Art in general carries with it emotional ties. Whether its dictated by a publisher or dictated by the market at the time. So saying there is in some way more emotion or depth to "gallery/fine art" (which is typically what ive heard) is downgrading the planning and executing that goes into commercial art.
I produce work for my own personal release (when i have time) and for profit and publishers. I'm an artist. I don't need to add another label and I'm comfortable with my own position in life to not to need to feel like I’m better than anyone. You get flak from both sides. People in commercial art criticizing gallery artists and gallery artists criticizing commercial artists. There is a lot people can learn from both sides and they can get past their egos."
Just when things were getting pretty good now, Dimacheri offers his clearly annoyed perspective in the mix about what Kev had said about the false distinctions of Fine Art and Illustration, the rise of "realist" work, and how the 20th century became host of decorative art. Or something:
“Ahhhhh...I never had it explained to me so clearly before. Since it's apparent… that this "reconnection" can occur only when all work is "realist," supported by the implications in the that "non-realist" work is basically a bunch of new
"decorative schemes". I guess I'll have to start referring to my earlyinfluences and references to my own learning process as interior decorators or gift-wrap designers...
Surrealist Art, produced by some of the artists mentioned below
So as not to confuse any one in the future, Klee, Arp, Johns, Duchamp, Miro, Nevilson, Pollock, Klein, Shawn, Tanguay, Picasso, Matisse, Rothko, and maybe 3-4,000 others, as well as every other artist of any stripe that they ever influenced in any way (including probably 25,000+ professional illustrators), will be immediately removed from my reference list of "artists" to refer to.
And I hope all of you learned a lesson from this finally. You have been told over and over that the only "true artists" are those who adhere religiously to strict "realist" work or "realism," but none of you ever seem to learn.
Rothko's Abstract art is... interesting
Ah, things get weirder. Laqueatores defends his position, stating that not every artist can have the same comparison as being merely “decorative”. “... Just some Miro, most Pollock, most Rothko, most of Arp, most of Klein, not so sure about Shawn or the rest.
And so-called "realism" casts a very wide net indeed. So I wouldn't exactly call it exclusionary.
And there is absolutely nothing wrong with decorative art. I happen to believe that all art is poeticized versions of life, so even Pollock is offering us a narrative. I consider the distinction to be related to the generality of the aesthetics of abstractionist work.
Because these works have no specificity (not even to themselves, because their styles are easily duplicated by a competent craftsman), they apply rather poorly to our specific experiences in life. They are expressive and beautiful without being tethered to realism. This makes them emotionally associative works, like wordless classical music.
Classical music can be associated equally well as background for a Hollywood melodrama, a bugs bunny cartoon or a commercial for diapers.
Modernist decorative schemes are the same way. They can work for furniture, clothing, architecture, magazine layout... or any other thing where blank or boring surfaces are an integral part of the utility of an object. There is definite merit in that kind of creativity. I am not knocking decorative art. But it is, by its very nature, a surface-oriented art. It is not deep, despite all the verbiage spilled on its behalf.
Meridiani offers us some MUST READ ARTICLES regarding the topic (but won't be up for discussion here):
Mary Eaton's Defense of Illustration as Fine Art
According to Meri, the following articles show the folly of it all. The first article is about “… illustration being celebrated/plagiarized in the Fine Art sphere.”
Fine art = $10,000 Illustration = $100
Despite the fact that they’re both being the same picture! But “… when you engulf one in ideological smoke and mirrors...” Meri then says:
“I suppose the text book difference is that fine art serves it's own purpose, but illustration does exactly that - it – illustrates it's point, i.e. it's a describing process there to aid someone understanding a page of text from a novel for example, or to aid someone to imagine the pro's of buying a product in advertising.
That is not to say that illustration cannot become fine art or the reverse, it's just that illustration on paper (excuse the pun!) is there to perform a task I suppose.
I did a similar essay at college about Mervyn Peake, who was a fantastic fine artist and an even better (in my opinion) illustrator.
I suppose we, with the mind of 'artists' find it difficult to say the piece is fine art, and that isnt, but I often come across people who enjoy 'hang on your wall' artwork, but have no interest in illustration (these later are the repulsive
people who do not buy illustrated editions of the same book by different artists... for shame.”
A Beautiful Painting To Break The Monotony
Ah, I think we have enough for the topic. It’s been very edu—what’s this? Provocator, another forum-goer, throws his two cents:
“In my isolated opinion… Illustration should now be called “commercial art" and often is and "Fine Art" should be renamed "non-commercial art”, thus removing any value judgment inherent in these titles and subsequently thus all the ego bumping. Learn what there is to be learned from both very different disciplines, then recombine and cross-pollinate with lessons learned form both and other disciplines as well.
Interesting, but unfortunately, this didn’t sit well with some people. Elwell laughed his head off by this point in the discussion. I think it was when he knew people reading this thread had enough.
“I was being facetious... trying to point out the silliness of caring about these labels.... and its a given that no one will really re-name anything ... I’m sure you remember all too well, a recent mammoth thread about the futility of the whole debate.”
Well, yes. What else is new? People love labeling everything. When discussions go as far as this, I am reminding me of how people once debated about the distinctions of goth, emo-goths, and all these other weird stuff people keep coining generation after generation.
Anyway, the last few statements aside, I do hope you learned something. Apparently, the origins of this age-old debate go way back. And what’s with 20th century art? Can this debate ever be put to rest?
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