Illustration: The Marriage of Craft & Concept
In 1882, Vincent van Gogh spoke of acclaimed illustrator Howard Pyle in a letter to his brother Theo: “Do you know an American magazine called Harper’s Monthly? There are wonderful sketches in it… But there are things in it which strike me dumb with admiration, including… sketches of a Quaker town in the olden days by Howard Pyle.” Only 75 years later, in 1957, photographer Wright Morris captured a very different attitude of the fine art world towards illustration, bemoaning the work of illustrator Norman Rockwell. Morris stated Rockwell’s calendar illustrations were “hopelessly nostalgic,” and concluded the new “backlash of abstract art” was in direct response to Rockwell’s “picture-perfect America.”
Today, many critics continue to reject illustration as “real art,” and the skill involved in illustration as mere craft.
Since the mid-20th century, many contemporary fine artists and art programs have embraced deskilling in art, rejecting the achievements, techniques, and talents that artists such as van Gogh, let alone Pyle and Rockwell, spent years learning and developing. Author John Sigmund defines deskilling as “work of inferior production quality, using cheap and ephemeral materials, in order to consciously exhibit a lowbrow or amateur aesthetic,” which also lacks conceptual weight. Artist Ian Burn claims deskilling has been the “standard operating procedure of all of the ‘sanctioned styles of avant-gardism.’ ”
While selective deskilling can be valuable within certain contexts, Sigmund sees many dangers in the past century’s trend towards deskilling in art: it undervalues craft and labor, risks the education of art students, and, most alarmingly, increases the divide between the art world and society at large. While critics may have once denigrated Rockwell’s illustration as lacking real-world authenticity, deskilled art, by purposefully detaching from emotion, skill, and concept, can often seem quite inauthentic to the human experience.
Sigmund notes that “almost all deskilled art is conceptual in nature,” but “not all conceptual art is deskilled.” In the tradition of the work of Pyle and Rockwell, illustration remains one genre of the post-contemporary art world in which skill of concept AND skill of craft are both highly valued and highly necessary. Illustrators create imagery that has stood the test of time by experimenting with techniques from a variety of art traditions, from the Pre-Raphaelites to the Surrealists to the abstract, and they use these skills to solve problems and communicate concepts, emotions, and ideas.
Contrary to the accusations of Rockwell plasticizing reality, contemporary illustrators hit at the core of the emotions, activities, and decisions that define us as human beings. Today’s illustration has evolved into one of the most creative, dexterous, and innovative genres of post-contemporary art, incorporating visual puns, metaphors, and picture play with exceptional skill to make these sophisticated ideas accessible to a broad audience. Illustration is the antithesis to the problems of deskilled art, valuing craft and concept, educating students in these skills, and also remaining conceptually clear, accessible, and socially aware and relevant.
The Split Between Fine Art and Illustration
Historically, all artists, with the exception of those who are self-funded, rely on selling their work for profit. Illustrators, designers, AND fine artists are commercial artists. However, in the Western world, Albrecht Dürer is commonly thought to be the first “truly commercial artist.” Dürer hired agents to sell his work, employed his wife as his manager, and even took part in history’s first known case of plagiarism. Dürer was also in one of the first generations of artists to be able to use the most groundbreaking technology of the 15th century: the printing press. Many of Dürer’s engravings were reproduced in books, and his engravings were the most widely distributed type of his art, giving many people the ability to view his images. (I imagine if he had been able to have an Instagram account, he would have many followers.)
Three hundred years later on the other side of the globe, Katsushika Hokusai, was producing beautiful prints and illustrated books with images of waves, trees, and the countryside of Japan. Woodcuts and Japanese block-books, which precursed the printing press in Europe, made visual communication more accessible, selling inexpensive volumes “to rich and poor alike.” Hokusai, like Dürer, relied on “a large turnover of sales of his low-cost prints and the many illustrated books he produced throughout his life.”
While graphic art has been often neglected throughout history, these clearly commercial illustrators are now considered fine artists and hang in museums across the globe. Therefore, how did the gap between fine art and illustration widen during the first half of the 20th century?
At one point in the early 1900s, skill became associated with bad taste, and commercial illustrators bore the brunt of this criticism. This is largely attributed to the invention and development of conceptual art, and especially to Marcel Duchamp.
In 2008, The Independent wrote that with the display of Fountain, Duchamp “severed for ever the traditional link between the artist’s labour and the merit of the work,” opening the door for deskilling. However, a historical perspective of Duchamp and his goals (or lack thereof) offers another interpretation of this split, seeing it as a wandering branch of art history instead of a trajectory. When asked in an interview conducted by Russell Connor why he left the fine art world (to pursue playing chess… yes, chess), Duchamp replied:
“I didn’t have any ideas to express. I didn’t, never, considered myself like a professional painter. You know, a professional painter is a man who paints every morning. And he paints quickly or slowly, but he paints all the time. And painting always bored me. Imagine. So, I had a hard time finishing a painting.”
In his essay on Duchamp and contemporary art, art critic Eric Wayne sees this as further evidence that Duchamp was creating not in the evolution of what Duchamp rejected as “retinal art,” or “art that was supposedly designed to appeal to the eye and not the intellect” (Duchamp had a special aversion to van Gogh), but that he had created “another art form entirely.” Duchamp himself stated that, “I don’t care about the word ‘art’ because it’s been so discredited, and so forth… I really want to get rid of it, in the way many people today have done away with religion. It’s sort of an unnecessary adoration of art, today, which I find unnecessary.” The “father of conceptual art” had in fact, no ideas to express, did not consider himself to be an artist, and did not consider his seminal work to be art at all.
Nevertheless, many contemporary and “conceptual” artists continue to create in this vein today. (Some pretty literally!)
The Whitney 2012 Biennial was deemed by The Village Voice to be “conceptual clutter” and “pretentious twaddle,” and was especially criticized for its abundance of deskilled art. This included the work of Matt Hoyt, who writes of his own work: “The pieces are never the execution of a technique nor the expression of any clear and logical idea or concept; they simply are.”
While John Cage may have created “deskilled music” in the music world, we have not en masse rejected harmony, melody, rhythm, syncopation, and the countless other musical skills involved in its creation as being “bad music,” the way the fine art world has often rejected visual skills and techniques in art as being “bad art.” Art philosopher Denis Dutton asserts that “superlative technique” in music and dance is appreciated throughout the world and throughout time, and that skill in art has also shown this endurance. Dutton writes that, “Future generations, no longer engaged by our art “concepts” and unable to divine any special skill or emotional expression in the work, may lose interest in it as a medium for financial speculation and relegate it to the realm of historical curiosity.”
Thus, despite itself, “retinal” and skilled art continues, because we, as humans, continue to use visual imagery to communicate our genuine thoughts, emotions, and concepts (how very plebian of us!). Eric Wayne notes that while some highly skilled artists are able to break into the contemporary fine art world, such as portrait artists Chuck Close and Joe Block, their work has become highly technical, but also highly formulaic. Skill can become formulaic, but illustration is one form of contemporary art that is the antithesis of formula. Conceptual illustration can be successful through a variety of techniques and styles, including realism, semi-abstraction or cartoon imagery, and abstraction, and a conceptually skillful illustration can even be achieved through deskilled or naïve-style drawing. Many illustrators, including Anita Kunz, Steven Brodner, Sterling Hundley, and Luba Lukova, have shown us that skill is still relevant in communicating concepts in art, and, with their fellow illustrators, are producing some of the most visually and conceptually engaging images of the past century.
The Marriage of Craft and Concept
Canadian illustrator and artist Anita Kunz has helped resolder the split between fine art and illustration with her skill-driven narrative illustrations. Kunz’ illustrations are “sometimes more socially oriented and sometimes more politically oriented,” but always use narrative imagery to help communicate an idea or concept. Anita Kunz began the first 30 years of her career as a primarily editorial illustrator, although she “would never recommend for any artist to specialize like that these days!” Kunz calls today “a golden age of narrative art” and now displays fine art in galleries that is often difficult to distinguish from her illustrative work.
Kunz does not shy away from heavy topics in either her art or illustration, tackling the subjects of censorship, cloning, and, especially, evolution and the relationship between animals and humans.
Beyond gallery work, Kunz promotes self-generated illustration as well, such as illustrating and writing an article in the magazine NUVO.
In this illustration, Kunz wished to show the “ferocity of motherhood.” A woman arches her back like a wild cat as she creeps across the canvas, her child clinging to her underbelly, as the woman glares back at the viewer, protectively. Her placement on the edge of the picture plane makes it seem like the wild animal is about to jump out of the picture if you move too close to her child. This work is anything but the stereotype of a stock illustration to accompany a financial article. Terry Brown, former Director of the New York Society of Illustrators, says of Kunz’ work: “Illustration is definitely a misunderstood art … it’s a very powerful position to have in that that imagery can affect people’s opinions, that imagery can drive people’s ideas, pro and cons on issues.” Kunz’ work shows us that the events of the tangible world are not, as the fine art world may criticize, a distraction from the universe’s deep, mysterious truths, but they are a revealing of these truths within us.
If there is any illustrator who is driven just as much by concept as by skill it is Steven Brodner, who, like Kunz, robustly attacks political issues with his cartoon-inspired editorial illustrations.
Brodner’s skill in drawing and visual communication is so deft and so strong, he can effortlessly communicate his ideas with pictures the same way an adept journalist could paint their opinions with words. Brodner, who very much considers himself to be a visual journalist, writes of his work that “the point of it has got to be the love of communication with strangers about important things in a way that has a chance to be meaningful and compelling.” (This sounds vastly more interesting and valuable than Matt Hoyt’s quote that “pieces <that> are never the execution of a technique nor the expression of any clear and logical idea or concept.”)
Concept is critical to Brodner, who believes work “gains value through its content.” In Gun Show, for The American Prospect, Brodner illustrates the corruption of Congresspeople who accept donations from the NRA by working their caricatures into the shape of guns.
The illustration takes on layers of metaphor, including the Congresspeople who “fire” against gun control measures, how their political “ammunition” is funded by the NRA, and their long gun-barrel noses even indicate the dishonesty involved in accepting this money. (Good one, Brodner.) Brodner quotes late designer Paul Rand in saying “Art is what happens when an idea finds its perfect form,” and goes on in his own words that “form must fit the ideas. It’s about context, the subject. I want to make it as clear as possible.” In order to be able to find the perfect form for his multitude of ideas, Brodner’s exceptional craft and skill is necessary.
Illustration, of course, does not have to be highly realistic or rendered to clearly communicate concepts, but abstraction and collage are also important techniques used for illustrative communication. While Modern artists such as Picasso, Braque, Juan Gris, and, later, Robert Rauschenberg, used collage as a method of deconstruction, post-contemporary artists, including illustrator Sterling Hundley, use it as a method of reconstruction, making sense of and offering commentary on our chaotic political and social climate through narrative storytelling.
Hundley, who has contributed work to magazines and book publishers including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Scholastic, and Harper Collins, creates visual collages, paintings, sculptures, and lettering, which span a variety of styles in order to clearly convey complex concepts. Sterling says that “It’s important to remember that picture making is problem solving,” and knows that part of that problem solving is not limiting oneself to realistic or representational art.
In a series of images from his illustration collection “Blue Collar, White Collar,” Hundley depicts emotions surrounding war appropriately full of abstract emotion, so much so the soldiers, warplanes, and humans filling a mass grave are almost impossible to distinguish.
The feelings and message they communicate, however, are quite clear. Like Picasso, Hundley doesn’t shy to remind us that he too, is a master of realism, but uses these skills he has derived from realism to apply to abstraction.
Hundley shows us that abstraction can have infinite and liberating value, especially when placed within a conceptual context.
Illustrator Luba Lukova does not require skill in drawing to display skill in visual communication. Deskilling in one area can reveal and liberate skills in another. Scott McCloud writes in his book “Understanding Comics” that the more you abstract or simplify a subject, the more people it can be said to describe, which is part of abstraction’s special value. Using simple yet stunning visual metaphor in her poster series about social justice, Lukova reveals simple yet profound truths about the coverage gaps in healthcare, income inequality, and censorship.
In the cover image for the series, Lukova draws a simplified elk attacking a lion, the oppressed attacking the oppressor, whose mouth is open in shock and surprise upon being usurped.
Deskilling the drawing allows for simplification of colors and a direct, easy to read message. Inspired by the simplified and emotive art of German Expressionists, Käthe Kollwitz, and folk art, Lukova shows us the value of simplification and deskilling when used with purpose.
Implications for Education
The popularity of deskilled art has serious implications for art education. Artist F. Scott Hess agrees that there is no other field where deskilling has been embraced as it has in the art world, in which he believes “traditional skills of the profession <are> systematically and often institutionally denigrated.” Hess quotes the powerful recollections of many talented and renowned artists who had experiences in school in which they felt their wish to create representational painting was discouraged and even insulted. While in art school, after multiple failing grades creating realistic work, Graydon Parrish finally faked his way to an “A” by swirling white, red, and blue acrylic gesso into “oblivion” on a canvas, then incensed his teachers by revealing he had “faked it.”
Judy Bonzi said her teachers suggested her work was more acclimated for “outdoor weekend craft fairs <which> were probably a better place for <her> work than fine art galleries.”
Peter Zokosky was told by a visiting artist to his school that “with each stroke, <he> was setting art history back 500 years.” (Ouch.)
Hess states that many students excel at visual expression who may lack abilities in reading, writing, or mathematics, and that these representational abilities could be built upon to create “powerful visual communicators.” Do we want to teach our students to throw away their skills, passions, interest, and intuition and be “bored” with painting, like Marcel Duchamp was? Or do we want to teach them problem solving, engaged citizenship, and the joy and discovery of mastering a skill? Hess writes that, “I had great students who went on to become successful fine artists, but who had to enroll in the illustration department to get the necessary skills (anatomy, perspective, painting technique) to produce representational fine art.” If students of fine art are finding themselves frustrated with their education in deskilling, programs in illustration may offer them the conceptual and visual skills they desire to acquire.
In 2001, the Guggenheim in New York featured a retrospective of Norman Rockwell’s work. I visited this show on a trip to New York with my family, right after going to the top of the Empire State Building, which had reopened that day for the first time following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center two months earlier. The timing of this show brought a reassurance to its viewers of normalcy and safety after this traumatic event. Rockwell’s messages have stood the test of time, survived an era of criticism, and contrary to the critiques cascaded upon Rockwell for his depiction of an idealized, white-washed world, Rockwell’s later work also attacked issues including global responsibility, service, and, especially, civil rights.
Today, Rockwell has joined “commercial artists” Dürer and Hokusai in a place of significance within the fine art world. In December of 2013, one of Rockwell’s paintings, “Saying Grace,” originally created as the cover of a magazine, the Saturday Evening Post, sold at Sotheby’s for $46 million, solidifying his place in the fine art world (for better or worse).
In an era of uncertainty, resilience, hope, and an effort towards problem solving and societal contribution are often not found in deskilled art, but are often found in illustration.
Art is a byproduct of our perceptions about the world. The Millennial generation grew up with the events of 9–11, saw their friends fight in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and is currently experiencing the effects of racial police brutality and an unveiling of America’s underlying racism and bigotry during the Trump presidency. This generation confronts this chaos with renewed activism, while embracing a sense of comfort and nostalgia, but mostly, they yearn for and work for a world that makes sense within the turmoil. Instead of the nihilism of previous generations, today’s generation of young people confronts adversity with both a sense of defiance and an optimistic search for truth and genuine experience in an increasingly digital world. This generational difference is also apparent in the world of fine art. Millennials’ search for truth and genuine experience comes into contrast with the financial obscurity, elitism, and emotional detachment of the contemporary fine art world and deskilled art.
Illustration has answered to Sigmund’s list of dangers of the trend towards deskilled art. It teaches art students tangible skills and problem solving abilities, values craft and labor, and, most importantly, fosters a stronger relationship between the art world and society. Illustration and other forms of post-contemporary art, including street art, have proven to be accessible, available, and affordable, while also being politically and culturally relevant and conceptually sound.
Credit for skill and concept is also due to exceptional, socially engaged artists of the fine art world as well, including Kara Walker and Ai Weiwei, to name only two, but illustrators no longer rely on the approval of the fine art world to continue making their work and sharing it with the public. They now have their own bodies of peers that understand, appreciate, and evaluate their work through the Society of Illustrators, Communication Arts, and other institutions. As Tyree Guyton, founder of the Heidelberg Project in Detroit, notes, “We don’t need your museum… we created our own museum.” Anita Kunz, Steven Brodner, Sterling Hundley, and Luba Lukova, amongst many other illustrators, create work that falls under Sol LeWitt’s explanation of conceptual art: “In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work… all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.” In illustration, the “perfunctory affair” is not a result of deskilling, but instead a craft known and studied so passionately that the skill involved seems effortless.
After presenting this paper at the 2017 SECAC Convention in Columbus, Ohio, an attendee aptly noted that I had left out illustration made from craft and sculpture. My mistake! Illustration has so much variety of style and draws from so many art traditions that it can even be photographed sculpture. Here are just a couple of links to two phenomenal sculptural illustrators that I know personally: Megan Burkheiser & Jeff Hinchee.
Brazell, Derek and Jo Davies. Understanding Illustration. New York: Bloomsbury, 2014.
Dutton, Denis, “Has Conceptual Art Jumped the Shark Tank?”, The New York Times, October 15, 2009.
Gritz, Jennie Rothenberg. “The 1950s Backlash Against Norman Rockwell.” The Atlantic, November 21, 2013.
Hess, F. Scott. “Is Deskilling Killing Your Arts Education?”. The Huffington Post. September 24, 2014. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/f-scott-hess/is-deskilling-killing-you_b_5631214.html
Hogarth, Paul, The artist as reporter, London: Studio Vista Limited, New York: Reinhold Publishing Corporation, 1967.
Hoyt, Matt. Whitney Museum of American Art. http://188.8.131.52/Exhibitions/2012Biennial/MattHoyt (acccessed October 2, 2017).
Hundley, Sterling. “Sterling Hundley on Image Making.” YouTube video, 4:53. Posted November 5, 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h80cVsYbmyA
Kunz, Anita. Interview by Bravo TV. February 22, 2012.
Kunz, Anita. Interview by Inside the Artist’s Studio, August 5, 2005. http://artistinsight.blogspot.com/2010/08/anita-kunz-interview.html
Kunz, Anita. Interview by Robert Newman. AI-AP’s Profiles. November 12, 2015. https://www.ai-ap.com/publications/article/15721/illustrator-profile-anita-kunz-this-is-a-golde.html
McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics. New York: Harper Collins, 1993.
Moseley, Ann, John J. Murphy, and Robert Thacker. Willa Cather at the Modernist Crux. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2017.
Riding, Alan. “Back After a 32-Year Hiatus, The British Museum’s Dürer.” The New York Times, January 2, 2003.
Sigmund, John F.X. “Deskilling is Killing Art.” ArtMutt, April 2014. http://www.artmutt.org/deskilling-is-killing-art/
Stewart, James B. “Norman Rockwell’s’ Art, Once Sniffed At, Is Becoming Prized.” The New York Times. May 23, 2014.
Stonard, John-Paul. “Hokusai: The Great Wave that swept the world.” The Guardian, May 19, 2017.
“The loo that shook the world: Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabi,” The Independent, February 20th, 2008.
Wayne, Eric. “The Big Bang of Conceptual Art [Why People Hate Conceptual Art: Part 4].” Art & Criticism by Eric Wayne, January 28, 2015. https://artofericwayne.com/2015/01/28/the-big-bang-of-conceptual-art-why-people-hate-conceptual-art-part-4/
Wayne, Eric. “The Debate Over Skill in Visual and Conceptual Art.” Art & Criticism by Eric Wayne, January 13, 2005. https://artofericwayne.com/2015/01/13/the-debate-over-skill-in-visual-art-and-conceptual-art/
 Moseley, Ann, John J. Murphy, and Robert Thacker, Willa Cather at the Modernist Crux (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2017).
 Gritz, Jennie Rothenberg, “The 1950s Backlash Against Norman Rockwell,” The Atlantic, November 21, 2013.
 Riding, Alan, “Back After a 32-Year Hiatus, The British Museum’s Dürer,” The New York Times, January 2, 2003.
 Paul Hogarth, The artist as reporter (London: Studio Vista Limited, New York: Reinhold Publishing Corporation, 1967), 7.
 Stonard, John-Paul, “Hokusai: The Great Wave that swept the world,” The Guardian, May 19, 2017.
 “The loo that shook the world: Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabi,” The Independent, February 20th, 2008.
 Eric Wayne, “The Big Bang of Conceptual Art [Why People Hate Conceptual Art: Part 4],” Art & Criticism by Eric Wayne, January 28, 2015, https://artofericwayne.com/2015/01/28/the-big-bang-of-conceptual-art-why-people-hate-conceptual-art-part-4/
 Sigmund, Deskilling is Killing Art.
 Matt Hoyt, Whitney Museum of American Art, http://184.108.40.206/Exhibitions/2012Biennial/MattHoyt (acccessed October 2, 2017).
 Dutton, Denis, “Has Conceptual Art Jumped the Shark Tank?”, The New York Times, October 15, 2009.
 Eric Wayne, “The Debate Over Skill in Visual and Conceptual Art,” Art & Criticism by Eric Wayne, January 13, 2005. https://artofericwayne.com/2015/01/13/the-debate-over-skill-in-visual-art-and-conceptual-art/
 Anita Kunz, interview by Inside the Artist’s Studio, August 5, 2005. http://artistinsight.blogspot.com/2010/08/anita-kunz-interview.html
 Anita Kunz, Interview by Robert Newman, AI-AP’s Profiles, November 12, 2015. https://www.ai-ap.com/publications/article/15721/illustrator-profile-anita-kunz-this-is-a-golde.html
 Anita Kunz, Interview by Bravo TV, February 22, 2012.
 Derek Brazell and Jo Davies, Understanding Illustration (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014), 95.
 Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics, (New York: Harper Collins, 1993).
 F. Scott Hess, “Is Deskilling Killing Your Arts Education?”, The Huffington Post, September 24, 2014, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/f-scott-hess/is-deskilling-killing-you_b_5631214.html
 James B. Stewart, “Norman Rockwell’s’ Art, Once Sniffed At, Is Becoming Prized,” The New York Times, May 23, 2014.
 Sigmund, “Deskilling is Killing Art.”