Friday, July 21, 2006
Ilustration vs Fine Art: a fight to the death
Okay, not to the death, maybe, but there's some tension between illustration and fine art. Recently another blogger asked me about illustration: what is it? How is it distinguished from "fine art"? This is a tricky question: do you know the difference? I'm going to attempt to say what it is, but I'm kind of making it up, so if you have an opinion, let me know what it is!
Illustration. I studied illustration in art school, and my goal was always to illustrate books, whereas I guess a fine artist's goal is to sell original work in gallery shows. For me, the essential difference between illustration and fine art lies not as much in style and medium as in intent: what is the purpose of the particular art work? Illustration is created to be reproduced, be that in a book, on a poster, advertisement, or whatever. I like to think of illustration as "singing for its supper." It has a job to do, whether it's telling a story, or conveying something about a product, and the artist will not be standing next to it to explain it. It must be fully self-sufficient.
Fine art, on the other hand, just is. It can be a bent wire on a wall, or a rumpled bed installation at a snooty gallery, or a geometric painting, or it can be a luminous landscape painting, a portrait, or... and this is where it can get weird, it can also depict a scene and tell a story, just like an illustration. Lots of fine art is illustrative; just as lots of illustration is fine art. But what makes the Sistine Chapel ceiling NOT an illustration, even though it tells a story? It was not done with the intention of being printed and distributed. Ideally fine art should be either beautiful or though-provoking or both, but there's not a heavy burden on it that it convey a clear message.
So why is it important to make a distinction? I don't know if it IS important, but the distinction is made -- when I was in art school at the California College of Art in San Francisco, the painting and illustration departments were wholly distinct from each other, and there was a certain amount of scorn on each side. I know the painters looked down on illustrators as commercial sell-outs, while the illustrators thought [sometimes] that the painters were arty-farty phonies of the type who WOULD hang a bent wire on the wall and have the gall to call it art. Being an illustrator, I am much more familiar with discrimination against fine art, because I am a perpetrator of it. I admit it! I don't "get" abstract art, or bent wires, or babies sculpted from raw meat. I'm not going to say it's not art, but... well, to me, it's not good or interesting art. But that's just me. We illustrators were sometimes known to say, walking through the school's galleries and studio space, "don't step on the art" because you could never be entirely certain if a pile of trash was really a pile of trash, or someone's senior "installation". Ha! There was once a senior photography show that consisted of close-up photos of subjects' face juxtaposed with close-ups of their anuses. That, my friends, is not illustration. It's fine art. I guess. I could go on about weird "art" around campus. Some of it I liked (the laundry line from which enormous clothes were hanging, for example. It made me smile!), some not (the piece of sod with a spike rising from it and a balloon tied to the spike). Whatever!
So meanwhile, what were the illustrators doing? We were learning to paint, but not in the painting department. At CCAC the painting classes weren't very technique-oriented, and illustrators DO need technique, perhaps more than fine artists. Our assignments were more structured. Album covers, art for snowboards or skateboards, magazine covers, book covers, editorial illustration (usually, to accompany a magazine article), things like that. The goal of illustrators is usually to establish a successful freelance career, getting interesting assignments from different art directors, doing book and magazine covers and interiors, ad campaigns, maybe getting into character design for video games or storyboarding for a movie studio. There are clients, and the work is tailored. Usually. My goal was always to write and illustrate my own books and to create what I wanted, and for several years I did that, selling prints of my illustrative paintings at an art fair, before getting into licensing. I've worked with a few art directors, and had very positive experiences with them, and I've only ever done work that was fun for me. Jim went a different route in illustation, doing comic books and role-playing game fantasy art for a few years, though now he is getting more into book illustration and product design & licensing.
I would like to hear more from fine artists -- and to be clear that I do not scorn fine art. There are many gallery painters whose work I love, whose skill I deeply admire (and even covet). It's just FUN to tell the stories of the anuses and meat babies, so I make the most of that silly side of fine art, just for "color." But there are plenty of artists who straddle the line between illustration and fine art and make strong careers on both sides. A few examples are James Jean, Natalie Ascensios, Kinuko Craft, Jon Foster and many more.
I've also recently become familiar with the Duirwaigh Gallery, which focuses on gorgeous fantasy art that crosses that line between illustration and fine art. Its founder has also started a blog which is a lot of fun!
Posted by Laini Taylor at 8:54 AM