...but is it Art?

Cullen Waters writes intelligently and well on a variety of topics, largely dealing with writing, creativity, the arts and culture in general. It's an honor to be mentioned--twice!--on his blog.

And as turnabout is cheaper than a six pack, I'd like to present some thoughts on art that were sparked by a couple of his drawings (the guy's a talented illustrator as well). Both are reflections (if not actual illustrations) from a concept of his called "Fear Adventure."

The first, seen here, shows a green hand reaching for a girl who is (apparently) unaware that there's anything behind her.

The second, seen here, shows a bemused frog sitting on a sword.

In both cases, what we're presented with are parts of a narrative; there are clearly events that occurred before what is portrayed in the respective images. The first seems to be in the midst of events, while the second, in contrast, appears to be the end result of some adventure.

While the first image sparks a series of questions, the second is an answer. The mystery here may be, how did this "person" become a frog? But that's about the only question that's there, other than, perhaps, what happens next? Ultimately, it's an "after the fact" question. Things have already happened, and we're too late to see them.

The second image creates its own story, and the possibilities (to emply the old cliche) are endless. The image sparks a series of questions, such as, what is going on? Is the green hand a menace, a friend, or a warning voice? Does the young girl know about the hand? Would a green hand, here in this world, be considered "normal" or not? Are we in Kansas still, or elsewhere? What happens next?

While I think both are great, compelling illustrations, I must admit I prefer to the first to the second. Not because of any techical issues, but because the first sparks all those questions.

Which brings up another question. What do I like about the artwork that I like? Why do I like some pictures more than others, and why do I like some not at all?

My first impulse is to say it has to do with storytelling. The images I tend to like seem to be part of a nararrative. (Where in the course of the narative they sit seems to be a definite sticking point.)

Not everything has to appear to be part of a story, but it should appear to be part of a greater continuity. There should be some connection with something outside the elements of the image itself, even if that connection must be imagined.

Nowadays, this kind of art is usually sneered at as "illustration" rather than art, since the expression of the artist is subordinate to the presentation of the idea. Starting with Manet and coming to full flower with the Impressionists (and beyond), artists worked to convey how they actually saw the world, rather than illustrate narratives. With the advent of expressionism and surrealism, artists sought to explain their emotional states. (Personally, with the advent of abstract expressionism, the artists lost me. It became--to me--completely personal to the artist, with no room to communicate.)

With the appearance of pop art, and with the advent of the age of communication and the media-superstar, artists began to portray things not as an intrinsic concept, but so that the artist's superiority to the modern world could be conveyed. We've come full circle, to the other side of the mirror, where illustration of the world is a means of expressing the artist's emotional state--to the point where there's no attempt to acknowledge a viewer at all.

I only keep up sporadically with the art world these days. But the idea of an artist communicating with anyone other than himself has pretty much disappeared nowaways. It's all what the artist had for breakfast and his cell phone bill is too high and the guy I liked didn't win the election. In a sense, modern artists have been blogging far longer than any of us.

What we like, or don't like about art probably depends on where we stand in terms of the work in question. Are we only the creator? Are we only the viewer? Or are we the viewer, but holding an equal measure in the creation of the work? Does the work need us to complete it?

...and is it art?

(PS: Naturally, it took me so long to write this, that there's now a third illustration at Welton Cares Presents...)

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