Degrees of illustration
Post #1097 • December 6, 2007, 3:44 PM • 5 Comments
Last night I gave a talk to a collegue's modern and contemporary art history class. The difference between fine art and illustration came up as a question for discussion. One workable answer says that illustration is art intended for reproduction. That leaves a lot of edge cases, but it serves well enough for the conventional sense of the term. I've found another way of answering, though, that has some interesting implications.
Last month I posited the idea that an object can have art by degrees. (I also suggested a continuum between art and philosophy upon which more-conceptual art lies towards the latter, but I'm going to revise this.) We can set up a similar scale alongside it, correlating to degrees of illustration. A thing has art to the degree that it concerns itself with visual quality. A thing has illustration to the degree that it concerns itself with visually representing an idea.
Let's take for an example something that has little art and a lot of illustration: the assembly instructions the come with a new toilet tank flushing mechanism. The entirety of its visual quality consists of the modicum of skill it takes to render clear diagrams. Such drawings work better using a schematic style than a beautiful one. In contrast, consider a good Noland. That kind of work may evoke a vague idea, something like "the artist likes color and believes he can make a good painting using only areas of color." But the work doesn't communicate that idea, but rather presumes it and proceeds accordingly. The final result exists as a repository of form.
Distinguished this way, we can see things that we normally think of as illustration to have art in them, perhaps a lot of it. Maurice Sendak's work holds up beautifully. Likewise, we can see things that we normally think of as art to have illustration in them. Botticelli, for instance. Art and philosophy require different tools for optimal results, whereas art and illustration do not, and as such don't constitute antipathetic exercises. Joseph Kosuth's One and Three Chairs, while it has scant concern with visual quality, does an excellent job representing the idea that differences exist between the real, the depicted, and the described. As an object, it relates more to the toilet diagram than to Botticelli.
This scheme does a better job separating more-visual and more-conceptual art than the continuum did. The idea that a more-conceptual piece provides a certain philosophical pleasure starts to look weak when you consider it next to philosophy itself, which provides all of the philosophical pleasures. It nearly insults philosophy to do so. Rather, such an object may provide a starting point for philosophical contemplation or discussion. Philosophy consists of more than mere assertions, but art does not. Hence the language that a certain work of art challenges so-and-so or calls into question some other thing. It goes no further because it can't. Art said to explore an issue can only do so in series. Even then, it can only explore by repeated assertion, not by dialogue, which belongs to the realm of language. Art objects can only illustrate philosophical problems. We can turn them into the problems themselves, but we can do that with anything.