Commercial or functional images do significant cultural work. By “significant” I mean substantial, not important in the art historical sense of the term. Such images do have cultural import, to be sure, but not on the terms of the art historical narrative, which tends to emphasize aesthetic innovation, creative psychodrama, and high cultural influence.
Functional images achieve import through other means—they deliver information, stories, arguments, fantasies to a mass (or sub-)culture which consumes them and also partly defines itself by them. I think that the instinct to develop competing art historical canons for the histories of comics and illustration will, for now, tend to compound existing critical difficulties with these media. The focus on individuals, especially in illustration, has thus far delayed the development of a focused critical discourse about the cultural activity itself. I am reading Laura Claridge’s Norman Rockwell: A Life (2001) and though I am only about halfway through the book, I can report that she focuses quite usefully on personal and family dynamics, but tends to use terminology like “the Art World” without providing definitions. She’s true to the title—so far, it’s a life. Not so much about images, practices, technologies, etc. Which goes back to my point, that personalities have overshadowed engagement with the field qua field. Not really a biographer’s job, I recognize. But these books (Claridge’s and David Michaelis’ 1998 biography of N.C. Wyeth, which I read a few years ago, and which I would group with the former) are important ones in a field with few serious texts. (Alice Carter's Red Rose Girls, which tells the story of a circle of women illustrators circa 1900 and after, emphasizes visuality more than most such books.)
I will post some time soon on the canonical impulse and the art historical quicksand suggested by the mainly admirable blockbuster “Masters of American Comics” exhibition of last year, which I had the pleasure of viewing in Milwaukee.
One of the most important roles played by illustration has been the visualization of fantasy, which I mean in standard usage, not its narrow contemporary life as a niche label for neo-medieval goofiness. In the 19th century, the realization of fantasy required the delivery of visual images, especially for children’s books and periodicals. The literature of the 18th and 19th centuries provided a ready stream of potential such visualizations, which gave rise to the Scribner’s Classics series, memorably launched in 1911 with Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, illustrated by N.C. Wyeth in a flourish of imagination and gusto. Wyeth, along with his celebrated teacher Howard Pyle (who died that same year) created the modern visual idea of a pirate. Pyle’s “Dead Men Tell No Tales” among many other images, and Wyeth’s Treasure Island enabled the two of them, long dead, to art direct the “Pirates of the Carribean” ride at Disneyland—as well as the recent trio of films by the same name—from beyond the grave.
Illustrators from Pyle to Wyeth to Rockwell spent a great deal of time and energy worrying about the relationship between illustration and painting, tending to fear that despite their successes, the Great Painter in the Sky would find them and their lucrative careers wanting. (I say to you, it is easier for a Golden Age Illustrator to pass through the eye of a needle than to enter the Kingdom of Art History…) Periodically Wyeth made lousy, backward-looking Millais-like landscapes. But these tepid offerings never came close to the verve and dash of his narrative illustration. What the illustrators tended not to recognize or value was the obvious creative kinship between illustration and the developing medium of cinema—the latter another form of fantasy fulfillment. The prestige of “easel painting” trumped all suits. But the dialogue between illustration and film developed nonetheless.
Science fiction illustration created a ready visual vocabulary for films of another sort, from 1950’s space alien fare through Kerry Conran’s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow(2004) which was raised on a steady diet of such images, circa 1940.