I am teaching a group of senior illustrators and cartoonists in the Communication Design major. The class, Visual Worlds, is really a methods course in drawing. A series of “diagnostic” problems, followed by a individual tutorials played out within a group. The critical question: how and under what circumstances do I, the student, put things together well? followed by a second: how does the answer to that question help me choose what to make and with which tools? and then a third: given all that, how shall I build a direction that I own?
One of the ways to get access to a student’s predilections involves seeing through their eyes, on the basis of what they collect. We ask them to build clip files of things they love, no matter what they are. It’s quite helpful: of all the images floating around in digital ether, which ones does the student choose? There are always clues to that student’s way of seeing embedded in that set, though typically they escape her understanding at first. (I am speaking especially of the pictorial carpentry, less than an editorial p.o.v. While the latter is important, it’s more obvious; the former is more technical and harder to see, but–strictly speaking–more useful.)
From whence do these images come? Nowadays, from the interwebs; typically via Google, which offers plenty to the poser of narrow questions, less to one pursuing broader ones. (Try entering “visual art” in a search engine and see what you get.) Plus, those images arrive sans context, sans grounding of any kind, a perfect postmodern blizzard of rootless pixels.
It requires at least some background to know what to search for, whether in a library or a on a search engine. These students have taken an art history survey and a required modern art course, plus other bits of this or that art historical period. On the basis of these experiences, they know zilch of the history of illustration and cartooning, save for a brush with Daumier. Some have taken my commercial modernism course, and have a basic familiarity with their tradition, but half have not, and don’t.
As these students’ primary visual concerns are beginning to emerge, it becomes increasingly important for them to have a cultural context. To which creative strands or traditions might they belong?
Which brings me to my problem: how to provide a history of illustration in an afternoon? To be clear, I am mostly disinclined to construct such a thing, as it threatens to devolve into poor man’s art history. The narrative of Significance and Influence sets up a frame for looking at artifacts that directs attention away from the cultural transaction. I have neither space nor time to develop that theme to an appropriate degree, so it will have to wait for another day. But in an underdeveloped field, it likely that a canon will be necessary, at least as a start. Yet I stressed to my students that even as I prepared to run them through a set of things that attach to Significant Practitioners, I did so doubtfully.
As a hedge–maybe better than that–I constructed the narrative as a tale of industry: American periodical publishing. For the geeks out there: can you write a (versus the) plausible narrative of American illustration using these seven magazine covers as data points?
We could do the same with a set of advertisements or book illustrations, which would make for interesting parallel problems. In any case, in my view it's folly to look at the history of illustration as a freestanding narrative of aesthetic achievement. Rather, these images occur at the intersection of technology, commerce and social history. Aesthetics is a small part of that equation.