I am speaking at the ICON conference in Austin. My initial proposal read thusly:
This session will present a “liberal arts” agenda for educating illustrators in the tradition of the narrative arts. Illustration education badly needs a dollop of theory to deepen the practical and extend the entrepreneurial aspects of current programs.
Training illustrators has been a powerfully practical affair for more than a century. Commercial and technological developments dominated professional discourse beginning in the Gilded Age. The “applied” orientation remained in force after illustration entered the university in the postwar era, and has accelerated with the advent of digital culture. The associated habits of mind have tended to warp educational experiences. That is, fixations on what image to make and how pictures are made have canceled out other questions, such as why pictures at all?
“Theory” has a bad name in illustration circles, in large part because modern art theory was used to disallow our field. Dominant schools of art criticism in the 20th century ignored or ridiculed illustrators. But the avoidance of theory has weakened illustration education by leaving its students without a considered set of values and sustaining literature to draw upon.
Illustrators work in a long deep tradition of narrative art. Students are well served by collisions with important primary texts... When students are given the opportunity to grapple with [such texts] ...they gain the skills and confidence to manipulate ideas. At least as importantly, engagement with serious thinkers applicable to their tradition gives them a chance to overcome the unspoken biases many have imbibed in the still dominant precincts of fine art and art history. There are competing ideologies, and students should have an opportunity to explore and test them, too.
Below are some texts I have used with students in a mixture of studio courses and academic ones. Many of them can be adapted for use in both. Feel free to email with questions or comment.
Aristotle. Selections from Poetics. Translation by S. H. Butcher. Internet Classics Archive. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology. http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/poetics.html © 1994-2009 Briefly addressed in my ICON talk. An excellent text to explore the carpentry of narrative; the six elements of drama provide a handy value set to explore emphasis for the student.
Auden, W.H. “The World of the Sagas,” from Secondary Worlds; Essays by W.H. Auden. New York: Random House, 1968. Pages 49–84. Wonderful discussion of artifice and plausibility, among other things.
Baudelaire, Charles. “The Painter of Modern Life,” in The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, translated and edited by Jonathan Mayne. London: Phaidon, 1964. Pages 1-40. The essay was written in 1860, and published in 1863. Also covered, superficially, in my talk. The flâneur as a archetype, and an argument for particularity in the representation of modern/contemporary life.
Bazin, André. "The Ontology of the Photographic Image." Translated from the French by Hugh Gray. Film Quarterly Vol. 13 No. 4 (Summer 1960). Pages 4-9. An arresting text: photography as mummification.
Bogart, Michele H. Selections from “The Problem of Status for American Illustrators,” Chapter 1 in Artists, Advertising and the Borders of Art. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press. 1995. Pages 15-27; 52-61. Bogart's book remains the only substantial art historical study to engage illustration as an anxious professional culture that developed in a particular historical context.
Brecht, Bertold. “A Model for the Epic Theater,” in Directors On Directing. Edited by Toby Cole and Helen Krich Chinoy. Indianapolis, Indiana: Bobbs-Merrill, 1953. Essay translated from the German by Eric Bentley; first appeared in the Sewanee Review in July 1949. Pages 234–244. A discussion of alienation and representation which is less academic than it sounds.
Brunetti, Ivan. “Introduction” and “The Single Panel Cartoon,” in Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011. Originally published as a supplement to Comic Art #9, edited by M. Todd Hignite, 2007. Pages 3–9, 29–35. Concise, clear,
Crawford, Matthew B. Chapter 1, “A Brief Case for the Useful Arts,” in Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. New York: The Penguin Press, 2009. Pages 11–36. Crawford's book is a critique of contemporary definitions of labor and a defense of what it means to know something with your hands. I sometimes start with this reading in a studio course.
Dowd, D.B. “Women Illustrators and Creative Ancestry,” in Notables in American Illustration. Brief biographies with critical sketches of work by women illustrators, culled from the tear sheets of the Walt Reed Illustration Archive at the Modern Graphic History Library at Washington University, and from the author’s collection of illustrated educational texts. May 22, 2016. http://www.dbdowd.com/illustration-history/2016/5/17/women-illustrators-and-creative-ancestry
Emerson, Ralph Waldo, “Self Reliance,” in Self Reliance and Other Essays. Mineola, New York: Dover Thrift Editions. The essay was first published in 1841. Pages 19-38. For people entering a competitive field, a bracing text.
Greenberg, Clement. “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” (1939) and “Toward a Newer Laocoon,” (1940). Anthologized in Art in Theory 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing. 1992, 2003. Pages 539-549; 562-568. I think all art students should read Greenberg, but illustrators really have to know "Avant-Garde and Kitsch," just to be familiar with powerfully influential trash-talking of popular visual media. They should read Plato for related reasons.
Mamet, David. “Pig–The Movie,” in On Directing Film. New York: Penguin Books, 1991. Pages 79–101. Out of print. But an excellent introduction to shot selection as storytelling, a must for people working for the screen.
Plato, Selection from The Republic: Book X. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. Internet Classics Archive. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology. http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.html © 1994-2009 Plato's misgivings about representation (by both painters and poets) have dogged "creatives" for many centuries. Best to know about and wrestle with it.
Ruskin, John. Chapter Four in The Stones of Venice, Volume III, The Fall. Boston: Estes and Lauriat, 1894. Pages 166–197. A seldom reprinted section of Ruskin's major work. He skewers the Neo-Platonists, amusingly.
Shahn, Ben. “The Education of an Artist,” in The Shape of Content. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1957. Pages 111–131. Painter, illustrator, photographer, lithographer, and hand letterer, Shahn is a powerfully humane representative of the graphic tradition.
Sontag, Susan. “Notes on Camp.” Against Interpretation and Other Essays. New York: Dell Publications. 1966. ("Camp" appeared in 1964.) Like Greenberg, Ruskin and other great critics, Sontag takes no prisoners. "Camp" was an early success if a bit sprawling. It can be used in association with JC Leyendecker or Jessie Willcox Smith to discuss LGBT creative history, as well as exploring subjects like fan art.
Wang Wei [701-761 CE] and Li Ch’eng [d. 967 CE]. Texts on landscape painting, particularly Wang’s poem on that subject, in Early Texts on Chinese Painting, compiled and edited by Susan Bush and Hsio-yen Shih. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1985. Pages 172–180. Wang instructs the young painter quite directly, conveying the value of tradition and received styles. What is originality? What is plagiarism? How does culture play a part in the answers to those questions?