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Jesse Hamm

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The State of Figurative Art [Dec. 2nd, 2008|01:40 pm]
Jesse Hamm
It's no secret that figurative art -- that is, art which portrays the physical world in a literal way -- fell out of favor among academics about a century ago. We've all heard of the great figurative artists of centuries past (Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rembrandt...), but the figurative giants of the past 150 years have been eclipsed in the public awareness by artists whose imagery was more fractured and abstract. Beginning with the Impressionists, who broke color into its distinct components, and continuing through Van Gogh, Cezanne, and Picasso, who put shapes also to the hammer, we arrived finally at the likes of Pollock, Rothko, and subsequent nonrepresentationalists, whose paintings puréed the visual realm completely, divorcing art from any attempt to represent the physical world in a literal way.

In his 1976 book How Should We Then Live?, Francis Schaeffer attributes this shift in art to a shift that has occurred in Western philosophy in recent centuries. He argues that, while we once saw spiritual meaning in physical sights, we have since divided spiritual meaning and the physical realm into two distinct categories. The modern academic believes the physical realm represents a reality without meaning or spiritual consequence; to him, meaning and morality exist only in the mind, on some purely abstract level. In consequence, modern academia rejects attempts to portray spiritual realities through figurative imagery. Only nonrepresentational imagery is deemed appropriate for portrayals of meaning, which is seen as having no physical dimension.

The result of this shift among academics in the late 19th Century was that artists with a talent and passion for figurative painting were left out in the cold. The great names of figurative art from that period -- Sorolla, Zorn, Gerome, and so on -- fell from favor and are largely unknown today, even in art circles. By the end of that century, critics and intellectuals lost interest in celebrating or chronicling work by figurative masters. Where was such an artist to turn?


Thankfully, these ideas in philosophy hadn't yet trickled down to the popular level. Mr. & Mrs. Joe Q. Public could still look at a sunset and think of God. And so a migration occurred: popular books, magazines, and advertisements were soon brimming with art by some of the finest figurative talents ever to hold a brush. Leyendecker, Rockwell, Rackham, Parrish, Pyle, Wyeth, and on and on. A half century earlier, their audience would have been the wealthy intellectual patrons of galleries and salons; now their audience was the common household.

But the new philosophy would not remain confined to academia. Eventually Joe Public's kid went to college and was taught that the sunset had nothing to do with God. Junior then concluded that even magazine imagery was off limits to loftier realities, which had meaning in word only. If you wanted pictures in your magazine, they had to be journalistic records of a purely physical reality: photographs. If you wanted ruminations on ethics and spirituality, your attention was funneled toward the articles, or to music. What became a boon for nonvisual artists like Bob Dylan and the Beatles was a bane to those who dealt in the forbidden art of pictures.

So another migration was in order. Figurative artists had first shifted markets from intellectuals to plebeians; now they would shift from plebs to adolescents. By the 1960s, the comic book and pulp novel industries saw an explosion of talent. Giants from Kirby to Toth held comic fans in thrall, while similar excitement was stirred in the paperback market. Publishers of "serious" novels scoffed at painted covers, deeming them adolescent, but novels that were aimed at adolescent tastes -- stories of spies, barbarians, and bodice-busting damsels -- teemed with stunning art by Frazetta, McGinnis, Bama, Avati, and their ilk. The culture's best figurative art had gone from adorning chapels and museums to the racks of the corner newsstand.

The migration didn't stop there. Figurative artists were now in a continual retreat from the advancing material/spiritual dichotomy as it conquered each social stratum, from intellectuals on down.

After the '60s, fantasy and pulp cover artists grew increasingly photographic, in step with their readers' growing belief that imagery should contain no meaning beyond bare physical reality. Spy novels, being aimed at a slightly more mature readership of adults, were the first to reflect this change; they phased out painted covers by the '70s. Girls mature faster than boys, so romance novels were next: their once beautifully painted covers were gradually supplanted by super-realism and, more recently, photo covers. Painted covers of boy-books (barbarians et al) linger on, but photocovers and pictureless covers encroach on that territory as well. Movie posters, even those depicting the most adolescent of fantasies, are now exclusively photographic.

Imagery can't be banished from the image-based medium of comics, but cartoonists are doing what they can to marginalize the meaning of images in their work. Evocative, lushly drawn adventure strips have dwindled to nothing, replaced in the newspapers by jokes that barely require illustration. Alternative comics have similarly become preoccupied with words, offering hurried and ill-informed drawings as minor supplements to the dialogue -- almost as a grudging concession. Mainstream cartoonists, too, seem to want to make their art invisible, but they do this by working harder than ever to give it a photographic quality. "You're not looking at a drawing, dear reader; you're looking at a man in a costume!" The meaningful totems of Kirby's comic art are being replaced by the photojournalism of the disciples of Adam Hughes and Alex Ross. (Ross's work in particular seems to struggle with a tension between impressions of meaning and the tyranny of philosophical materialism. His staging and lighting suggest that he wants his heroes to mean something more than piles of atoms, but to depict them as something more, as Kirby did, would defy the taboo against linking nature with meaning. Of particular poignancy is his habit of aging his heroes beyond youth into middle age, as though he can't stand the thought of being older than they are. To surpass them in years would be to confront the dilemma that their moral authority is either a social convention based on age [and is therefore arbitrary and mutable], or something mythical and timeless [and therefore forbidden to be linked with the visible world].)

So the adolescent, too, now rejects the idea of meaningful figurative imagery. Which brings us to the latest migration, and the torchbearers of the present era.

In the mid-'80s, as figurative imagery was slowly leaving the paperbacks, Don Bluth inspired a renaissance in cartoon animation. Other companies jumped aboard -- Disney, Warners, 20th Century Fox, Dreamworks, Cartoon
network/HB -- resulting in a mad harvest of talented animators. Even computer animation outfits like Pixar required fine draftspeople to design their characters and worlds. Today, if you read a blog or forum where beautiful figurative art is being exhibited or discussed, odds are the participants are animators. If you encounter a book collection of impressive new figurative art, it's probably by an animator. Increasingly, it is animators who dominate the figurative art scene.

There remain fine figurative artists in comics, gallery art, and other fields, but they are fewer per capita, and their passion is generally unequal to that of animators. The reason may be that animation is the last medium in which the images profoundly mean something to the intended audience. Unlike intellectuals and the rest of society, children haven't learned to divorce what matters from matter. To a child, this tree looks evil because there is evil in the universe; that tree looks good because there is good in the universe. Not a metaphorical, value-free "good," explained by the brain chemistry of organisms programmed for survival, but GOOD -- eternal, undeniable, realer-than-this-planet good; an unseen good which corresponds in some way to the visible world. That rare conviction about the meaning of images fuels animation's popularity. Animators are inspired to shine for their audience of children because they know that their audience BELIEVES. They believe in a manner akin to the audience of Da Vinci and Michelangelo, who inpired those early masters centuries ago.

What will be the next migration? Will children follow the other social strata in rejecting figurative art as a meaningful experience? Or will they remain intrigued indefinitely, sealing meaningful figurative art into an aesthetic Brigadoon?

Or might a new audience of adult thinkers emerge, who don't believe matter and meaning are divided?
linkReply

Comments:
[User Picture]From: jonmcnally
2008-12-03 01:47 am (UTC)
An awesome essay, mister. Matter and meaning are continual preoccupations of my own, especially the "Which comes first?" puzzle.

Has the average person rejected figurative art? I wonder ...

One could argue that an action movie, with its exaggerated explosions, somersaults, etc. or a romantic comedy, with its silly twists and misunderstandings are figurative art of a kind.

However, I may be partly misunderstanding your perspective ... Since my background's more literary, I suspect "figurative" connotes something rather different to me. That said, I'm genuinely perplexed by the pairing of "figurative" and "literal" at the onset of the essay.
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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2008-12-03 02:08 am (UTC)
Thanks for wading through it!

Yeah, I meant "figurative" not in the literary but in the artistic sense, as in, "representing the visible world."

As for whether the average person has rejected it, I think so, judging by the prevalence of photography in magazines and framed prints, and the preference (among adults) for computer graphics over hand-drawn art, and for live action over cartoons. There's an assumption that painted or drawn representations of the visual world are childish or frivolous, and I think this stems from the view that the material world and our philosophical beliefs occupy separate categories. To marry the two in a drawing is deemed primitive and animistic.
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[User Picture]From: jonmcnally
2008-12-03 02:52 am (UTC)
I do think there's truth in what you say. "To marry the two [the material world and our philosophical beliefs] in a drawing is deemed primitive and animistic." Perhaps it's no coincidence that representative art strongly persists in folk art and "outsider" art circles.

Still, I don't think a philosophical shift is solely at work here. Arguably, photography and live action film are more efficient and inexpensive methods of communication than are representational drawings, whether they be moving or static.

I write this with gritted teeth: If I was a publisher with a limited budget and crushing deadlines I, too, might choose photographs to fill my periodicals or to cover my books.
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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2008-12-03 05:47 pm (UTC)
Good point about folk & outsider circles. I've noticed that the healthiest genre of the figurative gallery art world seems to be Southwestern art -- paintings of cowboys and Native Americans.

And I agree that a philosophical shift isn't the only factor.
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[User Picture]From: spanambula
2008-12-03 04:50 pm (UTC)
I am reminded of Bill Watterson's commentary on the valuation of art when he drew this strip:
Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

While I'm not going to argue against your statement, I wonder if other factors like the advent of technological advances play a more significant role. Around the mid to late 60s, we saw more and more photo-journals from around the world, broadening our perception of it. Then there was Television. I wonder if instead of believing that painted images had just as much value as the moving images seen on TV, editors and the like saw this new technology as something to compete with? (the smart ones probably did) I could understand their desire for their own periodicals or book covers or what-have-you to still seem current and keeping pace with the latest trends available.
When CG came on the scene, the factors of time and economy arose, but you already mentioned that, so I won't do more than just mention it.

I wish I could say I disagreed with you. Or that I saw a light at the end of this tunnel. Even the resurgence in the popularity of spirituality last decade did so in a very abstract way, where everything was "just a personal belief" that dictated no firm stance on anything, but could still seem hip and trendy and possibly even meaningful. It does seem that visual figurative art has become the visual equivalent of elevator music, something that can attract our eyes for a few seconds and then be forgotten rather than holding us and viscerally affecting us.

Sign me up for this industry! Wooooo!!!! Fame and riches, here we come!
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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2008-12-03 06:01 pm (UTC)
I think our underlying philosophical beliefs are almost always the primary factor in social trends. Technology and economics play strong roles, but where they clash with worldview, worldview wins out.

For instance, photos may be faster/cheaper than art, but children's book publishers never use photos instead of art, because they know art's power for children. If adults responded to art with the enthusiasm they once did, I think the same would be true in most magazines.

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From: ext_136528
2008-12-04 05:31 pm (UTC)
As a blogger who deals almost exclusively with figurative artists, and who does extract plenty of personal meaning from figurative works - including figurative works with "pop" credentials - I find this essay edifying in more ways than one. It explains something that I'd not yet fully put words to in my own mind.

The bias against figurative art is not unlike the bias against comics: people associate an entire medium with one kind of work, and in dismissing that work, they dismiss the medium. My position on this, as someone with a vaguely Structuralist philosophical mindset, has gone over time from "yes, but there's more comics than superheroes" to "spirituality and meaning can be found in anything
from Mark Rothko to Jack Kirby." And there you have it.

Spirituality and meaning are constructs of the mind, yes, but they're constructs built specifically to help us deal with, understand and enjoy both ourselves and the world around us - and as such, spirituality and meaning can be found in anything. Any method of communication can potentially communicate with depth and meaning. Practical constraints may make some media undesirable or near-impossible to use, but the potential is still there.

Another phenomenon is worth exploring - that because spirituality and meaning are constructs of the mind, someone on the receiving end of a communication may perceive spirituality and meaning where it was not intentionally communicated by the creator. Such is the phenomenon of artists whose fans see their work as deep and meaningful, while the artist themselves claim to just be making a comic strip, or to be "just an illustrator." Hm.

But yes, spirituality can be found in anything - and so it's sad to take away that societal privilege from visual storytelling, which suffers the dual curse of being representational and being story-oriented, and thus "just making up some stupid fantasy shit."

Maybe it's time for us to wake up and admit that fantasies can have meaning, too.

Pardon the rambling. :3
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[User Picture]From: david_porta
2008-12-31 10:26 pm (UTC)

IT FIGURES!

.

And here I thot you meant the human figure when you wrote "figurative art." Shows what I know!

So, figurative art is art that represents reality.

Okay, Dad worked 35 years as a commercial artist painting classical floral patterns, working with water-base paint on heavy illustration paper, used by New York City textile (fabric) firms for mass producing home furnishing textiles (pillow-cases, sheets, quilts, bed coverings, bathrobes, towels, wash-cloths, dish-towels, curtains, drapes, couches, sofas, et cetera).

Dad's classical flower non-garment textile style, a segment of the market that he cornered with NYC firms, still has a strong consumer base. I don't suppose many people actually consider that the flower arrangements on their home furnishing fabrics are actually painted by real people, but they are. (And it's a lousy living.)

Examples of the kind of commercial art I mean.

http://www.hometextilestoday.com/articles/images/HTT/20080130/EdinBurg.jpg
http://www.imagomag.com/imagedb/classical_flowers.jpg
http://img.thefind.com/images/cQANyl0KAiEQAOCh-4xjRMR2mTCdVcM_RhfpInvVgl7a5-_7yO-5ww6X7wlCzfxYNymxh1h8hzBGuxPNOVUzMt6TnTtA2ZopZk85OrLJ9B4trqmKSSjs8DiFBVsygztel-Wmz6i1ejUP8Ac*?m=1&g=1

And since you have Sis's gallery opening card (she IS in Who's Who and has an international reputation; just no commensurate income) you know figurative art still lives in the fine art world.

As for the Arts in general, subscribe to, quite simply, the best cultural review in the world, The New Criterion. newcriterion.com They are to the mainstream of which you write what Wm. F. Buckley's National Review is to Time and Newsweek. A sane alternative.

Figurative art lives where believers live. Where unbelief lives, there is what you describe. But look at the atheist empires. Marx said religion was the opiate of the people. Out with Jesus. In with reams of figurative art posters of Stalin and Mao. The cult of personality lives vibrantly in the Moslem world, where painted posters of their leaders abound.

Sounding the death knell of figurative art is like sounding the death knell of Christian faith. It may be shrinking, but it is not dead.

.
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From: (Anonymous)
2014-11-12 07:08 pm (UTC)
Interesting article.Your criticism of Alex Ross seems out of line with the rest of the essay though.
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