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?