Can Any Illustration Qualify as Art?

I have been frustrated by the word “art” for a long time. Delving deeper, it’s the “fine art” that lives on gallery walls and commands attention that irritates me. It’s the attitude that some forms of illustration and visual art are superior to others. It’s the same angst I feel when filmmakers and writers look down their nose at fantasy and sci-fi.

But let’s focus this one post on the particular topic of popular comic art versus “fine art.” To accomplish this goal, I read through a comic roundtable on the subject from a group of underground comic artists.

Robert Williams, founder of Juxtapoz and Zap Comix, thinks that the “fine” in “fine art” should imply sophistication — something that rises above the common. Or at least the intent of the artist to seek more meaning in their work.

Esther Pearl Watson (who created the comic Unlovable, based on a found diary from the 1980s) takes that idea further:

“Fine art is making an investigation. It’d be asking a question, whether it’s theoretical or philosophical, and not necessarily answering it, but asking a question.”

She seems to sidestep the dividing line between the “fine art” of galleries and the common art of the average illustrator. It’s the intent that’s paramount. What questions the artist poses or explores with the art in question. That’s what matters. 

But still, there is that divide of printed comic art (or art that we swipe through on Instagram or TikTok) and this serious or sophisticated art. They can’t all be the same. I know when I see some technically talented work online, it sometimes lacks something special. Perhaps it’s that investigative quality that Watson proposes. 

When people mention the word Art (with a capital A) the concept seems to dodge and hide. It doesn’t want to be nailed down. Joe Coleman, famed for his Mystery cover “The Mystery of Woolverine Woo-Bait”, has this to say about art: “When art’s name’s called, I grab my shotgun.”

In the roundtable discussion, he offers a compelling difference between the illustrator working on assignment and the creative artist. 

“When you’re working for somebody else, and somebody else is paying your paycheck, and you’re given an assignment, I think that’s what makes it illustration… [However,] in the realm of comics, the people that write their stuff and draw their own stuff, and put it out there, I think that’s a valid art form.”

This rings true for me. As a paid production designer in a graphic design firm, illustration and typography was a job. I was paid to create a product. Yet when we have freedom to explore the art on our own, that when it can slide into the area of fine art.

The final aspect of what separates technical illustration from fine art circles back to Watson’s idea of intent. What questions are you pursuing with your creation? Even if they are never answered. 

There has to be some spark or emotional impact to lift the commonplace lines on the page. You look at students who come out of an art class, and they they have certainly improved their technique, but their work mimics the teacher. They haven’t put any of themselves into it. 

Colman says it best:

“I run into problems with the art world when they just have a white canvas, or they have just a neon sign that says one word. And my heart and my gut just cannot digest what I’m seeing and has no connection to it.”

There must be a connection between the artist and the work that transcends merely putting the lines down and filling in the colors. Otherwise, all those apps that let you color in a drawing would create millions of artists. 

It all circles back to you and what you intend to put into your art that matters. 

In the works of art historian E. H. Gombrich: “There is no such thing as art. There are only artists.”

Get out there and ask some questions. Draw or write or compose to search for the answers. But the questions are what matters. 

Tim Kane

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