Saturday, 3 March 2012

On 'Nothingness' (an impassioned rant in 7 parts)

This week the creative review blog ran an article by illustrator and LCC Dean of Design Lawrence Zeegen (someone whose opinion I respect and who, as a rule, can offer quite a well rounded view of contemporary design and illustration). The article argued that illustrators are in danger of losing social relevance; that the proliferation of broadly commercial, sale-able and self-referential works by contemporary illustrators means that we run the risk of becoming an insular, self-serving, cottage industry. Now, I am not in the habit of discussing 'state of the (illustrative) nation' type stuff on here. As a rule I find the majority of internet design writing somewhat self-aggrandising and lacking wider world perspective (its not brave, its not noble, its photoshop. ahem. sorry). But in this case I feel the need to jump in, as you would defend a family member who, perhaps, suffered from poor personal hygiene out of familial loyalty so I will defend Illustration and illustrators to the ends of the earth. Its just what you do out of blind, hopeless, love. 

   Firstly Zeegen seems to suggest that all the work an illustrator makes is illustration and I'm just not sure that this is true. When working to commission for a client then, yes, you are an illustrator. But the work you make for yourself, the self-initiated projects taken about with no direction but your own? That errs more on the side of art I think. Client work must be exempt from criticism of its content. In the majority of circumstances the illustrator has no sway over what an illustration for a book or magazine or advert says, in the simplest of terms you are a hand for hire. Unless you're an expert in sneaky subversion it would be hard to get a political or social narrative into a editorial about summer bestsellers- I don't know this for sure, perhaps its been done- I don't know. So that stuff is, really, not worth discussing, its out of our control. In times such as these, when jobs are scarce and design graduates seemingly generating from thin air, you cannot blame anyone for knuckling down and doing the job asked of them. Having an agenda is just not a viable financial option for those wanting to pay their rent. 

  So that leaves the work we make to our own ends. For me, this mostly takes the form of prints and zines and I distribute them in an online shop and with a small handful of independent retailers. I print my work, post and package it by myself. I am, in a way, my own cottage industry. As are many of my friends and peers. In a market that is suffering with the decline of print media we have been forced to be inventive, to find new ways to make a living from image-making, lest we have to join the real world and everyone realises how useless we are in all other fields (that may only apply to me). Zeegen seems disparaging towards the move towards 'craft-driven aesthetics' (also as an aside- 'polite pleasantries are exchanged between illustrator and audience' is that a genuine criticism? Should we be slinging insults at one another? Berating our audiences for having the audacity to look at our work?). This seems short-sighted. Surely the 'handmade' movement is a political statement in itself (even if it is made unintentionally). That a group of people are choosing to make a living entirely on their own, taking the risk of irregular pay, massive initial outlay of finances and unreliable hours (I work, on average, 6.5 days a week) is, surely, a bold decision in the face of commercialism.  A small, niggling part of me, worries that judgement of the handmade movement stems, partially, from its largely female proponents- that it is too easily mistaken for Women's Institute style hobby-ism. But that is part of another argument that I shall spare you from, for now. 

On a base level this is a job. In order to make it work you have to make a living, and often this means you make what sells and this, I'll admit, can be a problem. Too often illustration gets confused with decoration, and artists stray towards 'pretty' rather than 'substantial'. I agree with Zeegen, to an extent, that there's a degree of  'style over content, function following form.' Its a pitfall of a trend-led market and the mass popularity of blogs and one we should rally against I think. A nice image is good but a nice image that says something (and I don't think this necessarily need be a statement about society or politics or the environment) is ten times better. But to say that 'Illustration has withdrawn from the big debates of our society to focus on the chit-chat and tittle-tattle of inner-sanctum nothingness' is to downplay the importance of this so-called 'inner-sanctum nothingness'. Novelists are rarely pounced on for attempting to decipher the human condition, musicians are lauded for hitting on universal emotions (Adele, for example, has sold thirty billion trillion records, for highlighting that often, getting over someone is properly shit). Even stand-up comedy, once a bastion of social subversion and political satire, is, as Stewart Lee succinctly points out "comedy […] now – it's not like the 80s – what it is now, it's a load of people and they all hate their electrical appliances." Seemingly we like the stuff that speaks to our humanity and we like that artists can explain the way we feel about certain things in beautiful ways. There is limitless value in the works of those who tell us we are not alone. It might be dangerously romantic and somewhat rose-tinted to say so but if I can read a, possibly self published, comic and find something in it that speaks to me then, I think, it is unfair to say that that artist is being self-indulgent or ignoring the wider political picture. To offer something to another living person, that's a nice thing and not to be sniffed out.

  Throughout the history of illustration (which is somewhat potted and under documented by the way) there have only ever been a few artists making political commentaries within their work (I am not including the history of political cartooning which is another artform entirely). I'd imagine that in today's world there are an equivalent number of artists making socially charged images that there might have been in the sixties or eighties or at the turn of the twentieth century. I'm not sure that is has ever been considered the remit of the illustrator to put the world to rights any more than it has been expected of the typographer or the fashion designer. At the very least I can only think of a handful and I am relatively well versed in the work of other illustrators. I might be wrong. 

Zeegen also asks whether the artists exhibiting at this years Pick Me Up at Somerset House will attempt to offer more than 'mere nothingness' and whether, in fact, anyone 'outside of the cozy world of graphic art and illustration is stepping inside to sample the goods?' I think the sheer presence of an event like Pick Me Up, taking place in a massive venue in the centre of London, is testament to the fact that design and illustration has a burgeoning audience rather than a diminishing one. Sure, it might be a trend or a passing flirtation  but, for now, it seems there is a genuine interest in the work we make and I think that stems from the accessibility of graphic art. Drawing is familiar to everyone, we all do it as children, we learn to decipher stories through picture books, we draw before we write. That makes is far more approachable than sound installation or found object sculpture and other contemporary art forms. I think people outside of creative industries look to illustration for a break from more politicised 'fine art' narratives and that is a good thing if it means illustrators are kept in pocket. As one of the artists taking part in Pick Me Up this year I can safely say that there will be approximately 0% political narrative in the work I'll be displaying. That's just not what I do and it's not why I became an illustrator. I do hope, however, that the work I'm making will say something, however mundane, possibly about me, probably about the world I find myself in and certainly about mountains, because I think mountains are magnificent. As long as the work is made with passion and genuine belief then it'll say something. Isn't that usually the case?

So. In conclusion? Mr Zeegen, with all due respect (and lots is due) you're wrong. The cottage industry you're so worried about is a wonderful thing that allows young artists to profit from something they love. Its very existence is a statement to the resilience of artists and we should celebrate the self-sufficiency of cottage-industry makers who fly in the face of monstrous big business rather than berate the content of their work. Some days we say things and some days we don't and I think as long as whatever we're drawing has enthusiasm behind it then it does no damage to the face of contemporary illustration whatsoever. After all any work made, at any point in history, says something about the world it was made in. If it says anything else beyond that then thats a bonus eh?

So those are my thoughts. I have more but I won't trouble you with them. Its ok. I'm sorry. As you were.


Sarah Alfarhan said...

Very well-put, thank you for defending illustration. I am so sick of all the people who look down on illustration.

hellojenuine said...

yes yes yes!

the questioning & challenging of what we do is necessary & welcome, but the article in question knocks down & outright undermines what is in fact right with this so-called 'nothingness'. i can't deny taking some food for thought from zeegan's opinion, but ultimately i disagree with his opinion.

the disheartened feeling left by that CR article is replaced with joy; thank you for eloquently righting what was wrong with what is largely an unfounded notion.

Katie Chappell said...

A brilliant, thought provoking post! I really enjoyed reading this.

I thoroughly agree that this "cottage industry" is definitely a good thing which should be celebrated and enjoyed. I am doing my final major project at uni (BA(hons) illustration & design) on illustrated products and zines and self-made things and craft markets.
When explaining my FMP to my tutor, she remarked that it "lacked substance". I respect my tutor and I can see where she is coming from/why she thinks that, but how can something with so much love put into it, that is helping illustrators to get by in this economic climate, be bad? You make your own luck, and I feel making online shops and filling them with sale-able illustrated goods is a positive move. It could be considered selling-out... but the rent needs paid! and it gets work seen and "out there".

Dear Mr Zeegan, rethink your brash statement please!

Craig Atkinson Café Royal Books said...

I too like Zeegen's work generally but I found it strange that he started an article about illustration in the 'illustration special' issue by talking , a lot, about Shrigley, who isn't an illustrator. This does raise the question of what an illustrator is, to which I think there is no clear answer, but I think it seemed desperate [for the subject] to talk about Shrigley in the context of illustration, when he [says he] isn't an illustrator.

I do however agree that illustration is in a difficult place in terms of value. Not that I question it's value, but that there is so much 'nothingness' available. This week I was asked by a colleague what the difference between drawing, drawing as fine art, drawing as graphics and drawing as illustration is. Boarders aren't as simple as they were once, hybridity is key to employment and other than childrens' books I don't know whether I could define 'pure illustration' in the same way as I could 'pure design' or 'pure abstract' for example.

When does drawing become illustration and illustration become design. I think the idea of an 'illustration special edition' is questionable anyway.

I think it's an interesting area for discussion, perhaps removed from the original article.

Nice post, thanks.

amy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alison said...


What a fantastic rant! I haven't read the article myself, but from the way you've explained it I would say his sentiments seem a little unkind.

I agree with Amy, conditions have been getting a bit nasty with larger companies, perhaps because as you said Lizzy, there is a crazy surplus of illustrators appearing from nowhere! I had a nasty contract not so long ago with a neatly disguised clause which acquired sub-licensing rights. They all seem to be running stock houses on the side as a second business! Mental. So we're paid peanuts upfront, and then do ourselves out of a job as they'll eventually have a huge archive of work they can use for free, and profit from by on-selling. So frustrating.

But on a positive, your words are uplifting, perhaps you should be a writer too Lizzy!

Wishcandy said...

Very well said! I agree whole-heartedly!

Illustration is here to stay. Sure it's pretty, but it's something we bond with like a song. We place our own meanings onto them.

I've been dancing the line between art and illustration for a long time (aesthetically). It feels like when someone sees the aesthetic, they assume the artist isn't really saying anything. Which isn't true at all. I feel i have just as must to say an express as a "fine artist".

Honestly i don't really care to differentiate between art or illustration. For me the only difference is in what function it serves.

Anyways, i'm glad people are producing such wonderful things and sharing them with the world. What a great feeling it is to touch some else's life and inspire them. As long as we're happy and can pay our bills, what else matters?

Clara said...

Well said! I'm not an illustrator, I'm a photographer, but reading your post was very interesing.
I think there are too many rules and expectations in any art form, and, to me, that is absurd. And I don't see why illustrations, as well as photographs, movies, etc. should make political commentaries if the author doesn't want to - in fact, that 'mere nothingness' is as interesting if not more as the political stance, because that is something practically everybody can relate to. In the end, you do what you feel like doing, and the fact that you wanted do this or that illustration/photograph/etc already says something about you, what you feel and what you love, which is completely legitimate and just plain awesome.

Lesley Barnes said...

three cheers for you lizzy! I could not agree more with your post. I am a freelance illustrator and animator and it is very hard making a living in this industry without pressure to make your work 'political' and 'subversive'. I actually take a great pleasure from producing personnal work that is the opposite from everything I see on the news everyday...for me its an escape form the world. To say that it is mere 'nothingness' is perhaps true on some level, but I can say that I put a lot of myself into my work and people (some at least!) seem to take pleasure from it. Surely producing work that can make you and others happy is just as important? Some of the illustartion work that has had a profound effect on me is that from my childhood...picture books and such like.

Cat said...

Well said. I have to say, I completely agree that just because something creative (such as a piece of illustration) doesn't make a political statement does not make it any less valid.

As someone who wholeheartedly supports the "DIY" movement, I think if anything, creative people should be encouraged to self-publish and create works based on subjects that matter to them.

Gaelle said...

Hi there!
Thanks for this post! Very interesting!
When I was in art school, a teacher explained the "job" of an artist as showing one's experience in order to expand our knowledge of what it means to be human. This really reconciled me with the idea of being an artist back then, and it is something that seems vital for me in my illustrated quest today (that and story telling...)
Your post reminded me of that, and I am grateful for that, because I feel it should stay on the front-burner in my head when I create.
Have a great day!
PS your "written" posts are always very thoughts evocating! Thanks

sheila said...

Hi Lizzy. That was a great post. I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed reading your Solo zine and I feel that this 'movement' of nothingness in any art form is not something new but continues to resonate because it's so ultimately relatable. Personally, I think we could see this kind of art as highly politicized if we wished to, considering the current economic situation - wasn't Van Gogh making a political statement when he began to paint peasants and labourers, the 'every day'? Isn't art today ultimately drawing from the same message/inspiration? Writers are told to 'write what you know'. Why should illustrators/artists not 'draw what they know'? Also, is the 'nothingness' of women considered less political or relevant? Can the indie/craft movement be considered political? I think it can. Isn't it currently becoming more and more relevant? Incidentally, I just read an article in the latest issue of Vanity Fair on how the 'nothingness' of the film Diner, though not popular at the time it was made, is now considered pretty much high art by many, and how its theme of 'nothingness' has, in fact, become big business in that Diner spawned the likes of 'Seinfeld', 'Pulp Fiction', 'The Office', etc. I suppose I should mention that it is the 'nothingness' of men in particular that is lauded in the article and has become big business. But that's maybe another political statement for another day. I think one of the most beautiful works of art ever made that celebrates nothingness is the film Tokyo Story (1953). I think nothingness will continue to be celebrated and should be. Very much enjoyed the subsequent post you did on the women illustrators that currently create fabulous and relevant work. Thanks for your insight and words.

Amy@Pikaland said...

HI Lizzy, I loved your article and your rebuttal. You've just encapsulated so perfectly what I was thinking of when I read the CR article.

And I'm frankly annoyed at being told that illustrators should add "their statements" to their work, etc. The fact that illustration at its core is about bridging the gap between images and text, and working with clients to deliver their message (not the illustrator's) already makes Mr Zeegan's article seem almost nonsensical.

Like Craig mentioned, the blurring between design/illustration and art has widened so much that a healthy dose of experimentation and hybridization is necessary to survive and to thrive.

wooud said...

Great post and I particularly agree with the comments made by Sheila.

I don't believe it is in the remit of an artist/illustrator/designer to be political unless it is what they intend.
Surely it is the job of the art critic/political commentator to assess the relevance and social impact of a particular movement?

The great thing about the availability of choice within the indie/craft market is that it enables people to buy illustrations and products that really resonate with them - be it through laughter, intrigue, storytelling or aesthetic style.

Self-led projects are great for an illustrator/designer/artist to develop and showcase their own sense of style which should lead to more relevant commissions in the future!

Keep up the good work Lizzy!

colin said...

well done - i think there is often a sense of 'it was better in my day' for some people - at least you did not have the FTF manifesto quoted against illustration!

katebingburt said...

excellent response. Thank you Lizzy.

Andy J. Miller said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andy J. Miller said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andy J. Miller said...

Lizzy! Good thoughts.

Thanks for defending the territory, great writing, funny too...

Love the Pick Me Up crowd, big fan of what's going on there...

On the other hand, I do think it would be great if all of this illustration became even more popular and reach an even wider audience!

Andy J. Miller said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
dawn said...

Excellent response Lizzy. When I read the original article, I couldn't help thinking, 'well I don't think being pretentious for the hell of it is very useful either', in fact, if all illustrators starting making huge social or political statements in their work, wouldn't that widen the gap between illustrator and a potential audience, possibly making them feel excluded and inferior?

As for the 'cottage industry', and 'nothingness' comments, I think both of those say a huge amount about where society is right now. There has been a recession, jobs and work can be hard to come by, so people are trying to do what they can to help themselves, and that there is a pretty strong message. If something seems decorative and nothing more, why the hell not, that there is a message about people wanting to surround themselves with pretty unusual things, to brighten their day, in a monotonous, nine-to-five world of bills and mass commercialism. If I buy a cute little decorative handmade brooch from someone, I feel great that it isn't from the high street filling the pockets of some big business, and I feel great that I can support someone that really needs the money. That there is also a pretty strong message!

Lizzy, your work is awesome, and the observations of daily life in Solo, are relatable to so many, and when people are relating to you, they may feel less alone in the world, and that, as far as I'm concerned is far more important than maybe say, making a comment on some fleeting political agenda.

Thanks Lizzy! :)


Lizzie what a very well argued and well written post, I tend to agree. I think much of the issue with Mr Zeegan's article stems from an interpretation of the difference between commercial practice and self initiated work.
Illustrators/Graphic artists have been forced to an extent into self promotion as a direct result of the lack of creativity in commissioning. In itself this stems from the education of commissioners ie. designers and advertisers most of whom haven't a clue about the process of making an image they don't draw (as a rule), they sit at computers because they specialise waaay too early into graphic design, advertising or illustration.
If I hear one more potential commissioner talk about "style" as if it something you can can pick up and put down...
You have to make personal work in order to have a "style" you can only develop a personal working method by making personal work. If you can sell it at the same time all well and good.
At least the article has sparked a debate, there is always an element in illustration that jumps onto style over content three years ago stags, two years ago owls, this year? We all see it.
Lets face it 'commercial art' has always been subject to prejudice. It tends to be re appraised usually long after the creators death, Ronald Searle one of the greatest illustrators the country has created is still only appraised as a cartoonist and creator of St Trinians when his 'personal' work included superb reportage drawing from prison camp to Eichmans trial.
Good post!

Skin Heels said...

Interesting to read comments for and against illustration. It is such a positive thing that this debate happens so i think the initial statement (Mr. Zeegan's) is noteworthy if not occasionally astute.

Personally I think the elephant in the room (or internet) is more the problem with the blogs that simply regurgitate other people's work with no awareness of placing it in context or giving it some reference. We are now so accustomed to just seeing images and I think the viewer is also to blame that they (we) have become so passive that we now just seek a milliseconds gratification from a 'nice' image. This is how we are beginning to view everything so this debate suddenly tumbles (see what I did there) outside the confines of this particular context. We should all aim to to want more from what we consume, both visually and physically, then those offering something into the world will have to try a bit harder. Maybe we're all just a bit too easy nowadays. If we engaged with visual culture more as active consumers then a lot of this 'empty' visual detritus will become superfluous and we will again see those who probably always have been and will be continuing to make work worthy of our time.

Want more, get more.