Friday, May 29, 2015

Illustration vs. Fine art

People have often asked the difference between illustration and fine art. Some have said there is no difference at all. I think there is a difference. A big difference. I shall attempt to answer that question here.

But first, an anecdotal story: I once rented a vacation home in Montana. It was chalk full of Montana clichés. A small carved bear hugged the staircase. The house was rustic and came with a wood stove. Well, not really. It was fake--it was propane stove. The more I looked at the place, I realized it was chalk full of fakery. It's what tourists would expect and the landlord delivered. Mostly, it was filled with well-framed prints by a very popular artist here in Montana named Monte Dolack. He has a gallery in Missoula and apparently he's made a good living from what he does.

What he does is produce clichéd illustrations of Montana wildlife and such. He has sold a great many prints. The landlord had one of his framed prints just above the toilet. It featured wild ducks in a bathroom. It was titled "Suburban Refuge." I was forced to look at his painting daily since it was featured above the toilet. Ducks were in a bathtub and toilet. One was stepping on a tube of toothpaste and squeezing out an inordinate amount of toothpaste considering his weight. The bathtub was fixing to overflow. Apparently it did not have the usual drain that prevented that from happening. Logic cannot interfere--the narrative was wild ducks wreaking havoc and the artist had to force the issue.

I began to hate this painting with a passion. So much so that I removed it and put it facing the wall. It represented everything I hate about art.

Of course, Monte is far more successful than I am. He is perhaps the most celebrated artist in Montana. How did he obtain that status? He painted junk that appealed to the masses, that's how. The landlord had several other framed prints throughout the house and I despised each and every one of them. To be sure, he is far more successful than I am and he's apparently well-loved. I'm unknown. So what. I would never trade places with him.

He's an illustrator and not a fine artist, even if many claim that he is. He paints in an unoriginal style and hangs each work on a narrative and then the art is forced to adhere to that story line. Penguins destroying a refrigerator. A cloud in the shape of a buffalo. Trout in a couch. All rendered in minute, granular detail as if quality is measured by detail by the pound. No matter--simply give it a profound title such as 'Landscapes of the Mind' and people will flock to buy it. And they have. I know Monte couldn't care less about my opinion and I'm sure he'd hate my work. No matter. It's fair use and I happen to have chosen him as an example of illustration vs. fine art. His work is illustration because it depends on a 'hook' or story to reel the viewer in. Such narratives sell artwork--especially here in Montana. Fine art rests on its own merits and relies on the input of the onlooker. The viewer has to invest emotional energy into the work seen and that means an emotional connection occurs. The person is engaged at looking at art when this happens. It's fine art.

I'm a long time commercial artist and illustrator so I know these things. I know how to create metaphors that manipulate and teach the viewer about the content. This is useful and illustration does serve an important purpose. I get paid for doing what I do. It's not fine art. I came up with the following table to help further this understanding:

Of course, I can go on and on about this, but I think anyone who has read this gets the point. Illustration is narrative--left brain and horizontal thinking. Fine art transcends words and description. It stands on it's own merit--it's vertical thinking, which is far more effective at providing the meaning of life. Ducks in a bathtub do not provide the meaning of life.

--Ben Garrison

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