Have been following the Commercial art=Bad art thread for a couple of days and wanted to throw in my two cents.
On the topic of 'commercial illustration=bad art' and Rockwell, Parrish, and N. C. Wyeth, et al. be damned: I can't say I agree. If one has to say that the damning detail of the art was the fact that Rockwell had to accept guidelines as to what he was to paint (i.e. paint Santa having milk and cookies for our December issue of The Saturday Evening Post) so then his art isn't art, but crass commercialism posing as art, I'd have to say:
All these artists made their paintings/artwork for money-- they made them and expected to be paid for them. That is how they earned their living. To denigrate one group because the fruits of their labors were reproduced as product labels, calendars, advertising one-sheets, or magazine covers as opposed to museum and salon pieces is stupid, really. Not all commerical artists and illustrators were on the level of sheer beauty and mastery of the medium as Parrish or Wyeth, Pyle or Beardsley. There were, and still are, lots of drekky kludge being marketed as advertising and illustration and fine art. But a gem is a gem, whether set in precious metal or mud. Drekky kludge was made in Leighton's day, as well as Parrish's, as well as our own.
Do you think that the poster of this argument simply bought the Modern Art argument that commercialism is just "bad", that good art must be made without thought of material gain, that the artist is virtuous if he or she did not "sell out" to the "Establishment" for "money"? Well, hell. How is an artist gonna pay the rent, much less buy more paint if he or she doesn't "sell"? There's a theme here ... In the 19th c., there were highly paid and sought after engravers -- Gustave Doré, for example -- who were adored by the public and paid well for their efforts. Well, how is that different from Alma-Tadema's work or Leighton's work being reproduced in half-tone or engraving in the periodicals of their hey-day? Or, get this, of either of those artists making copies of their popular works in oil on canvas for other clients? Bouguereau did this. Leonardo da Vinci did his Madonna of the Rocks at least twice, that I know of. Yet no one is bashing him. Why? Is it mass production of copies/images of the works the no-no, then? No one seems to be disputing their merit today, amongst the goodart group.
Yet, how is it that the illustrators of the "Golden Age", a period spanning a decade prior to 1900, if I recall correctly, to about the 1920s/early 30s (Parrish's heyday) are disparaged? I see the whole "Golden Age of Illustration" to be the refugee camp for fine artists of the Old School, artists who managed to make a fine living practicing the skills and turning out the product that they'd trained long and hard for which galleries and salons were no longer willing to accept into their hallowed halls -- having had their collective heads turned by the modernist crap as the "Next Big Thing." And that's just the "Golden Age" greats I'm talking about here, BTW. I haven't gone on to name any number of really great cover artists seen gracing the covers of books at the local bookstore -- much less discussing artists in any single genre of books in said bookstore. (Not to mention the fact that cover art is becoming less a painted piece of work and more a matter of digital sampling cobbled together into a .... but I digress.)
Instead of bashing advertising and commerical efforts as a degrading influence on these illustrator "Greats", don't you think that we should be thankful that the businesses in question gave these artists an outlet, a venue for their talent? What about all of Diego Rivera's murals for the great American industrialists in the 30s? Wasn't he commissioned by Edsel Ford to do a series of murals that came to be called the Detroit Series? What about those?
If it's not patronage by industrialists from being great artists, is it the fact that these artists worked for the print media that disqualify these illustrators their place in the sun of our good regard? If so, why? Given the mass production of the medium (magazines, free calendars, etc.) many many more people were exposed to art well done, than could ever hope to afford a trip to a museum. Especially in Parrish's case, as a good portion of his life's work was done during the Depression years. That should count for something, shouldn't it?
Anyway, that's the best I can put this, given the lateness of the hour and some throat-clearing from my spouse to turn the darn thing off and turn out the lights ....
(I'm not taking about the covers of bodice rippers here, BTW, but the ones that are set up more like a straight portrait of the main character of the story .... Good grief, the idea of a bodice-ripper being hung up on the walls of the Louvre or the Tate ... I don't know whether to laugh my butt off or to cry.)
In either case, the artwork makes me wonder who that person is, what he or she wants out of life, where they are going, what they are thinking -- in short, I want to know the story. If I don't know the reference the painting is making, I make one up for myself. I think good paintings all do that: they draw the viewer in and make them think about what the underlying story is.
I get that reaction if I'm looking at a Bouguereau, an Alma-Tadema (my very first favorite of that era and the artist that started my own art education for me, BTW), a Waterhouse, or Michael Whelan, Richard Hescox, Jody Lee (her "painterly" covers, as opposed to her flatter graphics ones ... I think she's evolving into another style.), Rowena, earlier Vallejo, Sharon Greene (her Velveteen Rabbit illustrations are stunning) and all the romance cover artists whose names are legion (or were before the digital compositing started taking over!).
That said, what I want to ask is this: given the quality of these modern artists in illustrating an event or a theme from the books on whose covers their art appears, how is this art less worthy of respect than any of the 19th c. artists who illustrate stories from the Bible, Classical antiquity, the medieval period, or contemporary sources? Waterhouse did medieval and Classical/Greek subjects, as did Leighton and Alma-Tadema. Bouguereau made his living painting idealized visions of the nobility of the poor and the itinerant, of children and of course, Greek and Classical themes. Holman Hunt did morality plays set in his own Victorian era. Work [by Ford Madox Brown] and [Holman Hunt's] The Awakening Conscience (IIRC) are two such. These are all stories and ideals being represented here. The cover artists and illustrators we have today are doing the same thing, don't you think? How will their work be valued a hundred years hence? Will the novels they illustrated pass into obscurity, like a lot of the 19th c. references have today, while their illustrations and cover art survive as fine art, much in the way the art of the 19th c. masters survive today?
To that last question, let me explain. When one looks at Waterhouse's Ophelia does one need to know the play Hamlet to enjoy the painting? If you think one does, isn't that dangerously close to the Modernist dogma of having to be "in the know" to truly understand the artist's "concept" and "genius"? When one picks up the paperback copy of Judith Merkle Riley's A Vision of Light and sees the portrait of the main female character on the cover, does one need to know the story to appreciate the portrait?
It took me a long time to understand the difference between graphic arts and the fine arts. Maybe there is something of the same distinction to be made here, and I am just not seeing it. If anyone on this list could help me see what I am missing, I would welcome reading your comments on the list or off-list. But could someone tell me, please, what makes the examples I mention above worthy or unworthy of our good regard?