My artist friend Phillip and I had a spirited discussion last night about the difference between “art” and illustration. It’s an age old debate. What ruffled my feathers was that he had told a friend that I was an artist who did a lot of illustration but wanted to start showing my work in galleries; the implication (to me) being that somehow a gallery setting elevated the work above its original purpose.
His contention that what makes a piece of art an illustration is the reason it was created is true, but still a bit murky. He used the pieces above, created for a music website, to illustrate his point. The first is a work of art; the second becomes a piece of advertising because it includes words to sell or promote a specific product. Well, yes. But I contend that they are both still viable as stand alone art. I think it boils down to a bit of snobbery about mixing art and commerce. But illustration isn’t limited to advertising. An illustration is simply a work of art created to illustrate something, anything. One of my favorite artists, Aubrey Beardsley, was an illustrator whose best known work was created for playbills, books, etc. And surely no one would contend that the art of another favorite, Dr. Suess, is anything other than inspired, and yet it was created to illustrate the words of children’s books, not to decorate the walls of a collector’s home. Illustrations are usually intended to be mass produced unlike an oil painting or sculpture that is one of a kind. But that boundary has been crossed as well. Oil paintings are printed as posters and famous ones are often appropriated as illustrations for a product.
Phillip – who is a very good sport – had to endure a few shoulder slaps accompanied by “I can’t believe you’re such a snob!!”. Art can be discussed endlessly, but for me almost all of it can be put into one of three categories no matter why it was created: good art I like, good art I don’t like and bad art. Bad art is just bad.