teisipäev, veebruar 23, 2010

Notes on Exhibiting Illustration

Aliina Astrova wrote to Artishok on problmatics wich come along with exhibiting illustrations:


Seeing illustration on a gallery wall, though an increasingly popular occurrence in contemporary art circles, is perceptively a difficult experience. Most importantly, because the medium is still to prove its validity to those who struggle seeing it as art. Despite the high level of very idiosyncratic and outstanding work, the problematic dissimilarity between illustration and art does not lie in their aesthetic qualities, but in the essential difference between their aims. For the aim of art has always been to represent reality, whereas illustration has never targeted the real itself but was designed to describe objects that are already in themselves representations, be it books, cartoons or events. Thus, although using means similar to those of art (painting, drawing, printing), the ends of illustrative work are divergent from those of an art work.

As may be expected, these distinct ends, or aims, provide for distinct evaluation. Art cannot be judged by visual or conceptual accuracy of its reality representation, as long as it is presenting the viewer with an illusion of reality that is autonomously valid. Illustration, by contrast, is very much reliant on its objects and is considered accordingly to the essence of what it tries to (re)present. Therefore, the value is only then fully estimated once the work of illustration is attached to what it illustrates, e.g. seen in a book. Initially, the struggle to explain an increasing tendency for illustrators to exhibit their work on a gallery wall derives from an assumption that seen in such context the work would not live up to its best potential.
Hence the question: what, if anything, justifies this tendency? Since the question itself arose from the comparison between illustration and visual art in a gallery context, it is essential to see what position art holds when it comes to exhibitions.


In the early twentieth century, philosophy found itself concerned with the curious situation that art was in. This age of mechanical reproduction, as referred to by Walter Benjamin in his infamous essay, meant the decline of the most definitive quality that art possessed - its authenticity. In essence, the possibility of reproducing mechanically had torn art out of its unique place within tradition by means of mass production and now required a new kind of appreciation (consumption) by a new kind of audience (mass-audience). Consequently, the exhibition value of the work of art increased at the expense of its authenticity.

Ultimately, exhibition value replaced artistic value altogether. This found a practical manifestation in the most exemplary way in an exhibition curated by a French philosopher, Jean-Francois Lyotard’s, in 1984 at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. Supported by a thesis of the same name that has been seen as one of the main documents for curation studies ever since, Les Immateriaux was a project of major importance both for the philosopher and for art scholars alike. Drawing on ideas of Walter Benjamin and Martin Heidegger, Lyotard created an exhibition that exposed the state of art to its contemporaries. Unlike most curators before him, Lyotard was not interested in the best way of exhibiting art, but in putting together a perfect art exhibition:

ʻ...we wanted to exhibit things that inspire a feeling of incertitude: incertitude about the finalities of these developments and incertitude about the identity of the human individual in his condition of such improbably immateriality. That's a criterion of selection that's concerned with the philosophical stakes of the exhibitionʼ1

Where conventional exhibitions were the means of presenting art, Lyotard used artworks to represent an exhibition. By doing so, he confronts the viewer with the ultimate effect of the substitution of exhibition for art which, in turn, is the effect of technology.

What did such transformation of art mean in relation to other forms of expression, like illustration?


Once the idea of an exhibition was transformed, art found itself in a crisis: it was no longer judged by its ends and was left with mere means to represent a concept (an exhibition) in the best possible way. Can it be suggested, then, that it is in an exhibition context that art and illustration should be seen to have become ‘compatible’, now that both could be equally well judged according to how well they manage to use means available to both in order to represent the context they are in? Or to take it even further, does not illustration in this situation hold an advantage over a work of art?

Illustration, unlike art, has always meant to be reproduced. In fact, the mechanical reproduction Benjamin was talking about can be seen as a dream of illustration as it is responsible for the very success of the medium - from Disney to comic book culture.

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