Does SAIC’s reputation as a hotbed of conceptual art come at the expense of more “commercial” art forms?
Drawing as the basis for art education is an ancient tradition, and one that has formed the foundation of art schools for centuries. Illustration is the first form of art in which we are ever invited to participate, in preschool, in our picture books, on our toys. It allows us the first expression of our imaginations as children, and aids us in learning how to organize and quantify the world and develop manual dexterity. We recognize it as one of the most public manifestations of fine art.
There is no illustration curriculum as SAIC. There is architecture, there is painting, there is graphic design, there’s even a sound department and a basement full of performance artists. But the advanced sections of the painting and drawing curriculum are closed to illustrators, as attested by the complaints of students turned down from advanced painting for being “too illustrative.” Students who are passionate about illustrating are left to their own devices to cobble together an education from classical drawing, and then figure out how to apply the skills they’ll need to actually make a living once they’re out of the rabbit hole.
Marion Kryzcka, adjunct associate professor in Painting and Drawing, blames the highly “conceptual” identity of the School of the Art Institute. “The pretentious nature of fine arts and a focus on hip, cutting-edge interests” contributes to the alienation of illustration, he explains. “There might also be some anti-skill prejudice—you have to have some basic skills to be an illustrator. Unfortunately, if what you do doesn’t come easily, then there must be something wrong with it. People question the motivation.”
SAIC may just be too cool for illustration. In a school where concept dominates and the ability to talk, at length, about your practice seems to be more important than actual technical skill and execution, so pedestrian a tradition may not occupy a place of any significance. Craft has been cast as the opposite of whatever lofty artistic identity the school wants to foster in its students, mostly because to learn a craft is difficult and there is no immediate gratification to the process. In response to this, Kryzcka recalled a passage from Plato’s Republic where Socrates plans to ban all poets from his ideal republic because they are liars. Artists, however, would be invited to stay because they are craftsmen and therefore useful. It is obviously retrograde to credit such a statement, as poets and artists fulfill a very important task in society, but to discriminate against a certain class of artists because what they do is commercial, or recognized by non-artists, is simply bizarre.
There are several classes that have consistently attracted that not-so-rare student illustrator, but when they find a class that works, they often end up taking it to death, such as Peggy MacNamara’s Scientific Illustration class in the Visual Communication department, Olivia Petrides’ Natural History Illustration in Painting and Drawing, and Fashion Department instructor Dijana Granov’s Illustrated Poster, to cite a few. The hand-drawn animation classes are also excellent if you’re looking for a place to draw, and draw intensively. But none of these classes communicate with each other, and they stand isolated in their various departments, to the point where students have begun to desperately repeat them.
I myself have taken MacNamara’s class twice and will take it again next semester, but I know people in that class that have taken it every semester for four years. Peggy simply happens to be one of the only teachers at school that proposes a class where illustration is respected as a viable art form and where its techniques are explored satisfactorily. She also affords students relative freedom to explore these techniques, and has been known to let them work on projects that have nothing to do with scientific illustration simply to provide them with a haven to make illustrations for class credit.
Granov’s poster class falls under the umbrella of a fashion department elective, less because it’s actually about fashion (which it isn’t) but rather because Granov happens to teach other classes in the department. It’s one of the only classes where all of the projects have a commercial base (design a comic, a book cover, a movie poster, a wine label) and are required to incorporate a physical medium, i.e., works on paper as opposed to computer software. She too has students that have been with her for semester upon semester, because no other avenue for illustration was open to them. I got creative last semester and found a nice little 1.5 credit Continuing Education class in children’s book illustration that was fantastic in an otherwise arid landscape. There really is no reason for this dearth of a curriculum. What illustration students do isn’t some bizarre fringe practice, and there’s nothing obscure about the training they seek. Illustration is integral to the commercial art world and a very valid, thriving art form in and of itself. And Columbia has a course of studies for it. But then, Columbia seems to have everything.
Dijana Granov’s Illustrated Poster course focuses on commercial illustrative design and on the more traditional media used to create it, such as gouache, watercolours, coloured pencils, markers, and ink. It is a class that trends heavily towards the representational, and offers an ideal practice for students interested in developing a marketable skill set in the art world.
She is planning to pitch a proposal for an organized illustration curriculum, and outlined her plan for what such a curriculum might look like. “There are many classes at the school that contain the elements needed for an education in illustration,” she says. “Joining them together would allow us to create a course of study similar to the BFAs with emphasis on architecture or visual communication that we already have in place.”
Entry would be judged by portfolio in the manner of visual communication or advanced painting, and many classes could be run hand-in-hand with the painting and drawing department. Granov also suggests that forming such a curriculum might relieve some of the congestion in the First Year Program, which is widely hailed as a bit of a mess. “The First Year Program is inconsistent and crams too much information into two semesters,” says Granov. “There are too many possibilities, and students tend to drift through the school picking up a superficial education which dumps them out into the world without any basic skills. Limiting the curriculum could ensure that they learn a few useful things. Some of them might be interested in earning a living.”
When asked about a perceived bias against illustration, Granov also cited the conceptual reputation of SAIC. “Illustration has a direct message, and that can be considered shallow. Audiences respond to the content of an illustration differently than they do to fine art, which has the option of hiding poor execution behind conceptualism. They can say that ‘you’re not supposed to get it,’ while illustrators really can’t.”
It remains that for all its commercialism, illustration is an all-inclusive medium, a very global art form. Illustrators work on specific projects, they can write their own stories, and after paying their dues can be afforded great artistic freedom. Maurice Sendak is a brilliant example of that. But apparently even he isn’t immune to fine art terrorism. In a September interview in the New Yorker, Sendak revealed that he was plagued with insecurity at the thought of being remembered as “a mere illustrator.” The fact that Maurice Sendak is a genius is not something that most normal people would question. Why, then, do a few detractors deny him the title of “artist”? Would they deny Mughal miniatures? Would they deny a solid millennia of illuminated manuscripts, of tomb murals, and engraved stelae? Would they deny Aubrey Beardsley, N.C. Wyeth, Albrecht Durer, Norman Rockwell?
There is a strong historical tradition behind illustration, and there is also a strong democratic appeal to it. It is the art form for everyman. And if SAIC is going to continue to claim a place at the head of art education in this country, it must consider including illustration as one of its fundaments.