It takes a village to be a solitary genius
A book review of Art Worlds by Howard S. Becker
This is a Book Review letter of The (Im)posture — the newsletter from Julien Posture. In my book reviews, I try to introduce creatives to books that might not be part of a classic syllabus about illustration. If you like it and want more like it in your inbox, consider subscribing.
All artistic work, like all human activity, involves the joint activity of a number, often a large number of people. Through their cooperation, the art work we eventually see or hear comes to be and continues to be. The work always shows signs of that cooperation. (p.1)
Ten years ago, a student in a small art school in France, I learned about the art world. At the time, my definition of it wasn’t much, a mere sight, an entity I needed to reckon with, a game I needed to play, people I needed to meet. Four years ago, starting out as an illustrator, I learned about the creative industry in very much the same way. In both instances, I had learned artists are always lonely individuals with amazing ideas forced to navigate a complex material and ideological world in order to create artworks. Fine artists need to please dealers and galleries, illustrators art directors and agents. These “worlds” were always portrayed as external, necessary evils a solitary genius has to deal with.
In 1982, sociologist (but also photographer and jazz musician) Howard S. Becker flipped the script of this vision of the art world with a book called Art Worlds. For him, all art results from cooperative activities between a wide array of actors. For an editorial digital illustration for example, that would mean to understand an illustration as the result of the joint work of the developers at Procreate, the engineers at Apple, the illustrator, the art director, the editor, the printer of the magazine, the newspaper stand owner distributing the magazine... you get the gist.
This vision comes in stark contrast with the romantic notion that the artist is a rare individual who’s been gifted with talent and whose work uniquely expresses this rare talent. Even if illustrators and other creatives working in the creative industry were never granted such romantic super powers and the social aura that comes with it, we still very much are functioning in a system largely focused on creativity as a result of individuality.
Think of style for example, and how it’s always the illustrator’s responsibility to come up with one that reflects their own interiority, we rarely think of it as a distributed responsibility. This is because romanticism has taught us the artwork is a direct expression of an artists inner self :
“We know who has these gifts by the work they do because, these shared beliefs hold, the work of art expresses and embodies those special, rare powers” (p.14)
But back to the book, because I’m writing this to convince you that you need to read it. The first point of interest of this book for illustrators is that it proposes a theory of art encompassing all artistic practices, from visual art to music through theatre, from fine art to craft and Sunday painters. This is of tremendous importance since so often, illustration has been opposed to fine art for dubious reasons. For Becker, making art is always a cooperative activity, which means even “fine art”, who is often thought to be the epitome of waking-up-in-the-morning-and-doing-whatever-you-want kind of art, exists in a social network of expectations, conventions and constraints.
Second takeaway, conventions. We often think of illustration as more limited than other arts because we work with/for other people. We work within conventionalized forms, editorial pages, packaging, billboard, etc. But Becker points that conventions are always present in the work no matter the form of art. Even more so, conventions are actually the condition for cooperation in art. Conventions make an artwork “fit” within a system, whether it’s in format, materials, sequence, etc. In music in involves using certain patterns of rhythms recognized to be “musical” according to western standards, in sculpture it could be working in a scale that can fit within the door of a gallery, and in illustration if could be sticking to a CMYK colour palette that will work in print. Failing to stick to convention can result in the inability to show the work, which means that in a way, all the art works we know of have followed some kind of conventions in order to be seen.
“Artists usually develop their own innovative materials over a period of time, creating a body of convention peculiar to their own work.” (p.64)
This could might as well be a definition of what illustrators call “style”. A conventionalized way of working, medium, colour palette, etc. an individual repeats across a body of work. The association between illustration “style” and Becker’s convention shows us that conventions can be conscious or subconscious (this month discussion of style also points to this). From a sociological perspective, these conventions are not external limitations on artworks, but an integral part of why artworks can exist and be distributed.
A sociological analysis of art involves asking the question of aesthetics. Aesthetics is usually understood to be the philosophical investigation of what is beautiful, what constitute “good art”. Of course this idea of “good art” as a neutral concept has been increasingly criticized, most notably thanks to decolonial thought. Our conception of what is beautiful is always culturally constructed and is therefore tied to social class, race, gender, etc. What Becker shows in Art Worlds is that aesthetic judgments are always moral ones, they “separate the deserving from the undeserving” because we “use art as an honorific term”. Think of the whole Corporate Memphis moral panic for example. This was an aesthetic judgment on a particular style as a way to make a moral judgment on the value of certain artworks and artists.
This is a complex topic, but I think a simpler way to think about it is that everyday, creatives are faced with aesthetic choices to make, and that these choices have an impact on their livelihood. I remember a friend telling me that when they stopped using black in their illustrations, a lot more commercial (and well payed) jobs started to come around. In our creative industry, what constitute “good art” is also tied to what sells more, which is a way mere aesthetics become a form of economic gate-keeping. All this to say, there is no such thing as “good art” in an objective, neutral way, and I think this is an important thing to understand when so many of us - illustrators - feel the reception of our work is so tied to our sense of self worth.
Remember when I talked about how sometimes people tend to define illustration in contrast to art based on the notion we illustrators welcome other people’s input in our work. Well Becker tells us that actually,
“I find it useful to think of an art work taking the form it does at a particular moment because of the choices, small and large, made by artists and others up to that point.” (p.194)
Even when alone, we can argue an artist always makes editing choices based on an understanding of how other people will receive the artwork. In some other cases, the person recognized to be the artist can also be a mere editor, like with traditional tales like of the Grimm brothers of Charles Perreault. The limit between self and others in artistic production is much blurrier than we would like to be. A good example of this blur is how touchy it is to talk about plagiarism in our industry. What makes the difference between plagiarism, homage and trends ? Whose responsibility is it when an artist’s work looks an other’s ?
I always thought illustration had the revolutionary potential to redefine what we consider art in relation to editing and collaboration. What has so often be used to dismiss it could be reclaimed by illustrator as a beautiful aspect of our profession, we collaborate. The indirect collaboration with a text, the direct collaboration with an art director, these are the collaborative practices that Becker see in all art. Illustrators have just been better at integrating them in their work than most artists. And I think it’s something to celebrate.
This being said, this can only happens in particular circumstances, not all illustrations stem from “true” collaboration. Power dynamics, unfair work conditions, low wages are major impediments to this collaborative form of art. But reading Art Worlds is a reminder that such distinctions between art and illustration are artificial, that collaboration is in our social nature, artists or not, and that all of us face the same questions of self, creativity and compromise when it comes to be artists.
Some suggested chapters
You don’t need to read the whole thing to get the point of the book. Some chapters are more relevant than others for illustrators and workers in the creative industry, here is a selection :
Chapter 1 : Art Worlds and Collective Activity
Basically a recap of the whole book.
Chapter 2 : Conventions
About convention as a fundamental element of art making in order to debunk the idea of “creative freedom” as the elementary force of art.
Chapter 4 : Distributing Art Works
About the way artworks are distributed impacts the work and the artists. Review of some of the major ways artists support their work (self-support, patronage, public sale, creative industry, etc.).
Chapter 7 : Editing
About the editorial moments, all the ways, artists but also the ones involved in the distribution of art all the way to audiences can be understood as having agency in the process.
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