An interview with D.B. Dowd, author of Stick Figures: Drawing as a Human Practice
An Interview with D.B. Dowd, author of Stick Figures: Drawing as a Human Practice. The discussion topics are primarily from chapters 5-7 of the book.
- [01:05] Drawing as a human practice. Drawing as nonlinear thinking. Salience. Tacit Knowledge.
- [26:58] Reconceiving art education. Drawing is usually taught as an antecedent for painting. This is fine for people who want to paint. But most people use drawing as a tool for thinking, planning, and communication. Drawing as a way of understanding structures, e.g. in science classes. How STEAM relates to innovation.
- [47:45] Illustration and cartooning as part of cultural history.
[Andrew] Hello, my name is Andrew Everett. Today our guest is D.B Dowd. I’m going to read this because it’s a really impressive list of titles. He’s a professor of art and American culture studies at Washington University in St. Louis. He’s also the faculty director of the D.B. Dowd modern graphic history library at Washington University. And he’s a senior fellow with the Rockwell Center for American Visual Studies at the Norman Rockwell Museum. Thanks so much for coming on today to talk about your book, which is Stick Figures: Drawing as a Human Practice.
[D.B.] Well delighted to be here, Andrew.
[Andrew] The subtitle of the book is Drawing as Human Practice so I wanted to start with that as a topic. There was a line in here on page 122. “The reason to study drawing is fundamentally, resoundingly humane. It’s the quickest route known to a confrontation with ignorance.” Could you talk about that?
[D.B.] Sure. Drawing is an activity that has been classified in the popular imagination, particularly when people are in school, as being a semi-professional skill that involves making reproductions of surface appearances as if like a magician. It’s like a parlor trick. Like I can make this drawing, I can make this drawing of this glass look like it’s sitting on a table. Woo-hoo! That’s fantastic. If you think about the function of drawing in human history, that’s really not what it has been for, at least not its significance. Its significance is a way of communicating with other people and of gathering, consolidating, and transmitting knowledge about the world. Well the gathering part: what does that plant look like? Or what is that plant like? How does this phenomenon work? How does water flow? etc. Those kinds of problems are, if you try to draw them, you realize very quickly, wow that’s more complicated than I thought it was. Or, wait, what? How does that work?
[Andrew] You actually talked about the process of drawing where you said, “I work to understand… I don’t know yet… If you look at da Vinci’s drawings, you will find the same thing: a thicket of lines, with the right one pulled out over time, through emphasis. Not didactically, but as discovery. Drawing is a byproduct.”
[D.B.] For sure. In that passage I talk about that process as “coming to know.” It seems like there should be some very long German word for that. The point is you go back and forth between looking and drawing and seeing. So, a form that you observe, that I observe, and then I try to capture that form. And I realize as I do it, oh I thought it was like x but no it’s like y. That angle is a little different. Or that if I look at how this shape relates to that shape, etc. Right? It’s an organic process of figuring out in the act of doing it. So the point is it’s not linear. It’s not like I look, I comprehend, and it’s like stenography. Right? I just effectively draw what I have observed in this linear process. It’s not like that. It’s much more engaging the source, responding on paper with the tool, looking back and forth, back and forth, coming to understand something through the looking and marking. But if you don’t think, you can’t actually [???] in the form. It’s kind of mysterious actually.
[Andrew] And in this day and age everything’s an app. Everything’s digital. Everything’s computerized. You talked about the difference between drawing and photography. You said a competently executed drawing of a plant will tend to isolate its salient features, whereas found photography on the Internet has captured and compressed information willy-nilly. It kind of relates to what you were saying. You’re figuring it out as you go along. You’re observing. You’re figuring out what’s important.
[D.B.] Right, that concept of salience. When I aim my phone at a source and take a picture of it, I’m gathering information, but I’m not deciding. I decide how to frame it, but I’m not deciding about the relationships of the things inside the frame. Right? I’m just sort of harvesting that image and then I’ll look at it later and there are things I won’t understand. You see this faith in photography. It’s been a number of years. I was pumping gas and there was a photograph of an explanation for how to put the nozzle in the in the hole, which seems kind of funny, but I think it was a safety thing. It was trying to say, don’t have the gas pour all over the place. Right? So it was a photograph of a nozzle, a hand holding the nozzle, and a car. Those three things were all in the picture, but the value structure was such that the nozzle disappeared into the car. Like you could see the hand, but you couldn’t really see how the nozzle related to the visual field. So in other words, the forms that were being selected hadn’t really been seen on their terms. It was like I’m taking a picture of a nozzle so I can tell somebody how to use a nozzle. I just think that’s an example of the ways in which we think that photography gives us reliable information but it only does that if it’s been tasked to do that. It doesn’t do that magically.
[Andrew] Well it sounds like this goes back to what you were saying about drawing as communication. Because the scene existed and somebody took a picture of it, but what you want to say about it and what somebody takes away from that picture is not clear. Whereas if you make those decisions, where you’re talking about salience, what do I want to communicate in this drawing? Or, what do I find important that I want to highlight? That’s different than just letting the camera capture everything.
[D.B.] Absolutely. And this is why I think that drawing is so often misunderstood. When you buy a bookshelf at Ikea or you have to look in your cars owner’s manual to see how to fix something, there are images that have been constructed that are the least art-like pictures you can imagine. Right? But they’re drawings and they show structural relationships which enable us to do the thing or know the thing we need to know in order to proceed. And a badly executed instruction sheet where the identification of the parts isn’t very good or the sequence is vague or you can’t figure out what you’re doing. All of that. That’s maddening. Right? You want to throttle the person who made that when you’re in the middle of putting the bookshelf together and you realize, oh no I did this wrong because the drawing didn’t tell me that I could do it wrong in this particular way. All of that is drawing, but we don’t think of it that way because we have this kind of artistic overlay in what we think drawing is for.
[Andrew] Meaning we want to make it pretty instead of functional?
[D.B.] Or we want it to have meaning like it’s literature. It’s the expectation of its being special and removed from experience as opposed to embedded in experience. Art objects are artifacts. They’re a specialized class of artifacts, but they’re artifacts. They’re things people make. Art, especially in the modern period, has in some ways been ill-served by its removal from — that it’s being set apart from — experience. We put it in a white box and come and admire it. And it’s not part of life. It’s outside of life.
[Andrew] This reminds me of a phrase sometimes you hear. Drawing is really all about the process as opposed to the product.
[D.B.] I agree. That’s commonly articulated by drawing teachers. And it is especially valuable for learning how to approach the activity. Right? I mean, getting a student to make a decisive mark, that’s probably wrong, and then is edited with a second mark as opposed to this sort of this nervous back and forth that is like playing defense. Right? Trying not to be wrong as opposed to saying I think this is this. That process orientation makes it easier to be comfortable with being wrong and then correcting. Not by erasing, but by drawing through the mistake. And that’s really important.
Now if we’re if we’re back to the Ikea diagrams, it’s probably not accurate to say that the process is more important than the product in that case. Because the reason the drawings exist is to help me put the bookcase together. In the book I talked a little bit about our relationship to what we know and understand and how drawing is part of that. There’s an inescapable part, and the most fun part, is where through drawing I come to understand something. I get something that I didn’t really get before. But then if the thing that I’m making is going to be useful in some way, then I have to consolidate that knowledge, and I probably make a second drawing or I make a more refined version of the first drawing, and then I sort of get it ready to go out in the world, probably through printing it, although now I can see it online. So there are steps in the process where I go from trying to figure this thing out, to having figured it out, and trying to
help someone else understand it. So to the extent that the drawing has a purpose, and this kind of gets to the art versus not art thing, which we can talk about, to the extent that the drawing has a purpose it can be evaluated on how well it accomplishes that purpose. I understand the plant or the rock or the geological formation or what not.
[Andrew] There are a number of things in what you just described that remind me of the process of good writing. You know, there’s this myth that that some great writer can just kind of spew out perfect prose. But really rewriting is the essence of writing. I think William Zinsser was the person who said that. But you know it’s really a process, just like what you said about drawing. You make a first attempt and then you go back and refine it and there’s ultimately a reader involved that needs to understand what you’re trying to say. And so I think that’s what you were also talking about with drawing. What do you what do you want the viewer to take away from this?
[D.B.] Right. But depending on the subject and your understanding of the subject you can’t necessarily tell the viewer what the viewer needs to know before you understand it. So you have to go through the process of understanding it yourself. And then figuring out how you will convey that.
[Andrew] And that’s also a parallel with writing, where I think it helps you to clarify your own thoughts.
You talked about “we should be welcoming of digital tools… but open-eyed physical experience with marking tools and surface cannot be overvalued.” Then you say, “mechanical pencils short-circuit the exploratory drawing process.”
[D.B.] There are two kinds of people in the world. People who like mechanical pencils and people who don’t like mechanical pencils. I’m certainly in the latter camp. I’m being silly of course.
But in at least in the early stages of working with beginners, and at the start of my career I taught a lot of beginning drawing. I hadn’t taught it in 20 years and maybe more and we needed to go back and redo our drawing program here at Wash-U where I teach. And I was eager to become part of that and so I was on the team that worked on it. So I’ve come back to teaching beginning drawing. I’ll be doing it this Fall and I’m very excited about that. It is really fun.
But in the beginning of that as the students are kind of like, What does it mean to draw? and How will I do that? They’re often really nervous. Right? There there’s a performance anxiety that is unfortunate and I would love for drawing to be more integrated in education earlier and more thoroughly so that that performance anxiety can be done away with. But nonetheless it exists.
And so helping a student approach the activity of drawing in a way which is welcoming and not punitive requires getting them to be physically behaved to move their body and to engage drawing as a process that as an animal I do. Right? So that includes variations in speed, variations in pressure. Sort of like playing a musical instrument. Right? Like, what does it sound like when I blow hard? All of that. Mechanical pencils… You have to hold them in a certain way and you can’t press too hard or the lead breaks. You can’t make a mark that’s any thicker or thinner depending on how you use it. It makes the mark it can make, which of course is perfectly fine under…
[Andrew] If you’re a draftsman.
[D.B.] If you’re a draftsman or you come to decide this is the kind of drawing I need for this thing. But when you’re just beginning to engage the process and you’re trying to get to a point where you can use drawing as a thinking activity, as a planning activity, as working through a process to an understanding. Well, then you want something that’s more responsive and that captures the history of the drawing and helps you isolate moments where, like, oh this is the moment where I went off track or this is the thing that I thought was ugly and dumb and now it looks great.
[Andrew] So do you think that beginning with digital tools rather than starting with a physical medium misses some of that?
[D.B.] Well, we just had a conversation about this on the team that I’m working with for the Fall. I don’t want to be in the position of saying people shouldn’t draw on tablets. You know, that’s dumb. A huge chunk of professional production is now happening in a purely digital landscape.
[Andrew] For sure. But those people, depending on their age, most certainly learned with soft B pencils.
[D.B.] Correct. And also there’s something about, I’m going to sound like an old modernist when I say this, but there is something about understanding a material and a tool by using it… in a higherness [???] point of
view, from a Greenberg [???] point of view. There’s an authentic use of a material and an inauthentic uses material. Using wood in a way which heightens the undulating grain of the wood is authentic or consistent with the properties of that material. And using stone to capture mass as opposed to, say, the trace [???] Gothic cathedral which used limestone that transcends stone. It doesn’t seem like it’s stone anymore. It seems like it’s been transformed through the way the material has been used. Well, and this is a long digression, in this kind of modernist ideology that would be an inauthentic use of the material, working against the properties of the material. But whether I’m working against the properties or in alignment properties — which in either case is an interpretive act — I’m actually using the stuff. Adobe Illustrator is its own thing. Something made In Adobe Illustrator, using what it’s good for, yields something which is hard to produce manually. It’s kind of a new thing. Right?
But almost all of the Photoshop tools, you know the Kyle Webster brushes, it’s a fascinating thing, are simulations. They’re simulating a material that we have used. And so the tooth of the paper, the touch, I mean all that sort of stuff that’s woven into those tools and that’s great. But it’s important that we recognize that it’s a simulation. It’s something trying to look like something else.
And if you think about the history of photography, you know, there are episodes in the history of photography where people are trying to get photography to look like painting. They’re trying to get photography to simulate painting in some way, optically or culturally. So this is an old pattern. And it gets to the point of what technology is for: Is it an efficiency? Or is it about using a new tool to make a new thing? Or using a new tool to approximate an old thing? etc. We could talk about this for hours.
[Andrew] Sure. It sounds like what you said about Illustrator is that, pens have a purpose, and maybe H pencils have a purpose, and B pencils have a different purpose, and pastels have a different purpose, and Illustrator has a purpose. All legitimate. Whereas what you said about Photoshop being a simulation kind of implies that if you actually knew what you were simulating you might have an advantage.
[D.B.] Correct. Thank you for completing that thought.
[Andrew] That’s what I do. I summarize.
[D.B.] Good for you.
[Andrew] One other thought on this drawing as human practice. You said visual thinking has emerged in recent years as a methodology for capturing tacit knowledge in organizations and institutions. Tacit knowledge is an interesting concept. It is basically things that are hard to verbalize. I found that a very interesting line in the book.
[D.B.] The stuff we know that we don’t know that we know. Sometimes. Companies like XPLANE and others. I mean there’s a particular visual product that’s sometimes associated with this process. But the process that we call design thinking, which is now a term that’s everywhere, originally associated with the design firm Ideo in the Bay Area, gets to how you use design thinking and iteration to capture understanding, to learn. And so I mean the cliché of the Post-it notes all over the wall. This is all part of the same thing. XPLANE is a company, and there are others, that use what they call visual thinking to use graphic form and simplified illustration to show how a process works, or for training purposes, or communicating with an audience to understand something.
[Andrew] Are you talking about infographics?
[D.B.] Yeah, that’s a term I tend to avoid using, but yes.
[Andrew] It’s very jargony sounding.
Maybe we could transition to another topic you touched on in in the book which is art education — something you probably know a lot about and have a lot of experience with. Actually on page one of the book you said, “Students have developed needless performance anxiety about largely anachronistic rendering skills [and] have gained little experience with drawing as a thinking and planning tool, which is how most people use it.” I think you actually talked about that just now. Anything you want to add to that?
[D.B.] Drawing is taught in two primary forms in colleges and universities. It’s taught in the tradition of Beaux-Arts drawing instruction late 19th century the stuff that we associate with drawing the plaster casts and nude models and stuff like that. Which, in its least reflective state, is devoted to producing a persuasive representation of the thing that I see. A reproduction of the optical stimulus that I’m taking in. So rendering, charcoal, that kind of stuff.
It’s also taught as drafting, which is now has gone from big, clunky drawing tables to mostly AutoCAD, but it’s the same activity and that’s the world of mechanical pencils. I mean that’s the world of there’s no point of having an expressive line. We’re capturing structures and relationships. And if you want to see – I say this in the book — but like if you want the most dramatic representation of drawing in human culture that you can get just fly in an airplane and look down. Because everything you see was a drawing. Everything that’s man made was a drawing. And surveying is just sort of like drafting on an enormous scale. So roads, all kinds of structures, farm sections, all that, are drawings that have been enacted on a landscape. So that’s really different.
So if we have those two those two dimensions, they’re differently professionalized and specialized.
But everybody draws. Every human draws. Let’s pretend for a second that the GPS system went out and you couldn’t go on your phone and have it tell you exactly how to drive to the airport. And you were in a new city and you needed to know how to get to the airport. You asked your friend: how do I get to the airport? What would your friend do? Your friend would get out a piece of paper and make a map. It would be crude. It would be symbolic. It wouldn’t be an elegant map, but it would be an effective map, assuming a friend is capable of such a thing and most people are. So, that’s a drawing. We don’t think of that as being a drawing and that’s why those things get written on the backs of envelopes or scraps of paper and then discarded. But if you if you could collect them all and look at them all at once, they would be super cool and they would show you how much commonality there is in human beings’ ability to represent information for somebody else.
[Andrew] Drawing as communication.
[D.B.] Drawing as communication. Drawing as communication, which was its first purpose.
[Andrew] So I guess the idea of performance anxiety comes from drawing class is all about creating a Michelangelo as opposed to drawing a map?
[D.B.] Well, yeah. I mean that that will do. Let me come at this a different way. To make a Beaux-Arts rendering that is skillful and persuasive I’m going to make a figure drawing and I want to show light moving across form. There are there are dark passages, and there are middle value passages, and there are light passages, and there’s all kinds of undulating material. If I want to show that I have to be able to modulate pressure with my hand with a tool that will produce a tone. Let’s say it’s charcoal, but it could be graphite or any number of things.
And that is a learned skill and requires a certain muscular control and is a sophisticated thing to do. It’s like a trick. Right? It’s using a material in a trained way to produce a given result.
That is not necessary to make the airport map. When you make the airport map you just grab the pen or pencil and you make the marks and you’re done. So that’s an activity which anyone can do and everyone does.
The former activity is connected to seeing drawing in some ways as baby painting. And because most of the people who taught drawing, especially after World War II, were all painters, drawing has been often seen as the antecedent for painting. And what painting does is create really powerful illusions. Painting and its inheritors, which include the cinema and virtual reality. Right? Talk about a magic trick.
That’s a very powerful immersive experience.
Drawing is not immersive. At its core it’s communicative or symbolic. In the book I go into much more detail about this, but it’s sort of like knowledge versus experience, epistemology versus ontology, etc.
[Andrew] So I guess a segue then would be when you talk about separating drawing from painting, or the Beaux-Arts 19th century fine art from the more modern applications of art, you say “many contemporary students who end up as illustrators and cartoonists — often naturally given to abbreviation and simplification of form — emerge from traditional drawing experiences defeated, their glyphic proclivities disallowed, even belittled. I have worked with many such students; my studio teaching career has in many ways been devoted to rehabilitating them.” That’s an interesting statement.
[D.B.] I think some of this is really now starting to fade. Partially because art education is in crisis. But if drawing is seen in these very limited terms, like drawing’s job is primarily illusionistic. And of course nobody’s really going to say that. People don’t even necessarily think it. But the implications of the behavior are that this is for that. Right? And not everybody is good at that or interested in that. And a definition of drawing which cannot accommodate the kind of simplification that really good cartooning involves, for example, is an impoverished definition of drawing. That’s really what that’s about. So if what you’re trying to do is beat that inclination to simplify and abbreviate out of people so that they learn how to render properly, in a beginning experience if that’s all you give them, that’s a crappy thing to do. Because it creates the expectation that, oh if I did this right it would be like this. The thing that I like to do doesn’t count. I guess I should stop doing it.
[Andrew] Yeah. I think that that ties in with what you were just saying about art education being in crisis. You did write in your book today’s Drawing 101 needs to be reconceived. I guess what I would read into this is that in today’s economy, what’s driving enrollment for art majors? To me, I would assume that it’s people who want to get into animation, people who want to get into graphic design, people who want to get into game art, and those types of things. Not necessarily people who are striving to get into the Guggenheim.
[D.B.] I think the data would bear that out. One thing that is happening is that design programs — and I’m using design in a very inclusive sense to include much of what you just mentioned — those programs are growing. They’re continuing to grow. Now there’s a dip in the college-age population, so I don’t know how that all that’s going to play out. But those design programs which rely on approaches to drawing more like the some of what I’ve been talking about. — Which isn’t to discount the Beaux-Arts tradition. I don’t want to seem dismissive about that. I’m not. It just needs to be one of several things, not the only thing. — Those programs are growing. Fine art programs around the country are shrinking. And part of that explanation is that, yes, especially since 2007 and 2008 in the economic crisis, students and families are thinking about jobs. My undergraduate degree is in history. It took me a while to end up where I ended up and I’m happy about that. I was well served by that. And I still think we need to think about education as education and not job training.
But it’s undeniable that digital tools and digital modes of distribution are fundamental to contemporary experience. I mean they’re just the lingua franca of the age. I think that partly because of the tradition of art and modernism and that the role that art once art kind of dislodged itself from being of in some ways about patronage and being a court painter, etc., and the modernist artists who sort of stood apart and critiqued the society. This kind of distancing effect. That’s still part of the ideology of art which I think is fine, which is good, but that’s part of what makes it a tricky sell.
And also I think art has been in some places slow to adapt to the significance of digital technology as being part of the educational experience for all students. So on the one hand I’m saying I really think that in a beginning drawing class you shouldn’t be drawing on a tablet. It’s perfectly possible to make a very credible argument against that. And that’s more about taste. But I would never say that we shouldn’t have digital tools everywhere. Because we need to do that. Students… that’s what they use.
[Andrew] When you say drawing 101 needs to be reconceived what would change?
[D.B.] Well, we’ve done that. We did reconceive it just after I wrote that.
We broke drawing down into… There are four chunks of the course. There’s drawing as… This is a team taught thing and I teach two of these units and my partner teaches the other two. And I’m going to forget the formal titles, but one of them is about drawing space and place which starts with individual objects and goes to a table top and then goes to interior spaces and then landscape and architecture. Then there’s another that’s about light and form and that uses figure drawing and volume and that kind of stuff. Then there’s drawing as mapping which is using drawing as a way to represent relationships. Then there’s drawing as story, the sort of culminating, like, starts with Pictionary and goes to comic strips. Each one of those segments lasts about three and a half weeks. So you move really fast, and you do the one thing, and then you move to the next thing. The point is that you get an exposure to lots of different ways to use drawing and think about drawing, and use different tools, and all of that. And at the end of it you might know how you might want to use drawing.
So basically that’s an integrated approach to art and design. That works really well. The students love it. As a teacher, the adjustment I had to make, and anybody who teaches it has to make, is that you’re not going to get super polished work if you’re moving at that speed. In art schools you know you go in and often the foundation work is hung in the hallways. Showing like, we really teach kids how to draw. Right? And that’s a recruiting thing. It’s all that. This doesn’t give you that in the same way. It’s less about product, it’s more about process, as we talked before.
But, the insight, at the heart of it, that’s really fascinating, is that contemporary students do not want to be told the thing that they have to master before they can do the real thing. The logic of foundations programs has always been you’re going to gain critical skills in these introductory courses and they will enable you to do real work. So there’s this kind of compulsory exercises thing. You know, you have to do so many push-ups. There’s some of that sensibility. And today’s students don’t want to do that because they haven’t decided the thing they want to get really good at. So if you make them do that, they’ll say, if that’s the price of admission I don’t want to do that. I think that’s part of art education’s challenge. Because to be a good artist or designer you have to get good at something and that takes time. But these kids want to decide what they want to do later.
[Andrew] One of the arguments for art education comes from the whole emphasis on STEM which is adding A to STEM to make STEAM. And my understanding of that is that the advantage or the reason to do that is that the economy is driven by innovation, so you want people to learn how to be creative. Does that play into this?
[D.B.] Yeah, for sure. We were talking about design thinking and Post-it notes a while ago, right? Using non-linear processes to get to an understanding of something. Associative thinking. I mean research skills of a different kind can get you to a different result than a purely linear approach. That’s part of the value of STEAM. How thinking about a problem in a way that isn’t linear. Let’s just leave it at that. So being able to explore art and design processes as a way of tapping into the kinds of experiences that lead to innovation in all kinds of fields is really important. Which again brings us back to making beginning courses about mastering skills is less persuasive today than it was decades ago.
[Andrew] It might also be an argument that that drawing is a useful course for non-art majors.
[D.B.] Absolutely. Oh my God. First of all, I teach in a university that has, there’s a design school, art school, but there’s also many other professional schools in arts and sciences and the students travel around. Often the most interesting, or some of the most interesting kids are the people who are, I’m a literature major, or I’m an engineer, or I’m a whatever, and I just wanted to take this class. So I think drawing should be integrated into public education. I think there should just be more drawing as a way of understanding structures — certainly in science classes.
[Andrew] Okay, so the next topic is illustration and cartooning. There’s a there’s a lot of really great illustrations in your book, by the way. Really nicely printed. One of the things I wanted to cover is how illustration seems to get the short end of the stick in the art world. You did a study in 2008 of 5200 individual exhibitions, publications, and art history courses and only two percent of them included illustration or cartooning.
[D.B.] I would say that’s an example of using data to confirm what you already know. I would make the argument, I do make the argument that seeing cartooning and illustration as Art with a capital A in the professional sense of the term, is a mistake. Especially illustration, which is always deeply contingent. Illustration is always connected to some other thing. There’s always a text whether the text is present or not. If I need to make a an illustration of the biological phyla, let’s say, in the animal kingdom, then I can’t make that up. I can’t create new phyla and present them as if they exist because I’m accountable to the text. I’m accountable to the subject matter. And illustrators take that really seriously as a kind of ethic. Let’s say it’s a story illustration and it’s really beautifully made and it’s lovely and lush and fantastic. It’s still dependent upon the text of the story. And it’s not just like it’s dependent on the text of the story in this in the sense of like a religious painting and a church for a pre-literate population. Its relationship to the text is that the text is being read in the book. So illustration is tightly connected to reading, certainly in the modern sense. And I think illustration is a modern practice. So as a result, illustrations are artifacts which have aesthetic properties, but they’re not art objects in the modern sense of that term because the modern sense of that term involves the idea of an autonomous object, which is not contingent, is not dependent on anything else. Which goes back to Kant and the concept of disinterest theory.
[Andrew] You did argue in the book that you declined to argue for illustration and cartooning as capital-A Art but you wanted to see a different axis of comparison in contrast to the high and low.
[D.B.] Right. The high and low thing is just so tedious. High and low comparisons are about value, as opposed to this versus that, or left versus right, which are about looking at one thing in the light of another. When we rank things hierarchically we stack them vertically. When we compare them, we place them side by side. So it’s fairly simple. I would just prefer to have a horizontal axis instead of a vertical one.
[Andrew] That makes sense. It’s interesting what you just said about illustration being tied to reading. The book says the emergence of illustration as a profession in the 19th century parallels the expansion of mass literacy. That’s really an Interesting concept. Illustration and writing being intertwined like that. I hadn’t thought of that before.
Given the time I want to skip ahead. At the beginning when I was introducing your titles, there’s a library that you that you are faculty advisor for. And you received a major gift from the son of an early 20th century illustrator. Could you talk a little bit about that?
[D.B.] Sure. We were approached, I think it was in 1999, by Kit Parker who was the youngest son of Al Parker, then deceased, who had been a very significant illustrator for women’s magazines, especially in the 1940s and 50s. So we went out to see this corpus of material which was in Kit’s garage and he was moving and he needed to take care of it. There needed to be a disposition of this material which was basically the archive of Al’s career which included lots of original artwork, all the tear sheets, the business records, the reference photos, the whole big pile of stuff. Culturally fascinating but also culturally kind of homeless. So the garage that the work was stored in was also a metaphor for the lack of a place to put it in terms of culture. Art museums wouldn’t want that and didn’t want it. It’s not really literature. It’s illustration. So we decided to accept this work into the special collections department of the library. I was especially interested in it because I didn’t know anything about it. It was from this lost world. Because I didn’t really start out as an illustrator. I started out as a printmaker and I kind of gradually worked my way… I mean I think ideologically I was always an Illustrator, but I didn’t know it. And so it sort of set me on a research path. Because I hadn’t been an art major so I hadn’t really been indoctrinated into art history. And I hadn’t studied illustration in school so I hadn’t been indoctrinated into illustrations resentments of having been excluded. So I was just some guy who was relatively grounded in 20th century culture who came up to this stuff and was like, well, gosh, what would you call that? And how would you think about it? And how would you write about it? And that put me on a path of, you know, I’ve been doing this for 20 years, basically exploring those core questions. And because it seemed as if relatively few people had thought hard about it and because I was unencumbered by disciplinary preconceptions I’ve had a field day just looking at stuff as if nobody’s ever looked at it before. Which of course isn’t true.
[Andrew] It sounds like it relates to the two percent point which is that there’s this piece of American history or maybe international history, but a period when magazines were flourishing and illustration was was thriving and there’s no place to put it. So you gave it a place.
[D.B.] Right. And we’ve attracted lots of other illustrators’ materials. We’ve attracted archives of scholars who’ve been invested in illustration, the Walt Reed illustration archive being a key one. We just acquired the research library and a lot of work from a comics historian named Craig Yoe, which is very exciting. So we keep acquiring things and part of that is we’re helping people by taking it off their hands. Because they are family members. They’re devoted to that person’s memory. But if the work doesn’t go to a proper place, that will be lost. Right? And if you if you break it up and just sell it off, that doesn’t work either. I mean you can do that, but there isn’t that much money and it takes a lot of time. So we feel a sense of mission and a sense of devotion to saving this stuff and contextualizing it, and presenting it to researchers and students and the public.
[Andrew] One last thing I wanted to definitely ask you about. I’m really fascinated. What is your affiliation as a fellow of the Norman Rockwell Museum?
[D.B.] I guess it was something like 2007 or maybe a little before that because that’s when the exhibition went up. So let’s say 2005. I had the opportunity to meet a woman named Stephanie Plunkett who was then and remains the deputy director of the Norman Rockwell Museum. And I also met Laurie Norton Moffat, who’s the director. And because they had learned that we had all this Al Parker stuff and they wanted to do an Al Parker show. So I collaborated with Stephanie to develop the exhibition that appeared at the Norman Rockwell Museum and also had a run at the Kemper Museum here at Wash-U. In that process we discovered a lot in common, a big piece of which was this underdeveloped critical landscape for illustration. So I started working with the Rockwell in various forms in an ongoing way. And I was part of a group that helped shape the idea of the Rockwell Center for American Visual Studies, which is their research arm. And we did a society of fellows from 2017 to 2019 as a way to catalyze more writing, which was a great experience and attracted terrific scholars: Michele Bogart, Erika Doss, Chris Lukasik. So now that’s over but they’re still organizing symposia and I assist as I can and we’re having conversations about what we might do next and also collaborations between Wash-U and the Rockwell. It’s a small world, right? There just aren’t that many people who have these kinds of collections and are committed to the study of this material.
And the Rockwell, it’s very important to note, was a co-publisher of Stick Figures. If I hadn’t had their support I’m not sure it would have happened.
[Andrew] Well, it sounds like you’re really doing your part to help to push up that two percent and to make illustration more visible and prominent and not get lost in the shuffle of art history.
[D.B.] Yeah, but what I’m not doing is arguing a brief for, you know, illustration should be in in art history surveys. I don’t know that it should. I think I would put it more in the category of cultural history. So I’m less worried about art history than I am about historians and humanists of other in other areas, literary folks, etc. If I could do anything, if I could snap my fingers, I would give those folks an opportunity to study this material unencumbered by the hierarchical concerns of art history, but learn how to look hard, understand the history of printing, understand how words and images go together to create meaning. All of that. Because a lot of the humanities are still very text dominated in terms of university learning experiences and today’s students don’t just want to read texts. That’s not news. But being able to use visual material in learning about history. On my blog I just wrote a thing about the whole Aunt Jemima business and the retirement of Aunt Jemima as a character. There’s some very interesting stuff involving the history of illustration that’s part of that story that you wouldn’t get if you were just looking at the history of illustration.
[Andrew] That’s a great point.
[D.B.] So I don’t want to create a parallel art history. I don’t care about that. I care about how the things that everyday people held in their laps and saw when they walked around and were part of their daily cultural diet are understood to have shaped their experiences and continue to do so. So I don’t need a special category for that, but it is vital for us to look beyond the narrow category of painting and sculpture.
[Andrew] To preserve it as part of history as opposed to a separate thing?
[D.B.] Correct. I mean having places to highlight it is awesome and you know the Rockwell does that, and we do that, and that’s great, but in terms of understanding its place is not about separating it, it’s about integrating it. Because it’s always been integrated.
[Andrew] Excellent. Well I really appreciate your time today. And I think we’ve run out of time.
[D.B.] Well I so enjoyed it. You know, who doesn’t like to talk about the stuff they love. And I do love this stuff. So I appreciate your willingness to talk with me. Thanks so much, Andrew.