Once upon an art, there was a question...
You know the question, I know the question, and if you scroll down you'll observe a dog that knows the question. If an art student draws Homer Simpson in felt pen on a sheet of toilet paper and puts it in their local gallery with a hefty price tag, the onslaught is predictable; 'that's not original', 'I could make that', 'how is it worth X?', 'I don't understand' and in only moments... 'IS IT ART THOUGH?' If the question doesn't bring you to the brink of spontaneous combustion we may be very different creatures. Have the humanities ever spawned a more infuriating question than 'but is it art?' It is infuriating because it's usually a Schrödinger situation and it is irrelevant because not only is it subjective and defined by context (and probably quantum physics) but, even if we could agree upon an answer, it gets us no further along in our understanding or appreciation of the visual phenomena we're observing. (If you'd like to know more about the nature of this question before reading, art historian, Christopher Jones, provides a nice starting point here)
Art is great but can we can do better.
I trust you can imagine the arguments for and against Toilet Paper Homer being art, and no doubt in there somewhere the artist’s in intention is addressed, the aesthetic value appraised, the medium discussed, and its meaning unraveled. But how much energy and thought was spent pursuing its relation to art? It is not that the term is without its uses, I employ it on this website to describe my work. But while pointing to my generalised career choice, it also describes a boundless arena of human expression and that there is my issue. Art is boundless and amorphous. It seems lazy to use it as a descriptor. Further, in terms of Toilet Paper Homer for instance, it is wasteful and repetitive to try and evaluate this visual experience when you're tethered to a rubric you can't adequately conceive of or apply. It’s not the way you’re using the word, this is about all of us, we’re subjective creatures ~ but our realities barely align let alone our everyday perceptions of the ghostly notion that is art so let’s rely on it less.
Drop the A-bomb folks.
If 'art' can be reduced to the communication of an idea ~ and it can be, even if that idea is total abstraction and complete ambiguity ~ then, no matter the medium, you are witnessing a mode of representation; the manifestation of the maker's idea. A framework of representation in discussing visual work commands a grounded discourse about what we are viewing or what we have made. I say this in opposition to the hazy, often exclusionary, even irrelevant, discussions that emerge in the wake of western art’s long, ultra-elitist history. (I will note that my privilege in making these comments on the back of postmodernists and [the grueling work of] feminists is resounding and so not asserted lightly).
I would argue that when next one draws breath to utter the words but is it art though? pause and drop the word 'art' to see what questions you're left with. If you feel stymied, try talking about representation and see what other queries and concepts can be harnessed in lieu of the elusive notion of art. If we're not using the A-bomb in visual culture we can no longer be vague and yet we are free to expand and make more inclusive, our horizons. Even better, we can talk in terms of representation with certainty because it returns us to the piece we are responding to ~ you are referring to an object, experience or phenomenon in its context without the romantic and liminal buffer of 'art'. Is Toilet Paper Homer art? I don't know. But I do know it exists for now (or it would if felt pen didn't bleed into toilet paper like the inundation of the Nile ~ yes I tried it).
Toilet Paper Homer is a representation of something and we can begin to conceive of its physical and theoretical values from there without the spectre of art. What does it represent? Who/what/why is such an idea conveyed in those shapes and in those colours? Why here? Why now? What is depicted, communicated, implied, utilised, neglected, absent, mocked? The answer is not some sort of unsatisfying ‘because art is....’ (art isn't, we made the notion up) with a garbled message relating to Dada or arte povera weaved into your statement for gravitas.
You've done the work, now own it
If we all dropped the A-bomb then artists might need to refocus their justifications a little and audiences might need to pinpoint their evaluations more attentively. 'Representation for representation's sake' doesn't really carry because it underlines the tools for discourse rather than the 'scene' to which it belongs. This doesn’t mean we all convert to sensible depictions of sensible things, realism, narrative or traditionalism, I hope in fact we don't. It just means being frank about producing something useless because it pleases you, or being subversive just because you like messing with semiotics, or selling a picture you worked really hard on for a high price because that is what your time is worth. Do whatever you wish be it gravely serious or completely wild but don’t make a Toilet Paper Homer and hide behind the crumbling fortress of ‘art'. This, especially when you've presented it in a public space to invite attention ~ ducking behind 'art' is at best lazy, at worst cowardly and, more significantly, a waste of your own efforts when you’ve come so far to get it in the public eye.
Am I a hypocrite then?
Yes. Inevitably, duality and reverberations exist. On this site I identify as an artist and illustrator as if there is a difference, so clearly I'm still learning to drop the A-bomb. But until 'representamatist' is in the Oxford English Dictionary I will keep on using those descriptors because we still recognise them, and usefully so. But what is the difference between children's illustration and children's art? I would reply that there isn't one, except for an oscillating sense of hierarchy between the two. Children's illustration is often associated with books but of course it is everywhere in a child’s deeply pictorial world. Illustrations feature on their duvets as they awaken, they are on their sippy cups at breakfast, they are all about their clothes, they cover their hats, and blocks, and toys and school-bags. From Winnie-the-Pooh nappies to their first certificate at middle school, a child's world is illustrated. And all of it is art. Illustration can seem like it points to the depiction of a narrative but sometimes it's just a picture of a thing. Oftentimes, it really is just a random picture of a happy cloud. And traditionally, what do we call an image without a depicted narrative or didactic purpose? Art ~ even if it's 'only' clip art. Art often does have a narrative of course, especially didactic ones, but that’s because art can be anything. It’s terribly circuitous.
My own hope in picture-making is to encourage children to feel entertained while being confused enough to laugh and ask questions or better still, as evinced by my four year old, to confidently tell me a story all about why a completely illogical image looks precisely as it does using an age-old philosophy that they’ve just invented. Each piece is an illustration and so it's art but decoding representation is more useful than the sum of both. In removing the A-word, we needn't waste time asking the difference between illustration and art and we can focus instead on visual culture for children. It's no longer good enough to say it's just 'art' when our children are learning from us picture by picture. This doesn't mean pressing education upon every free idea, goodness knows, if you have even glanced at my paintings you will know that morals and firm lessons are far from my mind in making images for children. But, it does mean recognising that literacy, spatial awareness, tactility, colour distinction, and meaning-making are the pathways down which our children dance to decipher the imagery around them. They don’t care if it’s art or not, they want to know how the wolf can fit down the chimney, why the little pig is wearing a bow-tie but no pants, and if they’re allowed to play with it.