Friday, 23 December 2016

Illustration, Therapy and the Sublime

Illustration has, historically, been kept separate from the world of fine art and attributed a lower cultural value. This is largely due to its functional nature; illustration exists to convey and communicate ideas and thus finds its home in "low brow" forms of media such as picture books, advertising, comics and political propaganda. This perception of illustration comes from a Kantian understanding of aesthetics; as this art form serves a practical purpose it can only be viewed as a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Thus illustration cannot be 'sublime' in the Kantian sense as it does not overwhelm the viewer's ability to comprehend it. Rather it relies on the viewer's ability to quickly interpret the image's meaning.

I certainly agree with the above position; illustration certainly does have practical purpose. I take issue, however, with Kant's notion that images and artefacts deemed to be 'fine art' do not serve a utilitarian function. It can certainly be argued that all art works serve a historical purpose in that they document the cultural, social and political milieu of a certain time and place. For me, however, this is only one practical application of art works.

As regular readers of this blog will know, my professional life revolves around the inter-connection between art and emotional well-being. I was recently greatly inspired by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong's book Art as Therapy, which posits that the act of viewing great works of art enables the spectator to engage with and resolve issues in their personal lives. This challenges the above described Kantian notion of sublimity as it suggests that all works - 'fine art' or other can serve the utilitarian purpose of facilitating psychological change.

In my previous post, I argued that movement and potential were central to the practice of visual story telling. I regularly teach illustration to a wide variety of different client groups and, in doing so, I often see the artform's great power to bring about emotional healing. In my view, this is achieved in two ways. Firstly, it can be brought about through spectatorship as de Botton and Armstrong argue (and perhaps Kant too - could it be possible that this is what he meant when he talked of the sublime?). Secondly, the creation of illustrative images allows one to interact with - and control - a sequence of  moments in time. The transformative power of this practice should not be underestimated.

I've skirted around two different debates here; the purpose (if there is one) of art work and the ever-blurring line between fine art and illustration. For those interested in digging deeper into these ideas I'd suggest the aforementioned Art as Therapy (de Botton and Armstrong, 2013) and Critique of Judgement (Kant, 1790).

If you're local to the Norwich area and are interested in illustration, narrative and the connection between art and well-being, I'll be leading an 8 week course on 'Illustration and Creative Drawing' for The Public House from January 9th, 2017.

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