Melbourne-based artist and author Tai Snaith recently travelled to London as a finalist in the World Illustration Awards. In her postcard from London she delves into the tricky question: What’s the difference between art and illustration?
On my first morning in London I sat at an outside table at Allpress Espresso which I was assured by many London foodie aficionados was the “best coffee place in Shoreditch.” While eating my smashed avo on toast I briefly looked up from my breakfast to see a brand new black Porsche round the corner in front of me and caught a glimpse of the personalised plates: A BOGAN. I couldn’t help but think I’d flown nearly 30 hours and it felt just like Smith Street…
That said, my time in London did offer some fresh insights into how my work is perceived abroad and further fodder for what I find to be the fascinating discussion around the shrinking or confusing distinction between art and illustration. The latter being exactly what lured me there; I was selected for the World Illustration Awards 2019.
The work that made the shortlist (I didn’t win) was my recent 29 metre-long artwork, Open Book, commissioned by the State Library of Victoria as part of their current $88 million Vision 2020 redevelopment project.
Selected by the State Library curatorial team from 77 odd applications, my project saw me working directly with the Library’s dense collection of non-fiction books to create a series of sculptural assemblages (each with an idea or concept growing from the 13 open books I chose) which were then photographed and super-sized to larger than human scale, then presented across the entire length of the public entrance to the Redmond Barry collection. There was no compromise to my concept at any stage, not even a hint of editing from the Library curators, just pure faith in my idea and a very supportive team of designers and installers to help make it happen on a wall that over 5,000 people pass each day. A dream come true!
As an artist who also writes and creates picture books as part of my broader practice, I often find myself being labelled an ‘illustrator’ which I always passionately deny. I’m an artist who writes. Or I’m an author and artist. A published artist? An artist who likes books? Anything but illustrator. Not my tribe, I’ve always thought. Illustrators in my mind were more like guns for hire who have to bend to the visions of others, describing a text with pictures to make it easier to understand for the masses. That just isn’t me.
However, over my past eight or so years in the industry, I have met a few other Melbourne-based artist/author types who I have indeed identified with, who also break that pre-conceived (and perhaps outdated) mould. They create works of art: Shaun Tan, Marc Martin, David Booth, Beci Orpin, Oslo Davis, just to name a few. So where does that leave us? As a kind of experiment, I thought I would enter my ‘capital A’ artwork into the World Illustration Awards in the site specific category and see what happened.
It was interesting. The finalists exhibition and awards ceremony for the winning entrants was held at Somerset House in London, a grand old place fronting onto the River Thames on one side, with numerous wings and offices and a giant piazza-like internal courtyard where they create an ice-skating rink in winter and a huge stage with concerts throughout summer. The exhibition itself wasn’t exactly grand, but it was an impressive display of what is happening globally in the ever-changing and expanding world of illustration. With categories spanning site-specific, experimental, editorial and children’s books, it was packed full of dense visual information.
What looked pretty glossy and commercial at first glance, on closer inspection revealed that there were some incredibly complex and nuanced works in the mix. For example, Meichen Lu’s Intercourse with my vulva, shortlisted in the experimental/new talent category, was an epic series of embroidered works which she called an abstract “graphic novel that reflects on feminist issues, gender stereotypes and non-standard beauty.” Looks and sounds like art to me. There were a number of examples like this. Some painstakingly hand crafted, one-off, highly conceptual, interactive and some created without any commercial imperative, client or public outcome.
Taking the opportunity to gain a new insight from a foreign audience, I set myself the task of finding as many experts in the crowd as I could and asking them what they thought the difference between an artist and an illustrator was, or even the difference between art and illustration. Generally, most people in the industry said that illustration was “more of a career choice.” Which I found hilarious. Tell that to Joseph Beuys or Anselm Kiefer or even better their gallerist Thaddaeus Ropac, whose four-story Mayfair gallery mansion I had visited earlier in the day. All wildly successful careers forged from art. Or, ironically, the other classic response was about value. Art is worth more. “For example, an illustration can be painted, but not all paintings are illustrations because illustration is not considered fine art,” one guy told me.
Possibly the most sophisticated answer was from a quote on the wall by one of the judges of the awards, Connie Lam. “Illustration is the medium which turns complex ideas into universal language.” Close, but still I could think of contemporary artists who do this with their work too. What about David Shrigley? What about Erwin Wurm? Or even two great examples I saw while I was in London: the quilted stories of activist, artist and children’s author Faith Rinngold, or the early movie club posters of world-renowned painter Peter Doig.
Perhaps the most fiery discussions happened towards the end of the night (with a few wines under my belt as artillery) when I highjacked a conversation between two guys accidently by asking one of them for a pen. He turned out to be Sam Arthur, founding partner of the infamous Nobrow Press and my favourite picture book publisher of all time, Flying Eye Books. When I posed the question to him he explained to me that even though in theory, yes, he agrees both are definitely ‘artists’ and he proudly calls all the people he publishes ‘artists’ and never ‘illustrators’ the difference, in reality, is that illustrators, or artists who make books and graphic novels and posters and the like are “humbler folk” from a more “DIY background.” They might be talented geniuses yes, but they prefer to be known as artisans for the masses and thus their original work is worth less.
As you can imagine, philosophically and even ethically I had a slight issue with this definition. Conveniently the official photographer snapped us right at this very moment. Needless to say, I left feeling confused and in no way clearer in making my mind up about what exactly is the difference, if there even is one at all. However, it did make one thing clear to me; it’s all about what you call yourself and it seems you can indeed be both.
I spent my final days in London meeting with one of the big bosses at the downtown office of my publisher Thames and Hudson, Anna Ridley, and a series of quality park hangs with Australians who are now kicking major goals in town. I made lots of drawings at the V&A Museum of Childhood and visited too many contemporary galleries to count, mixing it all into the mind bank of inspiration. Whether it be an ancient bronze cat from Mesopotamia or a tree full of architecturally designed bird boxes as public art installation; it’s all art to me.
At the Tate Modern a quote by the prominent British curator and critic of the 1960s, Lawrence Alloway, was projected up onto the wall and stuck in my mind the whole flight home. “Rejection of the mass-produced arts is not, as critics think, a defence of culture but an attack on it… the new role for the fine artist is to be one of the possible forms of communication in an expanding framework that also includes mass arts.”