Why draw the Line? Fine Art vs. Humor & Illustration vs. Cartoon

Why is this man smiling?

Fine Art makes you think, feel, change. It calls you to action, or draws out emotion…It opens doors for its viewers, helping them get someplace they may not be able to access by themselves.

Illustration tells a story, reflects a thought, a situation, emotion…It also opens doors for its viewers in the same ways.

I was 14 when my brother Doug took off from Kennedy Airport for Europe with the car keys in his pocket. My other brother Gordie and I were stranded on the wrong side of Manhattan with nothing but time.

I’m a big fan of people watching, and Kennedy is a great place to do it. While waiting for a new set of keys to arrive, I sketched. And sketched, for hours. My approach to drawing doesn’t generally compliment anyone, and in fact I prefer to draw people with more extreme features and details. So I did.

Later I gathered all those drawings together into a very large piece of black and white art that reflected a very diverse (and rather funny) crowd.

I entered this large piece in a juried art exhibit at a New Jersey College. It was accepted and I was delighted. After they hung the show, the judges got into a heated debate….Was my piece Fine Art, or was it (Say it isn’t SO!) ….Cartoon? They discussed removing it from the Fine Art Exhibit.

When I heard of the judges’ dilemma, I was perplexed…Who cares?

I believe in the wisdom of young people, especially very young people, when it comes to art. In the course of teaching, I see that self-consciousness, vanity and the desire for a polished and socially acceptable final product begins to get in the way of freedom of expression as a student becomes older. Emily begins to worry about what Michelangelo next to her thinks, and she stops thinking for herself. Fast forward thirty years…Adults judging art are like adults judging a lot of things…based on something someone once said with great authority and very little else, the rules were laid down and no one really knows why.

What would the issue be if the experts agreed that fine art could contain humor, even humorous “style” and still be respectable as fine art? What if illustration accepted into its hallowed halls “cartoon” work without labeling it so?

Illustration: Drew Friedman. New Yorker cover. January 26, 2009

There are places where the merging of humor and art are succeeding. The world of published imagery is quickly expanding with the emergence of new styles of graphic novels for middle readers and adults (American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang), and very painterly but funny picture books for young children (Interrupting Chicken, by David Ezra Stein). I collect picture books, often just because the art is fascinating. I see fine art that makes me howl, often done by artists who make their living both as illustrators and as fine artists, for example Hal Mayforth.

I’m now in my mid-fifties, and have always made art. All kinds of art. I haven’t always known how to label myself. For years I was an Illustrator. A Muralist. A Designer-of-This-and-of-That. Nowadays I just reply “Artist.” I still get occasional feedback “This art is cartoony.” I used to defend it, try to make it less so, make it fit in. As the years go by, I don’t see why the line can’t be erased between humor and the rest of art. What are people afraid of?

One of our strongest tools as artists for reaching out is humor. Humor breaks down barriers; makes content accessible and sometimes more provocative. Humor opens doors.

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