Friday, September 26, 2008

ideological flypaper

This newspaper, retrieved from the Louis Geoffroy Archive of Alternate Histories in Lessines, Belgium, reminds us of what will happen if the McCain-Palin ticket had won. Yeah, the tenses are confusing, but that's the nature of alternate history, where past, present and future don't adhere to the concept of sequential time. But traveling to the future of a past that was unchosen can be instructive.

It's hard to deny an image's ability to bring clarity to the abstract and hypothetical. That's why we have illustrations in textbooks and assembly manuals (an art form Ikea took to a new level) and why artists express themselves through pictures.

Even when the image is essentially only words, as is the case in the Washington Post illustration above, it can make the unreal real, taking an intangible thought that exists nowhere but in the artist's imagination and literally breathing life into it, creating something out of nothing.

Images also erase ambiguity. It's one thing to consider a series of turns and appoximate distances, or the size of the planets relative to the sun, but it's quite another to see a map or a diagram. And it's one thing to consider, in some philosophical or abstract way, a hockey mom becoming President, but something else to see it what it might look like if it actually played out.

I make this point simply because so many voters seem to have fallen for McCain’s transparent, cynical ploy to grab the votes of gender-focused women voters and ideologically blinded right wing voters, a diversionary tactic designed to obscure and direct attention away from a lackluster campaign and a platform bereft of ideas. Rather than treat the Vice Presidency as a potentially real next Presidentnine vice presidents have, after all, become president while in office — McCain saw fit to treat it with contempt, as nothing more than ideological flypaper, designed to generate buzz and lure gullible voters. In falling for this cheap marketing gimmick, I honestly wonder if McCain-Palin supporters have given even on second's thought to the fact that one-half of their vote might end up being for one of the most unqualified, untested, unvetted Presidents ever.

It reaches a point where you just have to say, "Do I have to draw you a picture?!"

Well, maybe so.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

on being looked upon with some uneasiness...

This past weekend, a fellow from Ashburn, VA wrote to The Washington Post complaining about editorial cartoonist Tom Toles' partisan Democratic slant.

The letter writer said:
"Ideally, a newspaper's cartoonist would show some degree of non-partisanship and address topics with an even hand. Not so in the case of Tom Toles. He wears his Democratic Party hat almost every time he picks up his pen.
  Once in a while it would be nice to see him sling a little mud in the other direction, let's say, maybe one out of five cartoons, or would that result in his being drummed out of the party?"
  — Jack McIntyre, Ashburn

Tom Toles is an editorial cartoonist whose work appears on the op-ed page of The Post. Editorializing is his job and reflects his view of the world. It is the entire point of his work. Tempering that for the sake of some imaginary token "balance" would be disingenuous, and as unreasonable as expecting George Will or Robert Novak or Fox News' Billo the Clown to suddenly take a pro-Democratic stance. Or Maureen Dowd or Eugene Robinson to suddenly "sling mud" in the Democrats' direction. Why does Mr. McIntyre believe that op-ed artwork should follow different rules than op-ed writing?

I suspect there's a little partisanship at work here. I doubt Mr. McIntyre would have felt the same disdain for the father of American cartoonists, Thomas Nast, a staunch Republican, who unrelentingly went after Democrat Boss Tweed. Nast consistently expressed his own views when putting pen to paper, and it's unlikely a reader complaining to Harper's Weekly would have persuaded him to do otherwise. Further, Mr. McIntyre seems to see only what he wants to see, for Toles does lampoon Democrats; in fact he did so the very next day, skewering the DC government — hardly a bastion of the GOP.

Striking a nerve is not blasphemy
I couldn't help but notice that Mr. McIntyre is from Ashburn, VA. That calls to mind the complaint of another Ashburnite, Cary Cusumano, in The Post's Letters To The Editor on Dec. 9, 2006, regarding an illustration I had done for The Washington Post Magazine a week earlier. Ashburn, VA, it would seem, is home to the headquarters of the GOP Ministry of Artwork Inspection.

Mr. Cusamano said:
"The selection of Michael Gibbs's illustration depicting the Sacred Heart of Jesus with a symbol of the Democratic Party is not only insensitive to Christians, especially Catholics, but is also blasphemous ["The Gospel According to Jim Wallis," Magazine, Nov. 26]. Christians should be afforded the same respect for their beliefs as other religions or groups. Sadly, such respect cannot be found in The Post or other news media."
  — Cary Cusumano, Ashburn

Mr. Cusumano doesn't seem to understand three things:
1. Skewering a well-known image is a time-honored form of visual communicaton, closely affiliated with parody and satire, which is "the use of irony... in exposing, denouncing, or deriding ...folly". It only works if the underlying image is well known. A couple of well-known examples are Duchamp's parody of the Leonardo's "Mona Lisa," and the numerous parodies of Grant Woods' "American Gothic."

2. Blasphemy is "the impious utterance or action concerning God or sacred things" or, in Judaism, "the act of cursing or reviling God." What was parodied here was not God or Jesus, but a painting (any number of paintings actually). The paintings of the Sacred Heart first appeared as the result of visions experienced by a 17th century French nun. These paintings are not sacred things. They are a 17th century representation of an abstract concept— "the Love of Jesus."

3. I was expressing my view — a right that even artists and Democrats (the last time I checked) have under the US Constitution. At the same time, I was reflecting the content of the article I was illustrating, which is my job. That view, distilled down to its essence, is that Jesus was, in his heart, a Democrat. (Get it?)

As a Democrat and a Christian (I was raised Catholic) I have long been rankled by the GOP's hijacking and exploitation of Christian values. Those sentiments were echoed by Jim Wallis, the subject of The Post article and author of "God's Politics." What Wallis sees as the true mission of Christianity — righting social ills, working for peace — is in tune with the values of liberals who so often run screaming from the idea of religion. Meanwhile... religious vocabulary is co-opted by conservatives who use it to polarize" [].

A political party that promotes corporate greed over the rights of those with the least among us (including immigrants and the poor), opposes controls on Saturday Night specials, opposes basic rights for gays and lesbians, opposes stem-cell research that could save lives, practices racism (remember Willie Horton?), wages an unnecessary and illegal war that kills thousands of innocents — does not represent the heart and love of Jesus. It is the Democratic Party that does. That sentiment led to the imagery I chose.

What I find fascinating is that in both cases, it is the artwork, rather than the text, that seems to get people in a tizzy. Art is meant to disturb, said the French painter Georges Braque. And it seems to disturb conservatives disproportionately.

I have to admit I took a great deal of satisfaction in reading these Letters to the Editor. They're a reminder that artwork still has the power not only to inspire and reflect the beauty of this world, but to piss people off and illustrate the ugliness of this world. And noting the political direction from which these Letters to the Editor invariably seem to be fired, they're also a reminder of the truth of Social Realist Ben Shahn's observation, "The artist is likely to be looked upon with some uneasiness by the more conservative members of society."

life imitates art

On the left is a poster by American artist Ben Shahn, created for the Office of War Information in 1942. It depicts a victim of a Nazi massacre that occurred in Lidice, Czechoslovakia.

The image on the right needs no explanation.

The resemblance is striking.

With the handcuffed wrists, the resemblance in this version, which uses a less iconic image of Abu Ghraib, is equally striking.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

here's the catch...

he floor of my son's room is an almost comical testament to the life of a typical nine year old boy. A baseball glove. Drumsticks. A Game Boy. Stuffed animals. His stash of coins. A week's worth of clothes. A Captain Underpants book. A book on scientists. Gizmos made of disassembled old toys. A SpongeBob chair. Stacks of his drawings, next to a toolbox filled with crayons and markers.

Two of those things stand out, for not so obvious reasons; the baseball glove and the toolbox of crayons and markers. He's very good at throwing a ball, and he's very good at creative thinking and drawing. Yet those two things also represent opposite extremes of social behavior: team sports, and solitary expression of self.

One of my jobs as father is to figure out where he's going to go in life, and help him sort things out and get there. Those symbols of wide-ranging boyhood interests littering his room will slowly get whittled down, in some cases replaced by other things, but eventually he'll choose from among them and become the man he's going to be.

Once, I had a similar collection of stuff as I went through a similar voyage of self discovery. Today, I still have my baseball glove — well-worn and containing years of memories snagged out of mid-air — but for years now, it's been catching nothing but dust. It's a metaphor for the path I chose; a path that led not to teamwork, but to the relatively solitary life of a freelance illustrator.

Illustration is a career that results in — if not calls for — solitude. Not that I'm a loner — before my freelance career, I worked in graphics departments and loved the camaraderie and close friendships I made. But I never liked collaborating. In some ways, I guess I disliked the word TEAM because there was no "I" in it. That missing "I" is not a pronoun. Rather, it stands for individualism. 

That individualism came from somewhere, likely in the genes as much as something instilled, perhaps unintentionally, by my parents. As a kid, I was more interested in things like electronics kits and chemistry sets and model rockets than getting pounded into the turf in Pee Wee football. Despite the occasional smoke filled basement from an ad-libbed chemistry experiment gone awry, my folks seemed to encourage my more cerebral pursuits, and they never pushed me into team sports — in fact, it was never even suggested.

Looking back, I've often lamented that decision by my parents — I loved playing pickup baseball games as a kid, and later ran track in high school — but at the same time, I wonder if it unwittingly led me into the arts, something for which I'm profoundly grateful. I found my own interests, and gravitated toward art — mostly, photography; decidedly individualistic, solitary, and not a team sport. By my teens, I had decided individualism was something to strive for, perhaps as much a desire to create something unique in life as a dread of individualism’s counterpart, a meaningless march through time as a busybody.

Some of the benefits often cited by those who encourage youth sports are cooperating with others, working with others toward a common goal, and working with people you don't like or respect. [1] [2] But in many ways, these attributes run counter to the individualism and introspection that tend to spark creativity and the unique point of view that defines successful illustrators. In art, groupthink can lead to compromise, and compromise doesn't generally lead to memorable art.

In steering clear (or being steered clear) of team sports, I went in the opposite direction, becoming a bit of a "loner," although I'd point out that, contrary to popular belief, not all loners are creepy lurkers with a pathological fear of social contact. As Jonathan Cheek, a psychologist at Wellesley College points out, "Some people simply have a low need for affiliation. There's a big difference between the loner-by-preference and the enforced loner." [3] 

I simply had a preference, at times, to travel through my own interior universe. And when I'm creating, I invariably withdraw into that interior universe, where all the good ideas are. It's part of the process. That’s not just a hunch; research by psychotherapist Elaine Aron shows that withdrawn people typically have very high sensory acuity. Because they are good at noticing subtleties that other people miss, Aron says, they are well-suited for careers that require close observation, like writing and scientific research. [3] And, I'd suggest, illustration. 

So maybe my parents did me a favor, encouraging my more solitary hobbies and never mentioning sports.

I hadn't given this a lot of thought prior to that night I found myself sitting on my son's bed, tucking him in and musing over the choatic montage of his life he'd strewn about his room. Now, as I look back at the road I took — the very road my 9 year old son is now navigating — I wonder how, or if, things might have been different if I'd been introduced to Pee Wee football or Little League baseball when I was his age. Would I have been drawn to team sports, and more broadly, teamwork? And conversely, did my complete lack of exposure to team sports lead to my embracing a life of relative solitude?

There's no way to know where the roads not taken might have led. I took the road that I took, with another's hand on the wheel for the early part of the trip, and become the person I am. And now I wonder who will my son become? How firmly do I grab the wheel, and when do I let go? He likes to draw. He likes to play ball. When I ask him if he wants to play organized sports, he's ambivalent — he could go either way, he says, and leaves it up to me. But as I draw on my own experience, I realize there may be more significance to that decision than meets the eye.

[1]  [2]  [3]

Thursday, September 11, 2008

(hot spell) checker

Family Owned & Operated Since 1928...

You'd think after 80 years in the business, they'd have the spelling of "AIR CONDITIONING" down cold.

Friday, September 5, 2008

I'm an illustrator... and I vote.

During a campaign season, I'm always looking for some sign of how a candidate might impact me directly as a freelance illustrator.

This year's sign came when Republican nominee John McCain displayed complete contempt for copyright law — at a time when copyright is very much in the forefront of illustrators' and other creatives' minds because of orphan works legislation pending before Congress.

McCain, apparently thinking that intellectual property is his for the taking, used Jackson Browne's "Running on Empty" in a campaign ad mocking Democratic nominee Barack Obama. Browne, a musician well known for his progressive views, has sued for copyright infringement.

While the ad is believed to have run on television in Ohio and Pennsylvania, it also appeared on the internet until it was removed as a result of a cease-and-desist order.

But few, if any illustrators have the resources to fight copyright infringement in the way that Jackson Browne has. (And the orphan works legislation, as it's currently written, provides less incentive and makes it more difficult for artists to pursue infringement claims, while making it easier for infringers to infringe.)

And the fact that the ad made it to the internet underlines one of the realities that illustrators, musicians and other artists face in the internet age: the ongoing abuse of intellectual property, particularly on the internet, where people seem to assume they can grab an image or a song and use it for their own purposes, without permission and without compensation. A presidential candidate should understand that intellectual property is just that — the artist's property — and that artists make a living by selling rights to use that property. The orphan works legislation, which does have some merit, weakens artist's legitimate rights as it is now written. I prefer a candidate who understands intellectual property, not one who steals it.

As Browne's attorney Lawrence Iser says of McCain's use of music without permission, "it's ridiculous and it's setting a terrible example." [1]

This is not the first time the McCain campaign has done this. In fact, it's almost a habit. McCain's been sued by Abba (for using "Take a Chance on Me")[2], Frankie Valli ("Can't Take My Eyes Off of You")[3], John Mellencamp ("Pink Houses" and "My Country")[4], John Hall ("Still the One")[5] and most recently, Mike Myers of Wayne's World (a "We're Not Worthy" sketch used in a YouTube ad)[6].

While both candidates have issued position papers that uphold copyright law and acknowledge the need to deal with new copyright issues in the digital age, McCain's repeated contempt for copyright and lack of respect for copyright holders suggests he has no understanding or appreciation of the issue. Barack Obama, a generation younger and considerably more computer-savvy, notes that "intellectual property is to the digital age what physical goods were to the industrial age"[7] demonstrates the understanding that McCain either doesn't have, or does have but chooses to ignore.

And further, Obama actually addresses other issues of importance to artists, such as supporting increased funding for the NEA, providing affordable health care to artists, and supporting the Artist-Museum Partnership Act which would allow artists to deduct the fair market value of their work, rather than just the costs of the materials, when they make charitable contributions.

It's tough to make a living as an illustrator. But I chose to be — in the words of Jackson Browne — a happy idiot and struggle for the legal tender. I believe Barack Obama will make that struggle just a little easier.

references: [1], [2], [3], [4a], [4b], [5], [6], [7]photo credit

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Crystal Pool

This picture was taken this past weekend at what was once an amusement park just outside of DC.

The park opened in 1890 and closed 40 years ago. I love the classic type above the doors. The pool (and the sandy beaches it had in its heyday) is long gone, along with the wooden roller coaster and most everything else. The carousel was restored and still operates, and some of the arcade buildings were renovated and are now used for art and dance classes.

But for me the highlight of the park is the Crystal Pool, segregated beyond a chain link fence, unrestored, being swallowed by vegetation, crumbling and steeped in history.

Live from St. Paul

The Leader's speech to The Party last night kind of creeped me out.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Photoschlock 1.0

This photo of Barack Obama is making the rounds on the internet. It's obviously Photoshopped (in fact, the original, sans cigarette, appears elsewhere on the internet), and Photoshopped in comically poor fashion. Leaving aside the absurdity of the image for the moment, two of the more obvious flaws are the length of the filter, none of which is between the lips, and the fact that the lips aren't parted. The only thing that surprises me is that whoever did it didn't make it a joint. In an age when ten-year olds can master Photoshop, you've got to do better than this.

I mean, anyone can throw a cigarette on top of a picture and create a preposterous and unconvincing impression of someone smoking a cigarette. This one of McCain (below) took just a couple of minutes, using Barack's cigarette.

But there's a bigger point. Considering what's at stake in this election, who needs cheap shots that are no loftier than, say, drawing devil's horns on a candidate's picture?* The internet is a place where fact and fiction, truth and lies are easily confused. As Joseph Goebbles noted, if you repeat a lie often enough, people will come to believe it. Images make especially powerful lies. A cheap joke that doesn't merit dissemination beyond a middle school locker room can morph into a pack of rats scurrying through the bowels of the internet, popping up hither and yon and resembling fact to undiscerning eyes. While "Barack with Photoshopped Cigarette" isn't particularly pernicious or masterfully executed, it's the ubiquity of lying and its power in the internet age that makes me wonder how many perceptions are shifted and votes cast based on some slipshod Photoshop job.

*I know about all this. I went to Catholic school. In third grade religion class, we occasionally read Crusader magazine, which was handed out, read, and then collected afterward. One month, I made the mistake of drawing glasses and a mustache on a "pagan baby" that graced that month's cover. I ended up face to face with the principal -- one Sister John Christopher, who I always liked -- and was told never to draw in school again (no doubt influencing my decision to become an illustrator.)

But that was third grade. And my masterpiece never made it beyond the principal's office.