Tuesday, June 19, 2007


Cultured people are often offended by the vulgarity of illustration. Rocket ships blasting off, bombs exploding, damsels in distress-- such uncouth material could never qualify as fine art.

Yet, Homer, Chaucer and Shakespeare loved sex and violence just as much as the authors of lurid pulp magazines did. Simone Weil noted in her famous essay on Homer's Iliad, "The true hero, the true subject matter, the center of the Iliad is force." She could easily have written the same thing about a Superman comic book.

Many great artists have been fascinated by the aesthetic possibilities of force:

Explosion by Leonardo da Vinci, circa 1515

Leonardo da Vinci had a fondness for drawing explosions and cataclysms. His 16th century efforts to conjure up violent, powerful images seem almost quaint today. Here, Leonardo draws a picture of two battling armies:

Then he tries drawing a picture of a great big violent storm:

Then he says, "Ah, I know! How about if I draw two armies battling during a great big storm? That would really be cool!"

Leonardo's notion of power comes across as sweet and harmless measured by today's standards, but it was clearly not for lack of trying. If he had only known about exploding space ships, he would probably be drawing them right alongside Alex Raymond (above).

If you start disqualifying art due to uncouth subject matter, artists like Leonardo will end up in the dumpster alongside the illustrators. Better that we should focus on the quality of the image without getting caught up in censorious notions of suitable content.