Monday, June 15, 2009


"The unutterable and the formless must needs be concealed"
.................--the Pythagorean brotherhood, circa 500 BCE

Saul Steinberg

Illustration art is commonly faulted for its "low" subject matter. Critics complain that, compared to fine art, Norman Rockwell's subjects were cheap and sentimental. Illustrations for the fiction in women's magazine or for shoe advertisements could never compare with "fine" art, where the artist has the freedom to address the most profound subjects.

But of course, there is no limit to the possible subject matter for an illustration.

Michelangelo's illustration of the Book of Genesis

In fact, the subject of an illustration can be more profound than the subject of so-called "fine" art, especially in an era like ours where fine art so often gravitates toward minor themes. Here is the art of contemporary art superstar Jenny Holzer:

Holzer takes platitudes fit for a fortune cookie and converts them into art by projecting them on the sides of buildings or flashing them on electric signs. It's hard to imagine Norman Rockwell settling for such simple minded content.

When it comes to profound, challenging subject matter, you can't aim any higher than the absolute. Great writers and artists sometimes aspire to "catch a glimpse of eternity through the window of time," transcending their small vantage point in history by identifying things immutable and great. Even if the quest for universal principles and eternal truths is a hopeless one, the mere search elevates the artist because it compels him or her to step outside of the fashions and styles of their day and focus on the most permanent things they are capable of conceptualizing. It stretches an artist to create forms commensurate with great themes.

Of course, great themes can also make an artist look foolish, which is one reason most artists don't try to go there any more. If you want to transcend the limitations of your time and place, it is disastrous to get too literal:

Here are some truly lovely examples of illustrations of the origin of the cosmos. These works, which were located and described by art historians Debra Diamond and Catherine Glynn, transcend some of the limitations of their time by reaching out to abstract beauty and putting aside literal solutions:

1. A color field of gold represents "the self-luminous Absolute."

2. The first manifestation of the cosmos

3. The siddha, "exuding silvery light (jyoti) engenders the next level of cosmic light and consciousness."

Now that's what I call sequential art! The difficulty of finding shapes and colors to portray such subjects is underscored by the corresponding text from the ancient Hindu treatise, Shiva Purana:
When the present world is not in existence, the Absolute alone is present. It is incomprehensible to the mind [and] cannot be expressed by words. It has neither name nor color.... it is immeasurable, propless, unchanging, formless, without attributes, perceptible to Yogins, all pervasive and the sole cause of the universe.
This next triptych conveys "The emergence of spirit and matter at the origin of the cosmos." I think spirit is the guy on the left:

One measure of the universal adaptability of this work is that it is compatible with modern scientific theory about the big bang, where the four fundamental forces (gravity, electromagnetism, strong interaction and weak interaction) emerged from nothingness at the origin of the universe.

An artist who attempts to realize timeless ideals by making an imperfect mark on a perishable surface reminds me of the Great Gatsby preparing to kiss Daisy:
He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning-fork that had been struck upon a star.
And yet, you do it anyway. Without the commitment of that mortal kiss, what's the point of all that perfection?