Friday, October 12, 2007

Art And Magazines

When I was in school, our school library stocked only one ‘art’ magazine, American Artist. Local bookstores also carried The Artist. The two magazines are so similar in content and ‘look and feel’ that I’ll be referring to both of them when I speak of American Artist.

When I moved into the business world I talked with typesetters and designers and illustrators. It quickly became clear that professionals who worked with images for a living only regularly read one periodical, Communication Arts.

Communication Arts is a kind of trade journal and American Artist is a mass-market art magazine. You might expect—well, I expected—the trade journal would be defined by narrow, commercial interests, business arts, and the mass-market magazine would be open to the widest, most dynamic view of art imaginable.

But just the opposite is true.

Looking through any issue of Communication Arts and any issue of American Artist it’s immediately apparent that Communication Arts is vital, dynamic, broadly-themed and powerful. American Artist is insular, subdued, narrowly-focused and, well, weak.

I’ve spent a long time thinking about the differences between these magazines. I am not really one hundred percent happy with the conclusions I’ve come up with, but I offer this post as a kind of status report so far, a kind of work-in-progress. A sketch.

Communication Arts is about art in a social context. It’s about art as part of a communication process. American Artist presents art as an end in itself.

I don’t think art has ever been an end in itself.

Twenty generations ago, when Caravaggio presented his latest canvas to a patron the painting was not locked away to be appreciated only by fans. The painting would have been put on display. People from all walks of life in Rome would have found time to pass by and glance at the latest Caravaggio image. Other artists would have made copies. The proto-newspapers of the era would have discussed the painting. And just about everyone in Rome would have been gossiping about which infamous courtesan Caravaggio used as a model for the Magdalen or Mary. People probably would be betting among themselves if the particular juxtaposition of earthy model and divine image would be so scandalous that the Church would have to refuse to accept the painting. (That happened!)

Six or seven generations ago when Manet painted a naked woman at a picnic with fully dressed men the image was not locked away in some museum’s side gallery. Manet displayed the image where anyone from Paris could view it. And people from all walks of life in Paris did find time to check it out. Newspapers printed reproductions. Columnists speculated if the image was art or salacious exploitation.

Real art has always had a social context. Real art has always been part of a process.

Real art is still around. Society still exists—although it’s certainly wildly different from what Manet lived within, wildly different from what Caravaggio lived within (well...).

All the various processes of communication between artists and the culture around them continue.

The magazine Communication Arts is about those processes. It’s about real art. American Artist, in presenting art as some kind of end in itself, denies the reality of art, ignores the encompassing communication processes between an artist and the surrounding culture and creates a kind of denial in the reader, creates a kind of virtual reality inhabited by the reader, the magazine and the advertisers.

And I suspect this last point is a key point. Communication Arts embraces the commercial aspects of the culture around us and the role they play in the communications between artists and consumers. American Artist, though denying the pervasive commercial reality of the art world, is none-the-less itself defined physically by endless ads for pencils and paints.

I read American Artist every month. I read every issue of Communication Arts. Every now and then in American Artist I come across an interesting tidbit of art history—like Hopper being inspired by Botticelli, or I learn about a great new tool, like Derwent’s Graphitint pencils. But reading Communication Arts I feel I’m seeing, so to speak, a report from the front, news from the real world, a glimpse of reality.

It takes a bit of effort to read American Artist. Reading Communication Arts is like plugging-in and recharging.

Art is food for the soul.

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