Who gets to define illustration ?
I listen to a lot of podcasts about illustration and design. It’s always interesting to hear the voices of people we usually equate with images. Sometimes these are stimulating, some other times, they are reassuring. Recently, I came across an interview with an agent that was plain outrageous. This is not an article about how illustration agents are good or bad — I’m actually often interested in what they have to say about the industry as they have a great vantage point on different aspects of it. This is an article about definitions, and who gets to make them.
Because as illustrators, letting other people define what illustration is and is not may limit the space we are allowed to occupy.
During the interview, the agent, with decades of experience in the business, distinguishes artists and illustrators. The artist, they tell us, is someone who creates for themselves an image on which they have total control, including its format, time frame, colours, etc. On the other hand, an illustrator is commissioned to create an image with specifications and restrictions. This statement appears as a banal definition, full of common sense, that the interviewer can only agree with (and they did). But from my perspective, it poses the question of who gets to define illustration, in what terms, and to what effect. Because as illustrators, letting other people define what illustration is and is not may limit the space we are allowed to occupy.
But first, a bit of theory. Definitions are a tricky linguistic object, and we should be mindful of people claiming to define things. As “a statement expressing the essential nature of something” (Merriam-Webster), a definition is either true or false and thereby merely *describing* reality. But as a speech act (i.e. an utterance that is used to perform requests, warnings, promises, etc.), a definition can *create* new reality. We often forget this, because the nature of definitions is to state the truth. But as any utterances, definitions have a tremendous social impact and they should never be taken as face value.
Of course, not everyone gets to give random definitions of things as they please. A key condition to a successful speech act is authority. An extreme example of authoritative definition is that of presidential speech, studied by communication scholar David Zarefsky:
“Because of his prominent political position and his access to the means of communication, the president, by defining a situation, might be able to shape the context in which events or proposals are viewed by the public.”
Agents are not presidents, but they are powerful figures of the creative industry, and many illustrators look up to what they have to say. This (plus the fact of being invited to speak on a podcast for example) gives them a platform that can turn a mere definition into a powerful speech act. But let’s go back to what is so problematic about the statement of this agent.
From cultural sensitivity to complex semiotic layering of meaning, illustrators have been decoding and encoding the visual fabric of our societies for a long time.
I’ll start with the obvious : These definitions of artists and illustrators are profoundly historically inaccurate. “Artists” were always and still are, commissioned. “Illustrators” were always and still are, creating artworks in their own terms. Most artists we admire today were not only commissioned, but under strict constraints. The historian David Baxandall, in Painting and Experience in 15th century Italy shows that economic transaction and commissions are at the heart of the most famous paintings of the era : “The better sort of fifteenth century painting was made on a bespoke basis, the client asking for a manufacture after his own specifications”. Mantegna was literally working for hire his whole life for Ludovico Gonzaga in exchange of a yearly salary, food and accommodation. The phantasmagorical notion that artists are existing beyond economic ties and clientelism only reifies the romantic idea of genius, which capitalism has been milking for decades.
And while we are reifying surreal assumptions about artists, why not relegate illustrators to a position of space fillers ? Illustrators should not shy away from the economic aspects of the job, but defining illustration as just a drawing that is sold dismisses centuries of expertise. From cultural sensitivity to complex semiotic layering of meaning, illustrators have been decoding and encoding the visual fabric of our societies for a long time. In his autobiography, Norman Rockwell, from the authority provided by the end of his careers, says :
“[…] illustrators who are given ideas won’t do as good work; they won’t *feel* the pictures they are painting […]. An artist can’t surrender himself, becoming just an executor of another’s idea. Or, rather, he can but he *shouldn’t*”.
Illustrators ought to be collaborators, not executors, and our role in the industry should be ours to define. I’ve been lucky enough to work with people (art directors mostly) who truly valued my input as a visual communication expert and this helped shape the way I see my work today. But self worth has to come from within nonetheless.
As a rule of thumb, people who are trying to force rigid categories on fluid experiences are often the ones who are benefiting the most from such categorization.
I’ll conclude with the general obsession some people have with distinguishing artists and illustrators. This has been going on forever and I’ve rarely seen it play in favour of illustrators. But maybe we shouldn’t be looking at illustrators and artists to understand this issue, but rather at the people who seem to ask this question. As a rule of thumb, people who are trying to force rigid categories on fluid experiences are often the ones who are benefiting the most from such categorization. So when an agent is defining illustration in these terms, it is sure to advance their own agenda. Which is completely fine, but in this case we are not talking about a definition, but about a very subjective and very pragmatic version of reality.
Nonetheless, power dynamics are a real thing, and who gets to define the terms we use everyday is an important question. People listening to these podcasts are often new illustrators (like me) and looking to get represented for the first time or simply to get insights into the industry. And people being invited to speak are already likely to be established figures. Who gets to define illustration in these moments, if that person is in a position of authority, is who gets to set the rules of the game. And like Elphaba, the witch of the musical *Wicked*, “I’m through with playing by the rules of someone else’s game”. Illustrators need to be in charge of defining illustration, and create definitions that are not limited by someone else’s agenda but enabling their own creative potential.
During the Q&A of a talk he gave at the Walker Art Center, Geoff McFetridge explains his relationship to the word illustration : “If I say I’m an illustrator, then I have to wait for a designer to hire me for a job, so why don’t I be a designer, and then I’ll just do it.” And then ends his answer by saying “ I guess I could call myself an illustrator, but why would I ?”. In this intervention, we can see how illustration is defined according to its hierarchical position in the industry, not by its specificities. Definitions of illustration like the one we’ve talked about earlier are the reason why McFetridge is absolutely right in asking “why would I [call myself an illustrator]?”. Why would you call yourself a name that has been trivialized and relegated to a position of the subaltern ?
Defining is power. And I wish to see more and more illustrators grabbing that power and defining their roles in their own terms. There can be as many definitions of illustration as there are illustrators, but we need each definition to come from the people whose lives are going to be the most affected by it. Defining the terms we use everyday is crucial. It’s a way to spot and resist abusive practices and discourses, a way to reclaim agency, a way to chose what you want to be.