Monday, March 16, 1998

A game for fools

So, back in the era of John Travolta and Pet Rocks, I graduated from UVA with a BA in English and a portfolio of my cartoons for The Declaration -- the university's weekly newspaper. Circa 1978, I showed up at The Sarasota Herald Tribune to see if they could use me as an illustrator.

The editor I talked to laughed.

Let me show you something, he said.

And he took me into the back room. It was something like the warehouse in Citizen Kane, a huge, dusty warehouse space rimmed with steel girders. One wall, it seemed, was filled to the top with bolted in industrial metal shelves. These shelves were stuffed to bursting with clip art books.

The man reached out and grabbed one of the books

And started flipping.

Here, a chef twirling a pizza. Here a chef twirling a mustache. Here, a chef twirling his mustache and a pizza. Here, a whole page of "YOU CAN DO IT YOURSELF" illustrations, right next to a page of "HIRE THE EXPERT" illustrations. Damn hypocrites.

Showing me those clipart books was the editor's not-so-polite way of saying: We don't need no steenking illustrators. We've got all the art we could ever need for next to nothing.

But maybe that's changing. In the future that is.

Predicting the future is, obviously, a game for fools.

I am that fool.

We're in the middle of an extremely bloody revolution though it's easy to miss because, in most cases, what's being bled isn't blood but money. The revolution is the revolution of digital imaging and what that means is, well...

Consider, by way of analogy, the world of music.

Once upon a time if you were a musician you played music and, if you were lucky enough, you were paid. There was nothing else.

Then Edison invented the phonograph.

Slowly, very slowly, the recorded-music industry came into being.

And, in less than a century, live musical performance is only a small subset of the music industry.

The same thing happened to acting. Once upon a time if you acted it was on stage -- or nowhere.

Then, once again, here comes Edison, this time with the movies...

But this kind of thing hasn't happened to the visual arts world -- not exactly -- even though there's printing...

Because printing to painting just ain't the same as a CD of a musical performance is to a performance...

The visual arts world is divided into two harshly opposed camps, namely commercial artists and fine artists.

Fine artists make static objects: paintings, sculpture, drawings. An object. One. You buy it and hang it on your wall or put it in your garden.

There may be reproductions, but the reproductions are very different and controlled via the whole dance of signed and number prints, limited editions, etc...

And then there are artists who do illustrations, artists who draw cartoons, artists who, by and large, feed what they're doing into the world of print.

The original ain't as important as the result -- though, in some cases, the original art may become valuable -- to begin with, it's just a tool, often disposable.

And it's often hard to tell -- even if you're the artists -- what's the original and what's the copy. You do an ink line drawing, copy it, then shade the copy. Which one's the original?

The particular cruelty of this, for static visual artists in general and cartoonists in particular, is the devaluation of what you do -- because what it's going into is, essentially, disposable -- and, unlike high-profile forgeries in the fine arts world -- what any cartoonist does is very easily duplicated. This has the effect of making it very easy to steal. This also has the effect of allowing a handful of high-profile cartoonists to dominate the print market.

Each week, the daily newspaper gets a bundle of cartoons from the syndicates. Some are editorials, some are syndicated strips. Each packet (depending on the syndicate and a formula based on circulation) costs the newspaper anywhere from $25-$60.

Which means, essentially, that approximately 30 to 50 cartoonists can handle the daily cartooning needs for a nation of 250 million people.

Illustration is a different world, as are magazine cartooning and illustration. What these worlds have in common is fierce competition and a very, very limited supply of jobs.

Enter the digital revolution.

It's changing things, so slowly that it's hard to notice...

What it's doing, first of all, is allowing illustrators to be illustrators.

Marketing directors, editors, publishers and advertising agency honchos of course don't want this. What they want is $8 an hour grunts who, like busy machines, will grind out page after page of completed mechanicals, slapping clip art into the empty holes whenever possible--never their own work, because that's not what the grunts are being paid $8 an hour for.

But clip art is digital now.

Which means you can modify it -- easily. Flop it, distort it, clone it, colorize it. All that clip art has become digital which, instantly, turns it into one big swipe file -- opening up more possibilities of showing what you can do, or learning what you do better enough to move on.

The second thing it's doing is opening up more space for cartoonists and illustrators to get their stuff out their -- an alternative to the nosebleed world of fine arts, and the nasty, poor, brutish and short world of commercial art-for-print.

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