Nostalgia or art?: A picture’s worth, revisited

The author and a friend. Courtesy photo.

By Alan Dean Foster

Art is in the eye of the beholder.” The first known mention of this common aphorism is from the 3rd century Greek, and nothing much has changed regarding what is “art” since then. Opinions rage on. Is a boulder placed over a ditch “art”? The L.A. County Museum of Art seems to think so. Is a cartoon balloon animal blown up to Green Giant size art? Some believe it makes Jeff Koons — and others who execute likewise — artists. For that matter, is the rendering of the Green Giant on cans of vegetables “art”?

Here’s where it gets interesting.

Of the enormous, indeed unquantifiable, amount of art produced over the last few centuries originally for purposes of advertising, what can be considered art and what is simply junk? While a small quantity of such material was considered art (or at least containing some artistic merit) when it was originally produced, how does the vast volume of such endeavors hold up today?

One only has to drop in on PBS’s highly entertaining and informative program “Antiques Roadshow” to find out. Substantial valuations are proposed for everything from travel posters to General Store box displays. None of this material was birthed for the purpose of creating art. Yet people will pay thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, of dollars for a poster promoting ship travel to South America, or cans of shoe polish, or plain old sacks of flour. But are the people buying such items interested in them as art or for purposes of nostalgia?

The answer often seems to be both.

It cannot be denied that there are places where art and nostalgia combine to drive buyer interest. What particularly interests me is the artistic overlap. Did the artist involved intend to produce something of artistic merit from the very beginning of the relevant commission, or did art eventuate not because of the subject matter but in spite of it?

A good example are the covers and interior illustrations that graced American magazines and paperback books from the late-19th to the mid-twentieth century. This is advertising art at its purest. The intent is to utilize “art” to sell content. Since it was only the content that was important, the art itself was often simply given away, or in many cases, thrown away.

A poster for the 1931 film “Dracula” sold for $525,800 via Heritage Auctions in November of 2017. Image by Heritage Auctions, HA.Com, fair use.

Today, such paintings and drawings comprise a hugely popular subset of modern art called illustration art. Illustration goes back to the first books, or if one prefers, to Egyptian hieroglyphics. The idea is not to create something worthy in itself but to sell content. The shift from recognizing such work as mere sales accoutrements to art that is of value separate from content seems to evolve over time. No one now denies the artistic value of work by Arthur Rackham or Harry Clarke if presented apart from the writings they were originally commissioned to illustrate.

A better and more recent example of this continuing trend involves the cover art for pulp magazines and paperbacks. The work of commercial artists from the ’30s and ’40s such as Walter Baumhofer, Margaret Brundage, Edd Cartier, Nick Eggenhofer, Norman Saunders, and others was not only consistently disparaged (when it wasn’t being utterly ignored) by the “serious” art community; when the material was published the original art was often given away by the publisher since the artist usually had no rights to their finished work. Which didn’t matter much since, at the time such “art” had no value.

Try to tell someone today that an original Margaret Brundage cover painting for Weird Tales magazine has no value.

It’s not just nostalgia that’s driving the market for such artwork, be it a cover painting for Saucy Western Stories magazine or a 19th-century ad for coffee. Such work has come to be recognized as art for its own sake. Like any art, the results vary widely from skilled to crude. Sometimes the results are easy to appraise. Who would turn down one of N.C. Wyeth’s illustrations for Argosy Magazine?

On the other hand, what determines the artistic value of an original illustration advertising sewing machines that originally appeared in a New York newspaper? Just as in ancient Greece, it’s all in the eye of the beholder.

Original art advertising Nestlé’s baby food today might not be considered worthy of consideration as art for its own sake. But the only thing that may differentiate it from Alphonse Mucha’s 1897 work also advertising Nestlé’s baby food is time and perception. We all have to rely on the latter because we aren’t allotted enough of the former.

I haven’t even mentioned posters advertising concerts. The impetus behind them was to promote concerts, not to be recognized as art. Yet today concert posters from the ’60s are not only recognized as such, they spawned their own artistic movement.

Speaking of commercial posters promoting concerts, if anyone has any Toulouse Lautrec posters lying around advertising the Folies Bergère, you own Art with a capital A … even if the original purpose behind such work was nothing more than a lowly bit of advertising.

*****

Alan Dean Foster is author of more than 120 books, visitor to more than 100 countries, and still frustrated by the human species. Follow him at AlanDeanFoster.Com.

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