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Review of Eleanor Davis (2018). Why Art?

Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books. 200 pp. ISBN 9781683960829 (Paperback)
  • Hadas Emma Kedar
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Keywords

Art Representation Truth Denialism Kazimir Malevich Climate crisis 

Eleanor Davis is a cartoonist and illustrator working for newspapers and magazines such as The New York Times and The National Geographic (Davis n.d.). Her second book, Why Art?, is a graphic novel which explores the meaning of art from an artist’s point of view. The book is printed almost entirely in black and white and contains text and contour drawings. Its structure can be roughly divided into two parts: an ‘introduction’ and a ‘main plot’. The introduction presents humorous and sarcastic art theory bits, some of which seem entirely absurd yet theoretically established. The main plot follows nine artists preparing their group exhibition when suddenly an apocalyptic storm arrives and completely destroys the exhibition, leaving nothing but a few remains. Why Art? (Davis 2018) asks two main questions: what is art? and what is art for? While these questions are explored through various themes related to art and its connection to reality, in this review I will focus on truth, denialism, and crisis.

What Is Art?

The book opens with an introduction to ‘the most basic category’ of art: colour (Davis 2018). It includes a black-contour drawing of a circle, a rectangular with a crossing line, and a curved shape with an ellipse at the top, followed by the hand-written text ‘orange artworks’—expecting us to imagine a ball, a pyramid, and a vase in orange colour (Fig. 1). This drawing is humorous for its childlike style of drawing and writing. It is also sarcastic, as these naïve objects are not ‘artworks’ and their connection to orange colour is loose. In spite of humour and sarcasm, we identify these objects because the contoured shapes imitate objects that we recognize from reality. This cognitive exercise exemplifies the very basics of art theory: art = representation. Artists are capable to copy what they see—imitating reality—hence art represents reality.
Fig. 1

‘Orange artworks’. © 2018 Eleanor Davis. Reproduced with publisher’s permission from (Davis 2018)

In 1926 René Magritte presented his renowned painting which depicted a realistic pipe followed by the text Ceci n’est pas une pipe (French: This is not a pipe). This painting invited extensive discussions on the meaning of art and the perception of images. The perception of images was already discussed in Plato’s ‘allegory of the cave’—a story about people who perceived reality through mediated shadows on the cave’s walls until one of them reached out and discovered the real world. Interpreting this allegory, Bloom (1991) explains that to reach the high cognitive level of ‘intellection’ (202), one must firstly recognize the image as such: ‘Only the awareness that an image is an image makes it possible to judge its true character’ (404). Magritte’s ‘pipe’ and Davis’ ‘orange artworks’ both require this process of reaching ‘awareness’. First, viewers accept the image as true—they believe the image. Second, viewers step-out of the illusion and recognize what is real and what is a representation. Third, viewers develop critical thinking (e.g., moral insights). In Why Art?, this concept is further promoted through Davis’ description of the ‘shadowbox’ artwork—a miniature version of an idealized reality which ‘can let you leave your ordinary life completely’ (Davis 2018). The shadowbox has a key role in the main plot and appears on the book’s cover as a miniature box with colourful flowers surrounded by reaching hands (Fig. 2).
Fig. 2

Cover of Why Art?. © 2018 Eleanor Davis. Reproduced with publisher’s permission from (Davis 2018)

Truth

Davis’ shadowbox is a metaphor for art as representation. Rockmore mentions Plato’s use of the term ‘mimesis’ to describe the artist’s work as ‘copying’. He explains that ‘to copy’ is ‘to represent’: ‘A copy is intended to be an entirely faithful representation of something else’ (Rockmore 2013: 14). Davis’ shadowbox is an immersive experience in which the viewer can realistically experience a better life. Taylor (1998) claims that an artwork’s value is much connected to the experience of its viewer who would appreciate the artwork less if it fails to persuade about its ‘claim about the world.’ Thus, the more faithfully art represents reality—the truer it is. Davis tells a short story about the artist Dolores and her performance piece in which she says ‘I love you’ personally to each viewer. ‘Her artistry is that she makes us all really believe it,’ writes Davis (2018) (Fig. 3). Some viewers fall in love and become obsessed with Dolores, mixing art with reality. This prevents Dolores from performing the work truthfully—and thus it fails. Davis emphasizes the criterion of truth in art: for an artwork to be of high value, it must truthfully represent reality. Although this approach is rather anachronistic, it is still relevant. Dolores’ anecdote teaches us not only about the hard and frustrating work of artists but also about the expected role of art in society: to represent reality and be reflective, yet to remain separate from everyday life.
Fig. 3

Dolores’ performance artwork. © 2018 Eleanor Davis. Reproduced with publisher’s permission from (Davis 2018)

Denialism

Earlier in the book Davis draws a black rectangular hanging on an exhibition wall and writes that some artworks are ‘meant to remind the audience of things we’d rather forget, things so awful they shouldn’t be true’ (Davis 2018) (Fig. 4). Why does she choose to represent the ‘things we’d rather forget’ with a black rectangular? One possibility is a reference to Kazimir Malevich’s The Black Square (1915), a renowned artwork which ‘overturned established notions of art’ (Vakar 2018: 11). According to Malevich, The Black Square is an ultimate ‘objectless’ artwork (Vakar 2018: 13); it rejects the pursuit of naturalism and ‘mimesis’ and suggests that an artwork is its own supreme object. This approach obviously challenges the formerly described view of art as representation. However, recent discoveries about The Black Square found a vague text written in Russian at the bottom of the painting (it is unknown whether Malevich wrote the text himself) with what seems to be a reference to an 1893 joke by the French writer Alphonse Allais. Allais created a representational piece: he drew a black rectangular under which he wrote Combat de Nègres dans une cave pendant la nuit (French: Battle of Negroes in a Cellar at Night) (Vakar 2018: 23). This finding can be interpreted as Malevich perhaps referring to a racist joke, or even as Malevich’s possible plagiarism—all possibilities which the artworld, probably, would rather forget.
Fig. 4

‘Things we’d rather forget’. © 2018 Eleanor Davis. Reproduced with publisher’s permission from (Davis 2018)

Another possibility for Davis’ black rectangular comprises a psycho-social observation. Davis goes on to describe how it feels like to be reminded of true things we’d rather forget. She zooms into the black rectangular in the next pages until the entire double-page spread turns black (i.e. two black adjacent pages). Davis writes, white on black: ‘Many people try hard to not look at this sort of artwork’ (Davis 2018)—while the reader is in fact forced to look into complete blackness. Davis shoves something in the reader’s face: what is it that we try hard not to confront? Is it our traumas, or the way we hurt others? Or is it perhaps our own denial? Truth has a strong effect on humans, and we have developed systems of denial. As a society in the ‘post-truth’ era, in which truth and facts are threatened (McIntyre 2018: 6), suppressing truth and scientific facts has become an everyday practice named denialism (a typical example is the US president Donald Trump’s persistent denial of climate change (Holden 2019)). Does Davis force us to confront our denialism?

Crisis

Why Art? merges two contradictory human behaviours: pursuing mimesis or loyal representation of reality, and practicing denialism or suppression of reality. The main plot follows nine artists preparing a group exhibition while a ranging storm approaches—represented by an entire black double-page spread for the second time in the book—and completely destroys the exhibition (Fig. 5). The artists are left with nothing but ruined pieces of their art, eating edible artworks to survive. Then, as inspired by the shadowbox artworks, in the act of mimesis, the artists start creating themselves as miniatures. They make their better-selves ‘a little closer to how we’d like to actually be’ (Davis 2018), and they continue to rebuild their whole exhibition and ‘unruined lives’ in miniature. Denying their ruined reality, the artists get completely immersed in their imaginative lives. After a period of pleasure and comfort in their wishful world, Dolores leads it to a total destruction, loyal to the apocalyptic storm in (their) reality. She then asks the miniature-selves: ‘show us how to be brave’, and ‘show us how to save ourselves’ (Davis 2018).
Fig. 5

A storm destroys the group exhibition. © 2018 Eleanor Davis. Reproduced with publisher’s permission from (Davis 2018)

Why Art? can be interpreted as a comic tragedy. Following Aristotle’s view of literature, Taylor (1998) explains that tragedy can be a ‘vehicle of truth’ through which the reader can contemplate and self-reflect. He claims that a good tragedy is a peculiar complex narrative with dramatic results, well characterized and skilfully told—and that makes tragedy an influential piece of art. Why Art? is influential art in an Aristotelian sense: Davis builds a peculiar narrative with recognizable characters that readers can identify with and contemplate morally and existentially. To save themselves from the crisis, the artists in Davis’ story destroy their own creation. Are humans responsible for their own crisis? Dolores’ act of destroying the illusion is an act of revelation. Which truth does Davis want us to see? The whole book conveys descriptions of crises, ending with a devastating storm, flood, and insect rush. Why art? comes out in a time of projected existential threat to earth’s ecological systems and species, including humans (Romm 2018: 77–79). The story entails descriptions which connotate climate disruptions experienced by our world, and I suggest that Davis urges us to acknowledge the truth of this crisis.

What Is Art for?

The book ends suddenly and without clear reconciliation. After the last illustration of the miniature artists looking up their creators in anticipation, an entire double-page spread of blackness appears, for the third time in the book. Interpreting the ‘cave allegory’, Bloom (1991: 405) wonders why Plato insisted on close attachment of humans to shadow images and concludes: ‘We are attached to the illusion because it constitutes our own world and gives meaning to our particular existence’. Both Plato and Davis suggest that art is for human survival. Art helps us cope and improve ourselves, yet reality comprises hard truths which we keep denying. If Davis’ art represents the hard truth that we would rather not see, are we all possibly denying the truth about climate crisis? This leaves us with an important question: what is the meaning of art in the face of ecological and societal collapse?

References

  1. Bloom, A. (1991). Interpretive essay (The Republic of Plato). In The Republic of Plato (2nd ed., pp. 305–436). New York, NY: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  2. Davis, E. (2018). Why art?. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books.Google Scholar
  3. Davis, E. (n.d.). Eleanor Davis’ official website: About. http://doing-fine.com/?page_id=2. Accessed 3 September 2019.
  4. Holden, E. (2019). War on science: Trump administration muzzles climate experts, critics say. The Guardian, 26 July. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/jul/26/war-on-science-trump-administration-muzzles-climate-experts-critics-say. Accessed 12 September 2019.
  5. McIntyre, L. (2018). Post-truth. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Rockmore, T. (2013). Art and Truth after Plato. The University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  7. Romm, J. (2018). Climate change: what everyone needs to know (2nd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  8. Taylor, P. (1998). Art and truth. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  https://doi.org/10.4324/9780415249126-M008-1.
  9. Vakar, I. (2018). New information concerning the Black Square. In C. Lodder (Ed.), Celebrating suprematism: new approaches to the art of Kazimir Malevich (Vol. 22). Leiden: Brill.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Hadas Emma Kedar
    • 1
  1. 1.Independent ScholarHamburgGermany

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