Review of Eleanor Davis (2018). Why Art?
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KeywordsArt 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?
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?
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?
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