Where is the content? Where is the comment?

Illustration has become entrenched in navel-gazing and self-authorship. It’s time to stop pleasing itself and engage with the world outside

If you’ve crossed Waterloo Bridge recently, you’ve seen it. Fight The Nothingness is the rallying cry proclaimed by a billboard-sized hoarding hanging from the side of the Hayward Gallery – a made-large David Shrigley artwork that utilises his trademark hand-rendered type alongside a clenched fist, drawn in his own unique naïve illustrative style. Shrigley’s Fight The Nothingness says everything and says nothing – a call-to-arms or bland sloganeering, a statement of intent or another vacuous dictum? Shrigley, a some-time illustrator, cartoonist and animator is an artist, and as an artist has the responsibility, and opportunity thanks to the Hayward, to pass comment on our society. However, viewed in a microcosm, Shrigley’s mantra could be seen as a wake-up call to contemporary graphic art and illustration, a discipline he has always been keen to distance himself from.

Just across the river from Shrigley and the Hayward Gallery, and yet conceptually a million miles away too, Somerset House launches Pick Me Up 2012, now in its third year, featuring the ‘newest, coolest and most exciting talent in the graphic art world’. Here is an opportunity for the discipline to take on Shrigley’s battle cry and fight the nothingness; stake a claim into new territories, challenge preconceptions, perceptions and conventions. But is anyone listening? Who outside of the cozy world of graphic art and illustration is stepping inside to sample the goods? And once inside, what is there to be discovered? Are we offered much more than contemporary eye candy? Are we offered much more than mere nothingness?

Illustration is, once again, in real danger of returning to its role as the cottage industry of the creative industries. The allure of the digital now over, the discipline has seemingly retreated into an analogue world of craft-driven aesthetics, where polite pleasantries are exchanged between illustrator and audience; an audience primarily comprised of other illustrators, albeit both student and professional.

Where is the content? Where is the comment? It’s all about the materials, rather than the message. It’s all about the quantity rather than the quality. It’s all about design doing rather than design thinking. It’s all style over content, function following form. Illustration has withdrawn from the big debates of our society to focus on the chit-chat and tittle-tattle of inner-sanctum nothingness.

Late last year’s announcement and launch of the Olympics Artists posters featuring gems by Tracey Emin, Gary Hume and Martin Creed was decried nationally and internationally by graphic designers – how could such an opportunity be missed to commission the great and the good of the UK’s contemporary graphic design community?

Big protest noises from graphic design, yet deafening silence from graphic artists and illustrators. A prime example of a discipline so entrenched in navel-gazing and self-authorship that as another glossy new tome of back-to-back, jam-packed illustration arrives hot-off-the-press to take pride of place on the coffee table, it is clear that the discipline remains unable to peer over the fence at a world outside it’s own garden.

So where does illustration go next? How does the discipline move forward? If the subject has stalled, isn’t interested in reflecting upon the big issues or commenting upon the here and now, where is the future for the graphic arts? With today’s practitioners forging increasingly independent career trajectories, less dependent on commissions from within the creative industries and more focused on the creation of artefacts ­- prints, books, ‘zines, clothing, bags and badges – what drives a make-do-and-mend economy to step up and trade up? If social comment doesn’t float the boat, could big business fly the kite? Could the deciding factor in determining illustration’s future reside in a more pro-active and business-focused attitude being taken on by the sole-traders of the discipline?

A recent lecture by Barcelona-based illustrator and graphic artist Javier Mariscal, hosted by Central Saint Martins in January, showcased the work of this master of the drawn line; yet as staggering as the work itself was the breadth of work. Mariscal, interestingly a one-time official artist for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and adept at running a creative studio as a successful business, presented an immense body of work; project after project, commission after commission for a vast array of international clients – from hotel chains to fashion retail companies, from banks and financial institutions to bars, restaurants and furniture manufacturers. Each and every large-scale project presented was evidence of large-scale thinking, all emanating from a studio led with passion and vision by this illustrator with a big personality and unbelievable self-belief.

But the studio model isn’t a new model, it is just a very rare one that works well – think Milton Glaser and Seymour Chwast at Pushpin Studios in 1950s New York, think George Hardie and Bush Hollyhead at NTA Studios in 1970s London, think Kiki and Loulou Picasso at Bazooka in 1970s Paris. Of course, there are models of good practice in the 21st century too, but the best of what is happening appears to be in home-grown niche publishing ventures – Nobrow, the London-based independent publishers of beautiful books by illustrators; Ditto Press, print-publishers specialising in digital and analogue print for illustrators and graphic artists, and then there’s Landfill Editions, Panther Club…. Where are the illustrators, studios and collectives coming from with a will to transcend the discipline of graphic art and explore the potential for working with and communicating to a wider audience?

Peepshow Collective, interestingly not that new – having set up in 2000 – but cool and exciting nevertheless, take up their 10-day residency at Pick Me Up 2012, following in the footsteps of Rob Ryan in 2010 and Anthony Burrill in 2011. But will they seize the opportunity to promote more than mere polite graphic sloganeering? Can Peepshow, through the presentation of their event, The Museum of Objects & Origins, take up the Shrigley challenge from across the Thames and Fight the Nothingness? And if they can, will anyone other than the new, cool and exciting be watching and listening? 

Lawrence Zeegen is dean of design at London College of Communication, University of the Arts London

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