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  • Writer's pictureJay Abel


Updated: May 1, 2023

I’m a collector of old detritus, god help me, a complete set of 1963 MAD magazines, a tattered family photograph of uncle Don playing ping pong with a cigarette in his mouth and a quart bottle of beer in his free hand, and things get worse from there. I have in my possession the first (and last) “Blodwyn Pig” album. It was a retirement investment, I paid 50 cents for it and it's now worth at least twice that. My library acquisitions also include a fine set of “society of Illustrators” annuals. The earliest goes back to 1971, the late Middle Ages. While a lot of it was slick and trivial, much has held up far better than anything I saw in an academic citadel, at around the same time. While Jack Unruh and Brad Holland were dazzling me with sheer expressionistic and compositional brilliance, the university was boring me to a longed-for death with an 8x8 foot blizzard-white minimalist canvas hung on a blizzard- white wall, toilet paper taped to the ceiling, (thankfully un-used), glam shots of movie stars, clipped out of a fan-zine, with red sticker-dots pasted over the eyes, video tapes of a coed licking strawberry jam off a brick or some shirtless grad-school geek, dancing around in circles with a rubber snake sticking out of his pants.

The kicker was always some pontificating, 40 page manifesto that went something like this, "We must now consider the physical link between what makes a construct original, its specific quality, and what passes in terms of art, at best for method and at worst for a merely technical device whereby these eponymous elements are agents of one of the foundational moments in the evolution of idea vs reality."

The concept here was to make Neo-dada cornflakes seem grave and mysterious by defining them with opaque, polysyllabic jibberish. It's the sort of writing that implodes under the weight of its own gravity, vanishes into a neutron singularity impervious to hammer blows, and from which no usable idea can escape.

Other dumb ideas, in near orbit, spiral in, and are crushed on impact.

All of the afore mentioned, and oft repeated examples, told me one thing - none of those jounior geniuses had anything much to say, visually or otherwise, and hence no real job to do, save to graduate from UCX. I was friendly with a lot of the college kids back then, heck, I was a college kid. They had some great parties, but not one of my cohorts could make a living as the sort of artist they were educated to be. Most of them ended up in middle management, or they got married to somebody with a real job, since nobody was ever going to pay anybody anything for being a snotty nihilist. Those lucky few progressives who now teach university seminars still pass the baton, with noble intentions l imagine, to the next generation of contestants in an endless race towards “foundational moments in the evolution of idea vs reality”. It sounds like a lofty place but it ends with red sticker dots on glossy fan-zine. Those denied an academic soft-landing become proud alumni in a long line of grad-school bums, the Phi Beta Crapper. It's a tradition that began in 1938, when Grant Wood was kicked out of the University of Iowa for painting pictures that regular people liked and paid money for.

He was reviled as a propagandist. Among the college boys I was an exception for many years, I paid the rent with illustrations until that market collapsed, along with most of the other art markets. But I digress. If I know one thing about human beings it is this - they all need a job, and it needs to pay them something. If they don’t have one they get into trouble, get drunk, snort coke, live in a tent on skid row or sit in front of the flat-screen until their brains turn to cottage cheese. Artists who, by some miracle of dumb luck, sold their minimalist or neo-dadaist dog chow to a trivialized public, Jeff Koons, David Salle, Billy Al Bangston, Julian Schnabel, and the other university approved featherweights, are now forgotten as last century’s B-movie muscle-boys. They will become mannerist footnotes before small talent condemns them to oblivion, if it hasn’t already.

Some of the real geniuses of the last three generations, who actually did something, are people like Alan Cober, Mort Drucker, Brad Holland, Sergio Toppi, or David Levine, all of them illustrators, aka artists with a job. People will confront their stuff in 100 years and say “yeah, that still looks pretty damn good”.

Mark my words. I will make a declarative statement here. Art is only good to the extent that it has a job worth doing, and only when that job gets done very convincingly. Why was Renaissance art, for example, any good? Because art had a big job to do, either social or religious, artists were paid to do it, and they did the hell out of it. Being an artist with no job is like being anybody else with no job - one lands in a real or metaphorical skid row, shiftless, useless, powerless and often rather resentful. JDA


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Jay Abel
Jay Abel
01 mar 2023

Love your input. Always tells me something.

The gimmick-masters, like Neimann, have at least some skills but they are not drawing with their own pens and brushes. They appropriate a "cultural style" dictated by the demands of church, state, or marketplace. Neo-dada was another cultural style, only the culture was that of the university, whereby no actual ability is currently required. You may blame its worthlessness on that alone, and that would be fine with me.

As for speaking in a voice that any person of reasonable intelligence can understand, I'd call that a bedrock requirement for any artist of any kind. It is actually far more demanding than blathering opaque riddles, then chuckling smugly at one's own imagined cleverness.

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01 mar 2023

Thankfully, my academic study revolved specifically around the commercial bloodsport of illustration, with only minimal ventures into Fluxus-style shenanigans. That may be why I maintain a certain affection for the more ludicrous and downright pointless efforts of conceptual art. I even have a small appreciation for the Koons-ian grifters of the art world, if only because I enjoy seeing the public get what they deserve. That said, your distinction rings true for me, and I like your terminology. Since boyhood, I've gravitated toward illustration which serves as a voice in the general mix of more-or-less mainstream commentary. Maybe this betrays some bland, middle class ambition on my part, but "speaking" in the common language is a habit I can't seem to…

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