Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Ben Shahn: The Most Influential Illustrator of the 20th Century... or "just plain bad drawing"?

Recently a friend who shares my passion for illustration sent a note. He'd been perusing one of those massive volumes that collect and showcase "some of today's hottests young illustrators." In his opinion (and I have tremendous respect for this particular friend's opinion) he thought it was crap. Full of "faux naïve stuff, or just plain bad drawing."


This is a complaint I hear often - both in the comments section of this blog and from (commercial) artist friends I respect and admire. "What the hell is wrong with this generation of illustrators?" they ask. "Why have they not been taught the importance of learning how to draw well?"


Have art schools abandoned the teaching of fundamental skills and instead embraced that same b.s. 'anything goes' philosophy that has many of us rolling our eyes at the the pile of junk heaped on the floor of some gallery and called an "installation piece"?


Is it all about "expressing your feelings" these days - oh the angst of youth! - and craft be damned?


Of course this is nothing new. Bad drawing and artsy-fartsy touchy-feeliness has been an acceptable part of the commercial art scene for a very long time. The question is, when did it become acceptable and who was responsible for steering the ship into these uncharted waters? More than half a century ago an entire generation of illustrators - many of them with styles very firmly rooted in classical realism - were profoundly influenced by an artist named Ben Shahn. As you can see from all of the examples so far in today's post, Shahn couldn't (or chose not to) draw very well. At all.


Yet Shahn was described in an article in the January 13, 1953 issue of Look magazine as "one of the dominant influences in American art today and a major figure in the world of painting."


If you are, like my friend, of a certain mind, you may be understandably wary of "the world of art" - and might therefore be predisposed to reject Look magazine's glowing endorsement of Shahn. I ask then that you consider instead the many mid-century illustrators who reference Ben Shahn as a pivotal influence on their work - and on the field of illustration in general. For instance...

- Last week's subject, Merle Basset, told me in one breath, "I felt good drawing was the foundation for all excellent illustrations." and in the next, "I think I was influenced by many of the great artists at that time and Ben Shahn was one of my favorites."


- In his biography, Charles Wysoki (the artist we determined had done the 1960 Dodge Trucks illustrations we looked at a couple of weeks ago) says, "I was and am probably still greatly influenced by the paintings of Rousseau, Winslow Homer, Andrew Wyeth, Edward Hopper, Ben Shahn, Norman Rockwell and, of course, Grandma Moses."


- Bryn Havord wrote on this very blog about his friend Brian Sanders that he was, "heavily influenced by Ben Shahn..."


- Also from the biography of Anthony Saris, presented here on the blog in November 2009, "Saris cited the work of Ben Shahn, Paul Klee, George Grosz among those he most admired and studied."


- When I asked Sandy Kossin about his important influences, he wrote back, "I do give a lot of credit for any drama and design I use to David Stone Martin and Ben Shahn. Shahn, who I never met, but was alive while I was in art school, opened my eyes to not only shape-making, but the use of 'layers' of color over underpainting, and the judicious use of color."


- Describing his early influences, Harry Borgman said, "I liked Paul Gauguin, Paul Klee, Ben Shahn..."


- And when Anita Virgil wrote about her husband Andy's career she said, "Andy was "weaned" on so many of the great names in illustration -- and even beyond. He admired the work of Ben Shahn who offered a kind of bridge from the fine arts to the commercial... and certainly many of Shahn’s potent design concepts for years influenced commercial illustration. "


- Then there's this compelling quote from none other than Murray Tinkelman, who told Peg Nocciolino that Ben Shahn was an "emblematic and pivotal illustrator ... responsible for the new look of illustration that started in the 50's."


- Finally, from Walt Reed's book, "The Illustrator in America": "Ben Shahn had a major impact on American illustration through his own work, and also by example through younger illustrators."

(It goes without saying that David Stone Martin could be considered the most prominent of those younger illustrators).

Stone Martin35

Taking all of these endorsements under consideration (and they are, I'm sure, only a small sample of what you could find with further research) one has to wonder...


If Ben Shahn really did play the pivotal role in changing the look of illustration as Murray Tinkelman declares...


If Shahn freed illustrators from the burden of craft (in other words, if he legitimized "bad drawing")...


... if he singlehandedly steered a generation of illustrators away from classical realism so they might explore other types of picture making - and in turn influence generation after generation of young illustrators to this day...


... wouldn't that make Ben Shahn the most influential illustrator of the 20th century?


  1. I can see that BS? represented something new and contextually different for the times..but it doesnt do much for me.Maybe its more about tthe AD's getting bored with straight pictorialism and finding in Shahn something different for their magazines and ads.

  2. I remember going through art school at a time when representational work was frond upon. At the time I was really into Sargent, when the instructor saw that she began to bring in copies of every negative article she could find on Sargent. I had to finally tell her I didn't want anymore articles. Good drawing was discouraged or at least tolerated till you grew out of it and started drawing as bad as everyone else. I remember another time that an instructor held up a book of old ads with art by Parish and Leyendecker, laughing and criticizing for being old fashioned, meanwhile more than half the class, (instructor included), couldn't draw to save their lives. I majored in illustration btw. I don't know if one can completely blame Ben Shahn for the lack of craftsmanship in modern illustration, I think it was an over all attitude towards representational work. Everyone wanted the props without the hard work. My opinion.

  3. What about Jules Feiffer? Can he draw or not?

  4. Martin9:59 AM

    I'm not crazy about the Ben Shahn drawings, but from a technical standpoint, they do have some things going for them: They're organic rather than stiff, with variation in shapes and pattern density.

  5. I actually like those Ben Shahn drawings. I don't think they're bad at all.

    When people think of 'art', most tend to think primarily of highly representational pieces. The closer a piece accurately represents reality, the 'better' it is deemed to be. And anything that is not that is frowned upon as 'bad art'.

    I also do not believe that simpler drawing is the refuge of the bad artist. To me, bad art is more the lack of effort and craft and absence of intent to create a work that stands on its own as a statement or narrative.

    I come from more the comics world, but based on this logic, does Dave McKean make bad art? What about Sergio Toppi? Or Alberto Breccia?
    Or Jules Feiffer as Richmonde asked above?

  6. I do not consider making a drawing "realistic" or look like a photograph a "good" drawing. That is what photography is for. Ben Shahn uses graphics and emotion to make a drawing that is "more real" more alive then a realistic rendering. As one person said of his drawings of buildings "Ben Shahn breathes life into brick and mortar." Look at his drawing of Louis Armstrong to see a portrait that is so alive it looks like it will leap off the page and start singing "Hello Dolly" to you.

  7. When I went to school, Ben Shahn was one of the first artists I learned about in a modern Art History class.
    Clearly there is something about his work that has resonated with many over the years. I particularly like his work.

  8. Reading this as a young picture maker made me think (unjustly), but I make good drawings! Or I try to, anyway. I'm certainly not going for a faux naive thing -- though of course as a non-art-schooled-illustrator I always, always worry in the back of my mind that I'm stuck there, and that "real" people can see it.

    Ben Shahn here is reminding me of a less good David Weidman. And Weidman I admire for his ability to let go, his blocks of color, and his linework, whereas Shahn -- though he has his moments -- by and large leaves me wanting more.

  9. I love Ben Shahn and Norman Rockwell. I think we need them both. We shouldn't say that any one way is the way to do it. I agree with your friend that there is a lot of faux-naive crap out there, probably because it's so easy to do. But faux-naive (or actual naive) can be exciting, expressive, and beautiful. Classical realism can be all that too, or it can be lifeless, obvious, and dull. There's a lot more to drawing than representing things "correctly".

  10. Thanks for all your great posts, by the way.

  11. Leif, you might add Robert Weaver to your list of illustrators influenced by Shahn. Murray Tinkelman referrred me to a series of illustrations by Shahn that looked like pure Weaver before Weaver became Weaver. The connection was undeniable.

    I have to agree with Adrian Johnson and others here who don't think these are bad drawings. They may be intentionally primitive and simplified, but that is extremely hard to do well. It is interesting to look at the originals of artists who took a thick black crayon and drew something that looks hasty and crude. (Austin Briggs and Robert Weaver are two other examples) Often you will find that they went back in with white paint and made the tiniest little adjustments to the thickness of a particular line, or that they redrew the same drawing ten times to get a look they wanted. Why? What were they after?

    I'm a firm believer in craft, but I prefer Shahn's simplistic "faux naive" work to a lot of the heavily labored, over wrought work by Krenkel, Wrightson and similar artists. Shahn was not afraid to make a choice, and made a lot of good ones.

  12. Thanks everyone for adding your thoughts to the discussion.

    I feel fortunate to have had instructors at art college who emphasized the importance both of craft and creativity. We had life drawing classes and structural drawing classes that provided solid foundation skills - and we had editorial and interpretive classes that encouraged very personal, conceptual expression.

    Richmonde; I'm not sure if your question about Feiffer is directed to me or to everyone in general. I'll respond by saying I think Jules Feiffer draws very well in his own personal expressive manner. But what I'm searching for today is the lynchpin - the pivotal artist who changed the playing field for illustration forever at a time when classically drawn representational work was the industry standard.

    Over these last few years, as I've devoted myself to researching the mid-century period, Ben Shahn's name kept cropping up (as you see from the examples cited in today's post) - Feiffer's didn't. So for my purposes, whether Jules Feiffer can or can't draw is moot. (But I do love his work) :^)

  13. Adrian Johnson, Stevlight, Jil Casey, Maggie, Dan and David; you can all pretty well imagine, I think, that we're on the same page in regards to appreciating Ben Shahn's work and the merit of a simpler, more expressive, more personal style that isn't rooted in a classical, representational drawing style.

    What I wonder is if, by embracing the Shahn approach to illustration, the floodgates weren't opened to the legitimization of 'bad drawing' - to the extent that, as grobles63 described, the study of classical foundation drawing skills were both lost and actually dismissed as no longer valid for picture making.

    Does my friend have a legitimate claim? Is today's generation of illustrators the bastard child of a half-century of Ben Shahn-inspired artistes who sneered at the 'old fashioned' standards for what makes a good drawing?

  14. I LOVE BEN SHAHN. There is an acknowledged cry to art students and pros alike in today's illustration market to develop one's voice, especially in these times, and that knowing how to draw is the road map to finding it. One has to know what is going on underneath to produce the illusory simplistic drawings, while delivering commentary, political or otherwise, as in Shahn's work. I owe him a great debt with regard to my own line, as well as helping to bring beauty to the most mundane of objects and purpose and pride to the documentation of what is happening in the world around us.

  15. Leif, Bob Dylan inspired a whole generation of singers who said, "gee-- I don't have to be able to carry a tune in order to sing well." Today Dylan remains the standard, while those who tried to take liberties with his approach have been flushed away by the toilet of history.

    Shahn's reputation is not what it once was, but he too stands tall, while thousands of artists who deluded themselves into thinking "I can do that, since it doesn't require any technical skill" were never heard from again.

    But I do agree that our nerve endings have been dulled a little. Viewers so rarely see true craft in drawing today (heck, they so rarely see drawing at all in an era of "photo illustration") that they have forgotten what it looks like. The New Yorker used to feature artists such as Thurber, Steig and Steinberg who did child-like drawings. I think the New Yorker's third generation of faux-naive artists has lost some of the sensitivity and ability that made that earlier work so distinctive.

  16. Great post. Good stuff to think about. I think that some of Ben Shahn drawings are quite nice, though I see what you mean about some of the others. As a working illustrator, it has ALWAYS bugged me that there is a helluva trendy "bad drawing" out there. I do think that much of it is due to the hipster trend of what's popular at the moment. It's popular to be un-popular! *Inserts sarcasm* How ironic!

    On the other hand, you can plainly see that the man CAN draw, and does so quite well in some of the illustrations. You have to be able to adapt in this business. If you have sheer talent you have the option to draw good or bad art. But when the "ugly" trend passes, and you can't draw worth a lick, well, then I guess you gotta find another profession. ;)

  17. Leif, your post makes me wonder how influential Shahn was on people like Milton Glaser, whose scratchy looking drawings of rather unattractive people (honestly, both Shahn and Glaser seemed to use their Uncle Leo and Aunt Rosie for models) seemed to be everywhere back in the 1970's. Don't get me wrong, Glaser is a legend, but he seemed to be using that same sort of anti-Coby Whitmore look that we find in Shahn.

  18. Oh - and if Shahn had a counterpart in the funny papers, I wonder if it would be Charles Schulz, whose well crafted minimalism wrought an entire generation of minimalists that continue to this day, for good or ill.

  19. Art schools today seem to be taking a different attitude towards drawing, even making drawings from plaster cast's, something I never had. I think there is room for a lot more variation these days, but it would be interesting to see where things are at in another 20 years or so. I think there is a mistake in saying that all a classicaly trained artist does is mimic a camera, (though those who have used a camera as a crutch have), I don't find the works of Burt Silverman, J C Leyendecker, Dean Cornwell or a number of others to mimic photography. One might make a case with Norman Rockwell but forget that a lot of planning went into creating one of his illustrations- it wasnt just sitting down with a small brush and painting details, (as a painter you have to know how to generalize and see abstract shapes before you get into particular details, thaen you have to select whats important). The whole idea of training in this way has been gone from our schools and our culture for some time and is only now starting to gain more attention.

  20. If you go back and read things from the time, Shahn is regulated to second class status at best. History is written by the winner and clearly modernism replaced traditional work. So Shahn and Bobri and others slowly worked their ideology into illustration. It took more than fifty years for it to happen. Shahn was born in 1898 and didn't come into style until the fifties after the war. You can hardly call that influential when illustration was in its twilight and died shortly after that compared to its peak in the twenties and thirties. There is a reason the golden age of illustration doesn't include the likes of Ben Shahn and I think that reason is tied directly to facility.

  21. Amazing post! thank you Leif )))

  22. Love this stuff Lief! Great comments. I somehow wish that I could go back to art school and revel in such discussions, comparing thoughts today with those of my classmates then. So much has changed. The pendulum swings and we all try to make sense of It. An experience from my art ed at the University of Texas under Robert Levers comes to mind. Bob pulled the best from his class for the fall student show. During the break, someone from the MA program came through and utilized the canvases for their department. You can imagine how we felt. The pieces pulled were exceptional, yet those in the MA program saw no value in them except for the canvas. Art is just that way. It is one of the things that fasinates me about our procreation. What sits in the eye of the beholder

  23. That was supposed to be preoccupation. :0)

  24. I don't think it's fair to say that embracing the work of Ben Shahn opened up the floodgate of accepting bad drawing. As others said in their comments, Shahn's work may look deceptively simple, but there's more behind it. His work seems to evoke certain emotions, feelings. People respond to it. That to me is success as an artist. You can't copy that. It's funny that charles schultz was brought up - he had phenomenal success with his cartoon art. Can't say that I'm a big fan, but something about his work resonated with people, big time. I guess that's something they have in common.

    One of my teachers used to say that it was important to learn how to draw the classic way, it was an important basic foundation for drawing. But he said once you had done that, then find your style.

    The "bad drawing" that is going on now will not, in my opinion, last. Good art is lasting, it stands the test of time. I think Shahn's work lands in that category and that his heritage is one of being an original and following his visionary style. Not spawning bad artists, that's a bad rap.

  25. Let me state up front that I was influenced by Ben Shahn at an early age. In the mid 1960s my parents bought me the “American Heritage Book of The Presidents and Famous Americans” series. A well designed, 12 volume history of the Unites States which featured the work of artists such as Gilbert Stuart, Grant Wood, Thomas Nast, Norman Rockwell, Currier & Ives and on and on...artists and illustrators no one would accuse of lacking in craftsmanship or classical training. But after endless hours of ravenously poring over these books and the treasures they contained, the art of Ben Shahn stood out for me. Ben Shahn’s work jumped off the page, crackled with energy and excitement, and was so different, so alive. Shan’s work seemed to be something more than lovely, precise representations of famous people and historic events, it drew me in and even at a young age made me want to know more.

    So yeah, I agree with the notion that Ben Shahn was an influential artist. I fervently disagree that he practiced so-called bad drawing. Go and look at his mural work in the Jersey Homesteads, or the Social Security Building in Washington DC, the classical ideals of proportion, perspective and anatomy are all there. Of course Mr. Shahn did not work in a vacum, he did not spring forth to merely make drawings that annoy a certain kind of illustrator, his work was informed and influenced by Cezanne, Matisse and Picasso, work that also questioned the dominance of realism. And looking at his entire body of work one can see a progression of style, themes, experimentation, abstraction, symbology and design, not a digression. To my mind this journey infused his work, even the rough, simplistic drawings with more life, more thought, passion and truth than any perfectly rendered magazine illustration by Arthur Sarnoff or Earl Cordrey. Ben Shahn’s emotion and intelligence is what has influenced a generation of artists, not crappy drawing. I think the industry is better for it.

  26. Long Story Short. Great Post and great comment thread.

  27. WOW! I could write a book on this one. This was a hot topic of conversation back in my art school days in the late 50s' and early 60s', and it keeps on popping up. What is good drawing? What is bad drawing? Is academic drawing important? etc., etc., etc. It really needs to be put in the right context. For example, I don't recall that Ben Shahn heavily influenced illustration that was used in advertising, and when it was used in editorial illustration, it was usually more academic in its proportions than those purposely out-of-drawing and out-of-proportion Shahn drawings. I wondered at the time, how well they were received by the general public. Since magazines struggled to survive at, it raises a lot of questions. Like Picasso, I suspect Shahn could draw more academically if he wanted, but he obviously wanted to go rogue.

    The best advice I was given was by my first illustration teacher, who advised us to learn to draw well first, and then we would be properly equipped to go any direction we wanted. When they short-circuited good academic drawing and painting skills in art schools, that's when illustration and fine art painting lost much of its quality. Sandy Kossin's Bay of Pigs illos are a good example of academic accuracy combined with great subjectivity and abstract qualities. Sandy is a very competent draftsman, so he could explore different avenues with skill and confidence. That's the difference. It's not about subjectivity and expression alone, like so many art teachers think. Everyone has that ingredient already built in. I am convinced that art students should learn the academic skills first, and then get "wild and crazy" if they choose. Very few artists have the natural instinctive skills to bypass a solid academic background. I think that probably goes for any skilled line of work.

    I am not really a Ben Shahn fan, but I also don't hate his work. He was to illustration what Picasso was to fine art, only on a smaller scale. I agree with Leif's friend, and I think Carmand Cabrera also makes good points.

    Tom Watson

  28. Jil Casey and Mark Kaufman; Thanks both for your passionate defence of Ben Shahn's work. My next question to you both (and to anyone else who cares to comment):

    1. Do you believe there is such a thing as bad art and do you see it in today's crop of illustrators?

    2. If so, where did it come from?

    I'll restate my premise: I'm looking for the lynchpin - the catalyst - that drove change from the accepted standard for illustration in the early '50s (yes Mark, the "Arthur Sarnoff standard"). Based on my research, I believe Shahn to be that agent of change. It took decades and hundreds (or thousands?) of variables to get us to where we are today - but I think Michael Fraley is correct that Milton Glaser/Pushpin was a milestone marker in that journey and, as David Apatoff mentioned, so was Saul Steinberg - and so were many others.

    But whether these artists are geniuses hardly matters. I'm not interested in whether you love or hate their work -- I want to know whether you think they, in a sense, gave other lesser talents "permission" to ignore craft and, in doing so, legitimized "bad art."

    Of course all of that relies on your answer to question #1. ;^)

  29. A drawing by Ben Shawn is instantly recognizable as his.
    His work is has a personal quality & his paintings are are based on ideas.
    His book the shape of content is worth reading.

  30. Thanks for the perspective, Tom. From the examples I cited (like Sandy Kossin and others) I have to agree with your assessment: what these illustrators took from Shahn was, I think, tempered by their academic training.

    Over the decades, as less and less illustration was used for advertising purposes, editorial art has become a refuge for illustrators - and more often than not, the artwork calls for interpretive, subjective, expressive and conceptual execution - and academic training has often fallen by the wayside. I think that's why many artists who wish they could make a living doing fine art tend to gravitate to the editorial illustration field.

    That same group of artists is, I think, more likely to embrace Ben Shahn's work than those who gravitate to the more commercial areas of illustration. This tends to be where the spit occurs between the academic/'realistic'/craft-oriented camp and the interpretive/stylistic/'fine arts' camp. (Of course there is always some spill-over in either direction).

    But both camps have their masters and their pretenders. I think those firmly entrenched in one camp or the other tend to see all, of the other group as being pretenders.

  31. Leif the answer to question No. 1 is this - Bad Art is in the eye of the beholder. In my opinion there is plenty of bad art being practiced today, and yesterday for that matter. I am sure that there were many that tried to ape the styles of Honor Daumier or James Whistler and failed miserably, that doesn’t make Daumier or Whistler purveyors or influencers of bad art. The career arc of Francisco Goya traversed portraiture of Kings and Queens to the political commentary of The Third of May to the haunting Black Paintings. I would not in any way consider the Black Paintings to be bad art because it was different and darker and did not hew to the Romantic tradition. Those works in turn influenced Manet and Picasso and Bacon. These examples did not give people permission to make bad art, the good and the bad give people permission to make art period. Good and bad exists in any medium today including illustration.

    As to the second question no one person or movement can lay claim to being the pivot on which the world turns. What I am trying to get at (unsuccessfully I think) is that many factors give rise to trends and fashions of any given era. Shahn would not have as much influence today were it not for the changes that were taking place in the creative culture as a whole in the 1950s and 60s even though he already had a long and distinguished career. The changes in advertising and publishing and the maturation of graphic arts into graphic design and the advent of television gave Shahn and David Stone Martin and Andy Warhol a larger sphere of influence at that time and are just as influential to the creative landscape today. These are the things that drove the change of the accepted standard of the 1950s. Were it not for the groundbreaking work of Bill Bernbach and George Lois, Paul Rand and Bob Gill, William Golden and UPA that changed the very idea of what an avertising campaign or a magazine spread should be, we would still be looking at a technically proficient, realistically rendered yet ultimately boring illustration industry.

    Again, the eye of the beholder. The dilution of “craft” does not in my eyes make for bad art, for others it certainly does.

  32. Thanks for the reply Mark - very well reasoned - I appreciate you adding your insight to the discussion. :^)

  33. I noticed that George Grosz was mentioned in one of the comments. What's interesting about Grosz is that he did cartoon ink drawings but when he drew someone from life he did a pencil rendering. He showed that he had a skill that went beyond the cartoon work he was known for. That's not to say the cartoons are bad (I love em!) but it shows he was capable of doing other kinds of work when he wanted too.

    I'd guess that Shahn could do the same but, unless there's artistic evidence, who knows? I think his drawing style was a conscious choice on his part.

    Did Shahn influence the change that illustration went through in the 50's-60's from a realistic approach to a more loose and expressionist one? I'm not sure but I would guess that no one artist did and it had to do with a many factors. A major one being photos. Illustrators had to compete with them. What better way then to have a unique viewpoint and style (such as Shahn's)?

  34. Anonymous7:59 PM

    Many thoughtful comments here! Thank you for touching on this, Leif.
    If illustrations are in the service of commerce, and we use emotion to make a purchase (-Ogilvy?) then I see a legitimate use for Shahn's style-- even if we find he can't draw academically. To me, he's channeling Picasso's touchstones in using reduced and distorted forms to evoke emotion (e.g., 1937's 'Guernica' depicting an event when Shahn would have been in his career prime at 40).

    Shahn's style seemed to fit the project, whenever an Art Director understood its advantage. I was first exposed to Shahn in "You have not converted a man because you have silenced him." It's emotionally powerful. Reading this comment thread, it occurs to me that Virgil Partch's comedic distortions are closer to Shahn's influencing emotion, than say, how Austin Briggs used this line style. In both uses, it could be that Shahn gave better draftsmen a kick out of a rut that was being paved over by photography.

    just a hunch,

  35. I was a commercial art student in the late 50s and very early 60s when Shahn and Martin (who had been around a while by then) were considered "new" and interesting. Those were my rections at the time, anyway.

    I think the "influence" so many of those quotations mention was more an expression that Shahn's work intrigued, rather than served as a template for their own art. Really, how much actual Shahn can be seen in most of these artists' work?

  36. Great post on Shahn, wish I could read the article by him that you referenced. His photographs of Americans during the depression and his paintings (too numerous to mention) of victims of injustice, real violence, social issues. life, shed a light on a world too often ignored by pretty art. He showed beauty, ugliness, and emotion, and did it with eloquence and sensitivity.

    I think what people miss sometimes is that artists make choices. Sometimes these come from limitations, but most often, from working every day at something they love and searching for ways to make something they've never seen before.

    Before there were lenses, and long before there were cameras, what was considered "real" was very different. Realism is what you draw, not how you draw.

  37. Anonymous11:04 PM

    Another thought occured to me, Leif, to reflect closer on your second question about bad art. I feel it's an effect of the Moderns' agenda-- concept is king. I waded through the fallout of this drumbeat-- teachers and bosses apologizing to me for not being able to draw (mid-to-late 60s grads). So, I consider that we students misinterpreted the conceptual reasons behind Shahn, his peers and other similar european image-maker influences, near the end of this bloom. Pushed by Shahn or not, these guys expressed ideas in common to a generation after the war after a depresssion, who connected with that visual language.

    For example, imagine Shahn or Kossin sensibilities drawing for the emerging format 'Beavis & Butthead' or even 'The Yellow Submarine.' It is offspring of the war-torn generation that took something we didn't understand, and morphed it into a style that struck our fancy.

    FWIW, a lot of posts on forums are rediscovering Loomis and Bridgman classics... and those quirky misinterpretations should be just as disruptive in emerging 3D.


  38. David-

    What Weaver images did Murray show you? I agree that Weaver was influenced by Shahn and can see it, especially in a piece he did of JFK for Esquire.

  39. I have read comments alluding to traditional academic realism as "boring", "mundane" or "trite." And along came the late 50s' and 60s', like gallant knights on white horses, releasing the illustration world from the shackles of academic slavery. Okay, that's a bit dramatic, but my point is that traditional illustration was and is only boring to those that don't appreciate the long hours of training and the skill required to manipulate pencil or paint to the level of creating the sense of being there.. a sense of realness. That requires a great amount of subjectivity as well as objectivity. If "good art is only in the eye of the beholder," then why in the hell should a student waste his money or time in art school.. even a good art school? The "eye of the beholder" theory sounds to me like a relativist theory, which I don't buy. Using that thinking, if I don't like Rembrandt paintings, it's bad art in my eyes. I don't think so.

    There has always been a standard for good manors, good taste and good art, and I suppose it will continue to be challenged by the avant-garde elitists now and into the future. But, the challenges haven't and won't change the standards of quality.

    Tom Watson

  40. Leif "... if he singlehandedly steered a generation of illustrators away from classical realism so they might explore other types of picture making - and in turn influence generation after generation of young illustrators to this day... wouldn't that make Ben Shahn the most influential illustrator of the 20th century?"

    you could certainly see him as the floodgate opener. once permission was given to move away from a 'realistic' approach then no stylistic area was out of bounds. many people who would never have considered a career in illustration (because technically the entry level was higher) now had the chance to try it. this is both good and bad (the main bad being the sheer number of illustrators around today competing over a diminishing amount of work).

    but as a single source of influence... there are too many disparate stylistic factions around today for anyone to claim the title of 'most influential illustrator of the 20th century' but Shahn is certainly one of them.

  41. David Roach, occasional TI guest author and the friend whom I quoted at the top of yesterday's post, sent the following via email. I'm C & P'ing his remarks with his permission. David wrote:

    I can absolutely see that Shahn presented a totally different voice in the artistic firmament, offering a new way of looking at illustration. I do get that and I can see how his line was so seductive to the likes of Stone Martin, Weaver and Saunders so he’s there as a great liberating force. He was the Punk rock of the art world if you like, sweeping away the old establishment. But my feelings about both Punk and Shahn are that there was still so much more that could have come from that so called establishment which was cut off in its prime with so much left uncreated. This is less so in illustration than music since the other big influence of the time was Bernie Fuchs who absolutely had the same spirit of invention but coupled with the drawing chops to carry it off. Fuchs was the counter balance to Shahn if you like.

    I do think Shahn’s influence was initially liberating but also corrosive. If you look at a lot of the people that followed there really has been a lot of awful artwork created in that naive style which might have happened anyway but can still be traced back to him. I think an interesting comparison is with Marvin Freidman whose work feels like a happier balance between expression and draughtsmanship. I do feel so uneasy about cast as the boards token philistine since I like to see myself as pretty open minded but what can I say, his work absolutely does not speak to me. A piece like the two figures in striped tops is deeply unattractive to me and I can’t see how it works on any levels, even as the rough layout it would appear to be. The picture of the pensive looking man sitting down is a better drawing but would seem to owe too much of a debt to early cubism to qualify as genuinely challenging. I can accept that he might have been an important figure for Sandy Kossin for instance but for my tastes I can see so much more vitality and insightful drawing in Sandy’s wonderful illustration today than in any of Shahns work.

    For genuinely revolutionary work with a great emotional and expressive quality I’d much rather look at Alberto Breccia ( a contemporary of Shahn) who spent decades continually pushing himself , ending up with work that was almost abstract but was always underpinned by an innate knowledge of drawing.

    Does that make me beyond the pale?

  42. We can also look to Art Directors like William Golden for having the vision to look outside of the traditional illustration world to get "fine artists" like Shahn to handle their projects. To my mind, Golden was one of, if not the most influential Art Director of the 1950's. His use of Shahn in the Cold War climate of the time, with Shahn being actively hounded by the FBI for his political views, showed a certain bravery.

    With regard to Stone Martin, his earlier, pre-Shahn work is virtually lifeless. Skilled, no doubt, but dull. The line come alive once he 'finds' his inner-Shahn.

    The post-war shift could be seen as an attempt by illustrators to keep up with the changing times. If you are faced with an onslaught of photography, eating into markets once dominated by illustrators, then one answer is to pick up your speed to compete - hence, quick, simplified, "sloppy" drawing. For my money, I'd take Shahn, Stone Martin, Roger Duvoisin, Weaver, Robert Andrew Parker et al; over realism any day, although I do love Briggs, Parker and their ilk.

  43. I think what's been missed with regard to Shahn's influence is that he did learn to draw. He studied art at a time when art teaching still valued realism as a quality, although through a filter of nouveau and deco stylings and that seems obvious in his early work. Shahn's early work wasn't great and if he'd continued in that style he'd have just been another so so artist/illustrator. His named influences like klee and Rousseau lead him to the work we know him for. He learnt the rules before he broke them and gave us a generation who learnt no rules and thought it was all just about bad drawing. On that basis he is pretty damn influential.

  44. I don't pretend to know anything about Ben Shahn, but my immediate impression when I saw these drawings was that they looked like warmed over Picasso drawings, especially in the way the hands are drawn. Others have since mentioned the Picasso influence in their comments, so it seems like my perception was a valid one. My point then is, isn't Shahn merely a stepping stone from the original source of Picasso himself as a source of artistic inspiration?

    While I don't necessarily dislike these drawings by Shahn, I have to echo what David Roach said, in that these drawings really don't speak to me either. I'd even argue that, considering just how much Ben Shahn distorts and abstracts the human figure, that he might actually be considered a cartoonist. But as a cartoonist myself, I'd say he's not really a very good one, as his figures are such expressionless blank slates that they fail to communicate anything to the viewer. Ronald Searle also distorts and abstracts the human figure to the same degree and as organically as Shahn, yet Searle's art always communicates well, as the figures are emoting and thinking, something that I really don't see in Shahn's work.

    For the record, I just love Tom Watson's comments on this thread - I agree completely with everything he said!

    PS: Interestingly, the word I have to enter for word verification this time is "prove"....Haha, I'm afraid I can only give theory! :)

  45. Great comment, Pete -- thanks for adding your perspective to the discussion. :^)

  46. I awoke to a Twitter post from Leif Peng that name checked me and Tom Watson in an attempt to start a faux feud between people that don’t know each other. I shall pick up the virtual gauntlet.*

    Dear Mr. Watson.

    You sir are a bad person. Since I doubt that you wear a suit and tie topped off with a snap-brim fedora to work everyday you have failed to meet the standard of good taste, style and quality that today’s man should live up to. Or is that yesterday’s man? The 1950’s man.

    That is of course a ludicrous statement just as any allusion that I am an avant garde elitist is. I think you miss my point. The eye of the beholder is a purely subjective one. Because I do not like something does not make me a knuckle dragging cretin that does not and cannot understand art. I just have different tastes than you. I once cried in front of a Rembrandt portrait at a museum in Buenos Aires and my membership in the local Avant Garde Society was revoked. Because I do not love the style of illustration that you do does not mean that I cannot appreciate the amount of training, hard work, effort and dedication that has gone into it. I get it you’re upholding the classical ideal, you work harder than me, you went to a better art school than me, you’re a man of style and taste. Now who’s the elitist?

    In my two posts I labored to cite examples of artists who were influenced by artists who were influenced by those that came before them all the way back to the cavemen at Lascaux. Influence is not a two way street though. Today’s illustrator is looked down on by those who worked or studied in the 1950s who were spurned as mere commercial hacks by the Artists of the 1920s who were dismissed by the fine artists of the 19th century as mere “illustrators” who did nothing to uphold traditions of quality and taste... You see where I’m going with this right? Everyone hates what’s next, but we can still like/unlike, be impressed/unimpressed and shaped by what came before.

    As others have mentioned Mr. Shahn was born in the 19th century, I guarantee you his training was more firmly rooted in the classic traditions than yours was, that is simply a fact of the education system and artistic training of 100 years ago as compared to today or even 50 years ago. Ben Shahn was NOT an illustrator. He was a painter, muralist, printer, engraver, photographer, typographer, designer, author, social commentator, lecturer and on occasion took commercial illustration assignments. Because he chose a different path than that of his training does not mean that he abandoned beauty or good taste or good art. The fact that people know only of his illustration work (and worse, know only the work shown in this post) is more damning of the lousy art education system than the inability of one to wield a brush as you think they should.

    Sincerely, Mark Kaufman

    *All personal jabs purely for fake feud purposes only. No disrespect intended.

  47. Mark; for the record, I wasn't trying to draw you into a faux feud - I just thought Tom W had a good retort to your own good point and wanted to use the exchange to make more twitter users aware of an interesting discussion. No hard feelings, I hope :^)

  48. Ha.

    Leif, I know that you weren't really trying to start a feud, this was just my way to frame my response in a tongue and cheek manner without coming off as more than a boor than I already am. Cheers.

  49. I have to say, this is one damned fascinating conversation!

  50. It seems to me that Ben Shahn was influenced by Picasso and his line drawing of Stravinsky:

  51. Hey Leif,...
    You know How I feel!....

    HA HA HA HA....

    Did he ever work at the Canadian Post office?

    ha ha hah

    later buddy.

  52. Anonymous12:57 PM

    This is really interesting - many thanks.
    Dai Owen

  53. Mr. Kaufman,

    Thank you for putting a smile on my face this morning. Isn't it "grand".. (an expression even before my time) to exchange ideas with complete strangers from different backgrounds and perspectives. I just hung my natty fedora on a hand carved hat and coat rack in the parlor ;-), and read your recent comment on TI, addressed to none other than me. In reference to your comment that each generation poo-poos the generation before and visa versa, in many respects that is accurate. However, in the illustration field, I believe it was a bit different. Howard Pyle was one of the most respected and revered illustrators of his times, especially by his students, who would become the next generation of top illustrators. They greatly admired Pyles illustrations and his method of teaching, while they were students and even after they had gone on to their own fame. Because he was of the generation before them, made no difference. His illustration philosophy, taste, skills and quality were timeless. Harvey Dunn carried on that tradition to the following generation, and his students had the same reaction. Dean Cornwell, considered by some to be the greatest and most admired illustrator of all times, was a product of Harvey Dunn. Cornwell influenced many of the top 1930s, 40s' and 50s' illustrators. That is a span of over 50 years of appreciation, admiration respect and influence. There was an attitude of respect for their instructors, and the skill and quality of their work, even though they did not become mere clones. They all eventually found their personal style, but never were critical of the past styles of quality illustration, that I have ever read. They were critical of illustrators that didn't learn academic standards first, however. Even recently, I have seen contemporary super-hero illustrations that had similar dramatic action and realism of an N.C. Wyeth illustration. Although, I think they lacked the simplicity of design of Wyeth's illos. However, they were obviously appreciative and even influenced by Wyeth.

    The majority of the Rockwell haters came after the 1940s', just about the time that Abstraction and Abstract Expressionism was coming on strong. Incidentally, Pyle was one of Rockwell's heros. The political climate during the late 50s' was calling for radical change. So, that brings us to the radical changes in illustration of the 1960s', which brings us back to the Ben Shahn posts.

    Tom Watson

  54. Joy Guadalupe6:03 PM

    Its simple. You guys are a bunch of old farts. Out with the old and in with the new. So what ,representational art requires technicality and craft, does it have the soul and honesty of folk art, or even faux naive art? To all who think that there is no craft to Carson Ellis or Christopher Corr, you are dead wrong.Not to mention the whole spectrum of illustration styles that exist between realism and naive. I would take the touchy feeleyness and artsy fartsy creativity over your friends "good drawing" anytime.

  55. Hey Joy, I like Abstract Expressionism, emotional art, primitive art and even some of Ben Shahn's drawings and paintings. I just don't buy the idea that it's all good art if it has a lot of personal feeling and emotion behind it, anymore than I buy the idea that all traditional realistic art is all good art. If you think I stepped on your toes because you love emotional art over more technically accurate art, you misunderstand my position. I love art that achieves the standards of quality that has been established for centuries, and I love the simplicity and bold design of the very primitive cultures, as well. And, I love the innocence of children's art. The art that appeals to me the most is a combination of at least reasonable accuracy in draftsmanship and painting skills, but not cold photo realism. I also appreciate and admire effective composition, design and yes, emotion and personal feeling in its execution. However, I feel that emotion and personal feeling don't have to be learned. It is part of our DNA, it is who we are. If pure emotion appeals to you more than an academic approach, then so be it. The art world should not be a dictatorship.

    I developed my views in the process of becoming an "old fart".. by making a living as an illustrator, graphic designer, AD, CD and also teaching for a span of over 35 years. I'm not trying to impress you, just a little background that might help you understand where I'm coming from.

    Tom Watson

  56. To be fair the images shown in this post are not Ben Shahn's strongest or most well know pieces.

    A quick Google search found these:

    And a mural:

  57. Oh boy one of the best discussions yet!

    I'd like to point out that at least one standard textbook on American art includes Ben Shahn, the fine artist.

    I agree that his work is influential but I hesitate to lay the laurels of having been the Big Bang of non-"realistic" illustration. First of all, Picasso and other avant gardists were illustrating all kinds of things in Europe long before. Second, the "bad drawing" look had been pioneered in The Masses, a socialist magazine largely remembered for contributions by Sloan, Glackens, and other Ashcanners. The "bad drawing", or naive look, was considered more truthful than highly finished academicism. That's where the cartoonists of the New Yorker and other leftish intellectual publications picked it up from. The lineage can actually be traced back to Daumier's caricatures for Le Charivari; there's your Big Bang.

    Third, as Mr Galley noted, art directors were perhaps more to credit/blame for the shift, for without art directors opening the door Shahn and the others would never have become so widespread. And why would ADs at midcentury want to encourage an art form with socialist baggage? Well, the art scene and many consumers in general were getting pretty unnerved by the connection of realism a la Sundblom, Rockwell, Whitmore etc with rampant consumerism due to the sharp lesson of the Depression and the War.... in a kind of backhanded denial (the ADs being employed by capitalists), to dress up the pages of magazines like Fortune with abstract expressionist illustration made the bitter pill of collusion with said capitalism go down a lot easier. Plus, the logic of late capitalism is that any novelty spurs it onwards.

  58. Anonymous9:51 PM

    Certainly important illustrators may have had an epiphany regarding abstract qualities of art while looking at Shahn's work. However, I have to believe that sooner or later those illustrators were gifted enough to have that epiphany with or without Shahn, who was simply an in vogue primitive.

  59. Very fine discussion! That's agreed all the way. The impact of photography, the impact of the war.

    I've been looking at Shahn's examples here from time to time: Their quality may differ, but I always notice something interesting to watch. For instance those hands holding that bunch of brushes on the fourth picture. There must be some substantial drawing skills behind such a free and simplified rendering.

    Tom Watson in his answers from a viewpoint of 35 years of experience in all aspects of illustration business has pretty much rounded out the picture IMO.
    Henri Rousseau came to my mind with his paintings displayed in National Galleries around the world, Asian galleries showing off their wealth of zen-paintings (I'm digressing)...
    And last but not least the paintings hidden in the caves of Lascaux.

    The question I'm left pondering at:
    Were those ancient cave-painters, depicting their boars and bisons and hunting-scenes fine artists or illustrators?

  60. Jaleen,

    Really liked your post. I was also going to mention the Masses, particularly Boardman Robinson, but I didn't make the connection back to Daumier. Very clarifying.

    Nobody seems to have mentioned Klee and Miro's influence on Shahn yet, either.

    I find Shahn an excellent cartoonist. Just like Picasso or Jack Kirby or Cliff Sterrett. That he used his art for social activism gives his work more political importance. But it doesn't make his work as good as Andrew Wyeth or Brangwyn or any number of the greats, who had the talent to synthesize realism and expressionism on a grand scale.

    Shahn's the shape of content is a cartoonist's or graphic designer's version of aesthetics. Philosophically, it is weak, which explains why the emotions in Shahn's art are so obvious. They sit on the surface like text so the masses can read them. Nobody is confused by his work. There is no mystery. The power is graphic power.

    As an aside Jaleen... There is no such thing as "Late Capitalism." That seems to be a meme spread through (programmed into) the recent generation out of college to try to encourage, through endless dogmatic repetition, a social sense that capitalism is doomed.

  61. Some interesting comments. I myself have studied and can draw classically. However I do not choose to follow that path in my own art. (I do however keep up the skills to keep myself honest.)
    Having a good basis in the classics is not only admirable but to me a necessity, however at some point I felt the need to go beyond Illustration. Artists are not illustrators, we are interpreters of reality, each different from the others.
    I suppose its what people want to do with their skills that matter. I personally find more expression of emotional states in stylized figures.
    I sometimes find it curious that artists and musicians who have trained classically tend to put down exploratory attempts to expand the arts. I am guilty of this myself sometimes.
    I wonder if its just that so much time and effort has gone into studying the craft that they become invested in it emotionally, "this is the way it should be and ever shall it be so". Basically what I'm saying is you cannot judge someones abilities by their choices of artistic expression. They may have abilities way beyond what is apparent.

  62. Hi Kev: I take your point about Late Capitalism assuming that somehow it's gonna end (oh utopian marxists!) But the theory-spinners have suggested that Late Capitalism IS a distinct period, followed since the 1960s by the period we are currently in, which is not marked by capitalism but by corporatism. I forget what the trendy term is.

    David Derr: I would suggest all depiction, having been fed through someone's mind, is necessarily interpretive. Even if "realistic", it is still a theory of how something looks.

  63. Jaleen, I agree with your comment about David Derr's statement. I think it is important to point out that Norman Rockwell, the poster boy of realistic illustration, was not simply a photo realist, or just copied reality. He gave reality incredible subjectivity and conveyed a clear message about who he was and how he felt about the American scene, perhaps more than any other illustrator dead or alive, IMO. And, he did it his way, in spite of great pressure to "keep up with the times." So, now he is a legend, not just in America, but around the world, and not just among the grass roots or the New Yorker Magazine crowd, but people of all backgrounds. That's an impressive achievement in illustration or the fine arts world, and he did it honestly without gimmicks, technology or deception. That tells me that academic realism will not be permanently eclipsed by fads or more "isms", now or in the future. But, I know that there are some reading my comment that are grinding their teeth in disagreement.

    If I could afford to purchase an original painting of my choice by Rockwell or by Shahn, and had to choose one or the other and never sell it, my choice would probably not be a mystery. ;-)

    Tom Watson

  64. The idea of bad drawing is pretty interesting to me. There are so many -isms and schools of thought in visual art that no one drawing can satisfy all of them. And that's as it should be. But it does make assigning values like 'good' or 'bad' to a drawing more than a little tricky.

    Good draftsmanship is pretty empirical, but a solidly structured drawing can still be a stale, boring, predictable image. Case in point: Goya's black paintings are sloppily painted, structureless, goo. But they are so much more compelling and interesting than all of his carefully rendered court paintings.

    I feel like a work needs to be met on it's own terms. That is to say, if a piece accomplishes what it set out to do, it is successful. If you want to freak me out and you create a disturbing image, you win. You have made a 'good' drawing. Even if it's a vague painting of something like a badly drawn dog on a brownish field.

    That, for me, is what Ben Shahn brought to the table. Shifting focus away from technical draftsmanship and onto idea and IMPACT isn't a sin, it's just a different set of priorities. Which is not to say that folks shouldn't learn solid fundamentals. But artists should be free to create feelings within their audience by whatever means they find effective. 'Good' draftsmanship isn't the solution to every problem.

    Who wants to live in a world with only one kind of drawing?

  65. Also, to Kev:

    Shahn's work is not mysterious or confusing. But illustration is not SUPPOSED to be cryptic. It is, as you so aptly put, the creation of images to be read by the masses. Putting him next to Andrew Wyeth, whose job it WAS to create ambiguity is a little deceptive. And he was most certainly more challenging to his audience within an illustrator's limitations than most of his contemporaries.

    But yeah, I'd rather stare at Brangwyn or a Wyeth any day. SERIOUSLY. No contest. I just feel like I have to take up for poor Ben. He was just doing is JOB, y'all.

  66. @whoever

    Jules Feiffer is da bomb!

  67. Anonymous2:39 PM

    Does anyone here have any idea how truly difficult it is to draw like Ben Shahn?

  68. The whole point of artists choosing to do things 'naive' as you say, is because it can be used to play off intuition.

    Art is not always about technical prowess, but about communication.

    Also, these drawings in many ways show an understanding of human forms, and use distortion to communicate.

    Realism in art is not a higher path, I am not arguing it's a lower path, but in my personal experience, I find that people who either refuse or are unable to find worth in art outside of realism lack intuition.

    For example, I have met many people who prefer Metal above all other types of music because the fast pace and skill it takes to play the songs, easily translates to objective analysis. More plainly, there is no disputing it's 'good' because it is technically impressive in the sense it's a difficult thing to do, and for some people and impossible thing to achieve.

    However, art is not only about skill, it's about insight, communication and meaning, and often times, a simple drawing can attain more meaning than a technical one can.

    A Ugandan child's drawing of war experienced first hand can warrant much more meaning than a technically correct drawing of an engine in an engineering text book.

    This discussion of whether or not the drawing is technically simple or not goes way deeper than whether or not it's crafted with perfection, etc.

    Lastly, abstract art, and this type of attitude in art is present throughout art history, not just now with these 'young illustrators.

    One more thing, I understand the writer of this blog isn't directly taking a stance on the issue, I just want to my spin on it.

    Good topic of discussion, thanks for bringing this up!

  69. Thanks for adding your spin to the discussion, Andy - I appreciate it! I also appreciate you acknowledging that I'm not taking a stance on the subject in my post. I will admit to being a bit deliberately audacious in my use of the term "bad art" in the hopes of compelling readers to express their opinion on the topic.

    For the record, when it comes to different kinds of illustration/art, I'm probably the most openminded person your ever going to meet! A look through this blog's archives should pretty much confirm that for anyone who cares to look. ;^)

  70. Anonymous (btw, please include a name when you comment anonymously);

    if you read the comments so far I think you'll find that many people here have made it pretty clear that they appreciate how difficult it is to draw like Ben Shahn. If you go back and read my post again, I think you'll come to appreciate that what I was questioning is if there aren't those fakers out there who look at Ben Shahn's work and think, "that's so easy to do -- I could draw really poorly and people (clients) will think I'm a damn genius!"

  71. "The lineage can actually be traced back to Daumier's caricatures for Le Charivari; there's your Big Bang"

    Jaleen, can you elaborate on the stylistic conection you see between Daumier and Shahn please ?

  72. illustration is about communication, and so surely it doesn't matter in what style an idea is expressed, just that you 'get it' and it does its job. i think a technical ability in realistic drawing is important, but important so that it can inform you in whatever way you want to express an idea.

  73. Anonymous6:21 PM

    Am I missing something? He can obviously draw extremely well. Look at his lines, the shapes, the proportions. Every detail is considered and perfectly executed.
    Whether you like his work or not, if you don't think he can draw or that his drawing are 'bad', then I feel you lack an understanding about drawing, as well as the purpose of composition, simplicity as well as the purpose of illustration in general.

  74. Happy Now? You've Kille Cy Twombly.

  75. Eric said...
    Jaleen: "The lineage can actually be traced back to Daumier's caricatures for Le Charivari; there's your Big Bang"

    Jaleen, can you elaborate on the stylistic conection you see between Daumier and Shahn please ?

    Hi, I would look at Daumier's loose style and satirical edge and known socialist/anti-establishment beliefs. Take that to Grandville, and others who were experimenting with "monstrous" bodies. Then look to Punch, the "English Charivari", and the legacy of caricature there (guess I have to throw a bone to Rowlandson et al, predating Daumier), again with attention to desecrating the academic classical ideal to render les bourgeois ridiculous. Don't forget Lautrec's wiggly linework, then some of the Symbolists who were going for simplified figures, or more expressionist bodies like Munch -- all of them counter culture types. Go also to Max Beerbohm and Yellow Book. I suspect there are less aestheticist publications out there, but I don't know them. But look at the fake naive woodcut style that became the rage in the 1890s in poster art and English kids' books, like Edward Lear; those illustrators were aligned with Arts and Crafts, tied to the communism of William Morris and Walter Crane (altho they were not into "bad drawing" themselves). Crane had a tie to The Masses, incidentally. In The Masses, you've got the social realism of the Ashcan guys and others, and the idea of loose drawing denoting socialist politics is well established. Next The New Yorker and similar magazines pick it up (I think I'll post an example on my blog). Of course cubism was famous in the US after the Armory Show - and rampant in hipsters' decor thru the deco age - just have a look at Russell Patterson's spoofy depictions of swinging "cafe society" NY apartments. And then to Shahn, who takes that legacy and makes it look up to date for the 40s and 50s by referencing abstract expressionism.

  76. as promised:

  77. Jaleen,

    I agree with many of your choices and can absolutely see a precedent for Shahn's work in the artists of magazines such as New Masses, Revolt, The Workers Weekly, but i think you're casting your net a little wide. I don't see anything crude / primitive / naive in the work of Daumier or Lautrec. Can certainly see it in the social realists / regionalism of the 30s though, such as Thomas Hart Benton.


  78. >>>Anonymous said...
    Am I missing something? He can obviously draw extremely well. Look at his lines, the shapes, the proportions. Every detail is considered and perfectly executed.<<<

    How can one make evaluations like that from expressive drawings where there is no standard of comparison? The only possible solution I can think of is to compare it to other expressive drawings, but even that would be extremely subjective.

  79. Ben Shahns drawings are brilliant! If you didn't already, please read what Gemma Correll thinks about this debate. It's a pretty good article

  80. Eric: I'm not saying Daumier looks "bad" the way Shahn does. He only looks "bad" according to the criteria of his era.

    I see it as being very relative to what the norm of the day was. Daumier and Lautrec were certainly "crude" by Parisian academic standards. These days we see the lyricism and gesture in their work and the superb mastery of line weight. But the mainstream contemporary viewer of 1840 or 1880 would have seen instead brutishly heavy outlines, distorted figures, morally suspect art. Just as people used to seeing the tight, well-proportioned figures of most magazine illustration circa 1945 would have seen nothing but "bad drawing" in modern artists and Shahn - what many posting here have now called quite excellent drawing, thanks to the norm having shifted even more.

  81. On my course (Illustration BA HONS), representational work wasn't exactly frowned upon but it was as if they thought it was a waste of time. Any attempt to learn or practise drawing skills resulted an attitude which suggested that you should use your "talents" only, not learn or develop your skills. Keep making images in that shitty way you have been doing and if you are going to develop, make sure it's experimental mixed media collage that took you 2 seconds. I don't necessarily dislike naive work, I actually quite like some of it. But I like McDonald's cheeseburgers too, but I know they are of a poor quality. I think it's possible to make interesting, communicative image making, that isn't necessarily representation, whilst still displaying some form of educated care for image making - too many people get away with not doing this, and it's lowering the overall standard.

  82. I'd also like to add that everyone is missing the authors point spectacularly. He is not questioning whether or not Ben Shahn's work can be enjoyed or is beautiful. That will always be personal taste, but has such illustration legitimised drawing badly? The point is that there are a hell of a lot of people who cannot draw illustrating, to the point where the face of illustration is predominantly bad drawing - but everyone seems to ignore it. Its style, its expressive, its interesting. You can be all these things if you are trained in artistic practise, if you can draw and if you do care for representational image making, but it does not work the other way round. I've too noticed that only editorial illustration really seems to have any ground and those who do have good image making skills seem to end up calling themselves by other names! Even graphic arts seems to contain more skilled individuals than illustration! People will the skills tend to survive longer in the field, the rest may get a boom where their style is popular but will then fade away into nothing. And most won't get noticed at all. But it doesn't matter, because expressing yourself and not working hard is all that matters to most of them.

    1. HAJiME,
      Your ideas are fine, not too distinct from other people in this discussion, but perfectly fine ideas. But your last two lines, you work for the census or something? You can tell us what matters most to people who practice illustration in the way you described? I doubt you work for the census but I accept you if you do. Namaste. But if you don't, why go there? Why not stick with what is substantial about your point of view?

  83. HAJiME; I could kiss you. Thank you! FINALLY somebody gets it. Beautifully put! I want to again thank everyone for participating in this discussion in such a respectful manner - opposing points of view or not. By contrast, the mob mentality on @gemmacorrell's blog has displayed the WORST of Internet 'discourse'. Apparently we're a bunch of "narrow-minded" "old dudes" and "passive racists" (?) for even daring to have this discussion.

    What can I say? I'm just so grateful for the intelligent, courteous participants who shared their insight on this topic. Thank you again! :^)

  84. So the theme of Shahn's article is that there were and are many styles of painting that attempted to depict realism,and different definitions of realism.The artist finds one that fits,and it can communicate realism,as long as you sincerely place the socially aware,politically correct,humanistic,worldly-wise idea content into the art.Big ideas beat showy displays of skill.My guess is that he was sincere,so I won't dispute his motives.

    But,of all the historical art examples he lists,he rains contempt on drawing in perspective as an option,which he labels"egotistic"and "myopic",and that he couldn't force himself to work in that "false"approach.It's the only approach that he dismisses completely.

    Hey,Ben Shahn,lighten up!(I know he's dead)I'm willing to at least tolerate your symbol-drawing style,but you can't conceive of working in a representational drawing style that communicates meaningful ideas honestly.

    I bet some budding artists could read that article and dismiss realistic drawing because a real artist dissed it.

    But I realize he was responding to the public that preferred Rockwell realism.And he was promoting his own approach.But,still...

  85. Steve; I don't know if Shahn's philosophy on realism needs to be read quite that pessimistically but, ok, I suppose that's one way to look at it. Based on what I've heard from people like Murray Tinkelman, Anita Virgil, and William A. Smith's wife, Ferol, Ben Shahn seems to have been received as a breath of fresh air. His book, "The Shape of Content," which elaborates on the content of the Look article, seems to have really influenced a lot of illustrators of that period in a very positive manner.

    As for those theoretical young art students you talked about; what can I say? No doubt what you suggest was the case for at least some of them. Hopefully they had other influences at art school that presented other views. Hopefully they were open-minded enough to give many views due consideration. Ultimately they probably chose the course that best suited their own wishes for their post-college endeavors.

  86. Anonymous1:04 PM

    Thank you for posting this. I do like Shahn's work immensely. Reading this I couldn't help but think of the early impressionists and how they were told by the establishment that they needed to learn how to paint first before they should and could make pictures. I find Realism and its perpetual pursuit can be limiting, nullifying, and boring, and really it's just one among the plethora of styles available today; This is what art history is about. Much of Shahn's work, not all of it, of course, can have such a punch. And I have seen many so called realistic works, highly technically proficient, that will not get a second glance at your local coffee shop. The 19nth century is a long time ago. Those battles to me are long gone. Shahn's works are graphic and bold, often with impact, and also very importantly, with a sense of design in mind. This to me is the difference between good and poor illustration: Design. It isn't how well, or proportionate a figure, house etc... is displayed,. One just has to look to illustrators like Paul Hogarth, or even someone today in demand today like Felix Scheinberger. Illustration is way more that technical realism, and Art is more than copying what's in front of you.

  87. The author thank you for sharing your opinion, but I disagree with you. The fact is that there is nothing wrong with the simplicity of forms, this is the style and development of art of the 21st century, and your views on this matter seem conservatively ossified. By the way, the illustrations you shared look great and are well selected. I think you should post this collection on Instagram and it will definitely get a bunch of likes, since according to my observations, very similar posts have about 32 thousand likes. I am sure their authors resort to the services of to buy likes.

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