A Lesson Worth Repeating
BY WHITNEY SHERMEN
George Santayana’s much repeated comment concerning the fate of those who do not remember the past takes on a different cast when one considers the topics illustrated in this exhibition. Far from forgetting, the art and the artists, among the most brilliant editorial illustrators working in America at the end of the 20th century, reminds us how the important issues and social battles of yesterday still exist, unresolved today. In fact, in preparation for producing this exhibition at the Maryland Institute College of Art, I took the better part of two days researching back issues of The Progressive to see the works in context with the words that inspired them. Aside from their impressive visual power, I was struck by how many of them, some dating back to 1981, covered contemporary concerns and could have appeared on today's editorial pages.
Or could they? In more recent years, the climate has not been friendly to the editorial illustrator. And much has been said on the reported decline of meaningful editorial art, alternately placing blame on declining levels of talent or on corporate restraint of creative freedom in the name of political correctness. These positions and the conditions that define the last five years in editorial art run contrary to the creative efforts on view in “Another Voice.” The exhibition contains works that are both talent laden and unrestrained in their political correctness. From my perspective, these are the basic ingredients of great editorial art, yet even as we celebrate this work, we are reminded there is still a long way to go before the light of editorial art is again shining as brightly as we see here.
As an editorial illustrator of some 27 years, and an educator for over 15, I had been keenly aware of Patrick JB Flynn's reputation as one of the country's renowned art directors. This art director is know far and wide by illustrators who had made the deliberate decision to “do editorial” work, one of the most creative outlets professionally available and, for the most part eschew the less creative, but higher paying work of advertising. The hard fact of editorial's low fees hasn't deter it's practitioners, a triumph of love over money. I was and am one of those practitioners who chose the love of editorial over all other considerations. Creative freedom always won out over the alternative. Artists of my persuasion sought out an art directors like Patrick, for his love of smart illustration, respect for thinking illustrators and trust in unrestricted creativity. And underneath all of Patrick's philosophical muscle — something which is the beauty of working with him: the truth of his convictions: personal, political and artistic. As many of the artists represented in “Another Voice” would attest, if you worked with Patrick, you were guaranteed your voice. That brought out the best in the artist and the art.Both Flynn and I grew artistically and politically out of a time of protest marches and cultural revolution, a time which yielded one of the 20th century's deepest wells of art making a statement. For some reason neither of us understand, and despite our knowledge of and respect for each other, we never worked together. Crossed stars of some kind, I suppose. Nevertheless, the body of work he commissioned during his tenure at The Progressive honors his artistic and political roots. The illustrators represented in this exhibition have passionately puzzled out the topics of our times. As a collection, they stand shoulder to shoulder with the editorial illustration giants represented in another mid-20th century collection, “The Art of the Times,” edited by JC Suares, former art director of The New York Times Op-Ed page. There is a lot to learn from Patrick's time at The Progressive and his [and the artist’s] willingness to forgo fortunes for the love of their respective arts.
Almost two years ago, I asked Patrick to write a proposal expanding the then 80-piece exhibition, which chronicled his tenure at The Progressive, a tenure that ended when asked to compromise his creative freedom. Rather than focus on the end of a professional era, I wanted to show the possibilities of what can happen when trust for creative decision making is placed in the hands of artists by an art director that knows and respects them. I wanted to celebrate enduringly powerful and stirring editorial art and create a reminder that without creative freedom we limit the possibility of knowing and learning. If we can learn anything from this exhibition, it is that history, at least the history of great editorial illustration, can and should repeat itself. For today's student of art and those students who will commission or even regard art, it is important to know the value of creative freedom in our collective visual history and use it to win what H.G. Wells called “the race between education and catastrophe.” Alexis de Toqueville said, “history is a gallery of pictures in which there are few originals and many copies.” “Another Voice” is a history of editorial illustration in which originality reigns and there are no copies.