By Alan Jacobs
Think of the 18th–century artist Piranesi, for example, whose engravings of picturesquely decaying Rome are certainly fantastic in some respects—he places just enough disproportionately tiny people in his cityscapes to make us think those ancient buildings were absolutely colossal—but also reflect a real and deep desire to capture the ancient Romans' remains and to make knowledge of the city available to distant lands and later generations. Or John James Audubon's obsessive quest to paint all of America's birds. That documentary impulse was once central to illustration, if not to what we now call "fine art," and its passing is something to be lamented, especially since our belief that photography straightforwardly captures the–thing–in–itself is a sadly naïve one. (Beginning birdwatchers always want photographic guides because they think photography captures birds "as they really are," but skillful paintings, like those of Roger Tory Peterson, are often more useful: they portray birds as the human eye sees them, or is likely to see them in the field, which is not invariably as the camera's lens captures them. The common belief that photographs record simply and objectively both diminishes the documentary power of illustration and underrates the artfulness of photography.)
So Gregory Blackstock's drawings are a pleasant and instructive reminder of a time when the artist had to record the world because there was no other way to document its beauties. Such illustrations may not approach the depth and subtlety of truly "fine" art, but they represent a wonderful union of what the poet W. H. Auden, in an essay on "The Poet and the City," calls the "gratuitous" and the "utile." Auden reminds us that there was once a time when all the arts had a dimension of usefulness: poetry aided the memory, even on as humble a level as "Thirty days hath September," and we should never forget the sheer and astonishing craftsmanship that enabled Bach to crank out all those cantatas, which were invariably useful to the church and as a bonus contain more beauty than seems possible.
As Auden also notes, art has now lost that habit of usefulness and does not seem likely to get it back: when we try to unite the useful and the beautiful, he says, we "fail utterly." Though there are some recent developments in industrial design that give one hope, I think Auden is basically correct. It's difficult to imagine a new Piranesi, or an Audubon for the 21st century. We have turned over the task of documenting the world to the various cameras, and for good reason: they perform the task well. But I hope we may occasionally find more Gregory Blackstocks, artists who—unaware that their labors of documentary love are unnecessary—plunge ahead and do their work, thereby reminding us what it means to look, really to look, at the Creation.
Alan Jacobs teaches English at Wheaton College in Illinois, and is writing a book about original sin. His Tumblelog is here.
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