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Drawing Is Another Language

D.B. Dowd is a professor of art and American culture studies at the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Art at Washington University in St. Louis. He serves as faculty director of the D.B. Dowd Modern Graphic History Library at the university, renamed in his honor in 2016. A graduate of Kenyon College (BA in history) and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (MFA in printmaking) he is active as a writer, curator, and illustrator. He publishes Spartan Holiday, an illustrated journal, somewhat intermittently. He has also just published with the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., Stick Figures: Drawing As A Human Practice. I’ve asked him to tell me the motivation behind and the need for having this unique book.

More recently I have worked with the Rockwell to help create a new Society of Fellows, an effort to recruit and support talented academics to write on these topics, to improve the overall quality of dialogue. Others are also gearing up. The Illustration Research Group, based in the UK, has been holding annual symposia and is publishing a journal. We’ve just announced a new MFA at Washington University in Illustration and Visual Culture, that will integrate studio work, history/ theory, and curatorial studies. I think the future is bright.

On Rockwell himself: partly due to rising prices in the secondary market, Rockwell continues to attract more scholarly attention. But the folks at the Museum know that soon anybody who ever contemporaneously flipped through a Saturday Evening Post with a Rockwell on it will be dead. The Center was a wise move, an adaptation to that reality. They are committed to American illustration more broadly now, and have been for some time. That applies to their collecting as well as their exhibitions and programming.

We behave symbolically. We manifest ideas, which is why hand painted signs are often more intelligently constructed than many computer typeset ones. I think the technology of the future is likely to be better adapted to what we are good at and built for, and less about sedentary finger swipes. I am eager to dissociate drawing from painting in part because that’s where all the aesthetic anxiety comes from. As a historical matter painting aspired to create extremely persuasive illusions: that was its job, one taken up by cinema and virtual reality today. Those are all about specialized training and equipment, and often require access to concentrations of wealth: court painters and blockbuster film directors have some things in common.

Drawing is different. Drawing is a symbolic activity. Everybody can do it, does do it—even though you hear people say ridiculous things like “I can’t draw a stick figure!” We have to dissociate drawing from illusion-making. It can be used for that, yes, but that’s not its most essential function.

What was your biggest surprise whilst doing research for the book? The book engages an art school audience on some level—it had to start there, because part of what I’m trying to do is to encourage and help rehabilitate the students who crawl out of beginning drawing feeling defeated or dismissed. Beaux Arts drawing—blended with abstract expressionist biases absorbed by the painters who taught all the drawing classes after World War Two—is an outdated contraption, often indifferently delivered. Students are expected to do it because it’s good for them, even though very few practicing artists use those skills today. Another part of that rehabilitation is ideological, because many fine art folks still, at this late date and in the face of declining enrollments, sneer at the aspiring designers and illustrators who fill the seats.

But the biggest surprise has been the conversations I have had with non-art, nondesign people about drawing. Once freed to talk about drawing without having to manage the aesthetic anxiety that seems to universally descend in the 6th or 7th grade, people get really excited. I have long harbored a hope that anyone with an interest in visual experience or human culture could get something out of the book. I wrote it that way—it’s not really an academic book. I hope it will be used in academic settings, of course. Honestly, the book is for everybody, just as drawing is.

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