A Joke Telling Itself: Eleanor Davis’ Why Art? – Review

It’s important to note that Eleanor Davis’ hilarious and mind-bending new book Why Art? was originally a presentation for ICON: The Illustration Conference 9. The first half of the book is a send-up of didactic lectures about the nature of art, undermining accepted conventions and definitions in sometimes subtle and frequently slapstick ways. It’s deliberately performative, never breaking the character of a knowing lecturer while spoofing it in the most absurd manner possible. In that regard, it’s a bit different than her usual comics, although it should be noted that she’s impossible to pigeonhole. It’s a slightly different version of the sort of thing that Jessica Campbell does so well. The second half is also funny in its own way, but what starts as a demonstration/installation by a number of artists has a recursive structure that is in turns terrifying, enlightening, desperate and deeply touching.

The very title of the book (Why Art? with the subtitle of “Fourth Edition”) as well as the standard textbook font it appears in, is a subtle jab at the kind of sober examinations of why art is important as well as defining what art is. Davis approaches these questions as absurd and pointless while still writing in the kind of academic language that would be used to circumscribe the reader’s understanding of art. Right away, she takes the piss out of the academy by starting with “the most basic category of artwork”, Color. There’s a page of orange artworks, “blue ones”, and “both orange and blue elements”. On these pages of random objects, there is no actual color at all, just a book telling us that there is. She then breaks down art by size and brings up conceptual artwork, labeled “Makes Ya Think”.

Davis then takes her first major swerve by talking about other major art forms like edible art, mirror art, concealment art, shadowbox art and “artworks meant to remind the audience of things they’d rather forget”. In the case of the latter, it was simply a black canvas, representing the existential void of non-existence. Despite the whimsical nature of these descriptions, Davis’ comments are quite pointed in how these varieties of art are just forms of human behavior. In most of these cases, they are forms of distraction or transformation; anything except what we actually are now. As such, there’s a deeper level of engagement and interaction at work here, as opposed to just orange artworks. Forget about beauty or the formal aesthetic qualities of something, as art in this case carries crucial personal value that’s manipulated by the artist. Here, art becomes the pressure exerted by society as a whole.

Right after essentially taking out all of her tools and explaining their use to the reader, Davis takes another swerve and creates a narrative about a group of artists she introduces us to. For some reason, it includes the cartoonist Sophia Foster-Dimino (represented here as someone who creates talismans), perhaps because her self-caricature is so fun to draw. The artists work in familiar media like painting and sculpture as well as performance art and “concrete and fondant”. The works discussed call back to the categories that Davis introduced with an entirely straight face. Davis introduces us to each artist and explores their works, with the funniest segment being an extended one featuring the interactive performance artist, Dolores. Starting with saying “I love you” to everyone who comes up to her and evolving into her pretending to be a shark and devouring the onlooker, Davis is keenly aware of and sends up the idea of the observer affecting the observed and how that alters a work of art that’s conceptual.

The artists put a show together, but their venue is struck by a great storm and the roof comes off. The artists scramble to save themselves and their works, not necessarily in that order, until a giant hand comes down from the sky and crushes a house. The artists escape into a shadowbox featuring an idyllic society where everyone is happy. They’ve been given a chance to finally let go of their anxieties and join this utopia. Except that Dolores creates a miniature, mechanical version of herself and everyone follows suit. It’s a literalization of the artists’ god complex as they create an entire society for their mini-selves to function in. Everything seems perfect until Dolores feels compelled to destroy it all, recreating the event that caused them to run in the first place. While the others feel compelled to help, Dolores stops them, imploring their creations to “Show us how to be brave…show us how to save ourselves.”

There’s the idea that the art we create is a better version of who we are. It’s always idealized to some degree, because it has to pass from conceptual to concrete at some point. Dolores the performance artist put on her own show with her creations, demanding answers from them that they cannot give, any more than she was able to give answers to the godlike creature who were attacking her in circular fashion. That sense of desperation was palpable on the page for an artist whose work probed the mundane for meaning. Indeed, this is very much Davis not just satirizing art as a whole, but her own attempts at art. She’s making fun of the question, “Why Art?” but is also asking herself the question at the same time. It’s a blend of sincerity and horror, the art of the void that we’d rather forget. Indeed, the last several pages of the book are entirely black. Throughout her career, Davis has drawn a lot of monsters and weirdos but defies expectations with her characters. They are not always what they seem, and that tension of appearance vs. reality is at the heart of her work. Things that seem horrible are often noble, and seemingly virtuous characters turn out to be manipulators. Art, in turns, is a way of teasing out truth or concealing it and often both at once, regardless of the artist’s intent.

Davis’ drawing style embodies that mix of beauty and ugliness that play out in her themes. She works big and blobby, with bold, thick lines standing out against minimal backgrounds. Davis wants us to look at what she’s drawing in terms of how they hold conceptual significance and wants the audience to understand that they are drawings. They are just marks on paper given life by the artist’s attempts to give them meaning and the reader’s attempt to understand that meaning; they are not a substitute for reality. Indeed, that level of abstraction is crucial for the reader to interject their interpretation on the text; compare that to the comparatively stiff and lifeless front and back covers, which contain “realistic” drawings of hands and faces. That realism feels fake in a way the simpler figures do not. In the end, there is something deeply sublime about Davis’ conceptual humor that provokes the truth through exploring paradoxical and uncomfortable ideas.

—Rob Clough