By Eleanor Davis
200 pages, $14.99
Reviewed by Michelle Junot
If you’re a self-identified artist, writer, or musician who’s ever wondered: “Why the hell am I doing this?” — then Eleanor Davis’ Why Art? is for you.
The 200-page graphic work, put out by Fantagraphics Books, tackles this question by exploring many of the aspects, purposes, and forms of art with humor, poignant observation, and black-and-white drawings with three tantalizing pops of color. What’s more, Davis does all of this while subtly weaving an allegorical meta-narrative that shows itself in the latter part of the book where art begets life begets art begets destruction begets life begets art.
Beginning with various aspects of art—color, size, intention—the book evolves into a story of disaster and restoration, first at the hands of the artists and then at the very will of the art they’ve created.
One of the early parts of the book explores masks and mirrors. The juxtaposition of the definitive assessments paired with the drawings of ridiculous masks is both funny in its supposed seriousness and incredibly thought-provoking as it presents the ways we may use art to change the ways we interact with and are perceived by others, and ultimately, how we understand ourselves. The book itself becomes a mirror of our own human behavior.
Art has the potential to give us new ways to know ourselves and control (at least partially) the way the world comes to know us.
The most intriguing part of the book was the limited, but intentional, use of color—especially considering the graphic nature of the book.In the beginning, Davis gives us examples of “orange artworks,” “blue artworks,” and, of course, “artworks with both orange and blue elements.” The catch is that all of these works are presented with black and white drawings, calling on the reader’s imagination to fill in the gaps and participate in the work. It makes the book—and thus arguably, art—a conversation rather than a monologue.
Things change, however, when we get to the narrative pieces of the book and witness how one of the artists, Sophia, works:
And just like that, there’s color. Blue. Magenta. Green. And then we move on to another artist named Richard without another thought, and it’s back to the black and white drawings.
Because art has the power to change its audience. Boldly. Without announcement. Who you were before, is not, and cannot, be who you are after you experience art. This seems to be a real crux of the book—it’s at this moment when the narrative comes into focus and we begin to see the transformative power of both art and artist.
Finally in the later sections of the book, we see a dramatic example of the powerful life art takes on after it leaves the hands of the artist:
As we continue to watch these “little versions” and how they take on life and face destruction and challenge, a theme emerges: we learn from the art we create. It teaches us in a way we often cannot find in the daily routine of our own lives. When needed, it even gives us worlds to escape to.
While the entire book is well done and beautifully symbolic, the subtle cleverness of the first half gives way to a more narrative-driven second half. It’s successful in the end, but I did miss the voice from the early pages.
Why Art? is the kind of work that sits with you long after you’ve read it. It sits with you on the train and at your desk job and at home, petting your cat, and playing make believe with your tiny nephew when he hands you a matchbox car and says, “This one is yours” and you know you’re both picturing smaller versions of yourselves driving the car around the living room floor.
The book is playful and funny while maintaining a serious control over content that wrestles with an age-old question: Why do we continue do this? Art transforms the viewer, but it also transforms the artist and our very world. It illustrates—quite literally—why we need artists and question-askers.