Required Reading is DoomRocket’s love chest, opened twice monthly to champion a book that we adore. This week Arpad recommends ‘Why Art?’ from Eleanor Davis and Fantagraphics Press.
By Arpad Okay. Why do we make art? If this is question plagues you, then you need Eleanor Davis’ haunting pocket novel. You will recognize your peers. You will see your struggles both lampooned and venerated. Brace yourself for its twists. Its abstract and alarming climax will leave you unsettled. Each time I finish Why Art? I am upset, nervous, gripped by the unshakable, electric feeling that I have been told an incredibly important secret in a language that I do not speak. Let me see if I can translate.
Why Art? follows a collective of artists. A narrator explains what their work is, how their ideas come to take shape, the absurdity of the outside of an artwork compared to its meaning. The color, the size—adjectives are empty. Some art is toxic sludge in a beautiful façade. Some art is candy, some is pain. All of it is temporary. The world is pitted against the materials used to make art and art comes up wanting.
That is, a natural disaster hits the art gallery. What was a cheeky Tom Gauld romp in fake definitions is now a Shirley Jackson scenario. In the end of days, Davis says, escape into art. The medium crumbles; the feeling lasts. The flood waters come, giant hands in the sky playing hell with your passion (and wellbeing), so disappear into dream.
One artist’s quest for authenticity has her mauled by sharks, which is perfect. The shark bite is a zen monk on top of a mountain, the loss of limb the inspiration to grow and to communicate that growth through performance. And even with magic that heals wounds, grows extra rows of teeth, turns your audience into a shark, too, there’s a gap between the idea and execution that can never be sealed.
Profound work comes from damaged people, and damages those who experience it. Great art is raw, pure, intense. Haunting. Art is about your resilience. Davis has scripted a secret manifesto that recognizes we need difficult art to arrest us (and our culpability in our own suffering). The good stuff is heavy. Scary. Holy.
At the height of darkness, our impulse is to ghost. Shark lady, paper-maché man, talisman maker, sculptors, multi-media queen, et. al dodge the destruction of their work by discovering a world inside the world. The “they” in the narrative changes from instructional pamphlet to including the reader in the group. Why Art? becomes a hypnotic Möbius strip of beauty, calamity, detachment, observation, and creation.
The creation of Why Art? itself is a balancing act of restrained ability. An initially spare book of copious negative space. The figures seem simple, people defying proper anatomy, built from long curves, Davis’ love of producing lines and experience/comfort with creating the human form. Typeface narrates, mostly, with hand lettered moments and speech, enough speech bubbles to warrant classification as a comic, a broad dance of word and image across achromic expanse—until the cloud of locusts.
The roof is ripped off the gallery and suddenly art occupies the whole field from binding to outer margin. Before the storm, art was documented, distant, encyclopediac. Inside the shadowbox the giant flowers, the bridges and rivers, we are between them. The art has always been as capable as the writing in depicting complexity, but Davis chooses to keep it simple.
Her drawings are to the zine aesthetic, full of “flawed” lines, something more akin to the drawings inside Breakfast of Champions than the Aubrey Beardsley art deco blossoms that sprout in the back quarter of the book. When a set piece or a facial expression or perspective is needed to raise hackles or stop hearts, it is there. Select details lend authenticity to make the cartoons resonate with truth to the reader.
I’ve read Why Art? over and over and I still don’t understand it. Cognitively it’s a mystery. Emotionally I get it. I feel it, I’m affected by what it says in my heart. And that makes me desire to understand it intellectually. So I read it again, spiraling closer, feeling the connection between idea and execution in the calm after the story has reached its peak, and then it’s gone. Forever bound, never touching, perfect.
Written by Eleanor Davis.
Art by Eleanor Davis.
Lettered by Eleanor Davis.
‘Why Art?’ is available from Fantagraphics Books. You can purchase it here.
Enjoy this preview of ‘Why Art?’, available now from Fantagraphics Press!