Eleanor Davis Answers the Impossible Questions of Why Art?

Comics Features Eleanor Davis
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You’d think that I’d be running out of things to write about Eleanor Davis’ comics. I’ve written about them a lot (see, for example, this interview from last year, about her previous book). Luckily, she’s not content to do the same thing over and over, which makes it easy on a writer. Why Art?, her latest, is a joke that turns serious, both an actual attempt to grapple with a gigantic question and a series of silly drawings. It’s a smart way to address a labyrinthian task. Art is complicated, and unless you’re going to rule out the role of pleasure in people’s lives (a valid approach but not a fun one), writing about it is like trying to lasso a shadow. What is it? How does it do the things it does? Should we do it at all? Can we humans even stop ourselves from making it? This fat little book performs a sort of magic trick, sidling up to these big scary questions and disarming them before it reveals its teeth. It answers its own question. Davis and I both live in Athens, Georgia, and we know each other, but this interview took place over email anyway, to give her time to get her thoughts together. I also attended a reading of Why Art? that she gave at our local independent bookstore, which we discuss below.


Why Art? Cover Art by Eleanor Davis

Paste: Okay. Why Art?
Eleanor Davis: Is this one of the questions? If it is, my answer is, why not?

Paste: I’m going to make a big assumption here that you have spent at least the past 18 months thinking hard about the question that the title poses, the implied other half of it being “and not something else.” Would that be accurate?
Davis: I spent maybe the previous 15 years fretting about this—from 2001 to 2016—but I honestly don’t think about it much anymore. Making this silly book actually helped, I think, as well as finally making enough money on illustration to live off of so it doesn’t feel like quite as insane of a choice to be making with my life. Also I discovered and read a lot of Grace Paley, who didn’t seem to care much about why or why not art, but did it anyway. Paley was very helpful.

Paste: Do you think it’s easier for writers (than for visual artists) to fuse their aesthetic and political identities? Maybe comics folks get to occupy middle ground there, as both writers and artists at the same time.
Davis: That’s a good question! I think the main barrier to making good political art of any kind is that good art can’t be didactic (working theory). Is it easier to have non-didactic political writing than political painting or sculpture? I suspect there are similar challenges.

Paste: It is really hard to make good explicitly didactic art, although there are some examples of it. I took a class on modern Chinese literature as an undergraduate, and I remember all the didactic stuff being terrible and preachy, and the morality interfered with the aesthetics because it made the work general rather than personal. Maybe that’s an extra thing to consider. Also: art seems to be better when it is allowed some wiggle room on what it might mean. That’s why it’s art and not facts. Interpretation is what goes in the space between the producer and the consumer, and something too obvious doesn’t allow for much interpretation.
Davis: I’m constantly quoting this from [Jorge Luis] Borges’ This Craft of Verse: “Anything suggested is far more effective than anything laid down. Perhaps the human mind has a tendency to deny a statement… Arguments convince nobody. They convince nobody because they are presented as arguments. Then we look at them, we weigh them over, and we decide against them. But when something is merely said or—better still—hinted at, there is a kind of hospitality in our imagination. We are ready to accept it.”

When I make a comic I usually have a very, very clear idea of what I want to communicate. My job, I feel, is to get as close to that thing as I possibly can, without it becoming obvious. In this way I hope my readers will come to the same conclusion themselves; we’ll take the last step there together.

Paste: How much art history did you take in school? I have a friend who also went to the Savannah College of Art and Design (like you) who says he literally entered the campus library once, but he didn’t major in comics.
Davis: I took maybe four art history classes? I liked them but I don’t remember much of anything from them. I spent a lot of time in the library because the building was very beautiful.

Paste: What’s your take on ol’ H.W. Janson and his brick of a textbook?
Davis: If I ever read this book I’ve forgotten it completely!

Paste: You know. He’s the History of Art guy. Pretty much the standard art history textbook. What did you study in your art history classes?
Davis: I studied my art history professors so much more closely than I studied the subject matter. We had Art History 1 and 2, and then I took a Chinese Art and Architecture class and a Peruvian Art History class. I hated my Art History 2 professor so much that several years later when I found out he’d died I was convinced that I had willed it. My Chinese Art and Architecture prof was memorable for saying that good art is “really stinky” (absolutely true!!!!!). I don’t remember my Peruvian Art and Architecture professor very well, but I do remember giving a truly regrettable presentation about depictions of anal sex in Moche pottery. 🙁

Paste: This book is like a goof that morphs into something very serious about halfway through. Was that always the intent? Or was there a specific catalyst for it doing so? Did you know where it was going when you started?
Davis: Why Art? was originally a powerpoint presentation I gave at ICON, which is an illustration conference. I assumed that the audience of illustrators would most appreciate a presentation about the transcendent power of art. I like making people happy because then they say nice things to me and tell me what a wonderful artist I am. But I also like being honest, and I have always had a lot of bitter negative feelings about art that are all mixed up with embarrassing, achingly aspirational ones. That’s a tricky mix. If I was going to say anything negative, I knew I would have to be sneaky about it.

Why Art? Interior Art by Eleanor Davis

Paste: What was the reaction to that Powerpoint?
Davis: People at the illustration conference really liked it! I didn’t get the same kind of response from the people at the reading on Sunday; maybe it was a difference in the audience (fewer artists, older) and maybe it was a difference in my presentation. It’s hard to know how much to lead your audience by the hand; for a performer the audience’s presence and participation is like a whole separate layer to work with and consider. It’s tremendously thrilling to perform for an audience. It’s a huge honor.

Paste: Yes, I think it was a different audience. And they were probably expecting something more obviously serious and straightforward. So the fact that the book starts out with jokes in its first few pages (the spread of blue and orange and blue-and-orange objects that are rendered in black and white) can be confusing. Also maybe some comics literacy helps, just in a very general way, in that you need that knowledge that the comics form often features words and pictures not working together but against one another. That’s one of the great pleasures of the medium, but it takes a while to figure it out. Also: people get confused by art that starts out as one thing and turns into another thing.
Davis: I gave the presentation five more times while on tour and it went better, but only went really well twice I think! I started to think it was me, not the audience, that had the problem. Having written the presentation so long ago, it had lost the immediacy it needed to work for me as a performer. I have a lot of thoughts about it! Performing is fascinating!

Paste: One thing I learned from your reading at Avid is that you wrote this presentation in spring 2016, which was a real shocker to me. I guess it makes sense in light of some of what you’re saying (you’ve been thinking about this issue for a long time), but one can read it now as a treatise on the role of art in terrible and dangerous times (i.e., the Trump administration). Illuminate me!
Davis: I guess I think 2016 was in some ways a more terrible time than it is today. It was terrible with anticipation. The Trump administration—this thing that is real, but also a symbol of the culmination of white (mixed with cishet male) rage and entitlement, late-stage capitalism, howling fear and greed—was coming towards us. And it got us. Now we’re in its belly.

Paste: The cover is confusing but then revealing once you finish the book. How did you decide on it? Why pencils for the cover instead of the ink of the rest of it?
Davis: The cover was a challenge because I wanted it to look kind of dry and academic (cartoony figures and bright colors were out), but also eye-catching enough that people actually buy the thing. I chose pencil because it’s easier to draw detailed close-ups in pencil. (Actually, both the cover and the interior are digital, just different brushes in photoshop.)

Paste: Who shows you how to be brave? Artists? Other people? It’s like a muscle, right?
Davis: I’m still trying to figure out the bravery thing. As far as tear-jerkers in media go, acts of bravery are always my number one. Memorable moments include: Nonnonba biting the slave trader’s leg in Nonnonba, Paul’s dad paddling the little boat as it was sinking in Paul Has a Summer Job, Windy standing up to Rose for being sexist in This One Summer. And then of course dime-a-dozen silly action movie moments like the wonderful opening scene in The Last Jedi. Using the value metric I propose in Why Art?, movies like Star Wars probably rate higher in importance for me than most other works. I think about Rey a lot.

My friend Kate just told me something that left me shook: people who commit heroic deeds (leaping to save someone fallen on the train tracks, pulling kids out of a burning car, etc.) can be less prone to empathy, not more. Empathy makes you think, and rather than motivating you to do the right and brave thing, thinking often actually prevents you from taking action. I always thought that being an empathetic person meant I was Good; but that goodness of heart wasn’t matched by any deeds.

I want to think less, and do more. I want to be someone who leaps down onto the tracks. I hope I can learn. I’m studying hard.

Why Art? Interior Art by Eleanor Davis

Paste: Now I’m reading this article about Paul Bloom’s book Against Empathy, which seems to be what your friend was talking about. I guess the point is that empathy not only makes you think but also encourages identification with the individual, whereas considering decisions in a more detached way probably leads to better and more consistent good behavior. This same article mentions that empathy “leads to greater enjoyment of art, fiction and sports.” So… yet again it seems like there’s a wall being put up between aesthetics and morality.
Davis: Terrifying!

Paste: In Peter Schjeldahl’s recent review of two exhibitions in the New Yorker (one of works by Balthus, one of works by Kathe Kollwitz and Sue Coe), he writes, “The moral and the aesthetic are fundamentally opposed mental exercises.” Do you think that’s true?
Davis: We fool ourselves into thinking that beauty is a sign of virtue, and therefore ugliness is a sign of unworthiness or depravity. That’s normal, but wrong, of course; it’s also unethical and it can lead to some really bad shit. But the opposite is also true: virtuous and good things becomes beautiful to us. A running stream with clean water to drink, brightly colored fruit that is good to eat, parents caring for their children, the sunrise, etc. I like that quote very much and I might agree with it in my bitterer moments but it’s a pretty flat philosophy, imo.

Paste: What helped you determine your cast of characters?
Davis: My friend Kate was going to grad school in California and I actually based most of them off of her friends. I based the woman with the dreads on someone I met at the Tree House Hostel in Brunswick. I don’t know anyone like Dolores. She is unique.

Paste: How do you feel about parody in general?
Davis: I don’t know! Is this book a parody? I guess I don’t know what parody is. I like things that are funny.

Paste: I guess I just mean that it mimics an actual art history book at the beginning, complete with the “4th edition” on the title page. Maybe it’s more of a throwaway joke and less of a serious, sustained effort at trying to make a lot of thematically related jokes.
Davis: No, you’re right, it’s parody I guess? The book is half-serious, half frustrated little joke—at my own expense, really, because I’m the one who keeps trying to do it—about the idea of quantifying art or trying to figure out its purpose.

Paste: Was it hard to make a book that didn’t allow you to use color except for three pages in the middle?
Davis: No way, it was way easier! Color is a pain in the ass.

Paste: I feel like the most mind-blowing thing you’ve said here is that all this stuff is digital! Is that something you’ve been shifting toward in general? It’s a big contrast with You & a Bike & a Road, which was (by necessity) heavily analog.
Davis: My stuff is about 50/50 analog/digital these days. I tend to like my analog stuff more, because I can’t control it as well. Digital is faster, that’s the main advantage.

Paste: So you prefer techniques that allow for mistakes and accidents?
Davis: I don’t prefer working like that, exactly, because I love retaining control. But I think that’s the only way to make good art. Life isn’t under control and art shouldn’t be either.

Why Art? Interior Art by Eleanor Davis