N.C. Wyeth, "The Pioneer & the Vision) (c. 1918), in the collection of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art

N.C. Wyeth, “The Pioneer & the Vision) (c. 1918), in the collection of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art

Yesterday morning news broke that filmmaker George Lucas will locate his Death Star museum in Chicago, not in San Francisco or Los Angeles, as previously discussed. It also seems the museum is being renamed, from the Lucas Cultural Arts Museum (which was redundant anyway) to the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art.

What exactly is narrative art?, you may ask yourself. Well, let’s look at the website of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art for edification. There, it states:

Narrative art tells a story. The genre uses the power of the visual image to ignite imaginations, evoke emotions and capture universal cultural truths and aspirations. What distinguishes narrative art from other genres is its ability to capture a shared experience across diverse cultures preserving it for future generations.

This is sort of like saying: Narrative art is art because images.

If we look at the artworks, however, 17 of which were posted today by Gizmodo, something more of a definition emerges: narrative art, it seems, is basically figurative art that springs from the white Western culture experience. Pioneers! Slice-of-life mid-20th-century Americana! Western folk tales! And, of course, Star Wars. Who could forget Star Wars?

Here, perhaps inevitably, Clement Greenberg comes to mind. From “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” (1939):

The pre-condition for kitsch, a condition without which kitsch would be impossible, is the availability close at hand of a fully matured cultural tradition, whose discoveries, acquisitions and perfected self-consciousness kitsch can take advantage of for its own ends. It borrows from it devices, tricks, stratagems, rules of thumb, themes, converts them into a system and discards the rest. It draws its life blood, so to speak, from this reservoir of accumulated experience.

But hey, let’s give Lucas a chance. Maybe he can explain things a little more. Oh, see, here’s a quote from him further down the website:

“The best way to truly understand narrative art is to experience it.” —George Lucas

Yes … yes, indeed. Assuming the alternative is to not experience it, I couldn’t agree more.

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art and politics but has also been known to write at length about cats. She won the 2014 Best...

18 replies on “WTF Is the George Lucas Museum?”

  1. Willful misunderstanding in this piece. It’s clearly a new label for commercial illustrative arts, which the fine art world never hesitates to sneer, but the public continues to vastly prefer. I think it could use a better definition (maybe written in International Art Speak) but grouping propmakers and digital effects artists and fabricators in with the pre-existing traditional illustrative arts makes a lot of logical sense.

    1. International Art Speak or vague feel-good pronouncements like out of a car commercial, what’s the difference? Maybe it’s willful misunderstanding here, but it’s also willful obfuscation on their part. In any case, it’s YOUR definition that’s understandable. Thanks for that, it’s helpful.

      1. IAS is just car commercial talk for the monied who go to Basel, so you have the right of it.

        People who work in the commercial illustrative arts have very large chips on our shoulder about how often the fine art world denigrates our own history and culture, usually at the same time as they lift it for their own profit. This article being a fabulous example of type. I have little doubt that Lucas is the same, because I was present at his extremely awkward lecture at SAIC about a decade ago. That’s a problem for the future of this project, which I think has huge potential even as it has huge drawbacks.

        1. I honestly have no problem with commercial illustrative arts, but if that’s what this museum is for, I would like Lucas to come out and say it. I find your definition of the museum & its art much clearer and more logical than anything coming from the museum itself. The 17 pieces in the Gizmodo post suggested to me more of a specific cultural narrative than any formal one.

          1. Lucas has communication issues about this museum. And I can’t help but wonder if it’s because the criticism of the museum overall is true: that it’s mainly going to be an expensive warehouse of Star Wars memorabilia and that Chicago’s getting financially screwed on it.

            That said? Rackham, NC Wyeth, Rockwell, Parrish, Leyendecker? That’s an exciting line up, and one that gets referenced in critique in our end of the art world at least as often as Duchamp and Picasso gets referenced in the fine arts. It’s one that interests me in what else he might have in his collection. A lot of this stuff is both foundational and was available for a song on his budget. That you couldn’t pin down his interest is illustrative of why the museum is probably a good idea.

            I can’t really fault you for having institutional blinders, because I know they don’t teach this in Art History 101 wherever you attended, but not seeing the formal grouping is kind of like seeing a collection of Monet, Cassatt and Renoir and not being able to nail “Impressionism”. Any second or third year undergrad in an illustration/comics/commercial art program should have been able to nail this.

          2. Totally fair. I appreciate you pointing that out. I will say, though, that if you’re going to coin a new term to encompass—what, all commercial art? or just illustration and animation? unclear, then you need to define it! Not just throw out vague language that means nothing. That was the thing that frustrated me the most and spurred this post. Also, the talk of “universal” experiences and values is maddening when, at least based on the 17 images thus far, there is a clear cultural POV being represented.

          3. There’s two women (one of whom is Asian) and a Latino represented in the Gizmodo list, but it’s a fair criticism despite that. There are a lot of female illustrators and illustrators of color they can include, so I’m hoping these pieces they’re showing to the press are just weighted towards “household names”. What’s actually IN this collection is one of my big concerns, but I don’t think we have any reasonable way to judge it right now.

            I actually have a lot of criticisms of this project, despite how this thread seems and I want to say I appreciate you continuing to engage with me. And I agree with their communication problems in large. “Narrative art” as a phrase seems to be relying heavily on work done in comics theory in the last two decades with the assumption that everyone in the cheap seats is going to have read McCloud’s “Understanding Comics” and then make the mental leap to this related field of art practice, and I think you’re absolutely right that no one is going to get it without someone cleaning up the language.

            I also think they’re going to have to defend this position beyond just putting a lot of random stuff on walls. It’s clear to me there’s a lot of resistance in the art world against this idea, which plays into pre-existing conflicts between say, the value of craft in art.

            Thanks again.

  2. I love how 50s sci-fi novel covers look like post J-L David painters like Jean Broc: neoclassical-on-speed that blurs into romanticism. So at some pint these seemingly separate tracks converge

    1. In my experience it takes about three pints, but your mileage may differ. Martinis probably work faster.

  3. If there is a difference between narrative illustration art and um, “fine” art, it is that illustration (what I see on the Gizmondo article) seems not to engage visual conventions as conventions, and instead uses them more or less uncritically to tell stories. I am thinking in particular of Christy’s Rob Roy & the Vargas Kim Novak. Heroic and seductive figures do their thing to beguile the viewer, which is what art has long done, sure, but historical changes in style, from medieval to renaissance, renaissance to mannerism, mannerism to baroque, rococo, neoclassical, realism, etc., are all done with self-conscious attention to the conventions of representation, and I don’t think this is happening here. Greenberg was not entirely right when he said something like the old master painters used art to conceal art, while modern painting uses art to call attention to art. But the distinction he made applies here. Titian, Caravaggio, Rodin, Manet certainly made art that engaged existing conventions of space, narrative, rendering, etc. Illustration art chooses not to do this. (I’m trying to discuss differences without judging, but my sympathies might be clear). Also it’s clear that these paintings are made in a post-photographic era and use photography as a touchstone for what counts as real, and they are therefore irrevocably modern, if not modernist.

    1. This is kind of the crux of the debate between these two sides of art, well stated. I will say that I think a lot of current illustrators see themselves – if not in dialogue with the conventions of pre-modern figurative art, which many DO – then in dialogue with their pre-existing ancestors in the illustrative medium.

      I feel like I am dominating this discussion, but I think there are many contemporary artists who say, see Frozen as the continuation of the design work of Mary Blair. Or view their work as descending from the tradition of Rackham or NC Wyeth. An entire generation of girlie art hangs on Vargas, etc.

  4. My goodness, this sounds very snarky. But the author – who is she, exactly? – doesn’t tell us why she feels such a need to be sneeringly condescending to George Lucas. Personally I rather enjoy Lucas’ taste in art, and I am unlikely to be influenced by something that the pompous asshole Clement Greenberg wrote in 1939. Still, thanks to the author (some woman who likes cheese, I gather?) for providing another amusing exhibition of pseudo-intellectual high snobbery.

  5. What a Pioneer Mr. Lucas is for putting his museum in Chicago, instead of San Francisco or Los Angeles.
    Mr. Lucas always has wonderful foresight and many will follow.

  6. I don’t see the sharp line here. I consider myself a ‘fine artist’ but I do some pieces that I label “commentary”….In that vein I found comfort in the 17 works posted by Gizmodo. A recent piece (Time Out for dekooning in a Chair in a Corner) was accepted in an old line juried show of artists with affiliations to New York state. Some people dismissed it snidely as “a comic”;
    others said” omg every kid can relate to this.” But the thoughtful would ponder the roots of art, self expression, punishments and so forth.My six works that come immediately to mind echo what seems to be the theme of Lucas’s collection…common experiences, hopes, dreams, visions and a call to receive interaction and commentary on the expressions put forth. That they don’t fit a label shouldn’t matter. What the heck. For the works I’ve done that don’t quite fit anywhere Narrative Art comes close! Maybe someday I’ll have a piece in the Lucas Museum!

  7. I just took a look at the works cited in Gizmodo article, it looks to me like Lucas is using his hard earned cash to elevate his ILM cohorts and their work by contextualizing their work alongside the icons of 20th century commercial illustration.

  8. This may be the most comments I’ve seen on a Hyperallergic post. This must be a conversation that needs to happen and probably a museum that needs to exist. As part of this conversation consider Camille Paglia’s “Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars,” where she comes to the debatable conclusion that George Lucas is one of our greatest living artists. Personally, I’d much rather experience the kitsch of Star Wars than the Jeff Koons bobbles at the Whitney. The power of story is not trivial and movies are a powerful art-form.

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