Why Art?, the title of the latest graphic novel by cartoonist Eleanor Davis, is certainly ambitious. After all, it’s a question that has been at the center of philosophical debates about the purpose of visual art at least since Plato’s time. Over the centuries, scholars shifted from thinking of art as imitation (in the sense of a faithful representation of the surroundings) to art as expression, meaning both the act of expressing something about oneself or the world, as well as the product of the expression. Similarly, art has been understood as a way to convey truth, knowledge and moral betterment. Davis actually lives up to the high bar of her title, eschewing a “philosophy 101” approach to answer the question in her own clever manner.
Why Art? is divided into two parts. The first is a didactic treatise on the different ways to categorize art, including color and size. She glances over artworks that are aesthetically pleasing but nothing more, citing “beautiful empty containers” to put things in and “beautiful fabrics” to drape over ugly things. She calls them “concealment artworks,” which are great from a commercial standpoint but can make artists feel like sell-outs. Based on the twee graphics that illustrate these examples (over-sized flowers, curvilinear lines) they might well be a jab at Instagram-ready art.
On the other end of the spectrum are artworks that remind the viewer of things they’d rather forget. “But they’re true, and being reminded makes us feel like the tops of our heads are coming off,” she writes. To illustrate this type of art, she graces the pages with a series of black rectangles, which gradually increase in size, culminating into an all-black two-page spread adorned with the gnomic line “Many people try hard to not look at this sort of artwork.” Turns out that aesthetically pleasing but emotionally empty art is a great antidote to existential pain. Davis makes a great case for shadowboxes, which, she writes, allow people to escape their “ordinary life completely.”
In contrast, the book’s second part is narrative and takes the form of a parable. Such a transition is not as abrupt as it seems. Davis presents the characters in this part as the artists behind the artworks discussed in the first part. This is a deft decision that allows the book to flow smoothly. The characters inhabit a fairytale-philosophical space. One creates talismans that make people change colors while shaking them, while another makes flimsy art that easily falls apart because the artist himself is flimsy. (His giant head is made of fiberglass, his body is made of papier maché, concealing a smaller human.) The group’s performance artist, Dolores, abides by the idea that art is truth — in fact, once she stops believing in her performance, her audiences respond accordingly.
When it’s time for the artists to present a group show, an apocalyptic storm begins to rage. “[W]e’re not strong, or very brave. Our only instinct is to get away,” says the narrator. Once they find shelter, they stumble upon a shadowbox. Soon its inhabitants literally pull in the characters. Dolores becomes a God-like figure, creating a tiny replica of herself. Her friends follow suit, fashioning their whole personal universe in miniature. “Because we built these tiny versions ourselves, we made them a little closer to how we’d like to actually be,” says the narrator. Dolores then arbitrarily destroys all that they created, echoing the apocalypse that devastated at their gallery show. Yet she has a plan. To the slightly improved versions of herself and her friends, she requests, Show us how to save ourselves. Show us how to be brave.
Why Art? shares some qualities with children’s books. The illustrations are pleasing to the eye; Davis’s skilled, cartoon-like renderings are simple and streamlined. The first part’s “This is A; this is B” format is similar to that of Richard Scarry’s books for toddlers. The text is sparse — yet when it appears on the page, it speaks major truths in the manner of an oracle. “[N]ot all art should be categorized aesthetically,” Davis writes on an otherwise unadorned page. “Many artworks are primarily intellectual, and can be categorized by either the intent of the artist or the response of the audience.”
The narrative portion maintains this tone, with the addition of the artists’ savant-like qualities. Upon my first read, it seemed like the type of work that West German fantasy writer Michael Ende could have authored; his books were only superficially for children. Think of the fantastical creatures in The Neverending Story (1979), such as Gmork the wolf, tasked with killing the hero, Morla the turtle, and the protagonist Bastian, who obliterates himself in a fantasy world of his own making; both episodes serve as metaphors for society’s greater ills in a way that Davis’s work approaches.
I couldn’t help comparing Why Art? to another recent cultural product to ponder the meaning of art, the 2017 film The Square by Ruben Östlund. While the film ultimately proposes that art can be provocative and push boundaries only in extremely sanitized contexts, Davis’s novel reflects an unadulterated belief in the power of art, encompassing the varied philosophies of art. The characters engage in an imitative form of art by creating improved replicas of themselves, but thanks to this act they’re able to achieve a greater form of expression — finding a way out of their misery and a higher meaning of art, beyond formalism and mimesis.