Popularity and Critical Approval

I don't know anything about Art History, but I always find it interesting to read about how artists were popular (or unpopular) during their lifetimes, and how many of them are more (or less) popular today than they were in their lifetimes. I guess I find it comforting to know that we never really have a sense, while we're alive, of whether the work we are doing is truly good work that will stand the test of time or poor work that will fail to connect with future generations. I find it freeing because it reminds me that we should, above all, rely on our own instincts to tell us when our work is good and what we could do to improve our work.

My favorite quote about being an artist is what Bo Bartlett, a friend of Andrew Wyeth, once said was Wyeth's opinion on criticism:

"People only make you swerve. I won’t show anybody anything I’m working on. If they hate it, it’s a bad thing, and if they like it, it’s a bad thing. An artist has to be ingrown to be any good."

Robert Fawcett is one of my favorite illustrators of the 40s and 50s and I was glad to see his work recently collected in a book. As I was reading through it, I came across the passage below and it reminded me, once again, how difficult it can be for us to tell how our work will be regarded by our audience, and how more difficult still it is to know how history will judge our work. So we might as well work to please ourselves. After all, that's hard enough.

 [Fawcett] urged young artists not to satisfy popular taste. "Young illustrators will not find guidance by studying the currently popular. The popular is usually just on its way out...

  Contrast Fawcett's warning with this opposite advice offered by the successful and prosperous Jon Whitcomb, whose pictures were wildly popular: "I don't think of myself as an artist. I'm a manufacturer, supplying something editors want to buy. Somewhere I discovered what these people want and through a fortunate chain of circumstances I find myself able to produce it." To guide young artists who wished to follow in his footsteps, Whitcomb urged young artist to come up with a gimmick, saying "If you can come up with a new gimmick, clients are waiting for it". The best way to achieve that, according to Whitcomb, was to focus on the latest trends: "You have to guess the trend that's coming up. Since magazines work four to six months ahead of publication, anything can happen to public taste between the time you turn in your illustration and when the magazine hits the newsstands. You try to spot future trends by looking at what is popular in the magazines."

 Whitcomb's glamorous illustrations appeared on the cover of Collier's while Fawcett's only illustrated the stories inside. Whitcomb earned more money n became something of a celebrity; his face was featured in cigarette advertisements and he was called upon to judge beauty contests. Yet, Fawcett seemed quite comfortable with the path he had chosen. His illustrations were not designed to grab the attention of the casual viewer from a crowded magazine rack. He insisted that an excellent picture is "Much more likely to be characterized by the restraint of self-confidence. The artist who has resources does not need to announce this fact from the housetops - it will be apparent." Fawcett urged young artists to avoid fashionable gimmicks and hold fast to what their own eyes and artistic integrity told them: "To anyone for whom drawing is a passion, and whose eyes are constantly searching and evaluating even when he has no pencil in hand - to that man tricks and techniques have no appeal...he seems them for the superficialities they are...[I]f we had been content...polishing simple figure studies they might now be blinding in their degree of finish, dazzling as exercises of virtuosity, but we ourselves would be neatly trapped in that comfortable corner from which so many students fail to find the exit.

 There could be little doubt which types of illustrators Fawcett was talking about.

 As the 1950s ended, so did the demand for Whitcomb's stylized glamour girls and Whitcomb exited the stage.