“Why Art?” Eleanor Davis asks us, before giving her response to that multi-faceted two-word question, she asks us. Why art? Why make art? Why consume art? Why is art the way it is? Why think about art? Why art? Davis’s response is just as multi-faceted the question is. Taking us on an intimate, thoughtful, and witty journey into art’s why.
Written & Illustrated by Eleanor Davis
WHY ART? WHAT IS IT? WHAT IS IT FOR?
These are questions that have vexed scholars and historians, makers of art and lovers of art, since the beginning of civilization. What color is art? Can beautiful art be ugly, can ugly art be beautiful? Does art distort life, mirror it, or duplicate it? Does art have a taste?
In Why Art?, we are guided through a metaphysical journey where the mysterious and regenerative properties of art are put to the test. Anyone who believes—or wants to believe—in art as a force will welcome this witty and ardent book by the critically lauded and award winning cartoonist Eleanor Davis.
It’s hard to know quite where to start with a book like “Why Art?” It’s a formal hybrid, taking elements of comics, essays, poetry, fine art. While also giving representations of forms that can’t be done on the printed page – performance, sculpture. At first glance, this doesn’t even look that much like comics, there aren’t discernible panels, most pages are just one image, some pages are just text. It’s still advertised as a graphic novel, despite lacking those standard signifiers of what comics looks like. The art is still sequential, however, doing much of the storytelling, particularly as the book progresses. Davis’s work is simple yet emotive, it’s constantly following and shifting but always remains clear.
Davis’s use of words throughout “Why Art?” is deliberate and key to her answering of the eponymous question. Throughout the book, there are pages containing just a small block of text in a sea of white, the words are all there is. These little pieces of prose sit somewhere between essay and prose poem, giving a meta-commentary on the drawn art and guiding us through the different permutations of art we encounter through the book.
Davis uses words another way, though, peppered by the sides of her illustrations, in handwritten style, almost as notes, are comments on her drawings. These translate the higher brow essayistic blocks of text into a tongue-in-check part of the art. On one page, Davis writes that ‘many artworks are primarily intellectual, and can be categorized by either the intent of the artist or response of the audience,’ while the opposing page shows an eclectic mix of artworks, with the words ‘“Makes ya think”’ scrawled underneath.
This is the format of the first chunk of the book, Davis goes through some fairly arbitrary categories of art. The first is, ‘of course,’ colour, which Davis limits to just orange, blue, and work with orange and blue elements. None of this is in colour, the specifics of the categorization is not the point. “Why Art?” as a book incorporates elements of different forms, it may be put into the graphic novel in your bookstore, but the important thing is the creation and not the category it ends up in.
As the book progresses, its content changes. We’re introduced to a group of artists, all working in different fields, we learn about their work. We learn about Sophia’s talisman that introduces colour to the piece for the first and only time. We learn about Richard with his Frank Sidebottom-esque fiberglass head and paper-maché hands that make holding tools difficult. And we learn about Delores and her performative love that slowly loses its sincerity. After this Delores goes on a journey to create new artwork, becoming our protagonist for the more narrative remainder of the book. Davis builds an easy transition from the ephemera of categorizing art to a personal story of continuous creation. Creating new work as the old fails.
In Delores’s story in “Why Art?” she has to go on a journey after each failing. Firstly, she goes on a personal journey of struggle and exploration and sharks. Then, when the world falls apart around her, and her fellow artists, solace and escape is found inside the world of an artwork. Here, the artists can recreate where they came from in miniature, exploring their home, creating a better version of themselves. Versions that can stand their ground when the world inevitably falls apart around them. Versions that can show us how to be better, how to be brave.
With “Why Art?” Davis is continually mixing and remixing. Taking elements of different forms and weaving them through a discussion of art that hits on many facets of why. Even within the book, the style changes from tongue-in-cheek didactic essay, to personal stories of artists and audiences, to polemic calling for art that vicariously guides us to a better way. Davis is constantly remixing, just like Delores in the book, she has to find new ways to approach art and the question of ‘why art?’ to be able to make better, more useful, work. At the start of “Why Art?” it calls this this new the ‘fourth edition,’ acknowledging this final point of the book.
Eleanor Davis has given us a hybrid of a book, giving hybrid answer to a hybrid question. No form exists in isolation to other forms, nor to the artists working in it, nor to the audiences consuming it, nor to the world it exists in.