“Art always stands at a distance from reality,” wrote American art critic Arthur C. Danto in his 2013 book, What Art Is. When Andy Warhol put 120 Brillo soap boxes made out of wood in a room at New York’s Stable Gallery in 1964, that distance appeared small: the original Brillo boxes, designed only five years earlier by US commercial artist James Harvey, were nearly identical, except that they were made of cardboard and full of soap pads. Yet while Harvey’s boxes were designed to be picked from supermarket shelves, Warhol’s stood in an art gallery to sing the praises of daily life and the poetics of consumption. By 2008, one of Warhol’s boxes had sold for US$4.7 million at Sotheby’s auction house in New York, and Harvey’s had long been forgotten.
Most applied-arts professionals share James Harvey’s destiny. The average freelance comic-book illustrator in the U.S earns $30,000 a year for creating books full of intricately detailed panels, but Roy Lichtenstein’s painting I Can See the Whole Room… and There’s Nobody In It, based on a single frame of illustrator William Overgard’s comic Steve Roper, sold for $43.2 million in 2011. Although tattooists still struggle to be acknowledged as true artists, when Spanish artist Santiago Sierra had black lines tattooed on the backs of four prostitutes in return for the price of a hit of heroin, a video of the act went on display at the Tate Liverpool museum, UK . And although Gremlin Fine Arts Gallery in Manchester, Vermont, USA, features work by courtroom artists, most applied artists are still held off at a distance by art curators and dealers, no matter how skillful they might be.
In her 30-year stint as the forensic artistat the Houston Police Department in Texas, USA, Lois Gibson has helped the police identify more than 500 criminals with her composite sketches, even though almost all the victims that she interviews claim not to have seen the attacker’s face. Her two best resources are a book filled with sketches of 200 different noses, eyes, eyebrows and lips, and the question, “What expression did the man have when he did this?” After about an hour of patiently going through various facial features with the victim, she usually manages to coax out enough information to create an accurate portrait of the criminal. According to Gibson, her drawings have an unusually high success rate: about a third lead to arrests. “My art is the only kind that does not need to be beautiful,” she says. “It’s ugly and sloppy and sketchy – but if it saves lives, it becomes beautiful and perfect.”
A woman accused of kidnapping a 10-hour-old baby from its mother’s hospital room.
The witness was intoxicated when he saw this woman, and the sketch was done two weeks after the incident.
This accused rapist was identified in the street by a police officer who had seen the sketch as he left his police station.
This sketch was based on the account of a 10-year-old girl who had been sexually assaulted. The perpetrator turned himself in after seeing the sketch.
Sketch from the description of a woman who was robbed at her store in a shopping mall.
Sketch made from a description given by a victim who was robbed at a gas station with an assault rifle, and who claimed never to have seen her attacker.
From the pages of COLORS #87 - Looking at Art.