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Illustrator as Public Intellectual

Illustrator as Public Intellectual

In delivering the keynote address at an international gathering of illustrators, Rick Poyner challenged the audience to think about what the title of the symposium really means.

Illustration Professor Robert Brinkerhoff created the THINKING MAN logo for the conference.

Who and what merits the title “public intellectual?” As the keynote speaker at a symposium titled Illustrator as Public Intellectual, British writer, critic and curator Rick Poynor threw down the gauntlet when he spoke at the Chace Center auditorium last Friday evening.

Leery of taking the term “public intellectual” for granted, Poynor proposed a set of evaluative criteria to help define the central idea behind the symposium—namely, that illustrators are not subordinate translators of texts but original, potent voices participating in public discourse. The responsibilities that come with the title are significant, he told the audience. It is not enough to simply publish or create images with a sense of purpose, or to speak as an academic to other members of the academe.

Rather, Poynor said, a public intellectual must build bridges between practice and academia, develop a broad general audience, intervene in social and political discourse and actively propose new ideas—largely through writing. “Intellectuality requires thought and writing,” he said, “and a willingness to engage in discussion” with the public in a wide range of platforms, from academic essays and conferences to glossy magazines and television programs.

To be a bona fide public intellectual—like the linguist and social activist Noam Chomsky, the philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Zizek or the late writer and filmmaker Susan Sontag—illustrators need to be thinkers, writers, debaters, interventionists, public speakers and campaigners able to articulate a clear, consistent vision.

When he was invited to speak, Poynor was so fascinated by the title and premise of this year’s Illustration Research symposium that he challenged himself to approach the idea by creating his own set of standards. To do that, he asked himself which illustrators could legitimately claim the title of “public intellectual.”

Among his answers: the British illustrator Russell Mills, who, in the 1970s, began countering the idea of illustration as decoration, making no distinction between self-motivated versus commissioned work. He has engaged with art and culture in a deeply informed way, Poynor said, grounding his work in research and underpinning his illustrations with elaborate rationales, which he has consistently written about and discussed publicly.

“Intellectuality requires thought, writing and a willingness to engage in discussion.”

An early Mills project with musician Brian Eno was featured on the BBC, and his complex illustrations have appeared on book and album covers and in popular British magazines like Radio Times and Harpers & Queen. He treats illustration as a transdisciplinary practice, making elaborate installations, stage set designs, soundscapes and other work. In the 1990s, Mills moved from London to the Lake District, where he became an activist for the preservation of his historic hometown and its rich art and cultural history.

The symposium, which came to a close on Saturday evening after two full days of presentations and discussions, was co-sponsored by RISD’s Illustration department in conjunction with the London-based Illustration Research Network, an international consortium of teachers, illustrators and art historians.

Gillian Kiley

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