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But is it Art? The Construction and Valuation of Illustration in Victoria's Island Illustrators Society

MA thesis in Communication and Culture
Ryerson University, 2006

Preface to the Online Version

Hey everybody, this little blurb here does not appear in the Official Thesis. I've added it to this copy available from my website, because I know that a lot of people who are reading this don't come from an academic background and don't really know what a thesis is supposed to do. Also, many readers might not want to read the whole thing in depth but still want to know what it says, and the Abstract is pretty brief (the rules only allowed me 150 words or less to summarize a 165 page essay). This bit here is to explain myself to a general audience.

What's a thesis?

It's a really long essay that must present something new: new data, new information, and especially, new ideas. Same root word as theory . It also supports this new stuff with an argument for a certain point of view, based on facts or logic or persuasion, depending what field you're writing in. You also have to relate it to things important theorists have said. The point is to put forth a plausible case about something - and in the arts, as we all know, this can be pretty subjective. There is no "truth" the way there might be in hard science, because we're dealing with philosophy. So the "discourse" (everything being said about a topic) is made up of lots of opinions and ideas and each person is free to come to their own conclusions based on a (hopefully wide) selection of concepts.

My thesis is just another facet of an ongoing conversation. I like to think it's an under-represented facet that many tend to ignore, which is why I studied it. Although I've tried to make a convincing case here, because of the nature of the discourse and its lack of hard truth, I don't want anyone to think I'm super inflexible on the ideas presented in it. My hope is to spark disagreements as well as agreements, in a useful way. The point is to help cultural producers (artists, curators, historians, etc) understand illustration and conservative art in Canada in a more in-depth manner than they have previously.

I encourage readers to neither write off nor embrace wholeheartedly the thesis in its entirety, but to pick and choose the best parts sensitively.

What's in it?

Basic argument - that the Island Illustrators Society of Victoria, BC represents a way to make art that challenges the divide in the art scene between contemporary, non-commercial artists and conservative, commercial artists.

Other arguments

•  that the historic divide between art and craft turned into one between painting and illustration that later turned into one between non-commercial and commercial art (meaning art shown in artist-run centres compared to art that sells in commercial galleries).
•  that this divide is silly, counterproductive and artificially maintained despite underlying similarities between the sides
•  that in Victoria this divide was   solidified by policy and structural decisions at the AGGV and UVic in the 1960s
•  that illustrators are involved in a deeply creative process
•  that illustration is concerned with communication, whereas fine art doesn't have to be
•  that "illustration" can be mistaken for "fine art" and vice versa; only intent and context distinguish them
•  that conservative art is not anti-change but reflects culture as it changes
•  that Victoria has not been quite as unilaterally unprogressive in art as is generally thought
•  that local conservative taste is derived from British Arts and Crafts, landscape, native art, and Asian art
•  that Victoria arts policy has been rather ineffective in visual art, paradoxically allowing many forms to flourish by failing to provide cohesive leadership which might have imposed an "official taste"
•  that Dr Alan Gowans had an important impact on Victoria, helping make it a receptive place for illustration and conservative art
•  that so-called non-commercial art is just as commercial as any other aspect of our society
•  that being commercial is not a dirty word but reality, and working in commercial ways does not mean the art has to give up political and meaningful content

Data and historical information

•  survey results covering Victoria artists' self-identity and working practices
•  data on Victoria's art scene as compiled by Ottawa
•  history of the status of illustration in BC
•  operations, activities and contributions of Island Illustrators
•  ways Victoria institutions and key individuals have contributed to make Victoria a centre of conservative art with a healthy amount of illustration lovers too
•  play by play description of the fight in the art scene between modernists and traditionalists in the 1960s
•  some artwork by local artists, mostly Island Illustrator Society affiliates
•  most complete list of membership of Island Illustrators over the years (300 people!)
•  stuff about me, because some of you asked
•  quotes from local artists and a couple other Canadian artists


Thanks for reading and participating!





THESIS (7 MB pdf)

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Comments from Martin Segger:

JC Scott lent me a copy of your thesis which I have just read. As one Alan Gowan's first art history majors I followed with great interest your application of his analysis of the "restless art". I must admit his thinking remains fundamental to mine, and thus the perhaps eclectic nature of the programming of the Maltwood and its collecting directions. Your thesis is an interesting one and, I think, well defended. Cheers, Martin.


Comments from Dr. Louise Forsyth:

I was particularly fascinated as I read it to note the resemblances between what you were saying about art traditions, standards, practices and critical discourse and my own current research along similar lines on theatre.... read more in a pdf


Comments from Connie John:

I wonder if you know the work of T.S. Coburn, he of the Hallmark Card Christmas scene of horses pulling sleighs in the snows of Quebec? He was caught in just the dilemma you describe.... read more in a pdf


Comments from Duncan Weller, an illustrator in the study:

Seriously disliking an artist's aesthetic choice and summarily hating the individual who creates the work is a kind of racism.... It's happened to me regularly that I'm outright rejected as a person because my art doesn't fit the mould of what I'm supposed to be doing in order to get the title "artist." Who says?... read more in a pdf


Comments from Dr. Robert Belton:

Dear Jaleen,
This is pretty interesting stuff, actually, and while I don't take exception to your characterization of Sights of Resistance as missing the boat on commercial and illustration art, I do think that you imply a misunderstanding of my position such as it is outside of that book.... read more in a pdf



If you have comments you'd like me to add here, please email me: jaleen [AT] © 2012 Fair use only Ontario, Canada