In Defense of James Fiorentino and Norman Rockwell
Jesse Richards - March 5, 1999

James Fiorentino If there’s any artist on campus who stands out, it’s senior James Fiorentino. He won national acclaim for his sports portraits, becoming the youngest member of the New York Society of Illustrators and the youngest artist with work featured in the Baseball Hall of Fame’s Permanent Collection. His solo Korn Gallery exhibit ran two months ago. He produced several lithographs of famous athletes like Brett Favre and painted a 10 baseball-card set for Topps. Who better to spotlight as an epitome of artistic accomplishment at Drew? At least that’s what Drew Magazine’s editors must have thought when they published a cover story on Fiorentino’s work in the fall issue. It was a cheerful success story, not dissimilar to a profile The Acorn published last month, showcasing the young artist’s accomplishments.

So I was a little shocked to see such an inflammatory response to the article in the most recent Drew Magazine, the winter issue. The letter, from Eliza Laura Kruck (CLA ’73) is short, so I’ll reprint it in its entirety:

James Fiorentino’s work can no more be called art than Leroy Nieman’s. Norman Rockwell crafted commercial illustration; he did not create art.

To present the truth as otherwise in the pages of our university’s signature publication not only violates the high standard of critical thought and scholarship that our school professes to still embody, but reduces Drew to the ridiculous.

It is strange to hear such a dissenting voice. Certainly the author purposely took the most extreme view, perhaps only to be argumentative. Maybe Kruck just doesn’t like baseball or has a personal grudge against Drew Magazine. I don’t know if Kruck is an artist, or a member of the current art world elite, but motives aside, her letter represents the most extreme view of one side of a long-running aesthetic issue. It is a debate that has raged in aesthetic theory for centuries: the definition of art.

A deep irony at work in today’s society created the setting for this response. Due to its figurative, easily identifiable nature, Fiorentino’s work is embraced by a large portion of the public with ease, in a way that much contemporary, abstract work isn’t. Yet, seemingly for this very reason, the elite contemporary art world shuns the illustrative work as too commercial. The art world goes out of its way to shut the public out, to make itself more elite and less accessible to the public.

In an odd way, Kruck makes a point, but I don’t think it’s the point she wants to make. The point is that Fiorentino is like Rockwell and Nieman in that he does not belong to the contemporary art scene. Fiorentino is the first to point to both artists as his influences. But what Kruck misses is that his art doesn’t claim to be a part of that scene, and most of the public realizes this. I think people have a good idea that the current “art scene” does not include that type of illustration. But the real problem with her response is the claim that because Fiorentino’s work isn’t avant-garde, it isn’t art.

It’s a shame that the elitism of people like Kruck not only causes confusion about what art is by clouding important aesthetic dialogue, but also prohibits the public from having the courage to enjoy the diversity of modern art. Someone trying to understand the current art scene might shun illustration, as Kruck has done. And someone enjoying illustration has to accept that his choice of art does not fit into the current scene. But the two sides need not be so disparate.

The definition of art is the core of the study of aesthetics, and countless opposing theories have been put forth throughout history. Most definitions don’t stand up to debate because they exclude one form of art or another; as with any philosophy, you only need one example to disprove a theory. Kruck’s definition of the current art scene is not wrong — and she is right to say that Fiorentino’s work does not fit into it. Her mistake is in making the boundaries of that art scene synonymous with the definition of art in general, and in dismissing all art outside of her definition as inferior.

Kruck says that calling Fiorentino’s work art “reduces Drew to the ridiculous,” but she doesn’t realize that, in reality, her argument is what’s ridiculous. It’s a view so extreme that not only isn’t it held by many people in that “art scene,” but in aesthetic terms, it was thrown out long ago in favor of more inclusive theories. Surely the study of aesthetics is part of the “high standard of critical thought and scholarship that our school still professes to embody.” After all, I am expressing my views based on what I learned in a Drew aesthetics class last year. Kruck’s claims are backed not by critical thought but only narrow-minded fanaticism.

There are also several reasons why Kruck missed the point regarding Fiorentino specifically. First, his sports work is not the only art he creates. He is currently working on large Neo-expressionistic paintings that reference both classical works and the art of children. These works, when perfected, would certainly fall into Kruck’s definition of art due to their contemporary nature.

Also, the taste of the contemporary art scene is constantly changing. To base the definition of art around it is tenuous at best. In response to Kruck, Fiorentino asked what would happen if sports illustration became the most popular art sometime in the future? Would Kruck’s view change then?

But the merit of Fiorentino’s work is not the true issue here. Would Fiorentino have had a one-man show were there not a convienient gallery at the school he is attending? Probably not. Sadly, the truth is that the Korn Gallery exists on the fringe between the academic art world and the contemporary art world. If it were deep in the heart of the most avant-garde part of New York City, Fiorentino, or any other “illustrator,” would not be exhibiting. The tastes of the avant-garde art scene are also not up for debate here. While I personally would love an art scene that accepts illustration, I realize that at this time, that is not the case.

A broad definition of art

The real point is that there will always be forms of art that are excluded from the contemporary scene, but this does not decrease their worthiness as art. The definition of art should be broad. What was odd about Kruck’s assertion was that it excluded what most theories firmly placed under the heading of “art”: illustration, design, non-cutting-edge work (think living room paintings or Bob Ross), architecture, and photography. Usually the debate is about hard-to-categorize art, work that is functional as well as visually interesting. Advertising, floral design, the culinary arts, photojournalism, Web pages, comic-book art, and caricatures are usually more difficult for people to accept as true “art.”

But I feel the days of excluding genres from the realm of art are nearing their end. In past decades we have seen exhibits of photojournalism, of illustration, of computer design. The fact that people appreciate these things for a purpose other than their original design might be what truly makes them art. I have a book of the best newspaper design, and I enjoy it not for the information in the articles reprinted, but for the aesthetic appeal of the pages presented. Even the Museum of Modern Art has a floor for functional designs: movie posters, furniture, lamps, a car, a helicopter.

For whatever reason, people like Kruck are trying to drastically broaden the gap between the elitist art world and other artists. It is more likely, though, that the future will instead see the lines blurred. Hopefully it will not be long before more creators are embraced by the popular art scene and no art is kept from being seen, not just by the art world, but by anyone who wants to enjoy it.