Modesty comes naturally to Eleanor Davis. In 2014’s How To Be Happy, the comic artist interspersed long, painstakingly drawn narratives with silly little black-and-white doodles. In one, a group of people zipped themselves into a giant bag for no clear reason, explaining only that “it was specially made in the Netherlands.” In another, a man with the outline of Mickey Mouse’s head on his shirt cut off a sleeping woman’s fingers (bloodlessly, with scissors). The doodles had no purpose except to belie profundity and keep the reader off-balance. Last year’s You & a Bike & a Road was similarly unassuming, taking that most prosaic of forms: a journal. Chronicling Davis’s cycling trip from Arizona to Georgia, it could have been a bombastic, sweeping road epic. Instead, Davis eschewed an overarching narrative, concentrating on small moments and quirky stories.
So, it’s not surprising that she asks the highly provocative question Why Art? with an evident blush at her own presumption. A modest 5 1/2 inches by 7 inches, Why Art? begins with a handful of goofy jokes and ends with a fable. This story of nine artists working in diverse media neither exalts nor ridicules their various creations (even though it does destroy them twice over). Davis’s whole attitude seems to humbly bespeak your indulgence, and her central message is that, when it comes to art, everybody needs to lighten up.
Davis doesn’t spell out this idea in words, but expresses it through her predominant mode. She clearly believes artists — herself included — should steer away from all self-certainty, especially the certainty of reaching an audience. Her drawings lure the eye irresistibly no matter what they happen to depict. She’s a maestro of line — her ink swirls and swoops as fluidly as if it were really airborne — and her knack for composition makes even her one-off jokes impactful. The minimalism of most of Davis’s compositions keeps the reader turning pages, seeking more. The small size of the book is seductive, too. Why Art? is physically delightful: it just feels good to hold in your hands and flip through. (Somehow, small books always seem like special indulgences, just like small boxes and small food.)
It’s easy to win almost anyone over with a package like this, whatever your message might be. Even if Davis did want to make a bunch of drastic pronouncements about art and society — pooh-poohing street art, attacking collectors by name, vilifying the board of directors at the Met — virtually any reader would be somewhat inclined to entertain them. But Davis doesn’t abuse her power. If anything, she goes too far in the other direction, allowing her modesty to put unfair limits on her scope. Why Art? could have been bigger, longer, with more color.
Especially more color. Davis uses color only once, dropping in pink, blue, and green to illustrate the dramatic impact of artworks by a fictional artist named Sophia. She’s one of the nine artists at the center of the book, and her specialty is talismans. Each of Sophia’s artworks, Davis explains,
… comes with instructions that read: ‘Wear your talisman at all times in case of emergency.’
When a crisis arises, gently shake.
A little musical note will come out, tinkling.
Hearing the note makes you turn different colors.
(Thus the pink, blue, and green.) The fact that the only colors in the book are used to illustrate an as-yet-impossible artistic effect perfectly expresses the antipretension that’s as close as Davis comes to a credo. Where better to use carefully rationed color, she seems to ask, than in the service of the purely imaginary?
This vignette exemplifies the light, teasing tone Davis takes toward contemporary art. It’s here that she runs her biggest risk: that she’ll either alienate her audience or bore them. Mocking contemporary art has become so commonplace, it’s usually unfunny even if it doesn’t happen to be offensively ill-informed. Davis certainly flirts with the standard caricatures, but she curbs them. She has scrutinized her motives carefully, and when she does poke fun at some particular artistic excess, she often can’t help but turn around and undercut her own criticism. “Mirror artworks can be extremely compelling,” she notes. “[There are] mirrors that show what you think you’re like” — here she draws, for no particular reason, a long mirror with a wavy edge — or “mirrors that show us when we’re very, very old.” What fun it would be if such mirrors existed! But until they do, “the regular ‘Ordinary Mirror’ continues to fascinate both artist and audience alike.”
Such demure jabs reveal the deep love Davis feels for art and artists. Most of her nine characters are a bit ridiculous, it’s true. TwiceTwo, who makes “massive multi-media,” has a billowing patterned cloak and swollen bun, while Mike (“sculpture and optics”) wears leopard-print shorts with boots. But however silly they seem at first, their work usually redeems them in some way. Take Richard, who sculpts in papier-mâché and always wears a huge head and hands that he’s made. When a rainstorm hits in the middle of a group show, water leaks onto him and he starts coming apart — a harsh metaphor. Without his giant hands, Davis notes, “the smaller Richard can hold a pencil much more easily.” But his creaking self-creation still has a reason to exist: the giant head is big enough to shelter all the artists when the rain turns into a flood. Likewise, José’s edible artworks (he works in concrete and fondant) prove nourishing when the artists are transported to a foreign shore.
The closest character to a protagonist is stocky, sensible Dolores, a specialist in “performance art incorporating hypo-solidity.” Davis obviously feels deep affection for her. Dolores’s first artwork consists of simply standing in a gallery and saying to everyone who approaches, “I love you.” “If she were a bad artist, her art would be a lie, and people would hate it,” Davis points out. “Instead, somehow she has made the statement into her truth.” Unfortunately, those who view Dolores’s work tend to have extreme reactions. “Feeling loved, they can’t help but love Dolores in return.” They propose marriage and follow her around the grocery store. It’s easy to imagine Dolores existing in real life, suitors and all. Because Davis — in another of her subtle, hinted arguments — doesn’t like artists who repeat themselves over and over, she has Dolores give up on “I love you.” Dolores travels for 10 years, is attacked by a shark, loses her arm, grows a new arm (and a set of shark teeth of her own), and winds up, with the other eight artists, sheltering from the above-mentioned storm inside Richard’s papier-mâché head. Ultimately, she leads the artists to figure out what their art is for and why it should, or shouldn’t, continue to exist.
Not too surprisingly, the answer they arrive at is a sentimental one. Davis has always had a strong vein of earnest idealism running alongside her surrealist tendencies. It’s not surprising that she should feel compelled to leaven her criticisms of the art world, however mild, with heartfelt thoughts about the ways in which art benefits us all. She struggles with this urge throughout the book, often defeating it. But finally, feeling compelled to articulate a big theme at the close, Davis abandons subtlety in favor of a few fervent lines expressing her sense of art’s power. Her lingering ambivalence about making such a declaration is evident in the form it takes. She couches it in a series of pleas from Dolores. As the rain comes down, destroying artworks and shattering intentions, the purity of Dolores’s heart shines from amid the chaos.
Such purity, sadly, can only be fiction. Amazingly, though, Davis herself manages to approximate real purity of heart throughout the book. Her carefully leavened critiques of the art world aren’t going to shake anyone’s beliefs, true. But along with her surprising, off-kilter appreciations — and thanks to the virtuosic draftsmanship with which they’re executed — they add up to a memorable work of, and about, art.
Etelka Lehoczky writes about comics regularly for National Public Radio.