Smash Pages Q&A: Eleanor Davis on ‘Why Art?’

The creator discusses her latest graphic novel from Fantagraphics, political activism, PowerPoint and much more.

In her new book Why Art? Eleanor Davis tackles some of the questions around what art is, how we respond to it, how artists think about it and try to use it. Which may sound dry and perhaps dull but in Davis’ hands the idea becomes something strange and unexpected and at times laugh out loud funny. Davis describes one character in the book, “If she were a bad artist her art would be a lie and people would hate it. Instead, somehow she has made the statement into her truth.” This statement could be applied to Davis and her work. For many of us over the past few years she has become one of the essential cartoonists working right now.

Davis has also become very political active and currently serves as the membership coordinator for Athens for Everyone. We spoke recently about her book, political action, finding one’s artistic voice and coming to understand that everything is easy. She also mentioned the graphic novel she’s working on now and she answered, why art?

How do you describe Why Art?

Why Art? is a small, self-indulgent project trying to tease out the value and purpose of Art, if any. It’s a combination of mildly snarky and terribly sincere.

The book begins as an essay with a humorous bend and then it veers off into a different direction and I’m curious about how you worked on this. Did you know the shape of this when you started?

Why Art? was originally a PowerPoint presentation I gave at ICON, which is an illustration conference. I assumed the audience would most appreciate a presentation that emphasized the value of art, and that made me jumpy. I like making people happy, but I also like being honest, and I have always struggled with a lot of negative feelings about art in addition to the more achingly aspirational ones. People hate hearing about negative feelings. You have to be sneaky about it.

As for structure, I had done a performative comic artwork before that I enjoyed doing a lot, and part of what made it successful was that the audience started out thinking it was one kind of performance (boring, mildly irritating) and then it turned into another kind of performance (interesting, surreal, aggressively sincere). This gimmick worked for me because it’s hard to jump into being sincere right away. So I decided to try that trick again.

What do you think it means that when you set out to give a PowerPoint about the value of art, you ended up inventing a story?

I wanted to make something good and stories are what I’m good at. I wanted to capture people’s attention. I wanted to make an artwork about artwork.

The book features a cameo by Sophia Foster-Dimino and you mention that this book was influenced by her work. What was it about her work that inspired you?

She’s a take-no-prisoners emotional and artistic genius.

I  love the character of Delores, who is the central character of the book. Or maybe the secondary character, after you? Her journey is very much the heart of the book.

I like Dolores so much! She is serious, high-fuctioning, and not neurotic, which aren’t normal qualities for artists really. I feel like Dolores thinks about Art the way a plumber thinks about plumbing. She is practical.

How has your thinking about the meaning and purpose of art has changed over the years? What does making art mean for you now as opposed to five or ten years ago?

Now it’s easy; it used to be hard. I used to think it was important to make art that was important, and the idea of not being able to do so caused me a lot of pain. Now I care less. It’s a better place to be in but maybe I had to go through that previous painful stage to get here. Also I might just be making better work.

Your style has changed a lot and you work in so many different styles. What interests you in working in different ways and what determines how?

Every story feels like it needs a very different art style! I’m not sure why. I’m pretty sure my bouncing from style to style is a personal limitation on my part but I can’t seem to get away from it. With each new project the old style doesn’t work or feels stale.

It’s hard to divide a lot of your work into fiction and nonfiction. Obviously you have lots of both but you like to make work – like Why Art? – which blurs those lines.

I think all good fiction is actually non-fiction. A good fictional story becomes true. Unfortunately it doesn’t work in reverse.

You’ve become very politically active in the past year. It’s easy to say Trump is the reason, but what is it that has pushed you in this direction?

I’ve always had a strong feeling that things were very bad, and that they are getting much worse. But before the election everything seemed extremely complicated – so complicated that I let myself be paralyzed into inaction. After the election I understood that everything is easy. We have to fight as hard as we can for as long as we can. This is what I believe.

So what do you do as Membership Coordinator?

I coordinate events and volunteer opportunities. I coordinated a field trip to the State Capitol to meet our reps and lobby for Medicaid Expansion, Marijuana Legalization with the goal of combating racist mass incarceration, an Independent Redistricting Commission, and $15/hour minimum wage. We have a monthly political discussion group, we organize canvassing for progressive candidates, etc. I mostly write a lot of emails.

I know the organization is involved in a lot of things but what are you currently working on?

Right now we are focused on making the ACC Sheriff stop cooperating with ICE to deport and terrorize Athenians. Because black Athenians are arrested at 4.7 times the rate as white Athenians for marijuana-related charges, despite equal use across racial lines, we are advocating for Marijuana legalization at the state level and decriminalization at the local level. And we have local elections in May so we’re very focused on flipping a bunch of mayor and commission seats and winning a progressive majority.

Do you think there’s something similar in terms of finding your artistic voice and finding your political voice and political consciousness?

Doing either demands self-respect. Both making art and engaging in politics means you are refusing to be small and silent. You are staking out your small claim.

What are you working on now? Or want to spend time on?

I’m working on a 140 page graphic novel. It’s all roughed out, I just have to draw it. It’s set in 2022 and Mark Zuckerberg is president, so it’s extremely important that I finish and publish it before the presidential primaries. Wish me luck!

I guess my only question left in the end is, why art?

Why not?

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