In a world saturated with pictures, the work of artists is very vulnerable and very important –vulnerable because it is so easy to lose one’s way in this hall of mirrors, lured by money, fame and flattery into creating work that serves only the purposes of power. And important for the same reason – because, if they are true to their own way of looking, their craft and their sensibility, they are the antidote to the visual pap with which power shapes our ideas of reality. Artists with integrity are like whole food in a world of burger bars and junk.
Richard Johnson is a Scottish-Canadian artist who has been sent, first by the Detroit Free Press and latterly by the Washington Post, to Iraq and Afghanistan. There is nothing new about war artists: Britain first used them in 1916, and they have been assigned to most subsequent conflicts. But Johnson works as a ‘visual journalist’, much as a press photographer would: documenting what he sees and the people he meets in immediate sketches whose purpose is to help newspaper (and website) readers understand better what is happening now, today. His latest assignment, following the drawdown of American troops in Afghanistan, brings vividly home, and from many perspectives, the humanity of the experience. The results can be seen in a blog here.
Speaking on the BBC World Service’s Boston Calling, Johnson explained his idea of drawing’s value in journalism:
‘It’s great for telling stories where you need people to care about people who are far, far away – so, your refugee camps in Syria, internally displaced camps inside Iraq now, Ebola in Africa, these are stories I think that [drawing] could be used incredibly effectively to make people emotionally connect with what are basically just other human beings. They may not be nearby but they’re just as valid and just as valuable as anything else in your life.’
In much less dramatic contexts this is one of the founding ideas behind Regular Marvels. Art has not just ways of seeing, but ways of knowing, that it alone commands. It does not simply depict or represent: it creates knowledge that cannot otherwise exist. The contributions of the artists I have worked with on these books – filmmaker, Ben Wigley; painter, Mik Godley; sculptor Bill Ming; and illustrator, Rosie Redzia – have been integral to each one. They do not illustrate my words, any more than those words describe their visual work. They create new kinds and new levels of knowledge.
One reason for that is because they are the result of time taken and therefore they take time to understand: this is slow imagery in a world that plays fast and loose with pictures. Artists like Richard Johnson can help us go beyond being informed to empathising and even understanding what is otherwise so far from our own lives. When the imagery of war can no longer be distinguished from the imagery of video games, the ball point and the pencil can still tell fact from fiction.