Has Drawing Become the Favorite Medium for Low-Fi Art ?

May 1, 2016

First things first, let’s start from an obvious observation - drawing is low-fi. It is one of the few, if not the only way to immediately get the idea through and out of your system into the world, regardless of the type of art you’re practicing. In fact, you do not have to be an artist at all, in order to sketch a sketch and explain the things that words cannot express. So if you need to be quick or instructive, or if you want to release your genuine emotion without too much ado, drawing (meaning sketching) is your medium of choice. Consequently, the things you draw will probably not be represented in a high-quality manner (and we’re not talking about the quality of the idea itself).

However – although sketching does fall under the category of drawing (even when drawing in a digital form - doodling), not every type of drawing is a sketch. But that still doesn’t mean that drawing, whichever kind, is not prioritized among the artists associated with the vague category of low-fi, or kitschy art. In order to prove this theory, we’re going to analyze what low-fi art is all about, and is it really a category in the first place.

drawing page media design page book abstract charcoal
James Jean - Plumage. Ballpoint Pen on Paper, 10 x 9”, 2010

How Can We Define Low-Fi?

It’s not very likely that you will find a completely clear definition of low-fi art anywhere on the Internet, since it is not an official “movement” or a stream, but there are a few other terms that help clarify the tone of this supposed genre. Although Low-Fi (low fidelity) is a term originally associated with music, in the field of visual arts it is usually interchangeable with kitsch. This seems to be helpful at first, but it is actually an endless rabbit whole, since explaining kitsch is probably the only thing in this world that is harder than explaining art itself. That is because its definition cannot be complete without reference to art, and it was long considered to be its counterweight. That means: if art exists in order to hint that the new things are coming and to guide toward prosperity, then kitsch is its evil, or perhaps its mediocre twin that looks like art, but is not art. In words used by Hermann Broch, kitsch is not the same as bad art, but a category with a system of its own, that aims to achieve beauty instead of truth. But as you know, art has changed since the 1930s, and Kitsch was embraced with a completely different sentiment almost 70 years later by the Norwegian artist Odd Nerdrum who has defined the Kitsch movement, through his manifesto On Kitsch. Nerdrum has made a clear distinction between art and kitsch, but he does not oppose them, nor does he refer to “achieving beauty” as a bad thing. Instead, he explains kitsch as a philosophical structure, which some say is a form of indirect criticism on the posh state of contemporary art (but that is not what Nerdrum says himself).

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Mark Ryden - The Last Rabbit. Graphite on Paper, 2002

What is Low-Fi in Art?

This attitude toward contemporary art is similar to that of Outsider Art, but that is where the closeness between Outsider Art and Kitsch ends. That is, if today’s Kitsch aims to criticize art in the first place. But even if it was not Nerdrum’s intention to take on contemporary art in such an ironical manner, there is a point in considering the Low-Fi as the new avant-garde. This is simply because limiting the avant-garde in any way suggests that there is only one way to be ahead of time. And the highbrow, the intellectual, has long been dismissive of popular culture (which has changed during the second half of the 20th century - thank you Pop Art - but not entirely). So, the avant-garde and the kitsch are defined as two opposite things, and so are the intellectual and the lowbrow – but the confusing part is that the idea to oppose the intellectual could be interpreted as a particularly brave avant-garde move. In an age of uncertainty, where everything is and is not, who can tell the difference between high art and "low" art anymore?

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Camilla d'Errico - Melty

Drawing - Art or Craft

My question sounds rhetorical, but why don’t we try to answer it. If we consider contemporary art as art made in coherence with Zeitgeist (the spirit of time), is it possible to define low-fi art as another kind of art which simply couldn’t care less about the Zeitgeist? If this is true, then it is completely clear why Pop Surrealism and Lowbrow stream use painting and drawing to realize their works. First of all, it’s practical, and it is cheap. Then there is the fact that it is completely safe – every “classical” figurative drawing seems "arty" to a non-artist. And consider the irony - it is usually not a relevant work of art to a typical contemporary artist/critic (not exclusively, of course).  Drawing is a very traditional technique, especially the non-sketchy kind. If it’s not there with some kind of an unexpected twist, it is usually not something you would call a piece of contemporary art.  But you would probably call it a craft, and that is exactly how Odd Nerdrum defines Kitsch (as something equal to techne in Ancient Greece).

drawing page, graphite design paintings, digital prints abstract media charcoal 2016 media page contact
Cassius Marcellus Coolidge - Friend in Need

Low-Fi Artists either Paint or Draw

As the story unravels, we are inclined to notice that, not only do the representatives of Low-Fi use drawing as a medium, but it is perhaps one of the best ways to define Low-Fi in the first place. Admittedly, both pencil drawing and painting could fit into the category. But does this mean that every artist who draws or paints is automatically a kitschy artist or a Pop Surrealist? Not quite. If you really want to create Low-Fi art, you need to be ignorant of everything that is feeding the contemporary thought and to concentrate on the light stuff with no pretentious background or intent, which is becoming really hard these days since everything can turn out to be interesting. Or, you could choose to be persistently traditional, like Odd Nerdrum (although the question is if he really is an example of Low-Fi). You should also consider the aesthetics - some of the most typical Pop-Surrealists, like Mark Ryden, Audrey Kawasaki or Camilla d'Errico, have a pretty similar aesthetical sensibility - the doll-like figures, manga-inspired characters, and fairy-tale narratives, if any. Admittedly, both Ryden and d'Errico make vinyl toys (we can even use the vinyl toys and sculpture to exemplify the difference between kitsch and art), but we know how it all started. So yes, Low-Fi involves a lot of figurative drawing, and Hermann Broch would certainly be upset about this supposed "abuse" of art's tools. But the bottom line is that contemporary art is kind of dismissing the tool, at least the avant-garde "section". And that is either why, or because drawing is becoming the favorite medium of Low-Fi art, or Kitsch (art's ever-quirky twin).

Editors’ Tip: Avril Lavigne - Make 5 Wishes

Low-Fi in art is like light fiction in literature, or like pop-rock in music. You're not really going to spend your days thinking about it, and you're probably not going to admit that you like it (unless you're a teenager). But ultimately, there are moments in our lives when we simply need to take a break from the all-too-intellectual stuff, and to indulge in the trivial and the superficial. The graphic novel written by Avril Lavigne is such a sweet, comprehensive example of a Low-Fi symbiosis, that it is simply too good to be true. The story book is created by a pop-rock singer, illustrated by the empress of sweet sugary Pop Surrealism (Camilla d'Errico), and it gives you a chance to have a light read and remember the good old teenage days, while enjoying Camilla's drawings.

Featured image: Aline Bouvy - Not much in my pockets, 2015. All images used for illustrative purpose only.

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