Interview with Anita Kunz

April 16, 2008
First off - thanks for agreeing to the interview, Anita. Thanks for being part of the illoz project, as well.

Your work starts a lot of conversations. Your July 30th cover for The New Yorker is a good example of this. A lazy search of the topic turns up dozens of blogs and websites that discuss the image. Just a few examples would be, Bag News Notes, Recreating Eden, Debbie Nathan's blog, Incertus and even the Guerilla Women of Tennessee - just to point out a few.

It's quite remarkable that one illustration can create thousands of discussions - all pointing back to The New Yorker and of course, to you. That's certainly good for The New Yorker.

The first question for you has to be: Is this intentional? Are you trying to start people talking when you approach a new illustration?
Girls will be Girls (not my title)
Hi Robert and thank you! Well yes I do think that since illustration exists within a larger context that at its best it can provoke, stimulate and surprise. And those of us who work for magazines that are considered political or socially oriented in nature are often confronted with topics that are by their very nature controversial. So yes, I'd rather make work that is somehow meaningful and may be open for debate than for instance something that may be considered purely decorative. That said I think there are fewer areas these days where we as illustrators can make autonomous visual statements than perhaps in the past. There are so many things going on in the world right now to make pictures about!
The perception that there are fewer places for an illustrator to start conversations these days is shared by many.

Certainly, there are a some exceptions. Your "Teens Before Their Time" piece for Time Magazine is a case where the art director clearly took a chance where no risk was really called for. That image ran between the covers and still got a lot of people talking, to Times credit and yours.

Still, what you are saying is a valid point. My follow-up to that is, why do you think this is the case, Anita?

I'm reminded of an interview that John Homans did for New York Magazine with the great George Lois. Homans asked, "Why isn't anyone doing covers like the ones you did for Esquire?". Lois replied, "It's easy to do the covers. It's hard to get someone to run them. I think covers like that would really stand out today."

Conversations that are started by a thought-provoking image, that end up pointing back to a magazine seem like a natural way for publications to attract attention and new readers. New readers are obviously good for business. Nothing wrong with that.

There seems to be a disconnect here. Do you think it's a lack of strong art direction? (There certainly aren't many art directors around today who weild the power that Lois did.) Is it a failure of editors to approve and stand behind bold images? What gives? Any ideas?
Teens before their Time
Well I think there are a few factors that are at play here. First of all, I think that in the magazine field, art directors had equal power as editors. The editors were in charge of the literary stuff and the art directors took care of the visuals. Now it seems that the hierarchy has changed, and art directors are subordinate. So what happens is that when editors who are not visually trained are in charge, the art tends to be very literal. Think about it...we as illustrators can do almost anything visually. We're really only limited by our imaginations. So it's frustrating to be limited to doing very literal pictures. Also, I think there's a bigger problem with the mainstream media not being as brave as they used to be. Biting political satire isn't as appreciated as much, except in smaller arenas. Somehow the notion of being critical of government for instance equals being unpatriotic. Since the nature of journalism has changed, so we are affected as well. I've been seeing this as a trend since 9/11. (Lately however with the upcoming election I think things are changing a bit.) And then there's the problem of political correctness. Nobody can be offended. The advertisers don't like it. The trouble is that when one tackles any controversial subject, someone somewhere is bound to be offended. So the answer seems to be not to do it at all. When I look back at my earlier work in particular I'm surprised at what I got away with! What I'm doing these days is tame in comparison. Don't forget, when I started illustrating, Sue Coe, Ralph Steadman and Marshall Arisman were still being regularly published! Brad Holland was doing work for the Times with zero art direction. Don't get me wrong..I don't want to sound like I'm bitter..I'm not saying illustration is dead or anything like that at all! Far from it. I just think the rules have changed. I'm feeling more controlled, more compromised, and I now feel compelled to make personal work that's 100% mine. Regarding that Time illustration, the subject was how some girls are reaching puberty as early as the age of 6. So I painted a little girl with breasts and wearing a bra. Really that was a fairly literal interpretation, but somehow as an image, the subject becomes more powerful and disturbing.
Magazine editors being required to have some art education might not be a bad idea, Anita. You may be on to something there.

Is it possible that how illustrators themselves are perceived by the public at large is influencing art directors and editors to make the decisions, or non-decisions they do when it comes to reaching for bold, thought-provoking images? The history of illustration is filled with some fairly colorful and public figures. Leyendecker might be seen as the current-day equivalent of Calvin Klein, hoping from one limousine to the next. Al Capp, in spite of all his peculiar faults, was a regular on The Tonight Show. It wasn't that long ago that illustration was regarded with a great deal of respect, by the public and editors alike.

Is it possible that illustrators themselves perceive their work as more of a blue-collar occupation today? Do editors and art directors simply follow along? If this is the case, how might the illustration community start to turn that around? Is it even desirable to turn that perception around?
Well I would never presume to suggest that editors take art courses. I think that the visuals are best left to the visually oriented people. And yes, absolutely, there are certainly very colorful illustrators. Let's not forget the great Arnold Roth, another Tonight show regular, who is still working, vital and hilariously funny. Of course I'm biased but I think that what we as illustrators do is VERY interesting, not just to us but to the public in general. Mark Heflin once mentioned (I hope he doesn't mind me saying this) that we should have an Illustration Week in NY Fashion Week. And why not? We could have lectures, children's book readings, demonstrations, etc etc. I think people would LOVE it.
Your optimism is inspiring, Anita. Illustration Week sounds like fun.

Let's hang on that education issue for a minute. You're right that editors getting an art education probably isn't such a swell idea. Art directors might be another story, however. Do you think young art directors today are getting the education they need to commission illustrations in a professional and well-informed manner? There seem to be more knock-off illustrators today than ever before. In other words, illustrators that make a living by borrowing too many style points from well-established professionals. It's been suggested that if art directors were better informed, they'd always hire the originals and by doing so, encourage more innovation and originality.

The Call For Entires poster you did for the AIGA in the mid-nineties comes to mind actually...something about that image seemed to say "don't tread on me". That's probably reading to much into it... Any thoughts?
That's an interesting take. The poster I did for the Society of Illustrators Call for entries was a collaboration with DJ of the great art directors. I wanted to make an ambiguous image...sort of a female illustrated man. And I wanted to cover her with girly tattoos...and leave it to the viewer to decide the meaning. But I was censored! The board at the SI felt there was too much nudity. So I was only allowed one naked girl! And again, regarding art directors, I'm not sure if education is the answer. I think that their hands are tied. I think their editors, and publishers are too controlling. In my opinion ADs just don't have the power they used to have. And I truly think that if we as artists don't respect each other, then we can't expect to be respected by art directors. I know I'll be criticized for this, but I'm disturbed at the amount of plagiarism I see these days. Brian Cronin as an example is a great artist who has developed a beautiful visual language and I see it being shamelessly ripped off. It really upsets me that other people are profiting from his hard work. I'm not talking about being influenced. We all have our influences. I'm certainly indebted to artists who have come before me. But I see people actually taking the way he draws trees or faces for instance, and mimicking the way he makes visual puns almost exactly. So it's not clear to me if these people are getting work because art directors are too young to realize that there actually is someone who is the originator, or if money is an issue, or what the problem is. Maybe ultimately I'm just too naïve. Sometimes I forget that it's just a business. But I do think that we should maintain certain standards.
For certain Anita, the power of art directors isn't near what it used to be. Do you see that trend as self-defeating for publishers? After all, they are in business and the bottom line is where the rubber meets the road.

Names like George Lois and Frank Zachary are widely associated with single-handedly turning failing magazines into profit centers because the publishers handed over creative control, in the interests of not only basic survival for the publisher, but their own prosperity. In a time where publishers are clearly struggling, creativity and visual innovation would seem an obvious solution for building readership. Instead, from all accounts, the trend for publishers has been in the opposite direction. Weaker art direction departments and illustration being watered-down into decorative content, rather than content on it's own merit.

Since publishers and the illustration community are in the same boat together, it would seem that a missing ingredient for success is the art department. Any clue? Any insight here?
Yes I agree. One would think that creativity and innovation would certainly help in building readership. But if we want to look at an even bigger picture we should look at publishing in general, and how the internet is overtaking magazines as the source for information and entertainment. Believe me I'm all for strengthening content. I'm the biggest fan of illustration. I think it can have incredible power. I hear stories about Yuko Shimizu for example being micro managed by art directors and it makes me angry. She's got a terrific voice, but it's being controlled. Maybe another issue with images are they're just not as valued as they used to be. Image making has been somewhat democratized. There was an amazing 5 page portfolio of the history of Ralph Steadman's anti-war work in The Independent in London. I thought it was powerful and timely and and wanted to try and find it a home in North America. I sent it to numerous art directors but nobody was interested. Not even the more left leaning ones. I was left wondering why. For many years I didn't do any personal work. I was very happy with the concept driven work I was getting from magazines. Lately though I'm compelled to do more personal art that addresses issues that magazines don't address. So there's an interesting problem. I never was interested in the idea of art as a commodity. It was more about self expression and ideas. The natural venue of personal work is galleries, but then the art becomes an object, a thing, and the audience is significantly narrowed. It's an interesting dilemma. So getting back to the art department, yes, the relationship between art director and illustrator can be a very powerful one. And it works best when each respects the other to do what they do best. For me that means being allowed to comment visually on an issue as best as I can based on my experience and with as much creative freedom as possible.
In your 2002 article for NUVO Magazine you write, "By its very nature, illustration can question conventions and generate reaction. In a society such as ours, where art is frequently undervalued, this carries an unparalleled power, given the exposure to a wide audience".

Your cover painting for that issue, which revisits your ongoing mother and child dialog, really does give enormous weight to your statement. It's a uniquely memorable and powerful work, which was able to reach a broad and diverse audience by virtue of the fact that it appears in commercial print, rather than sent off to hang in some lonely corner of a gallery, or owned by an individual. Let's finish up here with any additional thoughts you might want to offer on this topic. It's been six years since the NUVO article ran - would you kindly leave us with your latest thoughts?
Well thank you for the nice comment! I still think that illustration needn't be subordinate to the text. Quite the contrary. Images reach us on other levels and affect us viscerally and intuitively. And who decided that art should be safe anyway? We learn about other cultures through their art. We learn about past civilizations from art that's been left behind. What does it say about our culture if artists are required to control themselves and make only safe pretty images? Especially in view of all that's going on in the world! It seems such a waste of talent. And let's hope that there are some young Fred Woodwards graduating art school this year!
Thanks so much for taking the time, Anita. You've left a lot to think about on this screen.
Great! Thanks so much. Hope it encourages some interesting conversation.