by Eleanor Davis. Fantagraphics Books, March 2018. 200 p. ill. ISBN 9781683960829 (paperback), $14.99.

Reviewed June 2019
Jerrold Shiroma, Digital Scholarship Librarian, University of California, Merced,

Cover of Why Art?

Treatise. Instructive manual. Parable. Witty critique of the platitudes of art and its world(s). Eleanor Davis’ Why Art? is all these things and more. What begins as a wry take on art-textbook-ism, complete with explanations about color (in black and white illustrations) and scale (in a book modestly-sized at 5 ½ by 7 inches), subtly and powerfully becomes a meditation on how art transforms. Without giving too much away, the book moves from quasi-textbook (in its “Fourth Edition” as the book suggests) to a narrative about the lives and works of several artists. These artists work in a variety of media, “pushing boundaries, and breaking barriers--psychological, physical, metaphysical, and temporal.” As the artists gather for a group show, however, disaster strikes, and the book’s central idea starts to emerge. The artists are thrown into a whirlwind of creation and destruction, are creators and destroyers themselves, and are ultimately forced to recognize the power, and potential meaningfulness, of their works.

In this, Davis’ artwork throughout is masterful. Her lines are simple (not simplistic) and confident, and her compositions deftly alternate between minimal and complex, ebbing and flowing as the work unfurls. Her artwork is accompanied by text that alternates between typeset blocks and hand-lettered elements, which both serve the overall narrative in differing ways as the book progresses.

This book, by one of our most talented cartoonists, is highly recommended for a range of libraries--public and academic. It would also feature well in collections dedicated to alternative graphic novels, general art collections, and collections dedicated to contemporary illustration.