Can illustrators be public intellectuals?

This was the question that motivated the 6th annual Illustration Research Symposium, The Illustrator as Public Intellectual, held in November 2015 at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). It is also the theme of this volume of The Journal of Illustration. The term ‘public intellectual’ traditionally conjures up a primarily verbal role—an orator, critic, or writer who is concerned about things public, and who engages publicly with them. The mode is inherently rhetorical; the tone frequently polemic. As crafters in visual rhetoric, illustrators likewise engage publicly every time their imagery is released to myriad eyeballs en masse. But while illustrators and cartoonists influence the course of culture, and nobody could dispute that their work is ‘public’, they have rarely before been thought of as ‘intellectuals’. One of the starting points for choosing the theme of public intellectual was critic Rick Poynor’s 2010 essay, ‘The Missing Critical History of Illustration’. ‘How seriously should we take illustration?’ Poynor asked.

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