Post #1061 • September 25, 2007, 10:08 AM • 17 Comments
An alert reader writes:
After much struggle I boiled down my thoughts on extrinsic elements in art to two questions I hope are relevant.
1. If a respected commercial gallery or a curated art space approached you to show your graphic works, as indivisible works (e.g., "Fire" would be one work in eight panels, not eight separate works), would you accept; or would you say that if you ever presented them in physical form at all, it would only be through a respected book publisher, categorized as graphic literature? (BTW, I'm assuming the text is integral to the work. It looked to me like you added the text to "Fire" digitally, after scanning the original watercolors).
2. Every Friday you present a link from the Department of Skills. Is skill intrinsic to art? If so, isn't the image the thing, no matter how it's produced? If not, why is it valid to critique it?
1. They're webcomics, so any other version of it would either be a facsimile or its own statement. I wouldn't be averse to showing the images by themselves or the comic in book form, as long as it was made clear what people were looking at. The text that looks like it has been added digitally to the images in "Fire" has actually been positioned over them with CSS generated by a Python script. Little production notes are in the page source, if you're interested. But to answer your question the way you meant it, as long as the thing held up on its own, I wouldn't mind people seeing it on its own. Berkeley Breathed made a decision about Bloom County products that they had to add to the character. One of the few that were released was an Opus phone, which looked up when it rang, and when you hung up, it returned to staring at the wall. The idea is that versions should enrich, not dilute.
Keep in mind that now that I want to work with concepts and language, I'm moving into a medium that supports them more naturally than visual art. Trying to make juxtaposed images not read as narrative is practically impossible, and language in comics looks like it belongs, not like a misplaced element. Someone could try to classify me as a conceptual artist, but from the standpoint of comics, they're pretty formal. (Scott McCloud considers himself a comics formalist, by the way. His analyses of the medium are excellent.) My thought is to make the thing function on its own terms, whatever its terms are.
2. This is a hard question. Skill has two axes: technical and artistic. In many cases you can measure technical skill: increasing realism, more balls in the air, crisp, pianissimo arpeggios of 64th notes. Artistic skill is tautological - the artist's skills are good because his product is good, and the product is good because it's good. Performances or productions can have technical skill but not artistic skill, or artistic but not technical skill (or not much; usually something with artistic quality reads at least somewhat as technically competent). There are also infrequent examples of both and frequent examples of neither.
No problem there. We run into trouble when we try to correlate the two axes. If they related causally, we wouldn't get technically proficient, artistically negligent productions. If they don't relate causally, what the hell is going on?
I have a theory, which perhaps you could observe regarding the new addition to your family. In first language acquisition, I think sounds and ideas stack up at random and then coalesce into language when the kid wants to say something. You don't pontificate about syntax, you just say to her "ba ba ba ba ba." At the same time you're naming things to her. One day the sound and the idea come together, the parents make a big happy deal about it, and language gets acquired. At the point of the child's first word, if you look at everything in her skill set that's not the first word, you see an pile of sounds and ideas that correlate, but not in English (she means "bottle" when she makes that prolonged gurgle) or don't correlate at all. The pressure that forces them together is the child's ambition to communicate.
Fast forward to art school. Substitute mechanical skills for sounds, grown-up ideas for baby ideas, and I think the same thing is going on - what matters is the student's ambitions, both the quantity and the quality.
Towards the beginning, ambition demands more skill. The student learns how to handle various media and her art gets better than it was. After a while, the ROI diminishes noticiably - more skill doesn't necessarily result in better work. (The same happens in language - knowing bigger and more arcane words doesn't necessarily result in better writing.) She has to address artistic quality, which is not technical quality. How she goes about this is up to her, and depends entirely on her ambitions, which hopefully are both aggressive and well-aimed. She likely picks a specialty according to her interests and bears down on it.
So is skill intrinsic to art? Yes, in the way that water is intrinsic to swimming. Swimming, whether the dog paddle or the butterfly, is something that happens because of water. Art is something that happens because of skill. Does more water mean better swimming? Not after you have enough of it. What's enough? It depends on what you think of as a good swim.
I have found that good artists harbor bad feelings about their technical skills for their entire lives. (This isn't causal, because having bad feelings about your skills doesn't make you a better artist, but it is part of the self-critical mechanism that might.) Being a productive artist involves putting those feelings aside to some degree and working on the right problem in the work, which may have a technical solution and may not. At some point you say to yourself, what the hell, I'll never be Rembrandt (or whomever you admire), but off to the studio I go.
But secretly, they remain skill junkies. And that's why I have a Department of Skills on Fridays.