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Comics-Conscience-Crisis

Post #1490 • January 6, 2012, 8:28 AM • 4 Comments

Nathan Schreiber, creator of the Xeric-award-winning Power Out, hits the wall.

I've been having a bit of a comics-conscience-crisis of late. This was sparked by a lot of things... [including] an American indy comic... that was so impossible to look at that I gave up three pages in.

I started wondering whether art really mattered at all. I found a review of Dash Shaw's massive Bottomless Belly Button... that said that readers needed to meet the comic at it's own terms.

What other medium could you ever possibly read something like this? ...if art is graded on a curve in a comic, what universal standards of quality are there? Storytelling? Characterization? ... I'm worried these laissez-faire standards will push comics further into the ascending colon of the art world. ... I can't help but have a lot of skepticism about the art world's relationship with comics—when somebody sells a single issue for $40,000, maybe I will change my mind.

And maybe it's my own snobbery. I don't know how people can read a long, bad-looking comic. I just give up after a few pages—my eyes get tired.

Of course, Nathan's eyes get tired from looking at bad art because his eyes work. He has an eye—in other words, he has taste. This next paragraph proves it.

I understand that standards of beauty vary, but to me it's obvious when there is genuine craft involved—you get absorbed in the world, it becomes believable, and the characters and story are free to really "live" in the reader's mind. And I'm not talking about classical standards of beauty. It doesn't need to be a complex, or highly detailed, or even elegant style. It just has to have a style. Box Brown, James Kochalka, and Kevin Huizenga are quite capable artists that nobody is going to confuse with Moebius, but their work is visually harmonious and appealing. Through the power of their pictures, I can connect with their stories.

The caption on an image reads:

A Dash Shaw piece where he adapts an episode of the reality TV show Blind Date. If this type of high-concept work is what critic Tom Spurgeon calls "The Future of the Comics" I'm not sure where my role is.

I think we've all been there. As Bertrand Russell said, "The trouble with the world is that the stupid are so confident while the intelligent are full of doubt." Nathan went into more detail on his Facebook wall.

My post was really an expression of frustration with comics trying to climb further into the art world. Because I think comics are "stories" and while stories can be art, I think they're stories first and art second. The art world is full of ambiguities, dominated by concepts over content, and is controlled by elites where the world of stories, well, it just makes more sense. There's more or less universal recognition of what a good character is, a tight plot, hell, even mood. If what's good and what's bad are completely irrelevant, why make art at all? Why not just stick my hand in a meat grinder and draw with whatever comes out? I mean, won't it be beautiful in its own way? The [book] I was reading looked so bad that I couldn't bear to look at it. And it made me ask a legitimate question—why do I try to make art that looks good? Of course, this is for my own personal satisfaction, of course, I will keep making the art that I make, of course I value it, but I can't help but wonder at the hypocrisy of critics who elevate unaesthetic contemporary art and fetishize the beautiful comics of days long past.

A legitimate question indeed. The answer is that if you can tell the difference between good art and bad, failing to make good art gnaws at your gut. You can take a roomful of drawing students and figure out which ones are going to go into art careers because they're the ones who get honked off when their drawings don't turn out quite right.

But in the larger scheme, we've had eyeless, clueless critics in art for a long time and they're starting to show up in comics as well, now that more and more serious comics are getting made and they have been discovered by the academy and its adherents. It's important to remember that most of them would be incapable of making anything half as good as their least favorite works of art. Their most favorite works are the kind of thing they think they would make if they had any idea how to do so. I say "they think" because if they actually went through the process of art-making, they would arrive in an entirely different creative place than the one they've conjured up in their minds. That's how the creative process works.

In other words, good reviews are pleasant, bad reviews are barely worth your attention, and Tom Spurgeon's opinion about what kind of work is the future of comics isn't worth the Kleenex that he sneezed it into. Take it from an art critic.

Hat tip to Chris Rywalt.

Comment

1.

Walter Darby Bannard

January 6, 2012, 12:26 PM

You are putting up some strong posts which hit at some basic structural problems in contemporary art making and art writing. Is that why your blogger buddies are not weighing in? I wonder.

This one sounds like the "art envy" virus which I wrote about some time ago concerning glass art. It comes up when the constituents of a craft, which usually require talent, ambition, seriousness and a hard apprenticeship to master, are disregarded in favor of whatever the practitioner discerns is easier and can be rationalized as "higher."

This infects all crafts to some extent, most notably in "fine art" itself, where standards have been all but abandoned, and perhaps most visibly in the ubiquitous bad-1950s-sculpture monstrosities of Frank Gehry.

I love cartooning and (some) comic art but I am familiar with what is going on now only to the extent that I have noticed some apparently well-accepted works which seem rather badly drawn, and some others which are fatuously obscure, surreal, over-mannered, etc. I am not familiar with the things Mr. Schreiber is bemoaning, but I can easily guess that I would be agreeing with him if I were.

When something in popular culture gets "accepted by the academy," as you note, watch out! That's when the virus becomes a plague.

2.

David Richardson

January 7, 2012, 8:33 AM

An interesting call for papers was just posted on the Critical Craft Forum on Facebook. My first reaction was rash I'm afraid—I posted, "Any room for poetry here?" Then re-reading, I noticed there probably was room for poetry and I deleted my comment—no need to come off as bitter and ornery with people I barely know at an important collecting institution, and besides, I like and admire many of the folks on this forum. In fact the battles between the academy and practice, or between the scholars and the artists, are outlined right there in the suggested list of topics.

Now to formulate a proper response.

Renwick Gallery Symposium
Nation Building: Craft and Contemporary American Culture November 8-9, 2012
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.

Paper submissions from senior and emerging scholars are invited for this symposium, which will examine craft’s increasingly urgent role within contemporary American culture. Coinciding with the 40th anniversary of the Renwick Gallery, American Art’s branch museum for contemporary craft and decorative arts, this program seeks to broaden the dialogue surrounding craft’s recent histories, and to articulate rapid changes to the field since the advent of the current century. Scholarship is invited that complicates our understanding of modern craft as a response to mass culture, and that probes the evolution of the field beyond the studio movement. Investigations of post-studio practice, craft education, “craftivism,” DIY (Do-It-Yourself) and Slow movements, converging practices in craft, design, and contemporary art, and shifting attitudes towards technology, skill, and materiality are welcome. How making engages gender, identity, class, politics, economics, the environment, and everyday life are also possible subjects of inquiry. The title of this symposium references modern craft’s history as a regenerative (and often political) force in society, but also Hannah Arendt’s assertion that what fundamentally distinguishes us as a species is our capacity for “world-building.” The value of craft as evidence of diverse human agency is at the heart of this project. Ultimately, this program seeks a pluralist view of craft’s impact on the contemporary American experience.

3.

Walter Darby Bannard

January 7, 2012, 2:20 PM

Well, David, you can probably predict what I will say, which is that your first reaction was absolutely apt and correct, and that your second reaction, not to bother, was correct as well. All the bitching and moaning I have done over the years has done little more than piss people off. They do not want to change.

That said, the document you reproduce seems a marvelous verification, or sample, or demonstration of what I said above. The entire weight of the thing is to encourage people to come to a symposium devoted to denigrating poetry, beauty, or what have you, by expounding on its usefulness for some other purpose, all laid out with a generous sampling of the worst sort of current academic jargon.

As Franklin once interjected on the old blog, Meh.

4.

David Richardson

January 8, 2012, 1:57 AM

There was an interesting discussion on the Critical Craft Forum about "normative" craft, the definition being assembled spontaneously, but referring to craft that has the most common attributes of what most people think of when hearing the word craft, like handmade, of traditional materials, etc. The following comment is from historian and curator Glenn Adamson, whose thinking and writing I find expansive and interesting. I think there are still some interesting thoughts to be had regarding craft both historically and in the current moment.

Also wanted to say that having thought about this a bit more, it strikes me that one advantage of calling e.g. the Arts and Crafts and Studio movements "normative" is that it recognizes their ideological nature. Normativity is the process by which things come to seem 'normal'—as in matters of religion, sexuality or fashion. There is no essential or prior normalcy, it has to be culturally produced. The fact that people tend to think of pottery or weaving as normative craft, but regard e.g. engineering prototypes, tourist souvenirs, and glass eyes as 'peripheral' to the story of craft, is due entirely to an artificial belief system. It could easily be otherwise, and maybe will be in the near future. In fact one of the tasks of craft history/theory/criticism is to track that set of expectations and deconstruct it.

I just throw this out because the idea of "culturally produced normalcy" might be interesting for dissecting the larger art world. In the craft discussion, the words normative and peripheral were not used in a particularly judgmental way, though most thought, not surprisingly, that the most interesting work was at the periphery, but they were simply used to explore relative positions within diverse fields of activity—studio crafts, the larger art world/worlds, etc., and the places where they overlap—where one circle's normative becomes another's periphery.

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