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Essay by Charles Bock on Comics and Contemporary Art
November 13, 2002 7:42 AM   Subscribe

Picasso vs The Uncanny X-Men. Charles Bock with a really long essay digs up the old dead horse of "What Is Art?" Do you stare blankly at contemporary/conceptual art and try to get what critics and curators think is so great? Was Tolstoy right that truly great art must be able to communicate to laypeople with no art training? I myself love spending afternoons at Museums, not to look at the art, but to look at people confused out of their minds.
posted by Stan Chin (28 comments total)

 
I myself love spending afternoons at Museums, not to look at the art, but to look at people confused out of their minds.

Oh.
posted by four panels at 7:59 AM on November 13, 2002


Something is art if you hang it on the wall.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 8:00 AM on November 13, 2002


Sorry, I meant, "What is Good Art?" I dig Duchamp too.
posted by Stan Chin at 8:03 AM on November 13, 2002


The New X-Men were written by Christopher Claremont and illustrated, during their heyday, by John Byrne and then Brent Eric Anderson.

You know, anyone blaming X-Men's heyday on John Byrne's art should take a hard look at Byrne's career afterward. Inker Terry Austin deserves so much of the credit for X-Men's look, just like Byrne's work on Avengers and Capt America and other books from that era shines because of embellishers like Josef Rubinstein and Dan Green and Tom Palmer. Let Byrne go control-freak and insist on doing his own inks, and the result just doesn't compare.

*Ahem* Um, go back to discussing Picasso now...
[/geek-freak]

posted by Shane at 8:04 AM on November 13, 2002


Oh and this

I know that at no point in the immediate future is Gravity's Rainbow going to show up on a best seller list

is a crappy example, as Pynchon's books are bestsellers. Though in fairness that's more about the mysteriousness of the author than the content of the books probably.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 8:08 AM on November 13, 2002


Though in fairness that's more about the mysteriousness of the author than the content of the books probably.

probably not
posted by sad_otter at 8:11 AM on November 13, 2002


That was a fantastic article. I work in at art museum and spend a lot of breaks up the galleries, and I always have this mental wrestling match going with myself wherein all I want to do is read the labels so that I can learn about the art andthen I yell at myself that I should just look at the friggin art instead of reading about it because it's right there and it's the primary experienceof the art that matters. And then I read the label, glance at the painting, and move on to the next one. Repeat ad nauseum.

Oh, and the guy's right about the X-continuity getting all messed up, but I humbly submit that those books fucking rock now. Most of them, anyway.
posted by COBRA! at 8:16 AM on November 13, 2002


probably not
posted by sad_otter at 8:11 AM PST on November 13


Maybe I'm cynical/elitist, but I think most purchased copies of Mason & Dixon have never been read (or at least finished). This isn't a Pynchon bash by the way: he's one of my faves.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 8:20 AM on November 13, 2002


Great article. The best art experiences I've had are also personal ones, where my Art Historian girlfriend and I amble through the Met or somewhere and she explains different things to me (for example, Picasso took boatloads of themes from El Greco... go figure).

Also, any article that recognizes Slayer's Reign in Blood as high art has to be doing something right.
posted by The Michael The at 8:24 AM on November 13, 2002


"What is Art?" is a dead question, may it rest undisturbed. I agree with Arthur Danto. We've reached End of Art.
'Art' is that which is called art by an artworld public. Brillo boxes, comic books, tapestries-- as with nightclubs, if you're on the list, you get in.
Take that Socrates.
Here are three links that have a bit of info. 1., 2. and 3.
posted by putzface_dickman at 8:26 AM on November 13, 2002


Stopped reading the article the minute the author made the assumption that people from the Midwest are idiots. Grrrr... I hate that attitude. Of the nearly 28 years of my life, I spent 15 of them in the Midwest, and you know what? We have museums, too! Isn't it incredible? Can you believe it? And we have universities, and libraries, and all other sorts of places where you can learn about all sorts of things.

At least Edsel Ford had the cojones to stand up to the people who wanted Rivera's murals at the Detroit Institute of Art destroyed--I seem to recall a Rockefeller who caved into the pressure.
posted by eilatan at 8:46 AM on November 13, 2002


Was Tolstoy right that truly great art must be able to communicate to laypeople with no art training?

This idea that this vast wide variety of stuff (painting, sculpture, literature, comic books, rock music, classical music, movies, dance) should all be lumped together under the name Art and then judged by some single Artistic Standard seems ridiculous to me.

Even within any of the categories I named there's a wide variety in what the artist is trying to do, who he's hoping will apreciate it, etc. A comic like X-Men is trying to do a totally different thing than, say Alan Moore's Watchmen, which is trying to do a totally different thing from Art Spiegelman's MAUS.

Even within X-Men there's a wide variety of artistic stuff going on. Some issues are trying to wow you with nifty art. Some are trying to tell a gripping action story. Some are trying some dramatic thing with the characters that Tolstoy's layperson wouldn't grok because it gets all of it's power from knowing 20 years of the characters' history. Some are trying to make a Point about prejudice.

You could do the same for painting, music, dance, anything. Sometimes an artist does things she hopes about anyone will enjoy. Sometimes she does something that requires you to know something else to get it. Often there's a mix of both.

We use the word for so many kinds of experiences: the thrill of fear in a Hitchcock movie, the change in perspective and empathy from reading Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave: Written by Himself , the pleasure of driving or dancing to a perfect pop song, the humor and catharsis of watching a Shakespeare tragedy, feelings of spiritual elevation or mathematical satisfaction (or both) listening to Bach, the sense of seeing the world in a new way after seeing how Picasso saw it. Why try to lump them all together and insist that one is a better example of Art than the others?
posted by straight at 8:53 AM on November 13, 2002


Alex Gross doesn't see any conflict between the X-men and conceptual art.
posted by MrBaliHai at 9:01 AM on November 13, 2002


Nice essay.

In 10 minutes, one on one, anyone art person with any skill can make you understand Big Scary Conceptual Art. The glazed masses at the museum are being, well, glazed, by a couple of things:

1. The art museum and the art museum visitor don't need each other in many ways. The museum is a product of rich people backing an art product. This art product comes to light by a peculiar private method, and "normal people" wouldn't necessarily have been exposed to the development of this art product until, after many years, and the approval of many rich people, it hits the museums. That's why people who live in cities should actually be visiting art galleries, not museums: first of all, they're FREE. Second of all, they're staffed by people who should WANT to answer your questions individually because they're supposed to promote these artists.

2. Familiarity breeds comfort. A trip to the big museum in the big city is confusing. But when I visit a meat packing plant, I don't have any idea what the hell is going on either. Once I've been there, and someone's told me "Oh that's the big machine we use to debone chicken," I know what's going on. Both museums and their visitors are failing to transmit key information.

3. There are populist museums. The Brooklyn Museum of Art, for instance, has succeeded in bringing in the Brooklyn public and letting them learn about art. It requires a different focus by the staff of the museum, and most institutions haven't hit it yet.

4. Like any specialty, understanding comes from participation. Using a century-old piece of writing on art is like using a 100-year old manual to rebuild an engine. Don't do it.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 9:04 AM on November 13, 2002


'Art' is that which is called art by an artworld public.

Something is art if you hang it on the wall.

Two things. I see what you guys are saying. But some art really is more equal than others. Aesthetics didn't just come out of nowhere. Like the joy of sex it is an internalized adaption, and some aesthetic appreciations will always remain constant regardless of fluctuating trends.

As for the End of Art, Like Fukayama's The End of History, and all the other participants in the late 20th/early 21st century 'End of' genre, I think rumors of its death are highly exaggerated. After the rapid changes of this century, this period of relaxing inertia does feel positively inert, but we still must realize that the book of human experience probably hasn't even come close to its craziest chapters. History and art, etc., will no doubt continue to expand and evolve in unpredictable and exciting ways (with technology and boundless human creativity, no doubt, as major contributors).

Even Ecclesiastes lamented that there was 'nothing new under the sun', as he sat in the dirt, and inscribed those words into clay with a reed wedge 3000 years ago. That's not the camp I want to place my bets on.
posted by dgaicun at 9:07 AM on November 13, 2002


Bock has a point in that messy essay: It is a whoooole lot easier to appreciate art when you know the artist, can speak with them and observe their progress as they explore different styles and ideas.

I went through a fine arts program at a small university and one of the best parts of that experience was having more or less the same people in my classes throughout the four years. Even when I didn't care for their art, or their personalities, it was fascinating to watch how everyone and their work changed over those four years. I think that was the most educational part of my schooling.
posted by picea at 9:37 AM on November 13, 2002


The question which has to be answered before any question about art is being asked: What kind of a question is the question going to be? An ontological? An aesthetical? A social? A cultural? A religious? An epistemological? A general philosophical?
If that question is not going to be answered, this thread is most likely going to end up like all previous threads about religion: A bunch of people babbling at each other rather than talking with each other and exchanging ideas and thoughts until everybody is fed up except for two or three psychos who eventually spawn a thread at MetaTalk about etiquette...
posted by zerofoks at 9:39 AM on November 13, 2002


If anyone has about 100 hours to kill, here is an indefatigable web-only piece that methodically describes how comics are the superior of fine-art.
posted by dgaicun at 10:18 AM on November 13, 2002


Thanks for a good post and an interesting read.

I recently visited a friend who is a seminary student with rather right-wing views. We started discussing art, and he made the rather absurd claim that "weird" art -- classified as cubism, dada, modernism, avant-garde, abstract expressionism, or anything which isn't readily recognized by the common man -- is generally produced by derelicts, morally bankrupt people whose purpose is to defy the establishment. He said that their works will not stand the test of time, and that more realistic styles such as romanticism, impressionism or classicism will ultimately prevail.

We argued about this for a while, but I concluded that such things are too subjective and shouldn't be debated. I was appalled at his lack of open-mindedness, however. I posit that "morally bankrupt" people have produced much of the best art and music this world has known.
posted by TreeHugger at 11:05 AM on November 13, 2002


In a review of Inka Essenhigh (also linked on Artkrush), John Russell Taylor writes, "Undeniably there is something creepy as well as innocently decorative in Essenhigh’s art, which makes it finally seem much more complex and substantial than Murakami’s. And more mysterious. There are still benefits to be gained from an artist keeping his (or her) mouth shut." Ron English in the current issue of Juxtapoz writes, "an artist's career doesn't end with his death. An artist leaves an estate to his family, and being multifaceted benefits that. You need to leave a lot of meat on the bones for art historians to survive on. An art history student should be able to build a name for himself with a dissertation about Ron English's relationship to religion, or maybe with a doctoral thesis on culture jamming and corporate culture. You need to build a career that can sustain other careers." Sites like Picasso's Guernica Unveiled demonstrate that people like to participate and provide their own interpretations. I don't have time to finish this as I'm late for work. I'll end this by saying I'd rather hear from the artist what he/she was attempting (in simple language) than to have it filtered through someone else's mind. Although that doesn't mean other interpretations cannot follow.
posted by snez at 11:48 AM on November 13, 2002


An ontological? An aesthetical? A social? A cultural? A religious? An epistemological? A general philosophical?

Great art touches, answers and asks of all these subjects.

There are still benefits to be gained from an artist keeping his (or her) mouth shut.

Sage words. Artists (especially art-school type, New York commercial gallery-type) today need to learn the astounding benefits of shutting their mouths and letting their work do the talking.
posted by sir walsingham at 12:55 PM on November 13, 2002


...he made the rather absurd claim that "weird" art -- classified as cubism, dada, modernism, avant-garde, abstract expressionism, or anything which isn't readily recognized by the common man -- is generally produced by derelicts, morally bankrupt people whose purpose is to defy the establishment.

Wow. I'm not normally one to point out this sort of similarity (as the pointing out of this particular similarity is often discouraged on public internet discussion forums), but your friend's opinion of modern art is strikingly similar--almost identical in the semantic content of the criticism, in fact--to an opinion held by members of a historical political movement.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:58 PM on November 13, 2002


mr_roboto: there is a reason why what you did is discouraged.
posted by turbodog at 2:21 PM on November 13, 2002


Interesting link Stan.

TreeHugger, as a fan of a great deal of modern art, I can understand the source of some of your frustration with your religious friend. (Mr. Roboto you are a jerk, and have broken Godwin's law of internet conversation) On the other hand, and Stan's link touches on this a great deal, what your friend says has a great deal of validity.

We started discussing art, and he made the rather absurd claim that "weird" art -- classified as cubism, dada, modernism, avant-garde, abstract expressionism, or anything which isn't readily recognized by the common man -- is generally produced by derelicts, morally bankrupt people whose purpose is to defy the establishment. He said that their works will not stand the test of time, and that more realistic styles such as romanticism, impressionism or classicism will ultimately prevail.

What is interesting to me about the religious is that they always seem untainted by academic pretentions and more realistically tuned-in to human nature. Your friend is almost certainly right if he believes Da Vinci and Michelangelo will always resonate more organically with human-beings than Malevich or Kandinsky. Such art speaks directly to our pleasure instincts, needing, unlike much modern art, no further context to be enjoyable. (Remember the uninitiated trying to 'figure out' the art with perfunctory staring time in front of each piece in Brock's essay?)

There are Three things, I think, that make art biologically interesting (and many more non-proximate non-biological reasons: status, culture, etc..) First is what I'll call the base aesthetic. These aesthetics are things that, like fear of venomous animals, are completely ingrained into the human mind. Like the enjoyment of the sweet taste of fruit, these base aesthetics were, no doubt, adaptive advantages. Included in the base aesthetic is a visual appreciation of nature, esp. the savannah-like environment listed in my above link (because that's where modern humans evolved). Also included is a recognition and appreciation of the human form. The appreciation people have for the form of human's, esp. humans of the opposite sex, is not some cultural product, but a functional base aesthetic that exists in all sexual animals. This base aesthetic is the one most modern art tried to avoid the most, in its quest for originality. The second biological source of art interest (and probably just a portion of the first) is humanity's spatial pattern-seeking sense. The pattern recognition method our brains use to compile sensory material into meaningful mental data about our environments, no doubt, also allows our brain to enjoy recognizing patterns in man-made things. In other words man has a biological design aesthetic. Much appreciation for modern art that isn't based on any context or on any of the unmentioned non-biological reasons for art enjoyment, comes from this 'design' appreciation. While your average person might not know the intellectual theories or historical context of Kandinsky's paintings, he still might enjoy the visual sensations of pattern, color, and line within the man's work (much of the appreciation of such artists as Mondrian and Pollock probably extended from this) . But there is a Third biological basis behind art appreciation as well, one that makes it possible for humans to like a wide assortment of 'weird' modern art, and it is what I'll call the narrative aesthetic, a human love of story. Like design aesthetic, narrative aesthetic is somehow probably linked to the first. Appreciation for story is not a culturally specific trait, it is found in all societies, in all times. Also it is found in all ages; as seen in a recent Newsweek about the reason kids like watching TV:

When “Sesame” began reinventing kids’ TV in the early ’70s, Daniel Anderson was a newly minted professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Like most child-development pros at that time, he assumed TV was bad for kids. Then one day Anderson taught his class that young children have very short attention spans. One student challenged him: “So why do kids sit still for an hour to watch ‘Sesame Street’?” “I genuinely didn't know the answer,” Anderson recalls. So he went to a lab and placed kids in front of TVs to find it.
        What he found surprised him. Like most researchers, he assumed that fast-moving images and sounds mesmerized young viewers. But videotapes of kids’ viewing showed that their attention wandered most during transitions between segments and when dialogue or plotlines became too complex. He hypothesized that even young children watch TV for the same reason adults do: to enjoy good stories. To test that theory, he sliced up “Sesame Street” skits so the plot no longer made sense. Even 2-year-olds quickly realized the story was amiss and stopped watching. Some knocked on the TV screen. Others called out: “Mommy, can you fix this?” Over years of research, Anderson reached a startling conclusion: “Television viewing is a much more intellectual activity for kids than anybody had previously supposed.”


It has been hypothesized that story-telling is a social adaption, kind of a hypothetical way for people to act out social scenarios (a sort of relationship trouble-shooting) as well as a method for us of constructing goal-oriented behavior. Brock touches on this 'narrative' as something that makes comics more interesting to the common man. But what makes staring at a plain blue square interesting to an art viewer isn't the actual square itself, but the same thing that makes the X-men interesting to Brock: the story that goes along with the square. Why did the artist paint this square? What did it mean to him? What is its message? Of course all these things could have been made up by the artist, just so he could one-up the establishment by being as baffling as possible, but that doesn't matter- the lies become a story to accompany the piece, and the lies are biologically interesting as a narrative. It is this human love of stories that makes a great deal of modern art interesting, even despite artists' best attempts to subvert art. Case in point even the absurdities of performance art have the ability to captivate the human mind. When Joseph Beuys performs routines that (supposedly) 'symbolize' his German fighter plane crashing in the Crimea, and his burnt body being covered in lard and nursed back to health by the Tartars, we know it isn't true, but its artistic merit may well be the entertainment we receive from the artist's fictional stories, the morals we read into the art performance (as we story-tell ourselves), and the biographical story of the artist himself.
posted by dgaicun at 2:36 PM on November 13, 2002


Mr. Roboto you are a jerk, and have broken Godwin's law of internet conversation.

You're the jerk, jerk. Stop being so jerky.

I think my point was valid. It's not as if I wrote, "The Nazis hated modern art, so everyone who hates modern art is a Nazi." The fact is, the content of TreeHugger's friend's argument against modern art is strikingly similar to the content of the Nazi argument against modern art. The dismissal of artists as "derelicts" or "moral degenerates" is not valid artistic criticism: it smacks of fascistic thinking, and I find it rather surprising that such an argument would be put forth by an educated person in this day and age. Your analysis, making a delineation between narration and design, is, on the other hand, valid and informed.

However, your description of people of faith as "untainted by academic pretentions" strikes me as a little disingenuous. We're talking about a seminarian here: a student, someone living, at least for the moment, the intellectual life. Religious people are not Rousseauian savages, wandering the jungle as perfect exemplars of pure human nature. There is a great intellectual, scholarly, and, yes, academic tradition in western religion.

As for Godwin's Law: what a brain-dead, lazy, dismissive treatment of an interesting and valid point. Did you even read the content I linked to? There's a lot of interesting social and political theory behind the Nazis' distaste for modern art, and a discussion thereof would be right at home in this thread.
posted by mr_roboto at 3:05 PM on November 13, 2002


I'm in bit of a hurry so I can't type a response right now, but I just wanted to pop in quickly and thank dgaicun for one of the best comments I've seen (at least for one of my posts).
posted by Stan Chin at 3:17 PM on November 13, 2002


Mr. Roboto:

I think my point was valid. It's not as if I wrote, "The Nazis hated modern art, so everyone who hates modern art is a Nazi."

That is close to how I read it. I take back the 'jerk'. There's no place for mud-slinging. I do understand the discussion value of 'Degenerate Art', but as always any comparison to Nazis is so inherently inflammatory (even if it is a somewhat valid comparison in the particulars) that it needs to be carefully qualified or it looks downright shameless. Either way, I am the jerky jerk. I apologize.

Stan: Thanks!
posted by dgaicun at 4:23 PM on November 13, 2002


The term "Great Art" is not an ontological one, sir wilsingham.

btw: The guy who is responsible for most modern and popular theories about comics...
posted by zerofoks at 11:39 PM on November 13, 2002


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