People Say There Are No Stupid Questions


Thursday, September 30, 2010

Let’s see if we can put that theory to rest.

But first, a quotation:

In the course of the last fifty years the painters who freed themselves from the necessity of representation discovered wholly new fields of form-construction and expression (including new forms of imaginative representation) which entailed a new attitude to art itself. The artist came to believe that what was essential in art—given the diversity of themes or motifs—were two universal requirements: that every work of art has an individual order or coherence, a quality of unity and necessity in its structure regardless of the the kind of forms used; and, second, that the forms and colors chosen have a decided expressive physiognomy, that they speak to us as a feeling-charged whole, through the intrinsic power of colors and lines, rather than through the imaging of facial expressions, gestures and bodily movements, although these are not necessarily excluded—for they are also forms.

Deep Red on Maroon, Mark Rothko

That view made possible the appreciation of many kinds of old art, and of the arts of distant peoples—primitive, historic, colonial, Asiatic and African, as well as European—arts which had not been accessible in spirit because it was thought that true art had to show a degree of conformity to nature and a mastery of representation which had developed for the most part in the West. The change in art dethroned not only representation as a necessary requirement but also a particular standard of decorum or restraint in expression which had excluded certain domains and intensities of feeling. The notion of the humanity of art was immensely widened. Many kinds of drawing, painting, sculpture and architecture, formerly ignored or judged inartistic, were seen as existing on the same plane of human creativeness and expression as “civilized” Western art. That would not have happened, I believe, without the revolution in modern painting. [Italics mine.]

That can be found in Meyer Schapiro’s 1957 essay, “Recent Abstract Painting”, collected in his Modern Art: 19th and 20th Centuries.

It’s a common tactic of comics apologists to refer to comic strips as inherently “modernist,” but while that’s usually good for provoking solemn nods of satisfied agreement from fellow travelers, I’ve never really understood just what is meant by the claim. It strikes me that Schapiro may here point to a possible answer (or at least the kernel of one), and that, say, Picasso’s fondness for Rudolph Dirks’s Katzenjammer Kids might spring from the same source that led to his appreciation of African sculpture.

By the way, did you know Rudolph Dirks painted pictures like this? Ogunquit Coast, c. 1915

So here are my questions: Did abstraction’s widening of the artistic palate lead to a friendlier reception for early American comic strips’ frenzied expressionism? And was the popularity of comic strips in any way (indirectly or not) linked to the modernist revolution in painting? Or what do people mean when they link comics to modernism?

There are a few possible problems here that even someone as ignorant as I am can see, one being that you don’t need to be David Kunzle to know that caricature (which is at least somewhat expressionist in its very nature, I’d say, though perhaps I’m wrong to think so) has been around a lot longer than the twentieth century. (This is not even to go into the whole cartoony/realistic, literal/freestyle, naturalist/mannerist debate within comics itself.) And it is important to note that Modernism and abstraction are obviously not synonyms.

In fact, interestingly enough, the graphic novel’s godfather, Rodolphe Töpffer, makes an unexpected appearance in another of Schapiro’s essays, “Courbet and Popular Imagery: An Essay on Realism and Naïveté”, in which the art historian quotes Töpffer writing in praise of the vivacity and artistic intentions of children’s drawings, as well as of the statues of Easter Island, despite the fact that “their hideous features and strange proportions resemble nothing in nature and hardly make sense.” Indeed, Schapiro credits Töpffer as in large part the creator of the new taste for naïve art in the mid-nineteenth century (both through his own work, and through his criticism), and thereby, an audience fit to appreciate Gustave Courbet’s Realism. (Which then led the way to Impressionism, Symbolism, etc., etc.) So it all goes round and round.

Anyway, I don’t really know what I’m talking about. But a lot of our readers probably do, so step up and school me, please.

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16 Responses to “People Say There Are No Stupid Questions”
  1. D Mullins says:

    This in no way answers the questions, but

    I think when people call a form like comics quintessentially Modern, that they’re often talking about Modernism’s embrace of popular street-level culture. Not that there’s not a parallel argument to be made that is more about the actual unique art form of comics. In the same way, when Jazz is embraced as Modern, it’s often its “low-born” origins and popular format that is being discussed. But we can also make separate arguments concerning the actual content of jazz.

    I guess I mean that there’s the way that High Modernists like Picasso (or in the case of jazz, like Debussy, or Stravinsky) being interested in comics makes it Modern, and there’s the way in which what Dirk was actually doing makes it Modern.

  2. Ian Harker says:

    I think it’s kinda backwards to consider whether or not modernist painting made cartoon artwork more palatable. Cartoon artwork is completely palatable to my 1-year son and he knows very little about modernist painting, the slouch.

    The history of western thought is first and foremost about innovating new ways for white men to stick their heads further up their own asses.

    • T. Hodler says:

      Well, what someone born a year ago finds palatable isn’t really relevant. Modernist art was assimilated into our culture a long time ago!

      But you have a point, and maybe I do have it backward: some have apparently claimed that it was comics that paved the way for Modernism. I’m not so interested in causation, really, but in how they may or may not interrelate.

      I’m going to ignore your head & ass comment and let it fend for itself.

  3. Ray Davis says:

    In the standard Academy-in-peril telling, modern painting and cartoonists were associated barbarians from the start. Duchamp began his professional life as a cartoonist, and his interviews are very interesting on the subject.

    It might help to remember that “abstraction” per se is a comparatively recent fetish. Cartoony comics and post-Academy painting both emphasize gesture and idea over carefully lit tableaux, and even at the height of heroic abstraction and ironic gloss, Philip Guston sought re-inspiration in Segar.

    • T. Hodler says:

      Thanks for this (& for the link) — I always forget that Duchamp worked as a cartoonist. Have his cartoons ever been collected into a book? Maybe there aren’t enough of them…

      And this is tangential to your points, but come to think of it, if you squint just right, Manet was sometimes a cartoonist, too, in a roundabout sort of way. Update the references a bit, and Le déjeuner sur l’herbe isn’t that far off from something you might have found in Kurtzman’s MAD or Humbug.

      I need to educate myself more on Guston—I’ve seen exhibitions and heard the boilerplate, but haven’t really dug as deeply into it as I should.

  4. Matt Seneca says:

    I was just talking about this with somebody. For me comics belong with the modern art FORMS (photography, movies, animation, etc.) more than modernistic VERSIONS of older forms (like the Rothko or even that incredible painting you showed). Comics, as well as the other modern media I mentioned, are more fundamentally equipped to deal with the “indexicality” of life, the bigass “wholeness” of existing in the modern world, than more venerable forms like painting, sculpture, prose.

    They can present story, images, thought (thought balloons), sound (sound effects), and dialogue — not to mention stuff like motifs, larger design ideas, allegorical representation — in a smooth, simultaneous way that painting or sculpture (no/less story movement) can’t. Prose can give you all those things in a single paragraph or even a sentence, but it necessarily has to put them in some kind of order — like, first you read what the Hulk saw, then what he heard or whatever. Comics get at the simultaneity of actual experience in a way that only it and another modern medium, film, can. They can be expressionist, postmodern, abstract, or none of the above, but the way we apprehend them, I’d say, is inherently modern, hitting on multiple levels by using multiple tools.

    (Uh… I think!)

    • J. Overby says:

      Good one, Matt!

      I think kids respond to cartoons because of the simplicity, bluntness, and wacky stylizations. My daughter responded (unexpectedly to me) very early on to simplified representations of things. For instance, she saw flames painted on the side of a building and said “hot, hot.”

      It seems like modernists were trying to strip away the accumulated structures of the dominant “high” culture and that moved them toward new, stylized forms and blunt representation. I have no idea whether comics influenced modernist painters or not, but both modernists and cartoonists were heavily invested in staking their own aesthetic territory and moving in new directions so it makes sense that they would arrive at a similar place.

    • T. Hodler says:

      Hmm. But what about theater? Or kamishibai? Those are pretty old art forms that present most of the things you’re talking about one way or another. (And then of course, comics have a very rich prehistory themselves, following Kunzle.)

      Still, an interesting idea. Thanks, Matt. This is a somewhat different topic than I was referring to — I’m talking about the claims that comics are part of Modernism as a movement (or set of movements) — but this is a big subject worth thinking about as well.

  5. Matt Seneca says:

    *”…that incredible DIRKS painting you showed…” just so I don’t add any more vagueness to an already terribly confused lil pontification…

  6. patrick ford says:

    Maybe the flowering of anthropology and archeology in the 19th century paved the way for modernism. The exposure to, and interest in ancient, as well as primitive art forms (much of it based on abstraction and patterns) exposed the public, as well as many artists to art from many different cultures, almost none of it based on formal naturalism.

    • T. Hodler says:

      According to the site that image comes from, it actually is an unfinished plate.

      But yes, cartooning itself has been around for a long time in one form or another.

      • patrick ford says:

        Rembrandt often printed etchings in various states of completion. I’m assuming the print was made by him rather than being printed later.
        Many of Rembrandt’s preliminary drawings are in a cartoon shorthand.
        It’s very likely artists have always had an appreciation for simplified slightly abstracted

  7. patrick ford says:

    One thing that has always interested me is the abstraction of form in representational art.
    Using Rembrandt again as an example. When seen close up:

    • ellen says:

      Abstraction is definitely key here when talking about comics as something that is interrelated with Modernism as a movement. Comic artists are always literally abstracting forms to simplify a complex visual into a very small number of simple lines, in the same way that Picasso was when he painted. Picasso, Matisse, and Gaughin were inspired by the level of abstraction that is found in a lot of African and Oceanic art as well. The mention of Courbet makes sense too, since one thing that was so important about his paintings was the way he used those thick brushstrokes of paint to describe a form instead of all the underpaintings and hidden brushstrokes and dramatic lighting of the Romance painters before him. His style of painting allowed him to paint much more quickly than Romance painters, and he was able to do so because he simplified forms with blunter brushstrokes.

      The expressionistic element is important too. Not only are those few simple lines abstracting and describing a form, the character of the line, or line quality, also expresses something about the tone or mood of the story. I think that the same can be said of Modern artists like Picasso and Abstract Expressionists too (Ad Reinhart also made something like comics, though they were usually more about graphically organizing information). And German Expressionist woodcuts too, which of course influenced a few Gasoline Alley strips.

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