Why Is Art & What To Do When It Isn’t Pleasing You?
by Travis Hedge Coke
I recently asked someone why they referred to a comic as a “disaster,” and their answer was a long list of elements that were unexpected or that went in directions they did not expect. That was it. That was “disaster.” The comic involved characters they were not expecting, did things they were not expecting with characters they knew would be there, and and did not conclude in the fashion they anticipated based on pre-release promotion and online rumors.
Unbidden, someone else, minutes later, told me they disliked a comic because it was to welcoming to new readers.
Over on an online platform, someone was explaining that a comic was trash because it was too kind to its children protagonists and could have mauled one or two of them. Someone must be holding the other collaborators back.
Too often, in different arts and entertainment fields, we see it suggested that one collaborator or one team of collaborators are conspiring to embarrass or humiliate the other. That the producers and directors of a television series would deliberately cast actors inappropriately to humiliate them with roles they are incapable of understanding or that a comics writer understands the satire of a scene but would mislead the artist to think it was a straight and earnest narrative, that an inker understands the tone that the penciler they work with does not.
Last year, in 2020, Paul Grist – thirty-four year veteran of primarily British-published comics, of St Swithin’s Day, Kane, Dr Who, and Judge Dredd fame – was accused of “selling out” (of what to whom?), of being ignorant of the United Kingdom, of being an American (I mean, that’s just harsh), and of not realizing his comedy comic, The Union: The Britannia Project, is in point of fact, particularly silly even in its basic parts. There is a short, cheeky good-naturedly-naive bigot a little too prone to a fight, named Bulldog, in The Union, who represents England in a manufactured team of culturally-themed superheroes. I, myself, was unsure, at first, that this was meant to be a comedy and intentionally a little sideways, but only while promo was still being released before first full issue. It is impossible to read The Union without recognizing eventually that it is a comedy, except that people did.
While The Union (made in collaboration with Andrea Di Vito, Le Beau Underwood, Nolan Woodard, and Travis Lanham) is a comedy, it never says the words, loudly, “This is a comedy.” Much of the comedy is presented with a relatively straight face, in a relatively deadpan superhero team book style. It is simply absurd. The character named, Snakes, who looks a bit like a religious figure in robes and hood, representing Ireland, is a bunch of snakes. This is discovered, by Snakes’ teammates, when a gorilla-shaped villain attempts to either break their back or tear them apart at the middle, both standard superhero comics attacks, most famously demonstrated in Bane cracking Batman’s spine over his knee or Vision being torn in two by She-Hulk during Avengers Disassembled. It looks relatively straightforward, except for the victim being a bunch of snakes dressed up like a large human person.
There is an idea, not unpopular, that art should be difficult and entertainment should be comforting. That one gives you what you need and one gives you what you think you want. There is a complimentary idea that entertainment is what separates you from your money and art is what separates rich patrons from theirs. All of this may feel rewarding to repeat or believe, but it is all nonsense.
Art vs Entertainment
Art is better than entertainment. Everyone knows this. Like obscenity and sacrilege and poggers, it is impossible to put into very clear, quantifiable terms why or what makes something one or the other, mostly because, like “Mason on Bond: Every scene is a sex scene” (The Invisibles, Grant Morrison, et al) or Gwenpool telling us “we” are not in a comic, it really depends on where you’re sitting or if you are lying down. Art as an elevated form beyond entertainment is not just in the eye of the beholder, it is a trained and conscious discernment by the beholder how to talk about it in public or private discourse.
We understand that our individual idea of obscenity or quality is less important – less vital – than our ability to navigate what we assume is the gauge utilized by others. I – as an individual – find Tony Marsiglia’s Lust for Dracula to be the scariest Dracula movie and that Brian Michael Bendis is a wonderful visual artist and a better visual artist than he is a writer. I know that Bendis’ fame centers around his writing and that societally, then, it is of higher value than his visual art, and I know that Lust for Dracula is not going to scare the general audience who are likely to see it, as that audience is largely there for related sexy times.
Facebook and I have distinctly opposed ideas of what is obscene based on when they give me a content warning and when they send me a note saying anything I reported does not violate their standards.
If I had to pick superhero movies that are art, I might choose Supergirl, Zebraman, or Cutie Honey, but I would never wade into a Russo Bros/Snyder conversation and insert those examples. 1998’s Casper Meets Wendy is one of my favorite comics-based movies, but would I argue it as a high art movie? Cinema? Would I need to?
It is easy to misunderstand art, and to find comfort in our misinterpretation, or in the misinterpretations we have learned from trusted sources. The Union was not advertised as a comedy, and so many in the audience have trouble reconciling its comedic nature with that absence of external confirmation. Edvard Munch’s The Scream is not a figure screaming, but a figure blocking their ears from a scream generated outside them, the scream of the world.
Recently, an intelligent critic on Twitter, wrote of ableist, rapey fascist teen gang leader, Quentin Quire, and his hero, the scared, outdated, exceptionally petty genocidal conqueror, Magneto, from New X-Men:
“Morrison’s Magneto isn’t right, can NOT be right, to the extent that anyone who takes on his methods is already lost. [B]ut if we look at how the franchise has treated him as a whole, as a victim fighting against an inherently evil bigoted system by any means necessary… to a twelve year old who’s already tired of defense, and knows things are only gonna get harder, there were absolutely moments of weakness where i could see the appeal in the fantasy of directing the oppressor’s violence back against them for a change. quire made sense. Reading QQ as a kid who faced that same struggle made sense to me at the time, even if I knew full well that it wasn’t what Morrison intended. That later portrayals would lean into that, even awkwardly and most likely unintentionally, only made my reading easier. If I read NXM for the first time today, I doubt I’d get the same reading, and I’d object to everything done with the character since. He took the systemic violence he was subjected to, and used it as an excuse to be cruel and petty. I’d probably see the alt-right chud yall do. But I read it when I read it, and the lens I had at the time, belligerent and petty and willfully against the directions on the side of the bottle, is the one that’s stuck with me. Morrison’s Magneto was wrong, but, to me, then, Morrison was wrong about Magneto. It only stood to reason that they might be wrong about Quire, too.”
I do not agree with that analysis nor the conclusions, but I can follow the logic of their interpretation and I enjoy the spirit of their interpretation. Of their explanation of themself, as a reader, as audience.
Which means that neither of us end up where we are as audience(s) appreciating or interpreting the comics, but that we do end up with different and contradictory interpretations.
When Martin Scorsese (and to a lesser, and funnier degree, Francis Ford Coppola) became superhero nerds’ (of the sort who themselves are all too happy to play gatekeeper) new Frederic Wertham, the new bogeyman to crouch defensively and hiss at, it was not over saying Marvel and DC-trademark servicing superhero movies were bad or dangerous or the Devil incarnate, but, in Scorsese’s case, not movies that interested him and not, in his estimation, cinema.
One of the reasons this leapt off like a fire spreading into inferno, is that none of us knew what we were supposed to agree cinema was or meant. We knew our interpretation, but we lacked a safe societal definition. Another, is that for many people, those movies are not only cinema, they are the height of cinema, under the assumption that cinema means somehow a true – and in part anti-intellectual and class-nervous – quality.
Scorsese’s expansion of his thought was to directly tie cinema to art, in that art versus entertainment dynamo. Cinema was “about confronting the unexpected on the screen and in the life it dramatized and interpreted, and enlarging the sense of what was possible,” while the other thing was, “closer to theme parks than they are to movies as [Scorsese has] known and loved them throughout [his] life.”
Accusations that Scorsese only ever worked in one genre or with one level of pseudo-realism is bizarre and quickly dismantled. Same with Coppola, who certainly enjoys and has made genre works. Both filmmakers enjoy horror, documentary, abstract art films, romances, as well as the crime/family movies they are perhaps most famous for directing.
Scorsese tried to be, in my opinion, more careful in his elaborations, and more fair. He said, “Many franchise films are made by people of considerable talent and artistry. You can see it on the screen. The fact that the films themselves don’t interest me is a matter of personal taste and temperament,” which is a lot to offer, and a good deal kinder than I can be at times.
Brilliant comics author, Bill Sienkiewicz put the Scorsese issue into perspective, for Forbes, saying, “For me, hearing Scorsese come out and say that stuff, it felt weird. My whole goal as a kid was to get people to respect the medium as much as I did. That’s what I’ve been trying to do for a long time. Hearing the art form denigrated my entire life, I want comics treated as literature, as journalism, as art – and as cinema. I’m not just talking about superhero movies,” and that, “With Scorsese and Coppola, I respect their work and opinion. It’s influenced me. Another example… early on in my career, after I started changing my style, I was under the impression that Art Spiegelman [author of Maus], who I know, we’d talk comics and art – I heard through other people that he ‘despised my work’ and thought it ‘wasn’t comics.’ It was illustration or whatever. That always stuck with me, because that’s the last thing I wanted to be. I thought comics could do anything, and I was disappointed that Art was taking it on himself to define what ‘comics’ were. I later found out that wasn’t exactly what he said.”
For words that seem precise, for feelings and beliefs that feel to us as if they would be easy to articulate, so much is left to assumption and, even more unfortunately, to fear.
High Art vs Kitsch
Kitsch is a German loanword rooted in classism and politer forms of racism and misogyny. Roger Scruton defined it as, “Fake art, expressing fake emotions, whose purpose is to deceive the consumer into thinking he feels something deep and serious.”
Brought to the anglophone world by translations of the work of Walter Benjamin, a class-conscious theorist and writer who was very aware of bigotry and the dangers of valorizing or devalorizing peoples, who did not place as much of a condemnation on kitsch versus art, or in this scenario, high art. Benjamin only laments the mechanically reproduced, the mass-produced or copy-of-copy-of-copy artworks, as lacking an individuality that single-make pieces of art might have, a special uniqueness, allowing that kitsch art may be the only art that the poor or disenfranchised might own or keep with them, that its replicable nature makes it easier to purchase, to encounter daily, and its rote nature makes it easier to interpret and enjoy.
Meanwhile, the Chilean-American rights activity and novelist, Ariel Dorfman, has only disdain for the kitsch and for the women and ethnic minorities. It is the kitsch, the low art – which Dorfman identifies as comic books, superheroes, soap operas, cartoons and sketch comedy. Novels (in the correct genres or correct configurations), films (of the correct sort and quality), and television for grown men of the appropriate kind and temperament are not blanket criticized in the way television for women or any comics are.
Dorfman’s How to Read Donald Duck is one of the most scathing attacks on toleration and passive intake by comics culture in the history of comics and culture which is also intelligent, genuinely passionate, and genuinely intended to be helpful. It is an amazingly caring and fearful work imploringly addressing other Chilean people before any outside audience. It is for Chileans by Chileans, translated and republished only in exile after the first editions were thrown out, burned, maligned, and sometimes kept and cherished.
Dorfman (and in How to Read… his cowriter, Armand Mattelart) tends to affected tough talk, a tendency I probably share too much and which I try to avoid in all but farce. How to Read… is an explicitly anti-colonialist book-length essay about Donald Duck comics as an important feather on the Disney wing of the colonialist bird called American Social Outreach.
“The reader of this book,” say Dorfman and Mattelat, “may feel disconcerted, not so much because one of his idols turns out to have feet of clay, but rather because the kind of language we use here is intended to break with the false solemnity which generally cloaks scientific investigation.”
How to Read… is not a scientific investigation, nor is the absence of solemnity a laurel wreath of wisdom or clearheadedness. This is the mistaken apprehension that drives the pejorative use of kitsch, that drives the sexist and classist disdain of kitsch. Because many, like Dorfman, know that these mass-appeal forms can be used to nefarious ends, they begin to assume they, and the basic human elements they operate with, like the validity of unmasked emotions. The idea that to be tough, scientific, and edgy is not maturity or sensibility, it’s just machismo.
“In order to attain knowledge, which is a form of power,” write the two authors and their less-named collaborators, “we cannot continue to endorse, with blinded vision and stilted jargon, the initiation rituals with which our spiritual high priests seek to legitimize and protect their exclusive privileges of thought and expression.”
I do not want to mock the self-lauding of this introduction or the rhetorical devices of these high priests of Donald Duck discussion, because the author were legitimately at political and social risk, as well as risk to life and limb. That this paragraph goes on to refer to their own “dread at appearing insignificant and naked before one’s particular limited public,” and their hope for “methodological self-criticism,” implies an awareness of how false the bravado voice can sometimes ring, and their discussion of the “automagic antibodies in Disney,” which limit, combat, and obscure criticism give a clue to their belief in the strength and pervasiveness of their opponent. They need to sound harsh, cavalier, or less sentimental because it will help the important aspects of their message escape the tenacious antibodies of the Disney machine.
It is not too long before this necessary affected voice gives way to phrases such as, “Since these women are not very susceptible to men or matrimonial bonds,” and how that requires bachelors and “extra-sexual factors,” hinges its arrangement and its implied judgments on the behavior of the women. Does it go on to talk about the women at any length? Heh. No. The women are addressed only to fault them for lacking marriages and move back to the men and boys who are worthy of more discussion. These “extra-sexual factors” are linked to an absence of parenthood, of mature adult (heterosexual) sexuality, and what is called, “the wicked taint of infant sexuality.”
“There is one sector of Disney society which is beyond the reach of criticism, and is never ousted by lesser creatures: the female.”
Any half-assed semiliterate who has read three Disney comics or watched two Disney programs from any year, any era, any production, knows this is absurd and, more than absurd, it is paranoid and demonizing. The book, however, will go on from there for another fifty or so pages, detailing how Disney and the Disney world teaches that man lives alone, unappreciated, in debt and in fear, and I have no doubt that many times this is true, and that many many men and boys feel this way or are taught to feel this way, but to blame not the male authors, the male creators, artists, writers, producers, publishers, but to present it as a bizarre anti-sexual-deviance macho he-man wimmen haterz club diatribe is weird.
I will not get into how Dorfman speaks of Indigenous peoples even only a few years ago.
Folk Art and Outsider Art
Grant Morrison, among other comics luminaries, have referred to comics as akin to folk art or outsider art, two often-conflated categories, with the connective tissue being that they are often made by artists without a formal academic training and formal academic degrees, that they carry culture at their fore and that they reaffirm and assess that culture in repeated patterns and iconography. And, indeed, there are entirely self-trained people who make comics, and there are mentally ill or undereducated or minority people who make comics. The American comic book, the serial pamphlet, owes a significant deal to Jewish American culture and to American Jews. That is irrevocable. The non-serialized, adult long-form comic sometimes called the graphic novel draws most strongly on the comic arranged and drawn by Matt Baker in 1949-50, It Rhymes With Lust, which reads today as strong as it did then, and so both Blackness and queerness are fundamental to what we know comics as today in the anglophone world. Blackness, queerness, jewishness, femaleness, none of these can be limited to the presentation of characters on the page who explicitly embody them, though those are important. The making, authoring, directing and influencing of comics by real living human beings who belong to these categories are by necessity truer and better carriers of these particular auras. Every Matt Baker comic is Black and it is gay. Every Trina Robbins comic is female and Jewish. Every Grant Morrison comic is queer, Scottish, non-binary.
Folk art and outsider art, as categories, are nonsense. Classist, constricting nonsense.
The idea that folk artists, especially, are not trained is silly. If you think you can weave a water-tight basket with an elegant pattern that will hold together for years just because you some day feel like it, give it a try. Carry the water in it over something important to you which can be damaged by water, to show us your confidence in your skills.
“Folk art,” and the categorizing limitations, are ways to devalue and to degrade oppressed cultures, disenfranchised peoples, and ethnic minorities. That patterns are repeated or that methods stand the test of time, as if paint is not often applied in the same way that it was applied decades or centuries previous, as if Pulitzer and Nobel winning literature is not crafted in many ways the same as it was one hundred years ago.
Comics are not a folk art, in the sense that they are a cultural reification or a cultural artifact, either. Which culture? So many! So, no. Not folk art.
Are comics outsider art? Outsider art must be naive of the broader art world or of art history. I have seen Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko referred to, especially, and the works of Fletcher Hanks, Trina Robbins, Chris Bachalo, Rachel Pollack, Donald Rooum and Sue Coe as “outsider art,” or adjacent to. Now, outsider art was originally termed to refer to the therapy art of mental patients and young children. It has been expanded to cover those who are, for whatever reason, unaware of art trends, art history, and traditional taught art-making skills except the very basic. None of this applies to any of those well-educated, exceptionally savvy, knowledgable of their fields comics authors, be they visual artists, writers, or both. The intensity of Sue Coe’s work or her lack of interest in mimicking John Byrne does not make her an outsider artist. Hanks, though likely mentally unwell, was well-educated, especially in art, and was a mural painter for other wealthy families like the one he came from, as well as, briefly, an author of comics.
Steve Ditko was never Henry Darger, locked in his room and his microcosm creating involved and thorough art for no audience. Every instance of Ditko being referred to as a hermit or locked away from the world are belied by photos of him with his family at pizza parties. Jack Kirby’s collages, in particular, belie any apparent naïveté to his body of work. Kirby knew comics, his chosen field, inside and out, and he knew the art world outside of comics. Kirby as a capital A, capital R, capital T I S T ARTIST and one of the sharpest, savviest, and continuously relevant writers in comics for the entire span of decades in which he wrote. To pretend otherwise is the same as pretending the hosts of our favorite shows when we were children never had a bad day or never drank too much or did not go to see R-rated movies.
Choosing to not prize the vein of naturalism which comics culture has decided is bizarrely the height of artistic achievement which isn’t funny animal stories, is not mental illness nor naivety or lack of training or lack of skill.
The extension of kitsch into high art, of art into entertainment, that venue of irreality made too real, of puppet flesh and pomp and blood, camp, is also very often associated with comics. Romance comics are camp, by nature, we are told. Superhero comics. Crime comics. Horror comics. Science fiction, mystery, educational, biographical and autobiographical comics are camp. Batman is camp. Calvin and Hobbes are camp.
Camp is, I would wager, almost as popular for the press to apply to any comic at all, in English, as is a notice of bam! pow! biff!
Are comics camp?
What I love most about camp is that we cannot be sure. Is it camp or is it a bad idea or is it a great idea that simply makes us feel uncomfortable, confused, or out of place?
Mike Allred is probably a beautiful maker of camp comics, because we are rarely sure how in on the joke we are or if there even is a joke. The Rachel Pollack run of Doom Patrol, and even more, her run on New Gods, were saturated with an audience/prospective audience who were perpetually unsure as to how canny she was or they were. Those readers and speculators who were unnerved and turned about by The Union or worry themselves dizzy and can say that Grant Morrison “hates superheroes,” because of something excessively absurd in a Morrison comic are the victims and beneficiaries of camp.
The most important thing about camp is that we cannot be entirely sure if what we are in audience to thinks it is super cool, is feigning that it thinks it is very cool but knows it is not, or if it is super cool and we are so far out of the loop of what is cool that we cannot fully embrace. Camp is skiffle singer forty years out of date telling the paying audience, “Sit down, you couldn’t afford me.”
In that light, sure, the entire comics industry, the field, the culture, the community, the books and stores and service and being of comics are camp. High camp. If we could reduce whether or not comics are genuinely cool or just think they are but really they look silly or out of touch from outside would be to rob us of our basic culture and our hairstyles.
If comics are
If comics are what you expect and that makes you happy, that is fine, but neither is required.
If comics give you something unexpected or upset you, that is not a sign they lack quality or care.
If comics make you uncomfortable or curious, impatient, frustrated, or tired, it could be the comic, it could be you.
If you make the comic uncomfortable, curious, impatient, frustrated or tired, it is probably you. Comics are not known for their discernment this way.
You are taking a chance with any comic, that you will be comforted, amused, frightened, saddened, strengthened, that the comic will hurt your sides from laughter or hurt your jaw from clenching.
It is impossible to gauge an artist’s education, training, or skill by the number of lines they use per image or the usefulness their art would have in an anatomy textbook.
It is impossible to gauge a letterer by one example with one creative team, and letters are, in fact, most often given the least and last bit of thought in production.
And, be demanding, but not an asshole.
There is no high art, and low art only exists as a badge of bitter pride in the fight towards and against that imaginal highness.
If the Mad Magazine fold-in is not camp, its fans definitely are.
Why Is Art & What To Do When It Isn’t Pleasing You?
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