Saturday, August 1, 2009

Reflections and Generalizations of the Culture at Large

So there is a discussion on the Next Issue! blog where Kevin Mutch has been attempting to impose some of the structures of fine art history on the history of comics. Now, the major trends of art are not specific to just art, and tend to be reflections and generalizations of the culture at large, so this experiment (which is not without precedent, I believe, though specific examples escape me. Anybody?) has some considerable merit.

But something about the discussion just doesn’t feel as productive as it could be. I would offer that those who are as intrigued by the idea of trying to make sense of the overall historical / theoretical narrative of comics (like me), should try to begin to create new language for it. Comics continually come off as an “insecure” medium, forever seeking the validation and attention of the art-world discourse. There are models for mediums that hold their own with their own history, language, and legitimacy, Venn-diagramming into the fine art world to varying degrees (photography, architecture, film). There is no reason why comics couldn’t be one of these, and is to a small degree, but the difference is that those three examples have stopped seeking legitimacy from the art world and its language. When the language of the art world discourse is applied to those fields, it makes sense – it is the language of culture – and the influence of those three mediums is so vast and omnipresent that the study of them has spawned separate scholarship.

It is not unusual to use the language of one medium to talk about another, especially when that medium is new. McLuhan identified this, and you can trace the development and connections of any medium this way. Early photography employed the language of painting (pictorialism) and then asserted itself against it (straight photography); film began by employing a hybrid of photography and theatre language, (and still does) but has established itself as cultural force of nature employing a highly refined cinematic language. (There was an interesting discussion on the Comics Comics blog about the comics equivalent of the words “cinematic” or “literary”). Those involved in comics theorizing seem to be simultaneously asserting its specific nature by denying a cinematic or literary focus, and at the same time trying to fit it into the specific art historical models used for the more general painting / sculpture paradigm found in the Western traditions.

We need to ask ourselves some very difficult questions. And by “we” I mean us comics theorizers. The three examples I cited above – architecture, photography and film – cannot be separated from our culture. In many ways those three things comprise much of our culture, along with what is contained in the Western painting / sculpture paradigm and many other things. The question then becomes, is comics, as we define it, as influential as those disciplines and therefore deserving of the same critical, theoretical, and academic scrutiny? All is not lost if we decide something other than “yes”. I am not falling on the negative side of the fence on this, necessarily, I just think there is an advantage to be gained, artistically, from comics retaining something of its culturally illegitimate status.

And to retain that, we have to stop trying to figure out how comics fit into art history. Mutch, in his last post, attempts to identify an initial postmodern moment in comics, using the high / low model of culture. Though he disclaims it, the very recognition of the oppressive, power and class based foundations of that model prevent comics from doing anything but become the authorless source material for the “high” art. This formed some of the basis for Art Spiegleman’s “High Art Lowdown” strip criticizing the Museum of Modern Art’s “High and Low” exhibition in 1990, curated by the late Kirk Varnedoe. We need to figure out what our history is, and see if, how, and when fine art history fits into it.