Friday, February 19, 2016

Umberto Eco (1932 - 2016)

Guido Buzzelli, Umberto Eco, 1989.

Another reference point to The Crib died tonight: Umberto Eco, the author of Apocalittici e Integrati (apocalyptic and integrated intellectuals; Apocalypse Postponed is not a translation of Apocalittici e Integrati, it's a reprint of various essays about mass culture previously published in a variety of sources).
The title of Apocalittici e Integrati refers to two possible points of view about mass culture: those who see it as a sign of decadence and those who have no problems with it. Eco said that the title was the publisher's invention to boost sales with a hint of polemic. Looking at the Table of Contents such polemic is nowhere to be found, really... If I remember correctly the book contains semiotic analysis of Peanuts, Steve Canyon, Li'l Abner, but what I found really fascinating was the chapter "La sttrutura del cativo gusto" (the structure of bad taste) in which Eco defines kitsch as the "prefabricazione e imposizione dell'effetto" ("the pre-fabrication and imposition of an effect," translation by Anna Cancogni in The Open Work, 1989, 182). Indeed, when a comic uses manichean stereotypes arranged in what I could call the revenge swirl, a formula that, from Batman to Tarantino gave millions to the Lords of Kitsch, said comic is manipulative and in bad taste.

Thanks for everything, professor Eco!

Umberto Eco, Apocalittici e Integrati, Bompiani, 1964.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Dwight Macdonald and Pierre Bourdieu

As promissed, in a comment to my last post, I'm quoting Dwight Maccdonald (Against the American Grain, Vintage, 1962, 235, 236):
The difference between our positions, of course, is that Mr. [Raymond] Williams [in Culture and Society, 1780-1950] blames it all on the cheapjacks and exploiters, while I see it as a reciprocal process, in which the ignorance and vulgarity of the mass public meshes in an endless cat's cradle with the same qualities - plus rapacity - in the Lords of Kitsch. The cheapjacks do indeed sell adulterated cultural goods, but the awkward question shall we say challenge?) is why the masses prefer adulteration to the real thing, why the vast majority of the British people read News of the World instead of the Observer and go to see Carry On, Nurse! instead of L'Avventura. Mr. Williams says it is because they are ill educated and socially disadvantaged. This is part of the answer but far from the whole. The difficulty is that most people, of whatever education or social position, don't care very much about culture. This is not a class matter and is not unique to our age. Some Renaissance nobles patronized the arts but most of them were more interested in hunting and fighting. Very few of my classmates in Yale '28, a notably un-disadvantaged social group, spent more time than they were forced to in that institution's excellent library - a fifth would be a generous, a tenth a realistic estimate. If between 80 and 90 per cent of the population just don't care about such matters, then standards can be maintained only by thinking in terms of two cultures, a diluted, adulterated one for the majority, rich or poor, and the real thing for the minority that wants it.
These are empirical impressions by Dwight Macdonald, but let's see what Pierre Bourdieu has to say (in Distinction, A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Harvard University Press, 2; Translation by Richard Nice):
The definition of cultural nobility is the stake in a struggle which has gone on unceasingly, from the seventeenth century to the present day, between groups differing in their ideas of culture and of the legitimate relation to culture and to works of art, and therefore differing in the conditions of acquisition of which these dispositions are the product. Even in the classroom, the dominant definition of the legitimate way of appropriating culture and art favors those who have had early access to legitimate culture, in a cultured household, outside of scholastic disciplines.
What Dwight Macdonald seems to forget is that a scholastic education is very important to those who don't live in a cultured household, not to those who come from such a background. This difference (implying an intellectual and an anti-intellectual approach to art) divides the dominant class in two (176):
Through the mediation of the means of appropriation available to them, exclusively or principally cultural on the one hand, mainly economic on the other, and the different forms of relation to works of art which result from them, the different fractions of the dominant class are oriented towards cultural practices so different in their style and object and sometimes so antagonistic (those of 'artists' and 'bourgeois' that it is easy to forget that they are variants of the same fundamental relationship to necessity and to those who remain subject to it, and that each pursues the exclusive appropriation of legitimate cultural goods and the associated symbolic profits. Whereas the dominant fractions of the dominant class (the 'bourgeoisie') demand of art a high degree of denial of the social world and incline towards a hedonistic aesthetic of ease and facility, symbolized by boulevard theatre or Impressionist painting, the dominated fractions (the 'intellectuals' and 'artists') have affinities with the ascetic aspect of aesthetics and are inclined to support all artistic revolutions conducted in the name of purity and purification, refusal of ostentation and the bourgeois taste for ornament; and the dispositions towards the social world which they owe to their status as poor relations incline them to welcome a pessimistic representation of the social world.
As you can see these are complex matters and I don't want to explore them any further. If it took Pierre Bourdieu 668 pages to explore the subject I'm not going to do the same in a measly blog post. Bourdieu above talks about the dominant fraction of the dominant class (the bourgeoisie) and the dominated fraction of the dominant class (the 'intellectuals' and 'artists'). If he's right, and, to be honest, I'm not completely sure (he seems to be describing aristocratic, not bourgeois taste), I would say that good taste lies in the hands of the latter, not the former (I wouldn't say that boulevard theatre is a great example of good taste, exactly).
On the other hand Distinction was published 35 years ago which means that things have changed a bit. Bourdieu describes Modernist aesthetics ("purity and purification, refusal of ostentation and the bourgeois taste for ornament") which, I would say, is out, but he also described what, in my opinion, but I may be wrong because I don't follow these matters closely, is perfectly up to date: "the dispositions towards the social world which they owe to their status as poor relations incline them to welcome a pessimistic representation of the social world." In other words: high art today tends to be highly politicized and, to be honest, that's the difference between the anti-aesthetic stance of Marcel Duchamp and the aestheticization and social critique of today's readymade as we can hear in Nicole Wermers' explanations below (that's, by the way, why Conceptual Art is not, and can never be, part of the PPP).

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Daniel Clowes - Coda

Alfred Stieglitz, Marcel Duchamp's Fountain, 1917.

Being completely defeated and tired of preaching in the desert (or, to quote Portugal's greatest writer, preaching to the fish), and don't get me wrong, I highly value all of you, my faithful followers, you know perfectly well who you are, I'm slowly on my way to complete silence and oblivion... That tendency is only thwarted by an occasional remark by one of this blog's readers. This time it was a comment by Marcos Farrajota (who you may know as "Marcos Pellojota" in Bart Beaty's Unpopular Culture, ix) that prompted me to write again.

Intro, or, a brief contextualization:

On my last post I quoted Robert Ito to say that comics and art changed places: the geek comics culture is now the mainstream pop culture while the adult graphic novel (the adjective should not be needed, but I don't want to go there right now...) was left in nowhere land. 
We all know the stereotype and Robert Ito does too:
[...] comics fans were geeks and losers, guys who lived in their moms’ basements and, once a year, trekked out to conventions.
While mainstream culture was reading Proust and Dostoyevsky, or, let's say, Hemingway, at least, and admired Picasso, or, let's say, Rembrandt, at least, kids and arrested development afflicted adults were reading Superman. How come, as Ito puts it, "audiences [are now]  flocking to superhero and sci-fi-themed movies in droves"? I've been claiming my explanation for 20 years now: there's a Peter Pan Syndrome Pandemic (or, as Marcos put it, a PPP). Link that to the destruction of the Education System and the Neocon views that put money before people shrinking the State, and, voilá... But, anyway, after my following comment "What about art in this unequal fight between art and kitsch? It retreated into the consumption of the elite and the upper strata of society proving that Capitalism, after all these centuries, turned back and became the Ancien Régime[,]" Marcos asked me (my translation): "you mean art in general, right? because, if we talk about gallery art and Conceptual art, etc... frankly, it's such a PPP that's an embarrassment..."
My answer was, Conceptual Art is all but PPP.

Let me explain why.

Conceptual Art is sometimes great comic art:

The above "work of art" by Marcel Duchamp will, as you can easily see, be 100 years old next year.
Now, compare Picasso's Les demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) with, say, the magnificent (you need to see it in person at the Louvre to believe it) Le sacre de Napoléon (1807) by Jacques-Louis David.

Pablo Picasso, Les demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907.

Jacques-Louis David, Le sacre de Napoléon, 1807.

Now let us compare Marcel Duchamp's Fountain to last year's Turner Prize, below:

Nicole Wermers, Infrastruktur, 2015.

Man, oh man! Marcos is right, what an embarrassment! (We've been doing the same shit for the last 100 years?)
But let us not haste in our opprobrium.

I'll deal with "haste" first: 

What we see on top of this post, in a photo by Alfred Stieglitz, is, of course, The Fountain, Marcel Duchamp's first readymade. I'm not going to bore you with a lecture about it. Let us just say, because this is a blog about comics, after all, that the pseudo-Mutt who supposedly signed the piece is none other than the Mutt in "Mutt & Jeff," of Bud Fisher's newspaper comic strip fame. (No one saw the irony in Duchamp, a chess player, quoting a cartoonist with a chess player's name, but that's just me trying, and failing miserably, as usual, to be funny - besides, "Fisher" is not exactly "Fischer.")

Augustus [not Robert] Mutt by Bud Fisher, 1913. Curiously the strip started its run in 1907.

The invention of the readymade was, with Picasso finally ending the slow agony of linear perspective, the most important and revolutionary gesture since, well, the invention of perpective by Alberti, or Caravaggio's introduction of Realism in painting, or Titian and Velasquez showing their brushstrokes. I mean, every time is marked by some significant innovation, but not many last for a century, least of all in our alleged fast changing times. 
The paradox is as follows: Dadaism is the last of a few ruptures we now call the avant-garde, but which avant-garde creates a tradition? Isn't this an oxymoron? I think so and that's why Neo-Dadaism (Pop Art) is Postmodern. 
The Turner Prize represents, as I see it, the establishment. It's the equivalent of the French Salon when compared to the Salon des Refusés, or something... This means that some Conceptual artists are the equivalent of the Pompier artists of old. 100 years later Duchamp's great great grandsons are the new Academic artists, of course, and I don't need to read Bourdieu to know it. I'll quote him just the same though (The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field, Stanford University Press, 150; translation by Susan Emanuel):
Coinciding in the case of avant-garde painters (exhibited by Sonnabend and Templon), biological age and artistic age (of which the best measure would undoubtedly be the era of the appearance of the corresponding style in the relatively autonomous history of painting) can clash in the case of academic followers in all the formerly canonic styles who are exhibited, alongside the most famous painters of the last century, in the galleries of the Right Bank (often situated in the vicinity of luxury stores) such as Drouant and Durand-Ruel, the 'impressionist dealer'. Fossils of another age, these painters who do in the present what was done by the avan-garde of the past (just like forgers, but on their own account) make an art that is not, if one may say so, of their age.
Yup, but let us go now to the "opprobrium" part:

Saying that all Conceptual Art is like that would be to grossly misjudge it. That's the mistake many people do when talking about comics: the couple of comics that I read are crap, ergo all comics are crap.
Let me start with two names: Bruce Nauman and Sophie Calle.
Also, since Paul Cézanne's diatribe against literature in painting (he, or Joachim Gaschet for him, called "literature" to anything that was vaguely narrative or expressionistic) that painters not trying to just explore their means of, dare I say it?, their means of ahem... expression were banned from the avant-garde. It was precisely in the midst of the Conceptual Art movement that Narrative Art was born with Christian Boltansky, Jochen Gerz, Jean Le Gac. All these are hardly PPP Marcos. On the contrary, they're great artists and some have even done great comics mixing photos and text, not text and drawings, but comics in my expanded field nonetheless...

Bruce Nauman, Carousel (Stainless steel version), 1988. 

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Daniel Clowes

Daniel Clowes by Rutu Modan, Seth and Anders Nielsen

Daniel Clowes was profiled at the California Sunday Magazine.

I especially liked the ending:
Back when the artist attended Pratt, comics fans were geeks and losers, guys who lived in their moms’ basements and, once a year, trekked out to conventions. “Now people think of graphic novels as the vital art form I thought it was when I first started out,” Clowes says. It’s a good thing, mostly, but also a little bittersweet. With audiences flocking to superhero and sci-fi-themed movies in droves, comic geekdom has been co-opted by the masses. What was once a badge of nerdish honor is the new normal. All of us are comic geeks now — which means, in a way, that none of us are. 
Robert Ito
That's the tragedy of comics and that's the tragedy of comics criticism. Just when the art form was accepted by the mainstream culture, said acceptance means nothing. As for criticism, is there a need to even mention its corpse?

Thursday, February 4, 2016


My Rajasthani Kaavad shrine.

A couple of weeks ago I received by mail the most peculiar comic of my comics collection: a Rajasthani Kaavad (see above).

Comics writer Vidyun Sabhaney talks about the Kaavad and two other visual narrative traditions of India below.