Saturday, October 11, 2014

Dan Mazur's and Alexander Danner's Comics A Global History, 1968 To the Present - Coda: What is an Artist? (Part One)

"Aristophane was a better artist than Jack Kirby, obviously. Joost Swarte is better than Hergé."
Domingos Isabelinho

Nothing is obvious, ever, but, in this case, even less so. That is why I want to explain myself.

First of all I mean "artists" not "craftsmen." This is an important distinction and I bet that my scarce readers, enlightened as they are, misunderstood me. Anyway, what, in my humble opinion, did Aristophane and Joost Swarte do so well and what did Jack Kirby and Hergé do so poorly?

An artist, to me, is someone who senses the world around and conveys her / his vision of it through art. In order to do so a comics artist (or a team creating comics) needs to master her / his craft. This means that Jack Kirby and Hergé were great craftsmen, but were they great artists? Because craft is important, I don't deny that, but it is far from being enough... A world vision isn't enough either, by the way, because it may be clichéd and trite. (Talking of which, to quote a cliché, a world vision is like an arsehole, everybody has one.)

Conversely a poor artist bowdlerizes reality, uses stereotypes and cardboard stock characters, follows Manichean genre formulas, etc...

Georges Remi (aka Hergé):

Georges Remi (Hergé), "Tintin au Congo" [Tintin in the Congo], le petit "Vingtième," November 20, 1930. A racist blackface minstrel character.

Georges Remi (Hergé), "Tintin en Amérique" [Tintin in America], le petit "Vingtième," September 29, 1932. Racist "yellow peril" characters.

Georges Remi (Hergé), "Le Lotus Bleu" [The Blue Lotus], le petit "Vingtième," December 6, 1934. A racist buck teeth, pig-nosed, Japanese character.

Georges Remi (Hergé), "L'étoile mystérieuse" [The Shooting Star], Le Soir [a Nazi newspaper in occupied Belgium!], November 19, 1941. Racist Anti-semitic characters while Jews were chased all over Europe.

Apart from these racist representations Hergé's world is Manichean and misogynous. In time he got fed up with these simplistic representations of the world and tried to be a gallery painter. Unfortunately for him, he also failed in the intent. He did not fail, however, in creating an industry and becoming a very wealthy man. That is the ultimate success story in our value free, anything goes to make a buck, Western World...

In spite of all this I have some fondness for his bourgeois play (theatre de boulevard), Les bijoux de la Castafiore (The Castafiore Emerald) and for some of his clever formal devices, but that's about it...

Joost Swarte:

I'm not a huge fan of po-mo irony, but if I were Joost Swarte would absolutely be my cup of tea. He's an intelligent, sophisticated, visual thinker if there ever was one (and believe me, there were). Unfortunately for the art form (if you have a narrow definition of same, that is...) Joost Swarte is more of an illustrator and a graphic designer these days than a comics artist. His print series (you can see a couple of prints below) are some of the greatest ironic comments on the human condition and modern life produced by a comic artist.

Joost Swarte, "De spiegel" [the mirror], print by Caro, 1983. 

Joost Swarte "Libre enfin!" [free at last], Enfin! [finally] portfolio, Futuropolis, 1981.

From the intro to Enfin! (by Étienne Robial?):
Life is a long battle for money, sex and power, for light and inspiration... to end irrevocably as a moneyless, sexless, powerless corpse in dark earth, inspiring nothing but worms and chrysanthemums. Free at last... The futility of human striving, the irony of results being the negatives of our goals, has been Swarte's inspiration for the portfolio.
Swarte's peculiar use of empty spaces helps him to convey the feeling that his characters are lost and overwhelmed by huge forces beyond their control (even if they are oblivious to the situation like the fellow leaving jail above).

Joost Swarte, Untitled [Joost Swarte and Robert Crumb read Crumb's The Book of Genesis with a little "help" from god], print by Griffioen Grafiek, 2009. Notice blackface minstrel Felix the Cat on the background.

The image above illustrates the fact that Joost Swart and Robert Crumb belong to the same generation (Crumb b. 1943; Swarte b. 1947). They both share the same camp (underground) aesthetic finding graphic inspiration in the comics that they both read when they were children: Walt Disney funny animals and "big foot" style comedy for Crumb, Tintin albums for Swarte. Ideally this creates a second degree post-modern feeling that's distancing and cool. Joost Swarte is also inspired by art deco cartoonist extraordinaire (as was Hergé, in fact) George McManus (as you can see below). Furthermore, the use of technical perspectives (isometric projection above) coupled with a clear line aesthetic (Swarte coined the term) underlines the emotional distancing of Swarte's drawings.

George McManus, "Bringing Up Father," Sunday comic strip, April 28, 1940.

Both Swarte and Crumb admire early 20th c. mass culture, then, warts (racism, for instance) and all... Being campy one assumes that Crumb's and Swarte's racist imagery cannot be read as racist, right? Well, wrong!

As David Pilgrim, of the Jim Crow Museum put it: "When satire does not work, it promotes the thing satirized"

Robert Crumb, "Angelfood McSpade," Zap Comix # 2, June 1969. ("When satire does not work, it promotes the thing satirized".) For a more thorough exploration of the issue, see here.

The problem is not as blatant in Joost Swart's case, but it is not totally absent from his work either. His most famous character, Jopo de Pojo, has a racist echo in the third degree. According to Swarte Jopo de Pojo is a blend of his favorite comics characters:

Joost Swarte "Jopo de Pojo," design for a t-shirt, 1980; recolored for a print by Griffioen Grafiek, 2011.

Earl Duvall (w and p), Al Taliaferro (i), "Silly Symphonies: Bucky Bug," Sunday comic strip, January 10, 1932.
[Jopo's] trousers come from Tintin. The badge on his jacket is the symbol from the title of the Krazy Kat comics. His head is inspired by old Disney bug characters, and a sort of early Felix the Cat. As I am a music lover I included elements of a musical note in his head. A (shiny) black ball as his head, and a hairdo like the flag. 
The Disney bugs are the second degree, but, since those bugs had racist tones, the third degree reading has a, albeit distant, racist subtext.

Joost Swarte, "I'll Play the Blues For You," as published in Raw Vol. 1 # 1, Fall 1980 [1977]. It's not difficult to guess why Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly let this page fall from their anthology of the first three issues of Raw (vol. 1), Read Yourself Raw.

Notice, however, that "I'll Play the Blues For You" is the only page by Joost Swarte with offensive blackface minstrel imagery.

A final note:

Ethics and aesthetics are the same thing to me, but, since I'm in explanation mode, I want to explain why. As Charles Johnson put it in Fredrik Strömberg's Black Images in the Comics:
If these images spring from an epistemological difficulty or a technical dilemma related to draftsmanship rather than purely racist intent ([...] that, of course, is the very point of art, comic or otherwise: to put us "over there" behind the eyes of Others), then we should call this visual short-hand for people of color by its proper name: intellectual and creative laziness.
[..] these Ur-images of blacks, are a testament to the failure of the imagination (and often of empathy too) [...].
Maybe I focused this post on stereotypical representations of comics characters too much, but what Charles Johnson says above could be easily transposed to other features of comics like plot formulas, Manicheism and frivolity. All of the above are epistemological failures, used to make a buck... In other words: unethical imagery is not a product of aesthesis. Hence, it does not put us "over there" in any creative and meaningful way... In art criticism poor ethics stops being a moral problem to be an aesthetical failure due to the laziness of hacks... or... the demands of their bosses.


Mahendra Singh said...

The difference between just being a good draftsman and also being a good artist is tricky but I am glad to see you tackling it.
The relationship is complex, like the relationsihio between poetry and prose for the same writer (I hope that makes sense).
More Argentinian art, please!!!!!!

Isabelinho said...

Hi Mahendra!

These distinctions are tricky indeed, let alone clear-cut. I'm not sure if I agree with you re. the prose / poetry distinction. Those are just two forms of literature, both capable of conveying an author's world view. When I distinguished "draftsmen" (because I was referring to men) from "artists" I didn't want to imply that a draftsman or draftswoman can't be an artist (that would be completely absurd, of course). I just wanted to separate skill from world view. There may be skill in a racist caricature, but I would never call that trash "art" unless, as in D. W. Griffith's infamous _Birth of a Nation_, the form is historically crucial. I can see how a formalist may find it great, but I'm not a formalist, obviously, even if I can appreciate innovative or interesting forms as much as everybody else. I call the above: the Leni Riefenstahl conundrum...

As for more Argentinian art, that's a deal.

Isabelinho said...

Hi again, Mahendra. I changed the word to "craftsmen." It's more accurate, but the problem remains exactly the same; this doesn't mean that a craftsman or craftswoman can't be an artist.