High and Low II

dream_lie.jpgBecause I think at least bits of it are worth a second look, this is just to follow up on the discussion about modernism, high and low in art, and how all of this pertains to comics that Comics Journal critic Noah Berlatsky and I, amongst others, have conducted here and on the Comics Journal messageboard. Noah answered my critique of his article on the Chicago comics scene with the following message board post:

“It’s not the rise to prominence among the artistic elite, but modernism itself that’s screwed over the novel (somewhat) and poetry (thoroughly and completely.)

I think you’re right when you say that high vs. low culture is a strawman; I just don’t think it’s my strawman. It’s modernism and its bastard children that are obsessed with the distinction; I’m just reporting. For myself, I think lots of high culture is great; inventive, goofy, moving, adventurous, all that good stuff. The Earl of Rochester poem I quoted is absolutely high culture; written by an over-educated nobleman for circulation among a small coterie of his peers.

However, to us, on the flipside (or is that backside?) of modernism, Rochester’s poem *looks* like low-culture, precisely because it’s not obsessed with proving its snooty bonafides. Before modernism, high-art could be about lots of things; afterwards, it had to be primarily about its own consolidation of high-art status. In the early days, this was new and fresh and there was still good work done (by Wallace Stevens, Virginia Woolf…even Joyce, though he’s not my favorite.) After not too long, though, the high-art train officially and finally derailed, leaving the best writers (like C.S. Lewis, or Tolkein, or London) to work in essentially low-art mediums.

This is only the case in literature, really — visual art has managed to continue to be high-art while chucking its modernist baggage; it’s not hugely accessible, but it’s also not terminally dull. That’s why, in my view, comics artists who look to visual art traditions (like Fort Thunder) come out a lot better than those slogging down the wearisome road of literary cred.

Or so I claim, anyway. Probably way, way more than anybody is interested in at this point….”

[To which I replied in my usual concise fashion:]

I think it’s an interesting discussion, but also one governed by so many sweeping statements that it becomes difficult drawing any useful conclusions from it. Yes, I agree that the high-low dichotomy in Western culture became accentuated with modernism, and I’m not crazy about it, even if it at times has its uses. But I don’t believe for a second that ‘modernism’, whatever that means exactly, suddenly made literature boring. My sense is that the novel is not at its apex as a form today, but it’s such a multi-faceted and diverse form that it’s hard to say what exactly is happening, and there are certainly still a lot of interesting authors out there. I know very little about poetry unfortunately, but it does strike me as a form that has become almost exclusively ‘high culture’, or rather a shallow niche within it, but the idea that it’s all uninteresting and going nowhere I would be much more skeptical about subscribing to.

Back to modernism: if anything, it gave authors an expanded field to play in, just like the field of comics is expanding at the moment. I take that as A Good Thing, and while I agree that comics that are too eager to be novels, or poetry for that matter, tend not to be the greatest, there are lots of comics concerned with narrative, naturalism, and all the other things we associate with the novel, that are absolutely great and entirely comics – and this includes Maus, the work of Joe Sacco, Dan Clowes, Chris Ware and some (not all!) of the others maligned by Noah in his essays.

Regarding the pictorial arts, I do not at all agree that it was affected less by what happened at the beginning of the 20th Century, or by the accentuated distinction of high and low forms of it. On the contrary – ‘high’ painting and sculpture has had a consistent problem with representation since modernism, and, for different reasons not necessarily related to modernism, are rather sickly art forms today. Yes, it is another of these sweeping statements, but not entirely irrelevant – the pictorial arts today seem to me better served by forms and media part of, or derived from mass, or ‘low’ culture: film, photography, cartooning, digital imaging, etc.

However, while things certainly changed with modernism, I do not think it can be blamed for any malaise experienced by the novel, or painting, or poetry, as such. If anything, it was itself a symptom of trends that had been building through the 19th Century – a rise in literacy, an expanded market, established narrative and descriptive forms and nascent genres that called for challenge and opposition – for the formation of an elite or an avant-garde. Also, it is not like distinctions between genres and tropes within a given medium, some regarded as more worthy than others, did not exist in the 19th Century.

What I find to be interesting about comics in this context, and it seems like Noah and I are more or less in agreement here, is that while other narrative media, such as the novel, cinema, and a lot of theatre, tended to primarily occupy itself with relatively naturalistic narratives, comics and cartooning stayed gloriously arche- (and, well, stereo-)typical, and while the figurative arts – or at least those existing within the domain of “high” culture eschewed figuration, comics and cartooning reveled in it. Sweeping generalizations, I know, but I think there is something to it and I think that cartooning as a result has a lot to offer our culture because of its development of these aspects of art.

These strengths are what I see the best of the comics of the expanded field to be exploiting, all the while taking the medium in directions it has never gone before. A lot of these comics are certainly inspired by, and even following the example of, literature or the fine arts, but they are doing it on their own terms. This has led some people, notably the circle around L’Association’s Éprouvette, to speculate whether what we are experiencing today is a much-belated formation of an avant-garde within comics. They propose this otherwise more or less obsolete term associated with modernism as a useful one when thinking about comics, and while I – and indeed they themselves – remain skeptical about this, I think they have at least half a point when you take the expansion of the field of this purported “avant-garde” into consideration.

Concurrently with this, we are today seeing an appalling stagnation of the traditional genres and tropes of Western comics that we can only hope will at some point reverse to once again create a healthy mainstream. I am optimistic about this – the influx of manga is energizing a new generation of readers to read, appreciate and create within the medium, and a sufficient number of the ‘high art’ comics of the moment are reaching increasingly large audiences that I think we are seeing a new, more diverse mainstream in the making.

[Which Noah then replied to thusly:]

“I don’t think it was affected less either; just differently. Traditional painting and sculpture did take a hit, but the nature of visual art proliferated. Some of the most exciting work these days is installation, for example. Tom Friedman’s stuff is sort of sculpture/performance, and is extremely cool, in my opinion. And so forth. I don’t think it’s all great, or anything, but it does seem to me as a medium to be in much better shape than comics.

Poetry is pretty wretched, though. There are a couple people who do things I rather like (Tom Raworth; Alan Dugan if he’s still alive) but, man, it’s a wasteland out there. When Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott are the standard, you know you’re in big, big trouble.

I could speculate as to the reasons for the difference between visual and literary arts but, for everyone’s sake, I’ll refrain.”

[See, fun stuff? Eh?]

Image extracted from Picasso’s etched comic (with aquatint) “Sueño y Mentira de Franco”, January 8 and 9, 1937.

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