Monday, July 28, 2008

Habits of Mind, Retarded Taxonomies

I have been repopulating my studio walls with new inspiration, and I hope to offer a series of posts on what I'm looking at, and being inspired by. (Eck! Ugly prepositions sticking out of the end of those phrases, at and by like spines on an anenome. Sigh. As one says sweatily in a rec-league game: my bad.)

Here's a PSA: Milton Caniff is a genius.

I recognize that this discovery is a little late, since Caniff was lionized long ago as one of the midcentury greats, and is by now serious old hat several times over. As a visual matter, I find it odd that Caniff is classified as a cartoonist, as surely he is: he served as president of the National Cartoonists' Society, and was feted repeatedly as a leading practitioner of the cartoonist's art. But here's the problem. He draws like an illustrator. He concocts stories like an adventure writer, and is in that sense a cartoonist--he generates his own content. But in every other respect his approach to image-making is based on an ideology of non-fiction, which is finally a hallmark of the tribe of illustrators. Cartoonists operate on the rules of comedy and caprice; illustrators embrace the constraints of fact and fidelity. Caniff's airplanes are well-researched, his costumes reliable, his narration utterly plausible in the context of a World War Two pacific theater "adventure." Caniff knows his material well enough to pass muster with the servicemen who became a key part of his audience. This makes him an illustrator in spirit, if not in name. (But we all know he's a cartoonist.)


The misclassification bugs me.


These inconsistencies of category and nomenclature betray a lack of clarity concerning fundamental critical issues. Like: what is a cartoon? What is a cartoonist? The first question may be answered commonsensically, at least as far conventional understanding takes us, even though these ideas should be subjected to review.

The second query is an issue of self-identification. If Caniff saw himself as a cartoonist rather than an illustrator, he should be taken at his word. To a degree. Certainly he could have been honest and mistaken. Indeed, critically speaking, he could well have been wrong--that is, if a rigorous engagement with the question suggests an answer which can be shown to diverge from Caniff's self-conception. People are wrong all the time, often about basic things. The intentionalist fallacy stalks the grounds, especially after nightfall...

At any rate, these questions have prodded me to work toward a series of essays designed to create a meaningful taxonomy of commerical visual artifacts. More on that someday down the line. But in the meantime, I am happy to celebrate Caniff's accomplishments. I understand there's decent biography on him, which I'd like to get my mitts on. (There it is again, the dread preoposition sticking out from an otherwise smooth surface of acceptable sentences and knitted paragraphs.) I'd also like to spend some time with Steve Canyon.


Bob Flynn said...

Don't you think it's mainly that cartoonists and comic artists get lumped together? I mean, where would you put Art Spiegelman? He is too a champion of non-fiction. But I guess even calling him a cartoonist certainly doesn't sound right. Chris Ware---yes, I would call him a cartoonist. But both I would call comic artists first. Richard Mcguire: Illustrator.

mahendra singh said...

I enjoy your blog & opinions, but as a long-practising illustrator, I have to take up arms with your analysis of Caniff.

I think what you're really talking about is the representation of reality, which illustrators, by virtue of training & experience, tend to tackle with far more depth than cartoonists. In other words, cartoonists are so strenuously symbolic, they cannot cover the whole gamut of visual reality, whereas illustrators can cover the range from abstract pictograms to whatever "realistic" limit you care for.

It's a question of taste but once must say that in contemporary comix, and graphic arts in general, cartooning is the predominant style.

Why? Perhaps it's quicker to master? And thus, inevitably, faster & cheaper to produce …

DB Dowd said...

Bob & Mahendra:

Thanks for the feedback. I have been posting on these issues because on a really fundamental level I think that our vocabulary has been grossly underdeveloped. I'm working on the problem, but am not prepared to venture into print, even in so informal a context as this one, with proposals.

Both of your comments turn on issues of vocabulary and nomenclature. For example, Bob, your observation about what you'd call Art Speigelman begs the question: what is a cartoonist, and what is a comic artist?

And Mahendra, your position that illustrators cover more stylistic territory than cartoonists is a supportable one. But it, too, begs the question: why contrast the categories without meaningful definitions for them in the first place? Is cartooning a subset of illustration? I think not, and I don't think you think so either, but we might infer such a thing.

What's a style, what's discipline, and what's a way of seeing the world? I think that ultimately, all three of these questions bear on the construction of useful designations, both of people and artifacts. More soon...

And keep the comments coming! If this continues I think I'll build a more extended fresh post out of these exchanges.

mahendra singh said...

Rushed for time, quick thoughts:

Yes, you could easily write a book on this subject! Cartooning vs. illustration is a contemporary dichotomy created by commercial necessities, not aesthetic facts.

the worsening cultural/professional amnesia amongst commercial artists leads to such false divisions and needless ghettoization … if you don't remember Hokusai's linework or Rembrandt's ink drawings, you will never grasp the physical nature and deep origins of cartooning … conversely, Tiepolo's wash sketches might point towards a very happy medium, assuming younger artists resume the traditional reverence for draftsmanship

never underestimate the influence of commerce on any art form … modern art pedagogy skims over draftsmanship & historical reflection because publishers & art directors do the same

grumble, grumble, mutter, mutter

Bob Flynn said...

It's funny, I was just at my 10-year high school reunion (which makes me feel old, but probably paints me young and naive to everyone else). I was introducing myself as a cartoonist, which I think most people equate to comic strips, working for a newspaper, or at it's peak, doing cartoons for the New Yorker.

I went on to explain that I do most of my art on the computer, went to school for illustration, dabble in animation, and am currently venturing more seriously in comics.

Cartoonist is a term I recently decided to use over illustrator, and it rolls off the tongue nicely. But it fits, because I work in the vocabulary of cartooning, love pen and ink, and get most of my inspiration from comics and animation.

It would be nice if the nomenclature was more cut and dry. But it's definitely not. I'd wager it would be hard to reclaim, too. Though, worth a shot. I feel like commercial artists sample various areas of the graphic arts, and don't like to be pinned into one corner.

Henry Chamberlain said...

If you haven't already, you want to get your mitts on this book: Meanwhile...: A Biography of Milton Caniff, Creator of Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon by the comics scholar, R.C. Harvey.

The term "cartoonist" still is losing out on all the love it can get. But what would you expect if you brought up the fact you are a cartoonist at a party made up of project managers and accountants? They have no idea that there are people behind the scenes like ourselves wondering if you can fit cartooning neatly within illustration, blah, blah, blah. But they're becoming more and more open to learn.

Among the comics/illustrator crowd, I feel okay starting out with saying that I'm a cartoonist. If someone is really interested, I can go on from there. Most artists are more than one thing anyway. And there I go branching out into distinctions. I would qualify that I am a comics artist as opposed to, say, someone who only does caricatures. One distinction will lead to another. In some cases, maybe the best thing you can do is let your work speak for itself