Monday, April 6, 2009

Illustration and Resentment 1: Panter Rumble

I wrote the following post last August, but never put it up on the blog, mostly because I was so discouraged by the controversy it describes. It pains me to state what slowly reveals itself to observers of the field: that much of illustration has been sustained, yet also disfigured, by a culture of resentment. Consider this a warmup for the post to come. I will try to provide more framing thoughts in the next outing–in the meantime here's a first tour through precints of professional–and precious–bitterness.

I've gone back to this post now because after taking a break from the blog and writer in question I have returned to find another jeremiad from February of this year, to which I take greater exception. More soon...

Over at Illustration Art, David Apatoff’s blog that celebrates lost or undersung illustrators and cartoonists, a sort of graphic firestorm has raged since the end of July. The subject of the tussle? The value and significance of Gary Panter’s work, occasioned by Dan Nadel’s two-volume opus on Panter for Picturebox.

David has a big readership, and he delivers by posting interesting work with reflections on same. But Mr. Apatoff chafes on the fact that the work he champions has remained obscure beyond illustration history buffs. The celebrity bestowed on the best of the 80s-through-now generation of “art comics” drives him nuts. He’s also bothered, as are many, by the exclusion of illustration from the precincts of high art. The occasional derangement of his otherwise critical steadiness stems from these irritations: sometimes he opines, immoderately, before he really looks, or—probably more accurately, because he strives to be responsible—sometimes he can’t see past his opinions when he looks.

Many critics have struggled with the same challenge. In fact we all do, if we are honest with ourselves.

I have engaged David before on these grounds.

Here is David on Panter in his opening post:

…most of the time, Panter produces the kind of art you'd expect to find in a decent high school literary magazine.

He goes on to hold the punk-inflected Panter to standards of hostility and defiance demonstrated by Johnny Rotten and Jean Dubuffet, as a way of questioning his authenticity. More significantly and quite differently, David seems irritated by Panter’s reputed disavowal of commercial illustration work, as insufficiently free and personal. Apatoff fails to understand why so much attention should be lavished on Panter. He concludes: “My only explanation is that shallow, immature times call for shallow, immature art.”

That line could have been written by a recalcitrant modern in every decade since Courbet. Which in and of itself does not make it wrong or false. But the blame-the-audience gambit is typically a losing one, at least in the present tense. If you’re an Old Testament prophet, it can work, but then you’ve got a supernatural advantage. To my knowledge, not the case here. (And woe to me, if so.)

I think Panter is a complicated figure—meaning I think his work is mixed. I commented at Illustration Art thusly:

David, you are truly a resource--you help unearth lost careers, you bring interesting insight to much of what you present, and (as you know) I think occasionally you succumb to the torches-and-pitchfork school of art criticism, often in defense of that ill-defined, shimmering notion of Great Art. On those occasions when you light the lantern and rush to the barn to grab an implement, one of the tools you select is your rusted but still useful outflanking hoe, or rake, or whatever it is that you use to deflect potential charges from the left by quoting the antibourgeois perspective. Shrewdly, you swing that thing more aggressively than your expected attacker. Hence, you attempt to club Gary Panter over the head with Johnny Rotten and Jean Dubuffet, the latter with dink in hand. Quite a maneuver! (I trust you didn't pull an oblique muscle)

Except. I am unpersuaded that your encounter with Panter does not begin with irritation. I know his work, I have heard him lecture. I have met him, though I do not know him. And my impression from hearing him speak is that he strikes a pose in much the same way that many artists do, as an urgent naif. He works crudely when he wants, which is often, and he reins it in when he needs to. He's quite a canny guy, and in our managed-perception era he plays the role necessary to create a cult of interest.
…Gary Panter has worked for a long time to become "Gary Panter," and others are involved in that process. The crafted persona, the feigned disinterest in commercial work as inauthentic, the sheer volume of work, much of it so "urgent" as to be structurally indifferent to an extreme, it's all part of the same thing, and it's based on prevailing biases in the market and in the persisting Van Gogh-Pollock-Basquiat myth, except minus the death part and with cartoons thrown in. I don't think it's cynical. But it is conscious.

Subsequently I got slammed by a commenter for advocating Paris Hilton standards, etc. Gary Panter’s “artistic integrity” was questioned. A battle was joined, more or less, between Panter advocates and detractors. The comment thread is over 60, which for blogs like these is a pretty healthy number.

As I have read back through this material, it seems to me that the discussion bears certain hallmarks of all comparable discussions. I’ll come back to that subject in a second installment of this reflection. In the meantime, I’d like to offer a little engagement with Gary Panter’s work, for my own purposes if nothing else.

Like many, I saw the Masters of American Comics show several years ago. Unlike those who saw it in New York and Newark, I saw the whole thing in one place, at the Milwaukee Art Museum. Jeff Pike and I went together. The exhibition itself deserves comment, as a good example of what happens when a thoroughly embedded popular form is brought into an art museum—it’s de-functionalized, de-socialized. But that’s another subject.

The show was broken into two big chunks: celebrated comic strip creators and their works (from early to mid 20th century) and famous comic book artists (from the middle of the century through to the present). I was transfixed by a variety of the original drawings: in the strip group, Milton Caniff and Chester Gould, plus the tearsheets of Lyonel Feininger; in the book group, Jack Kirby and Chris Ware, especially. Several of those included from the present will naturally fall away in future such roundups, as the more durable works and careers emerge. Among those likely to fall away will be the able but ultimately mannerist Charles Burns, and Gary Panter.

In fact, from my perspective, Panter’s Jimbo comics from the Raw era more often than not fail to cohere visually. I will readily confess that I am, before almost all else, a formalist. Someone’s text may be wonderful, her plotting inspired, her image sequences well-reasoned. But if the realization of form isn’t there, I can’t or won't stay with it. I hasten to add that I do not mean "good drawing" as synonymous with "realization of form." (Good drawing is often a term of reaction.) Honestly, Panter’s comics work repelled me in Milwaukee, in part I am sure because I saw his work near the very end of a huge show, but the same did not occur in my viewing of the Chris Ware pages, which I saw equally late in the day. I will go back to them sometime, because I think they demanded something of me that I could not supply that day. A more enervated viewing, perhaps. (An aside: Mr. Apatoff declared in the back-and-forth of comments in this thread that Chris Ware "can't draw well," which all but confirms my point about the phrase as a term of reaction.)

All that said, I really like some of Panter’s illustration work, which draws on reserves of depictive insight otherwise concealed. I have posted a few such works within this post. One of the things I really like in some of Panter's work is his strategic use of transparency and overprinting. The image at the top of this post, a cover for Marvel from last year, features a transparent mid-value gray for a key drawing. The gray lets the underlying color add value and body to the drawing. I'm very fond of that image, and of Panter's color use in general--especially when it's kept in check by a project to which some other player is a party. It keeps him honest.

I'd also add that Panter is extremely productive, which I admire. The guy bangs out a bunch of work. When you're that productive, your batting average doesn't have to be high--and in fact, speed and devil-may-care energy can work as a creative strategy. If you bat .250, you can get inspired work one out of every four times.

But finally my own conclusions about the merits of Panter are somewhat beside the point. I think the Panter rumble over at Illustration Art captures a tedious reality: too much writing about art and commercial images is ideological. When such writing is offered by illustrators (or those purporting to speak for illustrators) descriptive passages are typically few and far between. Instead, the reader is subjected to highly opinionated interpretive passages which trade on presumed descriptions and assumed definitions: such as that so-and-so “can’t draw”, or that “the art world” thinks that so-and-so is a “genius”, and isn’t that absolutely the dumbest thing that anybody has ever heard of. David Apatoff is certainly capable of description, but his writing is often so marked by resentment that sometimes even his description operates like would-be covert interpretation.

As I suggested at the top of this post, I will return to the subject of illustration and resentment in the next few days.


John Hendrix said...

Brilliant post, DB.

Do you think the bitterness you speak of is particular, in some way, to illustration alone? Or is it just the residue at the end of a career that has felt controlled by others? Say what you want about Gary Panter, Gary Panter isn't bitter.

God Speed Ye Illustrators.

Bob Flynn said...

Wow, so great you unearthed this post. I love it. I'm an on-and-off admirer of Panter's work myself. I have the same (almost visceral) reaction to Jimbo. But I love the Omega illustration that starts this post. Love his sketchbooks, looser work when the sum of the whole somehow adds up.

It's also worth mentioning that Panter has spawned plenty of imitators...good and bad.

I agree with you in that people simply tend to fall into ideological camps. And people are quick to superficially attack simplistic, crude, or naive art. Not sure how you can combat that in terms of art criticism.

I find myself defending musicians I like for similar reasons. You either have a taste for someone's work, or you don't.

David Apatoff said...

DB, this may surprise you but I don't think anyone is looking forward to your forthcoming analysis more than I. As I have told you in the past, I have great respect for your intellectual honesty and objectivity and the meticulous care you devote to these topics. I strive to be scorchingly honest and self-critical in my own writings, and I keep your model in mind when I do. In posts where I have been critical of certain artwork (not just the work of Gary Panter or Chris Ware, but artists in the Museum of Modern Art as well) I have often asked my audience, "can someone articulate for me the value I am missing in these celebrated pictures?" All too often, the explanation from Panter or Ware fans is that I am "retarded" or "completely on crack." So I promise, I am genuinely looking forward to a more thoughtful explanation of these issues.

It may also surprise you that I agree with you 100% about the primary importance of "realization of form," which I recognize and accept is different from "good drawing." It's no secret that I love good drawing, and that I believe our generation doesn't value good drawing the way that some previous generations did. We could debate whether that is a good or bad thing, but I think your focus on the realization of form (which I try to talk about on my own blog as the language of form) is absolutely right. (And of course, the realization of form is not the province of any generation or style. I applaud many talented young illustrators on my blog such as John Hendrix, Tom Fluharty, Sterling Hundley or Nathan Fowkes because I think they understand form, and criticize many older, more traditional illustrators who don't, so hopefully you won't place all of my views in the hidebound "recalcitrant" box. The realization of forms still remains a great polar star for separating good conceptual art or performance art or abstract art from bad.)

Finally, I agree that I become irked when I perceive people fawning over work that I consider immature or puerile, especially if it seems that social prejudice or illiteracy has left audiences unaware of far superior work that more talented artists sacrificed to produce. Perhaps that makes my standards old fashioned, but I would ask you to reconsider whether "resentment" is the correct characterization. "Resentment" usually implies that I am nursing some grievance over an insult or loss. But the success of these artists has not harmed me in any way. I earn a nice living in a totally unrelated field, completely immune from insult or injury by these people. I don't compete with them for work or reputation, I don't own stock in the artists I admire, I have no vested interest in an academic theory under attack. I am just trying to distinguish good art from bad art, as honestly as my brain and my senses permit me to do it. Unlike many people in the art business, I can afford to say the emperor has no clothes without jeopardizing my personal status.

I recognize that "resentment" does exist in the field of illustration. For example, when Robert Weaver publicly attacked Joe Bowler and Coby Whitmore as "candy box artists," I think it is fair to call that resentful because he felt affronted by the success of his competitors and told them his goal was to "put them out of business." That's not me.

I think the toughest challenge in the task you have set out for yourself is to articulate some standard for judgment that allows you to be open minded but not formless, tolerant but not totally subjective. I think you tend to have more milk of human kindness than I do (an admirable trait) so you err on the side of tolerance. I, on the other hand, in addition to comforting the afflicted take some pleasure in afflicting the comforted (in the words of H.L. Mencken) so I tend to err on the side of being judgmental about some of our sacred cows. Whether you ultimately decide that qualifies as resentment or not, it seems to me that an analysis of this kind has to address the question of whether we are still permitted to have a hierarchy of values. You already know where I come out. I will be intersted to see where you do.

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