Monday, April 20, 2009

I & R 3: Avant-Garde and Twitch


What follows ought to have been composed for a much longer format than a blog post. It’s a little sprawling, but it lays out some ideas that I’ve wanted to sketch for a while now. Here are the last of my reflections on the dyspepsia of illustration, and an attempt to locate possible causes of same.

One

I’m attracted to commercial visual culture as a subject of study in part due to issues of class. As in social class. Illustrators in the modern period have produced work for consumption by the middle classes. Lacking a genuine aristocracy (as opposed to a category of people with gobs more money than everybody else) our culture has always been dominated by commercial forms. It’s worth reviewing Clement Greenberg’s sketch of modern cultural development in "Avant Garde and Kitsch":

Kitsch is a product of the industrial revolution which urbanized the masses of Western Europe and America and established what is called universal literacy.

Prior to this the only market for formal culture, as distinguished from folk culture, had been
among those who, in addition to being able to read and write, could command the leisure and comfort that always goes hand in hand with cultivation of some sort. This until then had been inextricably associated with literacy. But with the introduction of universal literacy, the ability to read and write became almost a minor skill like driving a car, and it no longer served to distinguish an individual's cultural inclinations, since it was no longer the exclusive concomitant of refined tastes.


(Greenberg continues) The peasants who settled in the cities as proletariat and petty bourgeois learned to read and write for the sake of efficiency, but they did not win the leisure and comfort necessary for the enjoyment of the city's traditional culture. Losing, nevertheless, their taste for the folk culture whose background was the countryside, and discovering a new capacity for boredom at the same time, the new urban masses set up a pressure on society to provide them with a kind of culture fit for their own consumption. To fill the demand of the new market, a new commodity was devised: ersatz culture, kitsch, destined for those who, insensible to the values of genuine culture, are hungry nevertheless for the diversion that only culture of some sort can provide.

Save for the nose-wrinkling, Greenberg is quite correct. Early mass culture was manufactured in part to meet economic opportunity. Its producers also sought to create cheap new cultural experiences–new human expressions–appropriate for an urban context. And yes, the manifestations of this new culture were often modified versions of pre-existing forms. One cannot imagine the modern situation comedy television show without Moliere. But culture is always evolving. And to note that economic motives played (and continue to play) both creative and circumscribing roles in the story does not invalidate it. Rather, it makes it more interesting. The intersection of technological change, commercial opportunity, distributive innovation and aesthetic skill provide a dynamic equation worthy of close study.

I’d argue that Greenberg’s “genuine” culture is just desacralized religious culture, which–as modernity advances–bequeaths its “ultimate concern” (in the language of Tillich) to the arts. This genuine culture dispenses with the explicitly religious, even as it retains the notion of a spiritual quest. God dies, and leaves a whiff of metaphysics behind.

And yet. Mostly, art retains its prestige because of its alliance with the upper classes, (which, not incidentally, traditionally controlled religion). Today’s art establishment sees itself as progressive. In academic-ideological terms, it might be. But structurally speaking, art relies on its proximity to class and wealth. That is: art hangs out with money. Old money. Classy new money. Philanthropic money. Serious money.

That an alliance–or something more simply transactional–exists between the ruling classes and the art establishment does not seem open to debate. That connection may be growing thinner, and might be powerfully vulnerable to changes in the tax code. Pull the exemption on charitable donations, and perhaps things will change. But only somewhat.

I have a little populist streak in me, I guess. I simply prefer the popular arts. I enjoy them not because I think they are more authentic–they’re not–but because they lack pretense. I attribute this to the utter secularity of these arts. Popeye cannot not have a metaphysics, unless spinach be asked to do serious work indeed.


Two

Commercial culture is never convincing about anything beyond the here and now. It’s completely presentist, and committed to making a sale: shave and a haircut / two bits. Secular mass culture may be empty, or cheaply aspirational. But nobody has ever burned down a village over it. (Though that should hardly be taken for innocence. The here-and-now has included profitable bigotry and loads of pictorial mischief.) But popular works are embedded in the everyday–they tell you things about your culture straightforwardly. Even–especially–when the news is bad. I like that.


Illustrators and cartoonists work for the middle classes. They narrate, spell out, amuse, tweak. But these functional territories do not sit beyond the bounds of taste. On the contrary. In the absence of art-theoretical preoccupations, taste provides a crucial differentiator. Charm, wit, elegance: these are markers of refinement, of style. The critic Clive Bell, author of that slippery concept significant form, once suggested that the best way to cultivate visual taste was to go to a decorative arts museum and contemplate chairs: which is best? Indeed, it is a useful exercise.

Consider midcentury illustrated magazine spreads. On what basis shall we compare works, if not in terms of taste, of visual panache? Assuming that the content is significantly outdated, why would we do such a thing at all, if not to experience and contemplate visual pleasure?


In this respect Greenberg’s account contains an error. To claim that popular works–examples of kitsch–lack seriousness (or alternatively, pretense) is not to argue that they lack rigor. The fetching ditty has been fashioned, even as it sounds tossed off. At this late date who would argue a) that Rodgers and Hammerstein did not make significant contributions to American culture, and b) that John Cage did? The Broadway song travels from brassy show to arty jazz and back. The best commercial visual work can support similarly diverse readings–grounded in cultural function, bound to then-contemporary social relations, available for aesthetic experience, limited by the bounds of arguable interpretation.

Much has changed since the publication of "Avante Garde and Kitsch." But the seriousness of cultural and academic engagement with visual works from the commercial tradition remains stunted. That such works were generated for the middle classes for commercial purposes has a great deal to do with it.

I will confess that my own interest in these things has something to do with the forbidden cultural pleasure of contemplating them. Having grown up in a place that lacked “culture,” but which was dominated by culture (the ersatz warrior culture of high school sports) I have always wondered about the crucial stuff that remains invisible in plain sight.

Illustration somehow has managed to be everywhere and invisible at the same time. Illustrators have typically emerged from the bourgeoisie to produce works for the bourgeoisie. “Advanced” culture does not pay attention to such stuff. It’s almost as if you need night vision goggles to see it all. (Of course at this late date media forms have become completely enmeshed, and their audiences extremely sophisticated. Really, who needs Dada when you can watch Adult Swim?)

The work of illustrators has served commercial interests and directly addressed consumers, who have been perfectly happy to be addressed in this way. By playing to and with the commercial classes, publishers and illustrators created a new realm in practical opposition to high culture. The word kitsch is poorly suited to describe such material, because it presupposes that works from this new realm are categorically objectionable. As a term, kitsch enshrines the judgment of the high cultural ruling class. Thus, illustration was (and largely remains) vulgar.



Three

Which brings us to the subject of resentment. The exclusion of illustration from respectable high cultural precincts has stung. Many illustrators have battled a persistent self-loathing, muttering to themselves how they’d reposition themselves as painters if only they could break free of the clients and the checks.


I don’t want to be rated as an illustrator trying to paint, but as a painter who has shaken the dust of the illustrator from his heels! –N.C.Wyeth, from a letter to his mother, September 13, 1915.

Such protestations may suggest guilt and shame, emotions which often yield resentment. Historically speaking, illustrators’ self-image is a big subject, worthy of much more research and reflection. But for a host of reasons, the culture of illustration fostered resentment in other respects. Until the mid 1950s, stylistic expectations limited the available visual choices for illustrators. Except for the smartest and most adaptive, like Al Parker (who I think really saw himself as a designer in pictures, as opposed to an illustrator in the standard sense–an advantage in these respects) most illustrators operated in a box of sorts. The forties and fifties saw an explosion of American variants of modernism. Illustrators were trained in traditional modes, and especially periodical illustration continued to call for traditionally grounded work, even as the end of that market loomed. The folks who worked in jazz packaging(David Stone Martin, Jim Flora) and animation design during those decades assimilated modernism very successfully. Editorial work in the Color TV era adapted conceptually and visually. But many illustrators have continued to work in traditional modes for specified markets all along, and workaday realities plus the inexorable shrinkage of such markets have produced alienation, disorientation and yes, resentment. The phone just doesn’t ring as often. And now that the money is gone, the compensatory power of market rewards can’t salve the wound of cultural separation, even exclusion.

Western visual modernism was a world-historical cultural achievement. For more than 50 years, from the end of the 1880s through the early 1940s, visual thought occupied a leading position in Western culture. The commercial arts played a modest role in these developments, and exploited the opportunity they afforded to create new experiences of lasting value. The best of the commercial practitioners generated work of distinction that transcends its moment and function. We can argue about when modernism lost its nerve and thus its force, but its centrality to 20th century culture cannot be denied.


Some in our field have begrudged or disputed the claims–or more accurately, the status–of modernism. The debate in this space about discussions of the merits of Gary Panter and Kerry James Marshall have captured the sense of such challenges. I recognize that David Apatoff has diverse tastes, and that he himself is not an anti-modern. But echoes from the “pot of paint flung in the face of the public,” Ruskin’s memorable diction re Whistler, have not died out. Traditional heel-diggers-in have never been without an audience, from Kenyon Cox to Thomas Hart Benton to scores since. To be sure, an insistence upon appropriate craft cannot be negotiatied away. But relevance is the more important question. The draftsmanship of Leonardo can be (and is) replicated en masse in Chinese art schools (which may have dented their nation’s trade imbalance through the mass importation of plaster casts). What makes Leonardo Leonardo is not that he could draw, but that he could think with his mind and eyes and hands in a way that propelled his culture forward in available, powerful ways at a given moment in time. Of course that moment is gone. Contemporary Da Vincis obviously won’t practice painting, an antiquarian activity in the 21st century.

Four

Illustration as a communicative mode long predates illustration as a profession. The latter was a creation of technology, distribution, demographics and economics. The people who got good at making functional pictures between the American Civil War and the one we fought in Vietnam were just lucky to be alive in a century when such work commanded high value. But illustration in a market economy is just a kind of commerical picture-making. Its value is always contingent on the realities of the moment, which are relentlessly shaped by advancing technologies and entrepreneurial realities. The page will soon yield to the screen. Alas, illustration did not develop a theory of itself in time to respond to these new realities. It has only a set of practices. Which has produced more disorientation, alienation, and resentment.


Illustration is finally aligned with knowledge, not taste. It harkens back to illumination, to shedding light. Discovery is always current, never precious or preserving. Insofar as I am committed to consideration of the field and its history, it is to shed light on our time, not to enshrine a bygone era. The resentment I have sought to identify and decry is that of a past mourned, and more significantly, a present resisted.

I will try to provide image citations in coming days.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Illustration and Resentment 2: Kerry James Marshall


David Apatoff, ever game, wrote a forthright comment in response to my last post–a characterization of the Gary Panter dust-up at David’s blog as indicative of a culture of resentment that seems to animate certain quarters of the illustration field.

My aim in this go-round is to suggest a) a standard of care, so to speak, for criticism, and b) identify bitterness as such when it shoots up out of the ground of a partisan's prose. In a day or two, I will offer a third installment, devoted to an analysis of the cultural sources of the buried conflict which has spawned certain of these resentments.

But first, some context.

The impetus for my last post, hauled from my written-but-not-posted bucket, was a February 2009 offering by David on the subject of Kerry James Marshall. Marshall is an African-American artist who first acheived prominence in the 1990s for large scale memory paintings of life in urban renewal projects in the mid-sixties. He has since gone on to produce a variety of works, most referencing black popular culture.


If you spend time in museums–especially comprehensive ones like the first- and second-tier institutions in large American cities that made their fortunes early enough to gobble up the best available European art at good rates–it is possible to develop relationships with a wide range of individual works of art. I visit specific paintings and artifacts in a variety of museums in the East and Midwest whenever I can. For example, I always visit John Singer Sargent’s Wyndham Sisters (1899; above) in the American Wing at the Metropolitan. In Cleveland, I always go to see Bellows’ Stag at Sharkey’s. In St. Louis, I visit the roomful of Max Beckmanns, the late Gustons (on the extremely rare occasions when they’re up), a set of Olmec reliefs, and a Kerry James Marshall painting that I really admire titled Watts 1963. Among others.


The Marshall painting (below) hangs in the upper galleries of the St. Louis museum, which feature modern and contemporary art. (Alas, the Marshall must spend the business hours of every day within aural range of a Bruce Nauman video. Grating.) As a question of ambition and pure visual presence, the painting overwhelms its neighbors, which have included a Brice Marden, a work I also admire (above). Marshall’s in-the-projects paintings articulate spaces both physical and cultural. The unstretched grommetted canvases, which recall sideshow signage, offer hope and reach but foretell threats, too. Space precludes a full discussion, but these are really serious works of art, open-hearted yet cunning and rueful. I gain nourishment from the Watts painting (set in Nickerson Gardens) painting every time I’m with it. I love this thing.
So that is the context in which I read David Apatoff’s opening salvo:
Artist Kerry James Marshall is a certified genius. The MacArthur Foundation confirmed it when they awarded him their $500,000 genius award. But don't take the MacArthur Foundation's word for it. His work was also awarded places of honor in the Whitney Museum biennial, Venice Biennale, and the prestigious German Documenta show. Marshall's paintings sell for $400,000 to prominent museums and collectors. People of great stature and prominence who pride themselves on their taste have bestowed upon Marshall almost every form of recognition that our society offers.

Apatoff then presents a sonnet by Edna St. Vincent Millay, (reproduced in part below) offered ironically.

Country of hunchbacks! —
where the strong, straight spine,

Jeered at by crooked children, makes his way

Through by-streets at the kindest hour of the day,
Till he deplore his stature, and incline
To measure manhood with a gibbous line;

Till out of loneliness, being flawed with clay,

He stoop into his neighbor's house and say,

"Your roof is low for me — the fault is mine."

Etc.

Up to this point, David has presented no argument. He has reproduced images by Marshall without providing bibliographical context, or even titles. (Most are panels from Rythm Mastr, a 1999 comic book project that involves an African pantheon and a futurist science fiction adventure. Interview transcript here. I saw some of this material in an exhibition at the Contemporary in Chicago some years back. I found it less compelling than the large scale paintings.) Apatoff's strategy (I gather) is to show some artwork with an ironically celebretory text, calculated to mock, without bothering to present a case for his implied naked-emperor conclusion. The approach can only be called methodologically smug yet logically weak.

Several steps down in the comment thread (which features some real doozies) David finally gets around to stating the reasons behind his apparent contempt for Mr. Marshall's work:

I also believe that Marshall does not draw or paint well, that his compositions are mediocre and that his themes, while occasionally clever, are rarely profound.

On what basis does he make this judgment? By looking at some jpegs? He does not tell us. We do not know whether he has engaged any such works (drawings? paintings?) in person. We're not really given a sense of what it might mean from Mr. Apatoff's perspective to draw or paint "well". Rather, we are offered an unsupported, flip opinion. And what about the objection that Marshall is “rarely profound”? In which specific case has Marshall’s work achieved profundity, and how? How often, say, was Matisse "profound"? Twenty percent of the time? Sixty-five? What might be an acceptable figure for a profundity average? And mediocre compositions? Really?

This is cheap writing; it demeans its author.

If we assume that an objectively substantial career is up for discussion, it seems appropriate to do some basic description first, followed by a balanced assessment. The work covers these years, these media, this or that major project, looks like such and such, and is held to be this or that by so and so. That’s what critics do. They describe, as reliably and as dispassionately as possible. They sketch a landscape of work and thought. Then they interpret and assess. On the most basic level, a trustworthy critic approaches an art experience as openly as possible, so as to be fresh in the face of what will be, by definition, a singular experience. If they cannot be surprised, they're ill-equipped to represent us well, which is their job. Critics look or watch or read for us, as temporary stand-ins. (David's comment linked to a post in which he decried the lack of judgment in contemporary art criticism. I agree that good criticism must adjudicate, but like any good legal opinion, it ought to be based on facts and case law, not rhetoric.)

By contrast, in this case we seem to have been treated to a pre-processed conclusion, like those offered by TV pundits with known positions. It’s boring and repetitive, unless you tune in purely for the thrill of self-confirmation. He continues:

I think his work is of the quality of a mid-tier comic book artist-- both in form and content. Yet, the arbiters of taste have proclaimed him a "genius" whose pictures are worth $400,000 apiece, while comic artists everywhere try to eke out a living.


There it is, the glowing ore of resentment, exposed by the elements. The “arbiters” have “proclaimed” Marshall a “genius.” They’ve diluted our standards! They’ve sullied our traditions! (Edna adds: They’re pullling us down, too!)

They spit on our values!

The next sentence makes the point plain:

I would have less of a grievance if comic artists weren't treated with such disdain by the same audience.

Begrudged success as a "grievance." Hmm. And as for disdain: there’s plenty of disdain here, all issuing from the writer. The imagined disdain to which David refers-–that, apparently, of gallery-goers, curators, various arty types--hasn't been established. In fact there is no such disdain. There is disinterest. People follow what they follow, and comic books appeal to a pretty narrow demographic. Truly, those folks looking at Kerry James Marshall, including those sitting on review panels and granting agencies, are thinking about other things altogether. If Kerry James Marshall wants to do a comic book, fine, it’s an art project. Beyond that? These folks do not care. And that, finally, is what’s painful to the constituency David purports to represent. Disdain takes effort. That would be flattering, in a way: they fear us enough to hate us! But disinterest? That's just a sensible response to boredom. Nothing happening here. . .

How do you file a grievance against invisibility? You don’t, because it hasn’t occurred to anybody to set up that office in the first place. And so maybe you fill that void with a fantasy of opposition, with dreams of disdain. Here we find the exhausted, smoldering Silent Majority, muttering about the erosion of standards and–to judge from a few of Illustration Art’s commenters–lingering anxiety about minority encroachments, too. Give it up. The art museums and the curators and the alternative spaces and the critical studies people are simply engaged in another cultural activity. Perhaps there could be meaningful overlap, but any such exchanges will require persons of goodwill and curiosity. Opinion merchants won't help much. It saddens me to recognize, not for the first time, that the paranoid style of American politics extends into a fraction of the illustration community. The evidence is there in black and white, in the comment thread to David Apatoff’s smug mockery of Kerry James Marshall. Curious, that such a bitter response to invisibility should be directed at an artist who is himself working through a legacy of invisibility in African-American history:

The condition of invisibility that Ralph Ellison describes [in 'Invisible Man'] is not a kind of transparency, but it's a psychological invisibility. It's where the presence of black people was often not wanted and denied in the American mindset. And so what I set out to do was to develop a figure or a form that would represent that condition of invisibility, where you had an incredible presence, but there was a way in which you could sometimes be seen and not seen at the same time. –Kerry James Marshall, on the painting Our Town, shown above.

Next: I’m going back to visit the Watts painting tomorrow, just to reboot.

In a day or two, Illustration and Resentment 3. And then I'll be quiet.

Images: Kerry James Marshall, Better Homes, Better Gardens, 1994 [note the art historical reference to Expulsion from the Garden scenes in the placement and orientation of the figures]; John Singer Sargent, The Wyndam Sisters, 1899; Marshall, Watts 1963, 1995; Brice Marden, Uxmal, 1991-93; Marshall, Our Town, 1995.

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.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Screening Tonight


I have put together several animation screenings for my Commercial Modernism class, the second of which is tonight. The evening's films will cover various creative and cultural engagements with and over the claims of modernism. I may write more about this later, but the for the moment, one such engagement includes the Chuck Jones-directed short, Duck Amuck from 1953. The short is modern in the sense that it operates like an animated Pirandello play, in that the protagonist, the hapless Daffy, consistently breaks the fourth wall to bitch at his creator, whose malevolent scribblings bring the duck nothing but grief. In the early stages, the mischief is limited to swapped-out backgrounds (as above, with farm scene inserted to disrupt the musketeer premise) but it gets worse quickly.

The screening is in Wilson Hall room 214, on the campus of Washington University in St. Louis. The public is welcome.