Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Packing for Paradise: What to Bring?

Now, moving from the ridiculous to the sublime: I mentioned last week that we were due to engage the question of the Desert Island Test in class, as a way of backing into a discussion of criteria of worth. Students submitted a variety of choices. Among the first to be discussed were a pair of pictorial designers par excellence: Alphonse Mucha, the Czech master of Art Nouveau, and his American admirer and imitator, J.C. Leyendecker.

The arguments offered in defense of these choices were aesthetic: these works offer formal pleasure, or the intellectual stimulation afforded by the well-made thing. It was also suggested, if less forcefully, that formal pleasure entails an emotional experience, by definition.

By contrast, another student submitted the example of Banksy, the British street artist who responds to social conditions with grafittish gestures. Here the argument was based on social relevance and currency, in addition to the skill and visual power of the work. It was observed that acutely social work–like up-to-the-minute popular music, stirring via the thrill of now, exactly now!–might well lose its force on a desert island. The solitude of such a setting might well argue against relevance as typically understood. Even so, to formal pleasure we may add social relevance as a criterion of record.

One student, who did not attend the session, had offered Hokusai as an exemplar. Another, pinch-hitting, stepped in to argue that a View of Mt. Fuji offered formal pleasure as well as spiritual value.

We looked at Bernini's Apollo and Daphne, offered by another student as an unlikely item to get in a suitcase, but nonetheless desirable if transportation could be managed. Discussion of the sculpture (among the small number who had been its presence, at the Borghese Palace in Rome) focused on the transcendent power of the object, which I can well vouch for. A totally astonishing thing; breathtaking. Bernini–an artist and architect of fantastic skill and range–raised the question of ambition. Perhaps the most nourishing works (or sets of them attributed to a single creator, as per the coffee table book) were likely to be those of high ambition.

Finally Bill Watterson's "Calvin and Hobbes" received a vote for the sense of recognition his work creates in the viewer. That is, the evocation of "universal" childhood experiences warms the heart and creates a connection between artist and audience member. In addition, this image shows Watterson engaging the history of his own medium, by quoting Thomas Nast. Such signalling of self-awareness, known as intertextuality, is often cited as a marker of big-time art.

When you write them all down, the criteria established in our discussion were:

formal pleasure
social relevance
spiritual value
creative ambition
human resonance

These criteria give us a good start toward establishing a critical method for engaging and evaluating works, projects, careers, even schools and eras.


Does this summary correctly record your sense of our discussion?

Is there a missing criterion, one we didn't come across or recognize?

Emotional power is not explicitly included in these criteria. Is it implicit within others?

Think of an unambiguously important figure. Does s/he embody a value that isn't listed?

Please provide your thoughts in the comment section. And stay tuned for an opportunity to apply these criteria in another post...

Monday, March 29, 2010

Goofy Nut Mugs for the Camera

Here's some breaking news of dubious import. Following my snarky assessment of college sports mascots in St. Louis Magazine (scroll down a bit) I got a call from Fox 2 News in St. Louis. Would I be willing to appear on Tuesday's morning show to discuss my views on guys in foam rubber suits? On what grounds do you say no to such a request, given the goofiness you have already committed to print? Exactly.

I go on at 9:10. Go figure.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Hot Badger Action (And More!)

About a month ago I got a call from Jeanette Cooperman, a reporter for St. Louis Magazine, asking whether I would be able to write a few thoughts about the relative effectiveness of college sports mascots, with particular emphasis on local schools: the Saint Louis University Billikens and Missouri Tigers. (The University of Missouri-St. Louis has unveiled a new mascot, the Triton, which occasioned the miniature feature she had in mind.)

GT readers know, I have given some thought and ink to these matters, particularly in the department of American Indians: on Chief Wahoo, The Cleveland Stereotypes; on cartoon Indians in Dick Tracy and Walt Disney shorts, Wahoo, Yellowpony, and Graphic Indians; on the desultory relationship between Wahoo and Herbie the Husker, Indian Summer Roundup. Jeanette's inquiry afforded an opportunity to have a little open-ended fun. The April issue of the mag is out, which includes a slightly edited version of the email I sent back, below:

You can't even talk about this subject without acknowledging how silly it is. What is a college mascot, but a poor soul in a hot suit will lousy visibility? A sadistic concept, at heart. That said, the characters themselves bear discussion. They cover a lot of ground, from the utterly goofy (e.g., Ohio State's buckeye, a personified nut) to the comparatively documentary (the University of West Virginia's mountaineer, an actual bearded guy with a deerskin costume, not a suit at all).

From my perspective, I think there are clear rules. Number one, foam rubber humans are out. For example, Herbie the Husker (Nebraska) is unbelievably creepy. Humans just don't work. They're not absurd, and they're not funny. Number two, good mascots tend to have the same qualities as effective cartoon characters. They come with clear personalities and emotional confidence. They're mad, or at least cross, and determined. (Oregon actually cheats on this count, having brazenly stolen Donald Duck–complete with name and sailor suit, recolored yellow and green–from Walt Disney.)

Aside: turns out there was a deal between Oregon and Walt. Details here.

My two rules work against our local examples, especially the Billiken. Is he human? Strictly speaking I guess he's an elf, a miniature humanoid. I'll give him a pass on the first rule, but what about the second? Can you identify his emotional attitude?

Look at that meandering mouth, the blank yet slightly cross-eyed gaze. Doesn't he look like he's trying to pass a sobriety test? Does he have any hope whatsoever of intimidating an opponent? Of course not–he's trying to touch his nose! On the positive side, he's got enviable sneakers, and his italicized SLU seems slightly aggressive.

Truman the Tiger vaguely resembles Tony the (Cornflakes) Tiger, but without the cool geometry. His nose goes too bicycle-horn, and worse, his eyes are vacant–black ovals centered within white ones. Zero emotion. He's not hapless, in the manner of poor Billiken, but he's not authoritative either. The whiskers are a plus. Is it really possible that his black stripes are spray-painted on? A yellow cat with graffiti? I know times are tough, but it might be time to up the budget the teeniest bit. (The logotype for the Missouri tiger is a different story. Scowly-looking, fast, menacing. Alas, won't work as a suit.)

My favorite mascots go one of two ways–ridiculous, or truly pissed. In the first category, I suggest Bucky the Badger, of the University of Wisconsin, an excellently weird creature. (See top). He's got a cubist head, beady eyes, proportions like Simon from Alvin and the Chipmunks, and an outfit like he works in an ice cream shop. If you're playing Wisconsin, what do you possibly make of this giant skinny rodent, this love child of Picasso, Baskin and Robbins? How do you keep your head in the game? Bucky brings it.

Angry mascots are common enough, but among my favorites is Big Red, the Razorback from the University of Arkansas. He seems very upset. A snarling, charging hog, Big Red looks like a southern cousin to the KSHE pig (himself a mascot, of an altogether different sort.) On the down side? Snoozeable name for the character.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Of Judgment & Serpents

(Note: I had hoped to post this around noon today, but did not finish in time. Second installment to come...)

Coming up on two years ago I made passing mention in this space of desert islands and what one might take to such places. I was preparing to buckle down for what turned out to be an important episode of work in the desert of Southeastern Utah. What would I take with me as nourishment? Brief entries on the subject here and here.

The question has returned, in a more pointed way. I’ll explain why.

I’ve made mention of the seminar I am teaching this semester, Readings in Postwar American Visual Culture 1945-1965. In fact, a little over a month ago I posted some Norman Rockwell images for the class alongside an introductory discussion of Greenberg’s Avant-Garde and Kitsch. (For GT background, see Avante-Garde and Twitch, here.) The purpose of that session was to grapple with that essay as well as Toward a Newer Laocoön, in some ways the more relevant text for coming to grips with the aesthetic claims of modernism.

Before proceeding, an aside I cannot resist: the Laocoön of Greenberg’s title is a reference to an 18th century essay by the German critic Lessing, which itself makes reference to a mythological tale of woe, memorably captured in a Hellenistic sculpture which has been projected in every single art history class to ever address Greek statuary. (Shown at the top of this post.) Laocoön, a local priest, smells a rat when the Trojan horse is wheeled into place. He suspects it’s hollow, and hurls a spear to confirm the fact. Athena, sponsor of the Greeks, wants no part of this fellow. Before the skeptical Trojan can open his mouth, sea serpents leap from the foam and slither over to strangle the man and his two sons on the spot. Not, one might think, a subject for marble. A tour de force, a spasm of energy chipped into being. Lives at the Vatican. And for present purposes, serves as the straight man to....

...this still from a Mr. Peabody short on the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. Mr. Peabody is a time-traveling professorial dog with a pet boy, Sherman. Beneath the banner of “Improbable History” check out Mr. Peabody as Laocoön, easily handling the snake. The statue seems to be labeled “a coon” unless you know the title, the beginning of which bends around the base away from us. Pretty doggone smart, and funny, too.

Aside finis.

Our discussion on the appointed day fell flat. That Greenberg and other full-throated modernists would have rejected popular works should surprise no one, and in fact did not. In preparation for that session, I wrote:

Greenberg argues that images like these are examples of “ersatz culture, pictures offered up to those who [are] insensible to the values of genuine culture.” True? False? What’s the difference between genuine culture and other culture? If you have answer to that question, how would you apply it to the stuff referred to as “underground” music versus what you hear on mainstream radio?

I had expected to hear something adamant from enthusiasts and connoisseurs in some other area. But adamance did not make an appearance. Quite the contrary. To my students, the partisanship of the modernists seemed harsh, impossibly exclusive.

Is there no dimension of culture, your culture (I asked the students) for which you think right and wrong positions can be defined? The answer to this question assumed a technical form: that is, the five-paragraph essay is held to be the right way to compose one’s thoughts; strict page limits for screenplays are wisely observed. These answers (which fascinated me) do not hinge on values or arguments, but on consensus-oriented markers for qualitative acceptance. Recipes for “good writing” come sans moral or even vitally cultural content. Who'd start a fistfight over the five-paragraph essay?

Contemporary college students have been educated in a postmodern climate of bland but mandatory tolerance. Judgment is an extremely discomfiting word. Emotional perspectivism–feeling as a prequalification for analysis–has helped to devalue and discredit the act of judgment itself. I make this observation as someone who has argued against bogus judgments of quality that really mask categorical differences. I am neither a fetishist of judgment per se, nor a fundamentalist cloaked in aesthetic garb. Hardly!

That said, the analytical entropy of perfect tolerance does us no favors. (By us, I mean we who are producers of cultural products.) We may find ourselves adrift in shallow seas.

So: as a way of backing into to questions of judgment, somewhat on the fly I asked the class to compose a desert island packing list, to consist of the following: the visual output (say in a coffee table book, for practicality’s sake) of two artists, designers, illustrators, or cartoonists; the collected works of one writer (the anthologized so-and-so) or a single giant work of literature (e.g., the Bible, which someone ultimately chose, for non-religious purposes); and the discography of a single composer, performer or group. (I did not think to add film to the list, though I guess you could argue for it in the first category and I would probably yield).

I asked for these lists before the next class. As it happened, we had research presentations and a certain amount of historical material to work our way through, so we did not get to the discussion of these lists, which will be the material for today’s class. I will make a report, and also engage the group in a comment thread in this space for those who want to participate. The lists themselves are rather striking, and beg discussion. It promises to be a lively afternoon.

Meanwhile, I invite reader response. What would you pack in your suitcase?

Monday, March 22, 2010

Ancient Dudes, Then and Now

So much to blog about. Spring Break is over, back from New York; had a great time with my sons Danny and Andrew gooning around the city, which is a pedestrian place par excellence. Saw my niece Grace too, and we had a big hot pot feast in Chinatown, the four of us. If I can stay focused enough, I'll devote a little time to detailing the relevant itinerary and the associated insights. I am always nourished by the Met and by MoMA, although the latter post-renovation often seems a lot like a shopping mall with status. Cafes underfoot and within earshot seemingly everywhere, scads of people shooting pictures of themselves next to famous paintings, etc. But I had a few genuine glimpses of what moved my younger self, back in the day when I lived in that giant grey vertical burgh and sold jewelry at Sak's Fifth Avenue...another time.

Meanwhile lots to report on the teaching and rummaging front–a big day recently in a particularly good antique shop downstate, good pickings in postwar publications, especially–and distinguished drawing by former students and the like. More soon on that front, especially from Toby in Texas. But in the meantime, I had a blast in NY when I spoke as forewarned at the Parsons School of Design, which turned out to resemble nothing so much as a Washington University Communication Design alumni event, to my utter delight. One of the best parts of teaching, to encounter people you knew as doubtful, halting beginners that you very well knew would have something to show for themselves before long. There they are, employed, growing, acquiring the gumshoe gravitas of Brooklynish-Manhattanite trudging through early career stops. (Same for other locales, too.) It was really a treat, and genuinely touching, that so many came out for my modest little chat. We had a big time at a pizza place, shouting over a giant table. Our waitress was unamused, though I thought we were decent enough. We didn't buy any wine. That might have been it.

Anyway I did a little drawing at the Met. Six or seven years ago at the Vatican Museum in Rome I saw quite a striking rack of classical busts all lined up like tchochkes, but way bigger and heavier. It made quite an impression on me, and I've often wished I'd had a sketchbook and drawn those guys then and there. It lives on as an image in my head. Last week at the Met we passed through the Visible Storage area in the American Wing looking for the Sargents (the painting galleries are still closed in the giant renovation of same, now partially complete) and came across a rows of stacked busts, similar to my memory of the Vatican. I resolved to draw them, and this time I did have a sketchbook, having brought one to doodle through centuries. Andrew shot the sketch with his digital camera, which I subsequently fortified with some color shapes in Photoshop to enable projection. Ben Katchor, by whom I was introduced at Parsons (genuinely flattering, though just doing his job, really) was suspicious of the color and called me out on it. "What is that inhumanly flat color doing there?" he asked.

I did a little work on the page when I got back, as I liked the potential of the image. The revised worked up version appears at the top of the post.

More soon, I hope...

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Speaking in New York on March 11

Have been a little quiet last week or so. I'm traveling to New York for a few days, and will be giving a talk in the Illustration Department at Parsons School of Design, part of the New School for Social Research.

The talk is Thursday, March 11, at 7:30 pm. Titled "Face Value." I'm going to discuss observation and socially-grounded reportage, among other things. I'll be reading from Visit Mohicanland and screening Scenes from Starkdale, Ohio.

Venue is at 66 West 12th, room A510. The presentation is open to the public.

Image: D.B. Dowd, Air National Guard, February 2010.