Between her two major books on feminist art history, Old Mistresses (1981, co-authored by Rozsika Parker) and Vision and Difference (1987), Griselda Pollock published an article titled “Women, Art, and Ideology: Questions for Feminist Art Historians”¹. In part a summary of the former book, it outlines Pollock’s notion of a feminist art history (or should that rather be “feminism in art history”?). The problem with previous feminist art historians, according to Pollock’s essay, is that they only tried to amend the canon of art history by adding female artists that had been omitted before. Pollock calls this an “unthreatening and additive feminism”. Instead, she argues, “a central task for feminist art historians is […] to critique art history itself”, because art history (as well as its object of study, art) is a system that “actively constructs and secures the patriarchal definitions for the category Woman”.
How, then, is a feminist art history possible at all? “The important questions” need to be asked: “how and why an art object or text was made, for whom was it made, for what purpose was it made, within what constraints and possibilites was it produced and initially used?” The importance of such questions to any art historical analysis seems self-evident today, and in fact they were already being asked back then – Marxist art history and the social history of art were a big thing. But they didn’t satisfy Pollock, who says that Marxist thinking about art, which treats “art as a reflection of the society that produced it”, has some severe shortcomings: it “oversimplifies the processes whereby an art product […] represents social processes that are themselves enormously complicated, mobile, and opaque”; it “condemns women effectively to a homogenenous, gender-defined category” and “effaces the specificity and heterogeneity of women’s artistic production”; it places works of art in ideological categories when in fact “ideologies are often fractured and contradictory”, etc.
So the overall tendency of Pollock’s feminist art history is: specificity, particularity, complexity and heterogeneity instead of generalisation and categorisation. Clearly, such a kind of art history is a radical shift away from scholarship as it is traditionally understood. It is perhaps best summed up in Pollock’s demand that “the relations between women, art, and ideology have to be studied as a set of varying and unpredictable relationships.” However, when Pollock’s essay provides some examples of what such an analysis might look like (taken from Old Mistresses), they don’t seem quite so radical after all. Sofonisba Anguissola’s 1561 Self Portrait With Spinet and Attendant is interpreted as a display of the artist’s aristocratic class position which allowed her to become a professional painter, unlike women of lower classes. Johann Zoffany’s 1772 The Academicians of the Royal Academy, in which the only two female Academy members are not part of the group in the room but represented as portrait paintings on the wall, shows how the system of the art academy actively constructed “distinct identities for the artist who was a man – the artist, and the artist who was a woman – the woman artist.” The late 18th-century family portraits by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun show how the ideal of the woman at that time had changed to that of “the happy mother, the woman fulfilled by childbearing and childrearing.”
Thus, in contrast to ‘mainstream’ art history, Pollock’s vantage point is always the (female) artist’s biography. Let’s see where this approach takes us when applied to a random comic.
The last comic by a female author that I read was Moe Yukimaru’s Suisai (more on that manga in a later post) vol. 1. What can we find out about this mangaka? Born in 1986, Yukimaru worked as an assistant to Nana Haruta (on another shōjo manga, Love Berrish) before debuting as a mangaka in 2006. Most of her manga were published in the shōjo magazine Ribon. Suisai started in 2015, i.e. when Yukimaru was 28 or 29. According to e.g. her Japanese Wikipedia page, her dream for the future is to become a “mangaka and charismatic housewife at the same time”. However, we don’t know when and under which circumstances she said that.
Yukimaru also has a weblog, yukimarublog.jugem.jp. She hasn’t posted for a while and her latest blogposts are about her current manga, Hatsukoi Retake, and transitioning from print to digital-first publishing. But her earlier posts from around the time when she was working on Suisai are quite interesting. In one of them, from late 2014, she apologises for “not having a particularly stylish lifestyle to blog about” and not being one of those “bloggers who write about highly feminine content with fashionable images every day”. Apart from promoting her manga work, though, there is quite a lot of cat content, food pics, and even a post about Yukimaru doing her fingernails.
So the image that we can perceive of Yukimaru is that of a ‘highly feminine’ artist who is firmly associated with the shōjo manga segment. Interestingly, Suisai doesn’t quite reflect this image. Although often labeled ‘romance’, this first volume at least is not so much of a girl-meets-boy story (there is something of that, too) but more of a ‘girl-meets-flute’ story of a high school student who enters her school’s brass band. It is a music manga first and foremost. Other music manga, e.g. Naoshi Arakawa’s Shigatsu wa kimi no uso / Your Lie in April, have been published in shо̄nen magazines. Granted, that one had both a male protagonist and a male author, but the point is that demographic categorisations such as shо̄jo or shо̄nen are often quite artificial, and that Suisai isn’t a particularly ‘girly’ manga.
Taking a closer look at Suisai, however, we find some interesting points being raised in terms of gender. Right at the beginning, we learn that the protagonist, Urara, had been a successful track-and-field athlete in middle school. But now in high school, she wants to “try something new” instead of a sports club – so that she can spend more time wearing the “cute” sailor uniform of her new school. “After quitting the [track-and-field] club, I have grown my hair long just for that”, she says, which prompts her classmate to say: “So there is an actual girl hidden in you after all.”
In the following course of the story, there are several scenes in which Urara’s energetic and bold nature is seen as undesirable and un-girly, and her lack of “cuteness” is pointed out. Thus we could read this coming-of-age story as the story of Urara moving on not only from middle to high school, but also from a sports to a music club, leaving her boyish childhood behind and becoming a woman. As Griselda Pollock would perhaps say, Urara succumbs to the allure of this artificially created category of Woman; a category created both by the fictional society in the manga and real society, including Moe Yukimaru, her publisher, and her readers.
¹ First published in Woman’s Art Journal Vol. 4, No. 1 (Spring – Summer, 1983), pp. 39–47, https://doi.org/10.2307/1358100; re-published in Women’s Studies Quarterly Vol. 15, No. 1/2, Teaching about Women and the Visual Arts (Spring – Summer, 1987), pp. 2–9, https://www.jstor.org/stable/40004832.
It already feels good to get a PhD thesis completed and submitted, and defended. But the icing on the cake was to receive the ‘August-Grisebach-Preis’ of the Institute of European Art History at Heidelberg University for one of the two best dissertations of the year! Along with the award came the honour of giving a speech at the semester opening of the Institute in October. Usually such a speech would be a summary of the thesis, but I thought it would be more interesting for both the audience and me if I talked about a different topic (that still is loosely related to that of my thesis).
When I received the news in early August, I was engrossed in the Olympics, and I felt that as an expert on Japanese pop culture, I might have an interesting thing or two to say about the manifold ways in which manga, anime etc. were present at that event. At the same time, I wanted to make some statements about the place of (Japanese) pop culture in (European) Art History, and discipline-specific approaches to it. Perhaps that was a bit of a tall order for a twenty-minute talk, but I’m still happy with the way it turned out, so I decided to translate it into English, add some footnotes and publish it on Humanities Commons: https://hcommons.org/deposits/item/hc:43623
(This also marks the first time that I deposited something on Humanities Commons. So far, I’m very pleased with it.)
Here’s the abstract:
Spectators of the 2020/21 Olympic Games were frequently confronted with references to Japanese popular culture, particularly at the opening and closing ceremonies. However, these references to anime, manga, video games and other visual media were often so subtle that they were easy to miss unless pointed out and explained by television commentators. Art historians should not shy away from engaging with such objects and images.
On the surface, Alois Riegl’s 1902 book The Group Portraiture of Holland (German full text here) is about a quite specific kind of artwork – Dutch portrait paintings from the 16th and 17th century. However, it also provides some concepts and terms applicable to any group portrait. Among those, the following three oppositional pairs are arguably the most intriguing:
- subjectivism vs. objectivism: in a subjective mode of depiction, the figures in the portrait present themselves as they would to a spectator present at the same site. They are embedded in the landscape and affected by their surroundings, so that e.g. their outlines may “evaporate”. In the objective mode, in contrast, figures appear in a sort of ideal or neutral view and are detached from their surroundings, resulting e.g. in clear outlines.
- subordination vs. coordination: in many groups there is a hierarchy, e.g. different ranks in a military unit. When such a hierarchy is clearly visible in a portrait, for instance by gestures, dress, symbolic objects, or placement of figures, Riegl speaks of subordination.
- symbolism vs. genre*: in 1902 the Symbolist art movement was in full swing, but that’s not what Riegl means by this term. Figures in a group portrait often perform actions and/or hold objects, and when those actions seem believable, i.e. when it looks as if the sitter actually performed that action, the action itself threatens to overshadow the individuality of the figure and the painting is in danger, so to speak, of becoming a genre painting instead of a portrait. Symbolic actions and objects, however, are metonymic signifiers of something else, most often character traits of the respective sitter. A telltale sign by which symbolism and genre can be told apart is how much attention the figure is paying to the action it performs or the object it is holding: if the figure is looking somewhere else (e.g. out of the picture), the action/object is probably symbolic.
Does it make sense to look at comics the same way Riegl looks at paintings? It is not unusual to compare individual comic panels to paintings, and many panels feature three or more figures. It can be argued that such panels sometimes resemble portraits – for instance, superhero comics books often contain a splash panel that introduces the main characters.
Let’s look at two examples from a fairly standard current superhero series, Batman/Superman by Gene Luen Yang and Ivan Reis. In issue #17, our protagonists encounter a supervillain team on a parallel world. This is the panel that introduces the villains:
Is the subjective or objective mode of depiction at work here? On the one hand, all four characters are bathed in the same turquoise light, which suggests subjectivism. On the other hand, the composition ensures that most of the figures is clearly visible, especially their faces, and there is no interaction between them – the Penguin is pointing upwards, but the other three are looking elsewhere – so that each is shown in isolation, as it were.
The composition also emphasises subordination: the foremost figure, and also the one who seems tallest (i.e. who is drawn to the largest vertical extent), is that of Warden Luthor, the leader of the quartet. The quality that definitely allows us to speak of this panel as a portrait, though, is its symbolism. As mentioned before, the only real action of the Penguin pointing to the sky is unrealistic because the others are not able to perceive it. Joker, Warden and Jones appear to be engaged in conversation with Batman and Robin, but their gestures have little to do with that conversation. Instead, the gestures tell us something about those characters: Jones is holding a bauble because that’s the weapon he throws at his opponents, Warden Luthor is depicted adjusting his tie and having a hand in his pocket to show how conceited and overconfident he is, and the Joker is laughing because that’s what he always does.
A few issues later (#20), the arrival of our protagonists on another parallel world is shown in this double page spread:
Despite the orange reflections of the fire on the figures’ clothes and skin, the subjectivism of this image is doubtful: while the threatening demons are situated next to and behind the heroes, the latter don’t interact with them (nor with each other really) and look towards the picture surface, as if they are posing for us, each on his or her own in empty space.
Again there is a clear subordination, with Superman – normally Batman’s equal, but temporarily the leader here on his home turf in the Metropolis of the “World of Tomorrow” – depicted much more prominently than the others, especially the diminutive figures of Alanna and El Diablo (throwaway sidekicks introduced in #19 who now tag along with Batman and Superman on their inter-dimensional journey).
As for symbolism, this is again the dominant mode in which the figures’ gestures are depicted. Everyone has this mildly concerned look on his or her face and isn’t really interacting with anyone or anything. Even Alanna, who carries El Diablo with her jetpack, isn’t all too focused on her task. With the exception of Superman and his wide-open mouth, one could cut each figure out and stick it on a poster against a neutral background, each character a model of typical superhero stoicism.
Just to show that not all comic panels serve as portraits, here is another panel from earlier in the same issue that features the same five characters (who are wearing cowboy hats now because they’re in yet another parallel world):
Here the figures are very much absorbed in their respective actions – firing grapple guns, swinging a whip, flying to escape the quicksand – and we don’t get a clear view of all of them; poor Alanna in particular is mostly concealed. In this panel, the focus is on what happens, and not so much on who the characters are. This only shows that in typical superhero comics like Batman/Superman, creators purposefully insert panels resembling group portraits only every now and then.
* ^ More precisely, Riegl presents a multi-tiered model of the development of Dutch group portraiture in which symbolism and genre are only two of the stages, the other two (sometimes combined into one) being ‘novella’ and ‘drama’. Genre, novella and drama are all in opposition to symbolism and the status of the painting as a portrait.
More than two years ago, I gave a conference paper titled “Japanese Art in the Contact Zone: Between Orientalism and ‘Japansplaining’”. The proceedings of this conference, Migrations in Visual Art, have now been published as an Open Access PDF at https://e-knjige.ff.uni-lj.si/znanstvena-zalozba/catalog/book/122 (doi: 10.4312/9789610601166, ISBN: 978-961-06-0116-6). There you’ll also find a table of contents with links to the PDFs of the individual papers. Again, this paper isn’t about comics, but I dare say it’s relevant to anyone interested in transnational manga reception. Here’s the abstract as published in the proceedings:
After WWII, Japan came to be economically and politically at eye level with its
former enemy nations. Therefore, one cannot say that the Western reception of
Japanese artworks takes place within an actual context of an asymmetrical power
relation. Yet, European and American audiences often approach Japanese art from
a position of perceived superiority. Overt and subtle traces of this attitude can be
detected in reviews and other texts on Japanese artworks ranging from the films of
Akira Kurosawa to the photographs of Nobuyoshi Araki.
Arthur Danto’s The Transfiguration of the Commonplace. A Philosophy of Art (Harvard University Press, 1981) is similar to Nina Zschocke’s Der irritierte Blick in that they both make a specific point while at the same time serving as an introduction to their respective field at large. In the case of Danto’s book, we are given a comprehensive overview of Aesthetics from ancient Greece to the 1970s, although not in chronological order but arranged around the problem that is central to the book: in the light of artworks such as Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain or Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box, which look exactly (for the purposes of this discussion) like objects that are not artworks, what is the difference between these artworks and other urinals / brillo pad boxes (“mere objects”) that makes the former artworks and the latter not?
Danto critically engages with and rejects several theories before tentatively approaching something like his own definition of art: all artworks are to some extent self-referential; “in addition to being about whatever they are about, they are about the way they are about that” (p. 148-9). Put another way, “the way the content is presented in relationship to the content itself is something that must always be taken into consideration in analyzing a work of art” (p. 146-7). Therefore a lot depends on the person that does the presenting – the artist – and the production process. In a way, after the ‘Death of the Author’, he or she is thus resurrected, “as if the work of art were the externalization of the artist who made it, as if to appreciate the work is to see the world through the artist’s sensibility and not just to see the world” (p. 160).
In comics, however, we appear to have the opposite problem. Comics are rarely indistinguishable from mere objects. While a comic book can be used to swat a fly and a tankōbon put under a leg of an uneven table, the person (ab)using comics in such a way is aware that they are not mere flyswatters or furniture wedges. Instead, for many people (including some scholarly authors) a comic can change its form – e.g. from pamphlet to trade paperback to digital – and remain the same work.
Consider this example: below you see a photograph of a 4-panel comic by Reza Farazmand titled “Stereotype”.
It’s printed on a 17.7 × 17.7 cm paper page bound into a 200-page softcover book (Poorly Drawn Lines. Good Ideas and Amazing Stories, Plume 2015).
Compare this to the following screenshot:
Apart from minor differences such as the page number in the first picture and the URL “poorlydrawnlines.com” in the second, these two comics look pretty much the same, right? Wrong. The second comic has different dimensions (depending on my browser settings – currently I’ve blown it up to 24 × 24 cm), its colour shades are different (depending on my computer screen settings), light is reflected differently off its surface, it even glows by itself… Not to mention the different feel and smell. And yet, most people would say both are the same comic, “Stereotype” by Reza Farazmand.
Would Danto agree? Does he even consider two copies of a multiple to be the same work of art, two copies of a book for instance? He does, e.g. on p. 33:
I can, for example, burn up a copy of the book in which a poem is printed, but it is far from clear that in so doing I have burned up the poem, since it seems plain that though the page was destroyed, the poem was not; and though it exists elsewhere, say in another copy, the poem cannot merely be identical with that copy. For the same reason, it cannot be identified with the pages just burned. […] Often enough poets and philosophers have thought of artworks as thus only tenuously connected with their embodiments.
Doesn’t this contradict the emphasis Danto puts on “the way the content is presented” (see above)? Or doesn’t he count himself among the “poets and philosophers” who dismiss the physical form of an artwork? On p. 93-94 it looks like he does:
Cohen has supposed that Duchamp’s work is not the urinal at all but the gesture of exhibiting it; and the gesture, if that indeed is the work, has no gleaming surfaces to speak of […]. But certainly the work itself has properties that urinals themselves lack: it is daring, impudent, irreverent, witty, and clever.
How can this contradiction be resolved? On the one hand, we could interpret “the way the content is presented” as something that doesn’t have to be physical. On the other hand, Danto says on p. 113: “Interpretation consists in determining the relationship between a work of art and its material counterpart” – so a work of art necessarily has a material counterpart, and (if “analyzing” and “interpretation” can be considered equivalent) this material counterpart is essential for grasping the artwork.
I’m not a literary critic, but I think the problem here lies in the very different nature of poems (in the above example) and artistic artifacts such as sculpture (with which most other examples are concerned), or perhaps in the different perspectives of literary criticism and art history: for the literary critic, a poem remains the same work no matter if it is printed in a book or read aloud at a reading. For the art historian, the same content presented in two different media (e.g. the same view painted in oil and printed from a photograph, or perhaps photographed using two different cameras) constitute two different works. That’s why Danto’s theory doesn’t quite work for his poetry example, but it does work well for Duchamp’s Fountain for which its gleaming surface is a vital property.
And this distinction places us accidentally but directly into the current state of Comics Studies. We always like to think of our field as a place where scholars from vastly different disciplines gather to harmoniously discuss the same objects – but for some of us, they’re not the same objects. The way I understand Danto, he would interpret both the paper page of the first “Stereotype” example and the computer screen of the second as their respective self-referential setup.
Let’s think this example through: if paper and screen are “the way they [i.e. artworks] are about” something, what is it that “Stereotype” is about? There are, of course, many possible correct answers to that. You could say it’s about a wizard and another guy. You could also say it’s about political correctness gone too far when ‘racist’ is used as a ‘killer argument’ or ‘moral bludgeon’, even in situations when it isn’t applicable (unless you consider ‘wizards’ a race – see the comment thread on poorlydrawnlines.com for that…). Let’s go with that. If we take it as a socio-critical statement, it’s easy to imagine how, as a webcomic, “Stereotype” gets shared by readers who want to make the same statement, e.g. sending the link or graphic to a friend who is of the same (or opposite) opinion. Farazmand seems to have anticipated this kind of distribution of his webcomics and encourages it by putting the source reference “poorlydrawnlines.com” in the bottom right corner and offering “Share” buttons below.
However, when printing “Stereotype” in a book, the ‘way it is about political correctness’ is a different one. The comic is now part of product that costs money; purchasing a copy of the book is a way for the customer to say: I get Farazmand’s message, I agree with it, I want to support him by buying his book, and I want to spread the message by displaying the book on my shelf (or reading it on the train or whatever). In order to enable this kind of interaction, Farazmand creates and compiles comics that form part of a coherent message, or authorial voice, or persona, which is situated firmly in the political (moderate) left but also pokes fun at its own milieu (more straightforward comics such as this one, also included in the book, notwithstanding). This kind of coherence is far less important when putting a comic online, where it can be perceived (and disseminated further) in isolation – and for free.
All that being said, there isn’t much in Transfiguration of the Commonplace that is directly applicable to comics, but for anyone interested in readymades or philosophy of art, it’s required reading.
Not directly comics-related, but hopefully relevant to anyone interested in manga readership outside Japan: later this week, I’m going to give a talk titled “Japanese Art in the Contact Zone: between Orientalism and ‘Japansplaining'” at the 3rd International Conference for PhD Students and Recent PhD Graduates in Belgrade on “Migrations in Visual Culture”. Below you’ll find the abstract as I had submitted it; in the meantime, I cut the examples of Takashi Murakami and manga/anime mentioned therein and made some other changes.
Hat tip to Nicholas Theisen on whose weblog What is Manga? I first encountered the beautiful word “Japansplain”!
Japanese Art in the Contact Zone: between Orientalism and ‘Japansplaining’
Whenever migrations of works of art and other artifacts become the subjects of scholarly analysis, those that originate in one culture and end up within a different culture are the ones that generate the most interest. Scholars who study such cross-cultural migrations operate within a methodological paradigm that has been shaped by theories such as Fernando Ortiz’s transculturation and, building upon it, Mary Louise Pratt’s contact zone.
These theories suggest that artifact-based communication between different cultures – including the reception of works of art – often takes place „in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power“ (Pratt). Such contexts have been strikingly examined by postcolonial studies, which identify these relations between colonising and colonised cultures, First and Third World countries, etc. Most famously, Edward Said located such a relation between Occident and Orient. The Far East, however, is where we find an example (though probably not the only one) that does not quite fit in this paradigm.
After WWII, Japan has come to be perceived as economically and politically on eye-level with its former enemy nations. The Japanese cultural industry is nowadays largely self-sufficient: as a rule, its products reach Western markets through a ‘pull’ rather than a ‘push’ mechanism, i.e. (some) Western consumers demand Japanese products, but Japanese producers and distributors are not desperate to break into an American or European market. Therefore, one cannot say that the Western reception of Japanese artworks takes place within a context of an asymmetrical power relation. Yet, this context is far from homogeneous. From the imagery of Takashi Murakami to the films of Akira Kurosawa, the photographs of Nobuyoshi Araki to manga and anime, Japanese artworks seem to divide European and American audiences into those who admire them, and those who cannot make sense of them.
In a way, these two audience groups reiterate the context of asymmetrical power relations, but in contrary ways: on the one hand, the ‘worshippers’ of Japanese art perceive it – and, by extension, the whole Japanese culture – as vastly superior to their own, up to the point where Japanese pedigree in itself becomes a decisive quality. The mode of reception in this group places Japan as the dominant culture, and its own Western culture as the subordinate. On the other hand, the ‘sceptics’ of Japanese art perceive it as inferior because they find it less accessible, thus reversing the power relation. The phenomenon of ‘Japansplaining’, i.e. attempting to explain Japanese culture (often in order to help make sense of Japanese works of art), works in both of these ways, and is at any rate an indicator of the perceived foreignness of Japanese art. This paper seeks to discuss this and the other aforementioned concepts related to the idea of the contact zone, and on that basis to critically examine the theoretical and methodological foundations underlying the study of cross-cultural migrations in visual culture.
Happy Women’s History Month, everyone! Last year I realised I had written only one single blog post about a female art historian / scholar / theoretician, so this year I scheduled two posts on women (that I would have written anyway) for March. This first one is about a German book that was published only ten years ago, Der irritierte Blick: Kunstrezeption und Aufmerksamkeit by Nina Zschocke. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be an English translation of it yet. The title can be roughly translated as, “The irritated gaze: art reception and attention” (albeit “irritated” in the sense of “confused”, not “annoyed”).
The first ~70 pages of Der irritierte Blick form an introduction to reception aesthetics and its psychological prerequisites. This first part is well worth reading in itself, but the second part introduces Zschocke’s concept of visual irritation with which we’ll deal today. Recipients are visually irritated when they “think their visual interpretation is ‘wrong’ because it contradicts other assumptions or information about the perceived situation” (all translations mine). Within visual irritations, those that contradict basic rules of perception acquired during childhood (regarding the formal attributes of colour, shape and space) can be distinguished from phenomena that contradict assumptions “of a higher level”, i.e. regarding the perceived content. Another distinction can be made between stable “illusions” and multistable phenomena: multistability occurs when several mutually exclusive interpretations appear equally plausible. In any case, the viewer sooner or later experiences a sense of failed perception and irritation.
Zschocke’s point is that visual irritation is an artistic strategy. Contemporary artists (Zschocke examines the examples of Josef Albers, Anish Kapoor, and Thomas Demand, among others) deliberately compose their works in such a way that the recipients are astonished, their perceptual sensitivity is heightened and their attention is turned back on itself, so that they are encouraged to reflect on the act of perception.
Does visual irritation occur in comics too? A prime example of a visually irritating comic might be L’Oud Silencieux (Die Schweigende Laute / “the silent oud” or “lute”) by Martin tom Dieck (L’Association, 1996). This wordless 22-page comic has a page layout of two panels on top of each other. From the panel transitions it soon becomes clear that the horizontal connections across pages are stronger than the vertical ones on the same page. In other words, the upper panels tell one story (a man playing an oud) and the lower panels another (a man dreaming of some sort of fairy).
So far, so interesting. While the two stories seem entirely unconnected at first, it is fun to look for similarities between them. For instance, both men watch television at some point. Furthermore, one man falls asleep and wakes again when (i.e. on the same page as) the other stops and starts playing his oud.
The real point of visual irritation occurs on the fourth page: on the top panel, the oud player sits on his rooftop, while on the lower panel we see the other man’s television. The funny thing is, the television screen shows the oud player on the rooftop from the top panel. So clearly the two stories are connected after all. However, what is their exact chronological or spatial relation? I can’t think of a single completely satisfying explanation. For instance, the upper story cannot be a film that is shown on the TV in the lower story, because when the man in the lower story wakes up (p. 20), his TV is blank instead of showing what’s going on in the upper panel. Thus L’Oud Silencieux contradicts the reader’s assumptions about comics, as the sequence of images in a comic is usually thought to be “intended to convey information”, as Scott McCloud’s famous definition says. (The second part of this quote, “… and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer”, is often forgotten.) Ultimately, the recipient is left visually irritated and, perhaps, pleasantly amazed.
[EDIT: Speaking of Martin tom Dieck, another “multistable” comic is his Hundert Ansichten der Speicherstadt, because one cannot decide whether it depicts the real warehouse district in Hamburg or not. I have written about this ambiguity in a conference paper from 2011, albeit without having read Zschocke’s book back then.]
After lumping Craig Owens and Hal Foster together in a blogpost on postmodernism and then writing an entire post on Foster alone, it seems only fair to return to Owens, too. Apart from “The Allegorical Impulse”, one of Owens’s texts stands out as particularly influential: “The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism”, published in the collected volume The Anti-Aesthetic edited by Foster in 1983. In this essay, a connection between postmodernism and feminism is made on the basis of their critique of (visual) representation. Postmodernism questions the authority on which the modernist consensus of what can be represented and in which form has been reached: “postmodernists […] expose the tyranny of the signifier“.
Feminism, on the other hand, criticises visual perception altogether as patriarchal. This identification stands on somewhat shaky ground, at least as far as it is presented by Owens: not only is vision linked to the Freudian “discovery of castration”, i.e. the “sight of phallic absence in the mother”, but also to objectification and domination, which in a patriarchal society have become male privileges. (Interestingly, Owens doesn’t mention Laura Mulvey and her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, as far as I can see.)
Considering these points, is postmodernist and/or feminist visual art conceivable at all? Yes, says Owens, and points out some examples of postmodernist/feminist artistic strategies:
- refusal of mastery (e.g. Martha Rosler’s The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems)
- denial of visual pleasure (e.g. Louise Lawler’s “movie without picture”)
- reflecting back at the (male) viewer his own desire (e.g. Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills)
- demonstrating that masculine and feminine are not stable identities (e.g. Barbara Kruger’s Your gaze hits the side of my face)
However, Owens also points out the possibility of adopting contrary contemporary artistic practices that attempt to “recover some sense of mastery via the resurrection of heroic large-scale easel painting and monumental cast-bronze sculpture”. In other words, it’s up to the artist whether or not to use the previously mentioned postmodernist/feminist strategies.
30 years later, where do comics stand? Let’s look at The Multiversity #1 once more. Which strategies do Grant Morrison and Ivan Reis employ?
Mastery is not refused, but downright celebrated in this comic book. Ivan Reis’s art (not to forget Joe Prado’s inking and Nei Ruffino’s colouring) isn’t just “good” in the sense that he depicts characters in an anatomically correct way – he goes out of his way to show them in a vast variety of poses and perspectives. It truly takes a master draughtsman to produce this kind of artwork. Likewise, Grant Morrison’s writing – plot, dialogue, breakdown (cf. Morrison’s script in The Multiversity: Pax Americana #1 – Director’s Cut) – is impeccable.
There’s plenty of visual pleasure here, if by visual pleasure we mean “good girl art”. Particularly the appearances of Earth-8 Ladybug, Earth-11 Aquawoman, and Earth-23 Wonder Woman have no other purpose. (An exception to this rule is Harbinger, the artificial intelligence with a female holographic appearance, whose body is not shown here.) Thus the male viewer’s desire is never reflected.
Masculine and feminine identities are firmly in place: as I have said in my previous Multiversity blogpost, this is a story in which men act and women don’t have much to say (except for Harbinger, the femininity of which is a matter of debate). The plot is driven by the triumvirate of Nix Uotan, Thunderer and Earth-23 Superman. The brief appearance of a gay superhero couple does little to change this overall tone.
If we look at The Multiversity #1 from this perspective, it appears to be a far cry from a postmodernist and/or feminist comic.
Most of the texts examined in my “[theory] – in comics” series of blog posts stand well on their own. With Hal Foster, however, I feel that he has more to say about postmodernism than what he does say in “Postmodernism: A Preface”. So I decided to simply introduce another one of his texts here and see how it can be applied to comics: “(Post)Modern Polemics”, an essay contained in Foster’s collection Recodings from 1985.
From a scholarly perspective, “(Post)Modern Polemics” still isn’t the essay one would hope for – Foster conjures his statements out of thin air, rather than grounding them on either theory or proper empirical observations. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting opinion from an art critic who was paying close attention to what was going on in the art scene at the time. In his essay, Foster proposes a dichotomy between two concepts of postmodernism, “neoconservative postmodernism” and “poststructuralist postmodernism”. In this regard, the essay is similar to “Postmodernism: A Preface” in which Foster also proposes a postmodernist dichotomy (‘postmodernism of reaction’ and ‘postmodernism of resistance’). It should be noted, though, that Foster doesn’t claim that all contemporary art falls into one or the other of these two categories. Thus there are four possibilities for any given work of art from the mid-1980s or later: it might be neoconservative postmodernist, poststructuralist postmodernist, some other kind of postmodernist, or not postmodernist at all.
Neoconservative postmodernist art is characterised by “eclectic historicism”, “elitist allusions”, “ahistory” (i.e. it “denies historicity”), an “affirmative” stance, narratives of “masterworks” and “seminal artists”, “fragmentation”/”dampening out of connections”/”entropy”, “patriarchalism” and “phallocentrism”. Poststructuralist postmodernist art, on the other hand, is the opposite. It “questions the truth content of visual representation”, is marked by “deconstruction” and “critique”, and is concerned with “the interconnections of power and knowledge in social representations”.
Can we find some of these characteristics in contemporary comics? For instance, Grant Morrison’s Multiversity is not only one of the outstanding comics of 2014/15, it’s also a comic that looks and feels very “postmodern”, what with breaking the fourth wall and metatextual remarks on comic books. I’m going to look at The Multiversity #1 (pencilled by Ivan Reis, published October 2014) only here.
Several of Foster’s keywords are concerned with history. Although Multiversity is set in the present, with some futuristic elements, there are a few instances of the past – buildings such as the Brooklyn Bridge (p.1) from the 19th century, or the villain “Lord Broken” who looks like a historicist mansion. A Rubik’s Cube, one of the symbols of the 1980s, can be seen on p. 2 and will play a role in a later issue of the series. Then there are historical costumes: Mr. Stubbs, protagonist Nix Uotan’s monkey sidekick, is dressed like a pirate. Most strikingly, the superhero Crusader (modeled after Captain America) wears a medieval scale armour – or rather, one of these superhero costumes that look like a scale armour but appear less encumbering and more tightly fitting than a real scale armour would be. (In the same issue, Aquawoman wears a similar costume.) On his chest he wears a cross symbol similar to a Knights Templar cross. All of these historical elements seem to be instances of “historical eclecticism”: they all appear in the present alongside each other, and we don’t learn anything about the context from which they were taken. That being said, I’m not sure whether this makes the comic as a whole “ahistorical”, as there are only very few of these elements there at all.
What about patriarchalism and “phallocentrism”? Let me put it this way: the first four major characters in this story – Nix Uotan, Thunderer, Earth-23 Superman and Captain Carrot a.k.a. Rodney Rabbit – are all male. Then Harbinger, the artifical intelligence with a female face, briefly appears before letting the men take the stage again. Vice versa, let’s look at the female characters with a talking role, which you can count on the fingers of one hand: the landlady (talking on 3 panels), the President’s secretary (4 panels), Earth-23 Wonder Woman (2 panels), the aforementioned Harbinger (10 panels), and Aquawoman (5 panels) – five characters on 40 pages, and, except for Harbinger, not particularly glamourous ones at that. So Multiversity appears decidedly male-centric. I don’t think Foster means this to be a sufficient condition for neoconservative postmodernism, though.
“Elitist allusions”? Most of the characters in this comic have previously appeared in some obscure other comics, and it takes an expert on DC comics (and Marvel as well) to recognise them all.
“Masterworks”? Grant Morrison refrains from dropping his own name or otherwise inserting himself as the “master artist” in the story, but the beginning does invoke a kind of masterwork narrative: it is about a “supposedly haunted comic from DC” (Morrison’s own The Multiversity: Ultra Comics #1, published a few months later) which Nix Uotan is so excited about that he wants to review it “in the form of a live dissection”.
While there are definitely traces of neoconservative postmodernism in The Multiversity, I’m not so sure about poststructuralist postmodernist elements. Superficially, The Multiversity seems to “question the truth content of visual representation” (I think we can safely extend this to include textual representations) when we read the sequence of caption boxes (pp. 3-5): “Do we have your complete attention yet?” – “Whose voice is this speaking in your head anyway?” – “Yours?” – “Ours?” – “Stop reading.” – “Continue to read.” – “Do as we tell you.” – “The choice is yours.” This is a nice gimmick, but the questioning stops there. The rest of the comic does little to break the fourth wall; it is based on the fiction of visual representation in order to achieve a reading experience that might be engrossing but not actually immersive.
Neither is Multiversity a proper critique of comics or anything. Mr. Stubbs says things like “comic books can damage your health” and “d’ya think it’s normal to be reading the comics at your age, boss?” However, Mr. Stubbs is hardly a voice of authority, being not only a chimpanzee (i.e. not as intelligent as a human – even though he can talk) but also apparently a pirate from the 18th century with accordingly outdated opinions. Thus the reader gets the opposite message: comic books are healthy reading matter for adults.
What about “the interconnections of power and knowledge in social representations”? One thing Foster possibly means by this is that postmodernism dissolves the traditional union of artistic medium and content, i.e. the notion that a certain form of expression should represent only a certain subject matter and vice versa. Does Morrison say anything in The Multiversity that feels out of place, provocative, or outrageous for a superhero comic? You could argue that part of The Multiversity is about daring and relevant issues of race and power, too – a white proprietor collecting rent from a black tenant on one earth, a black man being both Superman and the US president on another – but in essence, it’s still a story about superheroes fighting supervillains. It’s not as if Morrison had hijacked a superhero comic book and turned it into a political pamphlet. The old paradigm of medium-specific decorum remains intact. (For a different take on The Multiversity and race, see “They Make Us Like Them: On Identity and Gentrification” by Kelly Kanayama at Women Write About Comics.)
To conclude, we have to be careful not to confuse “(Post)Modern Polemics” with a methodology that can be readily applied to comics (or any other work of art, for that matter). It’s not some test that tells us whether something is ‘postmodern’ or not. Reading a comic through Foster, however, makes us think about many different issues such as race, gender, power, identity, historicity and representation, and how they are connected to larger postmodernist ideas. Neoconservative or poststucturalist postmodernist ideas are at the bottom of many contemporary works, but rarely visible at the surface. If we have unearthed some neoconservative postmodernist notions that inform The Multiversity, that doesn’t necessarily make it a bad comic, or Grant Morrison a bad person. Then again, Foster’s essay is titled “(Post)Modern Polemics” for a reason: perhaps he wants to encourage critics to take up a stance for once.
For some clever observations on The Multiversity #1, particularly regarding its backstory, see “The Multiversity Annotations, Part 1: This Review is in the Form of a Live Dissection” by David Uzumeri at Comics Alliance.
Remember the conference paper I announced on this weblog in 2012? It took some time, but now this paper has been published as an article in Studies in Visual Arts and Communication – an international journal and is available online for free: http://journalonarts.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/SVACij-Vol1_No2_2014-delaIGLESIA_Martin-Presence_in_comics.pdf
Here’s the abstract:
The term ‘presence’ is often used to denote a trait of an artwork that causes the feeling in a viewer that a depicted figure is a living being that is really there, although the viewer is aware that this is not actually the case. So far, scholars who have used this term have not explicitly provided criteria for the assessment of the degree of presence in a work of art. However, such criteria are implicitly contained in a number of theoretical texts. Three important criteria for presence appear to be:
1. size – the larger a figure is depicted, the more likely this artwork will instil a feeling of presence.
2. deixis – the more the work is deictically orientated towards the beholder, e.g. if figures seem to look or point at the beholder, the higher the degree of presence.
3. obtrusiveness of medium – if there is a clash of different diegetic levels within an artwork, the degree of presence is reduced.
These criteria can be readily applied to a single image like a painting or a photograph. A comic, however, consists of multiple images, and the presence of each panel is influenced by the panels that surround it by means of contrast and progression. Another typical feature of comics is written text: speech bubbles, captions etc. do not co-exist with the drawings on the same diegetic level, thus betraying the mediality of their panels and reducing their degree of presence. A comic that makes striking use of effects of presence, which makes it a suitable example here, is the superhero series The Ultimates by Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch (Marvel 2002 – 2004). The characters in this comic are often placed on splash pages and/or seemingly address the reader, resulting in a considerable experience of presence.