This year’s Biennale is once again a spectacular art show and, like the 2013 Biennale, counts a famous comic artist among its participants (see below). It is still open until November 26. These are all the sequential artworks I’ve seen there:
Speaking of Joe Sacco, there is a Sacco exhibition currently shown at Cartoonmuseum Basel until April 24. There is a lot to see there: the exhibition starts with original drawings from Sacco’s early comics, of which I found the juxtaposition of a “Zachary Mindbiscuit” story from 1987 and “More Women, More Children, More Quickly” from 1990 (both unpublished until the 2003 collection Notes From A Defeatist) the most interesting. While already an accomplished draughtsman in 1987, it wasn’t until “More Women…” that Sacco started positioning his caption boxes in oblique angles, which would become one of his trademarks.
Sacco’s main works, Palestine, Safe Area Goražde and Footnotes in Gaza, are all represented through original drawings (10 episodes from Palestine alone) as well. Another fascinating exhibit in this context is an arrangement of Sacco’s notebooks and reference photographs, next to the corresponding pages from the published comic. It becomes clear that while he gathered plenty of material, he took some liberties when it came to making a comic out of them – particularly in Footnotes, in which he re-imagines events that happened 50 years ago.
Insights into Sacco’s work process can be also gained from three short documentary films displayed on a screen (6 minutes in total), produced in 2011 by Portland Monthly and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry: “Reporting from the field”, “Tools of the trade” and “Inspiration of Robert Crumb” (also available online). Another section of the exhibition traces the history of comics journalism before Sacco by way of “special artists” and reportage drawing from the 19th century on.
There is some more original art on display from Sacco’s more recent comics, which I’m not too crazy about. In the museum’s library, all of Sacco’s published works can be read in German and English. And then there’s another sensational exhibit: The Great War from 2013 (or 2014, according to the museum), in which Sacco tells the events of one day of a British military unit in WWI. The publication is subtitled An Illustrated Panorama, but I gather it comes in the form of a leporello (“accordion”) book. In the exhibition it is arranged in a semicircle. Not a comic, strictly speaking, but definitely an eye-catcher.
In an exhibition leaflet, Sacco is quoted (my translation): “Journalism is about countering the endless lies, even though it sometimes reiterates them – intentionally or unintentionally.” In this regard, journalism and scholarship are very much alike.
In the history of postmodernism theory, Fredric Jameson might be a more influential figure than both Hal Foster and Craig Owens – unless you look at it from a strictly art historical perspective: art critics Foster and Owens are concerned first and foremost with contemporary visual art, whereas Jameson’s objects are drawn from various artistic genres or media such as literature, architecture, music, and film. Jameson’s famous essay “Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”, with which this blogpost is concerned, was first published in the New Left Review in 1984 and later expanded into a book of the same title.
A major difference between Jameson’s “Postmodernism” and the texts by Foster and Owens is that for Jameson, postmodernism is an era, not a “style or movement among others”. On the other hand, Jameson is “very far from feeling that all cultural production today is ‘postmodern'”. Instead, postmodernism is the current “cultural dominant”, the “new systemic cultural norm”.
Jameson identifies four “constitutive features of the postmodern”:
- “a new depthlessness”,
- “a consequent weakening of historicity”,
- “a whole new type of emotional ground tone”, and
- “the deep constitutive relationships of all this to a whole new technology”.
Some other interesting aspects are discussed in the text, but let’s focus on these four constitutive features. Can we find them in comics? Recently there was a thread on the comix-scholars mailing list about comics “beyond postmodernism”, and some list members wondered whether Joe Sacco’s comics might be considered “as aiming to move beyond postmodernism”. How much of Jameson’s postmodernism is (still) there e.g. in Sacco’s Palestine?
- depthlessness: Jameson understands this term both metaphorical and literal, as an obfuscation of volume: “a surface which seems to be unsupported by any volume, or whose putative volume […] is ocularly quite undecidable”, he says about a postmodern building.
Sacco however, virtuoso draughtsman that he is, effortlessly switches from depthless, abstract black or white backgrounds to vistas that extend far into the landscape. He also draws his objects from a vast variety of perspectives, so that their depth becomes palpable.
- weakening of historicity: Jameson says about the historical novel, it “can no longer set out to represent the historical past; it can only ‘represent’ our ideas and stereotypes about that past (which thereby at once becomes ‘pop history’).”
Palestine is the opposite of that: by conveying what he saw and heard in Palestine, Sacco challenges stereotypes about the Middle East and the Arab-Israeli conflict. In the last chapter, in the section ‘Through Other Eyes’, an Israeli asks Sacco, “Shouldn’t you be seeing our side of the story, too?”, to which Sacco replies in a caption with “I’ve heard nothing but the Israeli side most all my life”.
Some references to historical characters and events are made in Palestine, but never in an offhand way that would require much previous knowledge from the reader.
- new type of emotional ground tone: “This is not to say that the cultural products of the postmodern era are utterly devoid of feeling,” says Jameson, “but rather that such feelings […] are now free-floating and impersonal, and tend to be dominated by a peculiar kind of euphoria” – “the high, the intoxicatory or hallucinogenic intensity.”
Palestine isn’t devoid of feelings either – particularly Sacco’s own are clearly conveyed in his first-person narrative – but euphoria is hardly the emotional ground tone here. A more prevalent emotion is fear; e.g. in chapter five, section ‘Ramallah’: “shaking like a leaf… […] Okay, I’ve had it… I want out before the soldiers check this side of the street… Like a leaf, I tell you, the whole fucking time…”
- new technology: by that Jameson means “narratives which are about the processes of reproduction, and include movie cameras, video, tape recorders, the whole technology of the production and reproduction of the simulacrum.”
This is the only feature that does apply to Palestine without reserve: it is basically a comic about making a comic. From the beginning, Sacco makes clear that the purpose of his journey to Palestine and everything he does there is to gather material for a comic. Frequently, the tools and processes of reproduction are prominently featured in the comic: Sacco’s camera, his friend Saburo’s camera, pen and notebook, the interpreted interviews with Palestinians.
All in all, only one of Jameson’s four “constitutive features of the postmodern” holds true for Palestine, so is it a comic “beyond postmodernism”? Then again, the unsystematic way in which these features are discussed in “Postmodernism” makes them hard to operationalise. The multitude of examples doesn’t help when they only serve to illustrate one single aspect. Where is the technology in Bob Perelman’s poem China? What is the emotional ground tone of E. L. Doctorow’s historical novels? In what way is Brian De Palma’s film Blow Out depthless? Ultimately, whether a contemporary work of art fulfils the four criteria or not doesn’t matter anyway: as I have mentioned earlier, Jameson allows for cultural objects made in the postmodern era that are not postmodern. Therefore, an un-postmodern object from the postmodern era wouldn’t prove Jameson wrong. How can Jameson’s “periodizing hypothesis” of postmodernism be considered falsifiable at all then?