Arthur Danto’s Transfiguration of the Commonplace – in comics?

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.

Index to all “[theory] – in comics?” posts on this weblog

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Not-so-successful transition from web to print: Josh Tierney’s Spera

A nice rendition of the protagonsits, Lono and Pira, by Rachel Saunders in the online version. Interestingly, this scene is missing from the printed book.

A nice rendition of the protagonsits, Lono and Pira, by Rachel Saunders in the online version. Interestingly, this scene is missing from the printed book.

Language: English
Authors: Josh Tierney (writer), various artists
Publisher: Archaia (an imprint of Boom! Studios)
Year: 2013
Pages: 90 (main story) / 176 (including short stories)
Price: US-$ 19.95
Website: http://spera-comic.com/
ISBN: 978-1-936393-30-5

Sometimes, it takes little to make a good print comic out of a good web comic (e.g. Robin Vehrs’s Western Touch/Enjambements, reviewed on this weblog). Spera was a good web comic, too, and when its print publication was announced, I was looking forward to it. The concept of Spera was crazy, in a good way: the entire script was written by Josh Tierney, but every 3-8 pages (some of which have large “infinite canvas”-like layouts) the artist would change.

Over 40 artists contributed back then, which resulted in a variety of styles, and also in vastly different levels of quality. Sometimes you couldn’t even figure out what was going on in the illustrations if you hadn’t read Tierney’s synopsis at the start of each section. For the print version, it looks like Tierney (or his editors at Archaia?) wanted to have more consistent art, so the same script is now illustrated by only four artists: Kyla Vanderklugt, Hwei, recent Eisner Award winner Emily Carroll, and Olivier Pichard. Don’t get me wrong, all four of them are superb artists, and on average, the art is probably better in the book than in the web comic.

However, this printed Spera is no longer a bold experiment in comic-making. It’s just a run-of-the-mill fantasy story. The only element in the story that some readers will find interesting is the gender-bending aspect. Furthermore, the dialogue is often awkward and clumsy (“I want to be my own person, exploring secret dungeons and caves. I want to find things made out of gold and silver and trade them for cool weapons”).

On the other hand, the book is designed beautifully as a heavy hard cover volume with golden ornaments on the cover, a map printed on the endpapers, and other nice touches (but still reasonably priced). That’s one advantage over the online version. Still, overall I’m disappointed of how this book turned out, and I probably won’t read any of the following volumes (three to date). If only they had given this book another title, “Spera Reloaded” or something like that…

Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○


Exhibition review: The Adventures of the Ligne claire, Basel

There is a lot to like about the exhibition The Adventures of the Ligne claire. The Herr G. & Co. Affair (German: “Die Abenteuer der Ligne claire. Der Fall Herr G. & Co.”), which can still be seen at Cartoonmuseum Basel until March 9, 2014. With a lot of original drawings and original editions, it shows what ligne claire (“clear line”) comics are and tells the story of the ligne claire style: from precursors such as Bringing Up Father and Bécassine, through Hergé and his contemporaries, to Joost Swarte coining the term “ligne claire” in 1977 and the ligne claire revival from the 1980s onwards.

The awesome exhibition poster by another contemporary ligne claire artist, Exem

The awesome exhibition poster by another contemporary artist, Exem.

There are only two things that the exhibition lacked:

Although some recent examples of ligne claire comics are exhibited (e.g. Christophe Badoux, Chris Ware), there is no mention of ligne claire webcomics – even though these exist, e.g. Tozo by David O’Connell, or The Rainbow Orchid (albeit that’s only an extensive preview to a printed comic) by Garen Ewing. The latter also interviewed the former once. It would have been interesting in the exhibition context to examine the clash of the new, online presentation format with the venerable drawing style.

A panel from the latest Tozo episode by David O’Connell, 2013-09-24.

A panel from the latest Tozo episode by David O’Connell, 2013-09-24.

My other minor complaint about the exhibition is that it mentions “André Franquin’s atom style” (or “atomic style”) as a comic style concurrent with ligne claire, without explaining what that atom style actually is. Some googling led me to Paul Gravett’s website, who has curated the exhibition In Search of the Atom Style in Brussels in 2009. He says, the atom style “seems to be less an artistic style to be adopted, and more an attitude, a state of mind, or as Swarte sees it, ‘… the taste for inventing things in a positive direction.'” – in other words, it’s more about which objects to depict, rather than how to depict them, thus similar to retro-futurism. Furthermore, the atom style appears to have been closely linked to the Marcinelle/Charleroi school (or is a revival thereof). “Atom style” (a term coined by Joost Swarte too) seems to be a difficult and vague stylistic designation at best, which makes it even more regrettable that the Basel exhibition uses it only offhandedly.

Two panels from the comic adaptation of Chico & Rita, by the "atom style" artist Javier Mariscal.

Two panels from the comic adaptation of Chico & Rita, by the “atom style” artist Javier Mariscal.


Raymond Bellour’s fragmented perception – in comics?

Raymond Bellour’s essay “Of an other cinema” (PDF) was first published in French as “D’un autre cinéma” in 2000. While parts of it read like merely a review of video installation works at the 1999 Venice Biennial, the article has become an important contribution to the theory of video art. Bellour’s main point is that video installations are a different kind of cinema, and they (often) transform cinema by “dividing and multiplying” the image in several channels. Because of the difficulty to keep track of what’s going on on multiple screens at the same time, Bellour characterises the video art recipient as a “dissolved, fragmented, shaken, intermittent spectator”. Other terms used by Bellour to describe such phenomena are: “aesthetics of confusion”, “expansion of projection”, “segmentation”, “exploded story”, “explosion of perception”, or (after Abel Gance) “polyvision”.

This fragmented perception that Bellour describes is specific to (and characteristic of, maybe even defining for) video installation art. But isn’t there something similar in comics? In a way, such experiences of fragmented perception occur quite often when reading comics of several pages length: as you flip the comic open to start reading it from page 1, you involuntarily glance at another page, say, page 42. You can force yourself to continue reading from page 1, but you cannot forget what you have already seen on 42. It’s as if something is already happening in the story on page 42, at the same time that you’re reading page 1. In this respect, each comic page (or each double page) is like a screen or a channel in a video installation, as only one can be perceived at a time, while on each another segment of the story unfolds simultaneously.

But there are certain comics which are even closer to what Bellour describes. I’m thinking of experimental comics, particularly “choose you own adventure”-style comics with parallel story branches. As an example, I initially wanted to dig up a particular episode of Winston Rowntree’s Subnormality that employed this method, but I discovered that the latest episode, 214: “Accidentally Insulting a Friend”, serves this purpose just as well. Instead of embedding the original image of this webcomic here, I suggest you follow the link to read it.

Subnormality #214

For the first five panels, this comic is relatively traditional, as we follow the conversation of the two young women in a car. Then, by the sixth panel, things get interesting. Which is the sixth panel, actually? Which is the seventh? The reading order up to this point was left-to-right and top-to-bottom, but that wouldn’t make sense at this point anymore, as the comic is split into a left branch and a right branch, which show what’s going on inside each protagonist’s head (plus the middle branch with the traffic light panels). The branches unite again towards the end of the episode, but in the middle, they unfold in parallel, both spatially and chronologically. You can start by reading the left branch first and then scroll up to continue with the top panel on the right hand side, or vice versa. However, while you’re reading the branch you’ve chosen to start with, you’re missing out on what’s happening at the same time in the other one. Thus, as the story of this comic “explodes”, the perception of it is fragmented, not unlike that of a multi-channel video installation.


Robin Vehrs: successful transition from web to print

Review of Western Touch

http://enjambements.blogger.de/?day=20101020

Language: German
Author: Robin Vehrs
Publisher: Zwerchfell
Year: 2012
Pages: 93
Price: €10
Website: http://www.enjambements.blogspot.de/

ISBN: 978-3-943547-01-6

For me, Enjambements was the webcomics sensation of 2011 (although it had already been around since 2009, unnoticed by me). A selection of episodes has now been collected into an A5-sized paperback titled “Western Touch”.

A typical Enjambements episode consists of roughly square panels arranged in 2 columns and 4-8 rows. These panels are populated with pixel figures so crudely drawn that they make Diesel Sweeties look photo-realistic. The backgrounds are filled with ever-changing patterns reminiscent of computer graphics software from 25 years ago. These characteristics result in an overall art style that seems fitting for a digital medium.

In the printed book, this style works just as well: the images look like printouts from said era, retaining their simple and rough appeal. The grid arrangement practically lends itself to the portrait format of the book page (even more so than to the landscape format of a computer screen on which the webcomic version is probably usually read), with longer episodes being spread onto two facing pages (e.g. an episode with 2 x 5 panels is divided into a 2 x 2 and a 2 x 3 page).

The strength of this comic, however, lies not so much in its form but in its content. The absurdity of each little story is acted out with both straight-faced consistency and relish: where other cartoonists would stop after the gag in the third panel, Robin Vehrs just adds more panels, more gags and more absurd twists, each funnier than the one before.

Robin Vehrs is the most innovative German humour cartoonist since Joscha Sauer, and one can only hope someone will attempt to translate Western Touch into other languages. At the very least, this book is a fine object of study for anyone interested in webcomics mastering the transition to print.

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○