The Cartoonist As Artist, Part 5

Comics Worlds and Art Worlds

comics_versus_artBart Beaty’s recent book, Comics Versus Art, is a fascinating account of the relationship between comics and the fine arts, told through a series of case studies from the middle of the twentieth century to the present, from Roy Lichtenstein’s appropriation of comics images to the critical acceptance of literary cartoonists like Chris Ware.

Beaty views the historical relationship between comics and art as antagonistic, as the books title implies. Moreover, it is mutually antagonistic. Art critics have contended that “the aesthetic and artistic issues raised by other forms are totally alien to comics, which exist on an entirely different plane,” while cartoonists and others in the comics world, as a product of a sort of Nietzschean ressentiment, have taken comics’ status as “anti-art” as a point of pride. “Largely ignored by critics and art historians, and consequently disdainful of the interests of those groups, comics have long revelled in their lowbrow, bad boy image.” (19)

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book, and the part that I feel will have the most lasting impact on the theory and historiography of comics, is the second chapter, “What If Comics Were Art? Defining a Comics Art World.” This chapter represents a much-needed intervention into one of the most important debates in comics theory: the attempt to define what constitutes “comics.” Beaty subverts the trend by most comics historians and theorists to define comics according to formal characteristics, and in so doing finds a way to bypass that debate and simultaneously come to a useful definition of “comics.”

While even early chroniclers of comics like Coulton Waugh and Martin Sheridan have attempted formal definitions of comics based on their common conventions and traits, it has been an escalating debate in comics scholarship for around thirty years. In the 1970s, Bill Blackbeard began staking out a definition that was very much historically tied to the advent of the newspaper comic strip, while Will Eisner tried for a more catholic definition, coining the term “sequential art.” Cartoonist Jerry Robinson and art historian David Kunzle extended the definition even further, tracing the lineage of comics to 19th century Bilderbogen,  the Bayeux Tapestry and, in Robinson’s case, even cave paintings.

Scott McCloud tackles the difficult problem of defining comics.
Scott McCloud tackles the difficult problem of defining comics.

Scott McCloud put the question of a formal definition of comics at the center of his seminal 1994 book Understanding Comics, and from that point on, it has been almost a given that any piece of scholarship on comics would include a section on the definition of comics, tracing the advantages and disadvantages of other writer’s interpretations. Theorists such as Greg Hayman and Thierry Groensteen have done much to advance McCloud’s definition and push it further.

However, formalist definitions of comics are inherently problematic. No matter how well-formulated, they tend to exclude works that most readers would automatically describe as comics, and include others that most people would not. McCloud’s definition above, for example, might seem to embrace William Gray’s “Dick and Jane” children’s books, while excluding Gary Larson’s The Far Side.

Rather than attempt a definition of comics linked to formal characteristics, Beaty looks to the idea of institutionalism and “art worlds” in the sociological work on art by Howard Becker, George Dickie, and Arthur Danto. Beaty treats comics as one of many “art worlds,” social networks that create, consume, and otherwise participate in the production of artistic meaning and value. In the world of fine arts, this would include museum curators, artists, art dealers, art collectors, critics, the art press, etc.  For comics, this would include editors, collectors, cartoonists, publishers, comic shop owners, and the like.

With this understanding of a “comics world,” formal definitions of what makes something “comics” are unnecessary. “Comics” is simply a term applied to certain items by people within this network, this comics world. The meaning of “comics” is based on a consensus of opinion among a diverse cohort of groups that are invested in the term. It’s a powerful challenge to the formalist debates because it lets us look at the common formal elements as a code, as a set of conventions about comics that creators have shared, agreed upon, and even challenged over the years.


However, for a book that attempts to interrogate “the specific historical and social processes that have led to the devaluation of comics as a cultural form,”(7) Beaty’s periodization is curious. He begins in medias res, in the 1950s, when Fredric Wertham was already testifying to the Senate about the evils of comic books, and Lichtenstein already felt free to appropriate the mechanically-reproduced images from comics uncredited, without regard for provenance or authorship.

In short, he begins at a time when historical forces have already devalued comics as a cultural form. This allows the book to have a narrative grace, a triumphalist arc wherein the art world of comics goes from a place of relative abjection to gradually, and reluctantly come to be more and more accepted within the world of “high art,” and the institutions that undergird that world– universities, galleries, museums, and auction houses.

While this does make for a strong narrative– and I hope I don’t sound like I’m diminishing what I feel is an excellent book– it misses the chance to explore the complex and fascinating moment I have been discussing in this series of posts, when there was considerably more overlap in America between the “high art world” and the “comics art world,” and when self-appointed defenders of American cultural values were scandalized by the rise in the popularity of the comics supplement at the end of the first decade of the century and then by the European avante-garde at the Armory only a few years later.

Photo collage illustrating a story about the murder trial of millionaire Harry K. Thaw,  Los Angeles Examiner, August 30, 1906.
Photo collage illustrating a story about the murder trial of millionaire Harry K. Thaw, Los Angeles Examiner, August 30, 1906.

That the social networks that form the comics art world and the world of high art might share so many common nodes at this time should not be surprising. A major part of the historiography of the Armory Show– though it is being challenged by some in interesting ways of late– is that American art in the years prior to the show was largely provincial, old fashioned, lacking the sophistication and power of the European avante garde.

This may be true, but it is not coincidental that the Ashcan School– one of the groups who were most pushing a new agenda in American art in those years– did work that was so informed by journalism, and that many of them actually worked as visual journalists and illustrators for newspapers and magazines.

Newspapers in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era– and particularly the “Yellow Press” where newspaper comic strips first appeared– were the site of an aggressive visual modernity and dramatic experimentation. I’m inclined to describe it as “Newspaper Modernism”: photo collage, the promiscuous intermingling of image and text, experiments with transmedia exchange, certain forms of abstraction– to say nothing of the development of the modern language of comics– the metropolitan newspaper was the site of some of the most experimental visual culture in America in the years leading up to the Armory Show.

While much American high art was still stalled out at the Realism of the late nineteenth century, artists had a venue for deeply experimental work that was informed by the same forces of modernity that drove the Modernist avante-garde, and had the added benefit of being able to provide a steady paycheck. 

Even the American-born artist Lionel Fenninger, later a key part of the Bauhaus school, contracted with the Chicago Tribune in 1906 to begin a comic strip for their Sunday supplement. While short-lived, his Kin-Der-Kids and Wee Willie Winkie strips for the Tribune were beautiful, innovative, and visually remarkable– and gave Fenninger a paycheck that allowed him to move from Germany to Paris.

In the years between 1913 and the 1950s, when Beaty begins his book, there were a whole host of generational, economic, institutional, and cultural shifts that created the environment of mutual rejection between the comics world and art worlds that he describes. But it interesting to think that there was a time when they were much more intimately linked, when things may have gone a different way. 

History is always deeply contingent and multivalent. To ignore a period when things had the potential to have gone differently is always a disservice to our understanding of history. And this is one of the reasons that I think that it’s so important to study this period in the history of comics.

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