Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Reckoning Revisited

A few weeks ago, I asked these important questions:

"What critical standards do we hold ourselves to?"

"What are our obligations to maintain a consistent critical standard?"

Of course, these were mainly intended as rhetorical questions. I had my ideas, but ultimately I think every one who writes about comics on a regular basis has to develop our own answers in order to be an effective critic. It's worth repeating that I try - at all times - to be extremely consistent in my criticism. I think aesthetics are an extremely important field, and I don't approach it lightly.

The worst problem facing intelligent criticism today is the fact that reviews have come to be synonymous with criticism. A review, even a well-written and witty review, is not criticism. Ultimately, the impetus behind a review boils down to a very simple question: is _____ worth spending your money on? There's no problem with writing a reivew of something. Reviews are very useful tools, and are certainly a part of the overall landscape of information that goes into the conception of criticism, but they should never be mistaken for actual criticism. That leads to a discussion of aesthetics that invariably devolves into black and white "Thumbs Up / Thumbs Down" thinking. I am sure every english teacher in the audience will agree that the pursuit of absolute and commercially-sanctioned standards of "good" and "bad" has done a great deal to dull the critical faculties of your average citizen. "I just like it" is the word on the street and the stock answer of every noncummunicative High School student - but why do you like it is the question that must be answered!

I was put back onto this line of thought by a comment on Sunday's Comics Reporter. On the subject of the Amadora Festival's compiling the "100 Best BD of the XXth Century", Tom Spurgeon asks:

"Is there ever anything to be gained by thinking about a bunch of comics and then putting some on a "Best of" list? ... As one of many comics-interested observers from around the world whose opinion was solicited for the project, CR agrees with Amadora that such lists have value -- even when no one can agree on what that value might be."

This, of course, set the little wheels in my head spinning. I have a confession to make which might make you think less of me: I absolutely love these kinds of lists. I would never be caught dead compiling one of my own, because I think that there is no greater way to expose the shortcomings of your critical faculties than to broadcast them from atop a tall building with a megaphone, but as a reader and a lay/part-time professional critic, I find them to be endlessly useful.

The best example I have on hand is the Journal's infamous "Top 100" list. I can't think of a single comics-related publication that I have referenced so exhaustively for my personal reference and in my professional capacity. I don't accept the list as anything more than, basically, some rough spitballing, general guidelines and contentious approximations. The exact computational methodology couldn't interest me less, especially as those roads have been so exhaustively travelled in the past. But the fact remains that in creating such a guide, the Journal created probably the single best existing one-volume reference work on 20th century American comics that yet exists. If someone came to me out of the blue and said "I don't understand the basics of comics aesthetics, is there a guidebook to what is generally considered 'canon', and why?" I would give them my copy of the Journal's Top 100 list. As Spurgeon himself put it so well:

"Lists allow the person making them to take the temperature of their own tastes, and to think of their chosen medium of interest for the forest rather than the trees, on the whole rather than work by work. It may also drive a critic to find and engage work out of their usual comfort zone.

"Just as important is that readers and critics can then use the lists compiled in any number of ways: to discover new works, to develop new ways of looking at familiar works, to get a snapshot of the usefulness of a specific critic for your own future needs, to expose yourself to competing summary views of an art form and what's important in it, or even as a silent debate partner to sharpen your rhetorical tools."

Criticism, at its best, is a way of interacting with an art form in a kind of cultural dialectic. Not to bring up the hoary old spector of Plato, but in a perfect world enlightened critics would exist in a symbiotic relationship to the art they critiqued and with the artists who create it. Of course, I shouldn't need to say that this isn't how the world works, and the world has never really worked this way.

The closest thing I can remember in recent memory to this type of critical Nirvana was during the 60s and early 70s, when some very odd and wonderful things began to happen in international film. Critics and artists seemed to actually be interested in moving The Medium (in capital letters, of course) forward through some kind of ongoing dialogue. Of course, it worked in some ways and it didn't work in a lot of others, and then Spielberg and Lucas came along and made the whole thing moot. Unfortunately, most filmmakers seem to excercise the amusing notion of working in a critical vacuum in reference to their forebears these days, because any young filmmaker who talks about the influence of Kurosawa or Cassavetes in a magazine or television interview is seen as, at best, pretentious and callow, and at worse, extremely disengenuous. People don't like their art to come with footnotes, real or implied, and most critics who work with footnotes don't have anything remotely resembling a popular audience.

A lot of this can be taken back to the notion that reviews have supplanted criticism in the popular vocabulary. How many times have you heard something like "its like Die Hard meets the Seventh Seal?" (Not so much anymore, admittedly, but for a while there everything was "X meets Y ... on a pirate ship!") Comparisons like this don't have any meaning any more: they're grist for the mill commercial pitches turned into industry shorthand. The fact that so much of what used to be critical dialogue has been taken up by economic shorthand should tell us how much the art of serious criticism has devolved (I'm hardly the first person to point that out, but it seemed a nice point to reiterate since I was already in the neighborhood).

So what am I saying? I am saying that I awknowledge my job as A Critic to be a thankless task. I awknowledge the fact that I write a great deal of reviews and not nearly enough actual commentary. I awknowledge the fact that while most art is compromised to some extent by commercial origins, it is disengenuous of any critic to ever dismiss the commercial circumstances surrounding the origins and ongoing status of any given art object, for good or ill. I can't dismiss a piece of art because it was created work-for-hire, but I can't dismiss the fact that it was created in a work-for-hire situation, either.

I was having a discussion with an acquaintance of mine the other day. He's an educated fellow, but we got stuck on the notion, which I posited without even thinking, that any work of art should be accepted as "Art", without any thought given to the aesthetic merits of said art object. Of course, this seemed absolutely elementary to me, but he argued that "art" was not a basic noun, it was a category, and if something was bad art, it wasn't really art. Which was, to me, preposterous. There is nothing to be gained by making "Art" into an exclusive category, and everything to be won by merely accepting every piece of art, no matter how trifling or horrid, as a part of a greater hypothetical continuity. The challenge then is not to discover and demarcate what is and isn't art, but why certain art is better than other art.

It should be noted that my acquaintance, while a practicing professor who teaches for a prominent university, is not an expert in aesthetics. His arguments were intelligently proffered but, to my perception, poorly reasoned. Ultimately, even a smart man can be misled by our society's debased aesthetic sense. Again, it doesn't matter whether or not something is "good" or "bad" in a deeply Platonic way, because that is an impossible question to answer. What matters is why something is percieved as being better or worse than something else. It is by engaging this question on its deepest levels that we can begin to understand our own critical standards, and the critical standards of our particular community.

Which brings me back to the topic of lists. In so many circles, a list of great works is just callow commercialism - and for much of the world, that's all they are. Does any serious critic take those abysmal AFI lists as anything other than a big commercial for the studio's archival backlist? But the idea of "The List", in theory, offers the greatest possible opportunity for a critic to excercise the kind of thinking muscles that he has to keep vigorous and healthy in order to maintain a comprehensively acute mental apparatus.

Why is Krazy Kat better than Peanuts? Is it? That's a damn good question, and one that you could reasonably spend the rest of your life parsing. These are the type of assumptions that are necessary to underlie any intelligent aesthetic discussion, and the constant and consistent reppraisal of these assumptions is the lifesblood of any creatively coherent and intelligently dynamic medium.

Rejected Breakfast Cereal Mascots
(Number 5 in an ongoing Series)

Apparently he’s into bestiality, seeing as how he’s a monkey, and not a man.

Otis the Onanistic Orangutan

“The Only Thing That Can Possibly Stop Me From Touching Myself Is A Nice Bowl of Wonder Whoopie Crisps!”

The strange this about Otis is that he did test extremely well with certain focus groups, but still didn’t make the cut. Despite his obvious appeal, it boils down to the probably fact that General Mills, unlike Marvel Comics, didn’t want to be seen as publicly courting the pervert demographic.

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