The Art of Corners and Wedges
There is something about art that is not rational. This could be an obvious statement, but sometimes I think it's worth emphasizing, because usually, and sometimes in a very helpful way, we have intermediaries, like critics and curators and editors, between us and the work of art, and it is their jobs to introduce us to something new that they find important or meaningful, but in that sense, by framing the work of art for us, they are also helping us to make sense of it. This is a needed thing, a necessary thing; but we have to be careful to find the right critics, who can help lead us to the works of art that open us up to new insights and discoveries, while not overdetermining the work before we've even encountered it. In other words, it's helpful to know the aboutness of a work of art, at least sometimes, and especially at the start of one's interest, I think; but we should not construe from this that knowing the aboutness means the creation or understanding of a work of art is an exclusively rational thing.
I do not like the word "rational." Even as I type this, I am writing my paragraphs in a logical order, I am obeying the laws of syntax and hopefully diction. But rational is not a good descriptive term for art. Why? A work of art represents the slant of an individual's felt sense. And this felt sense can be very hard to get at in words. Sometimes words are even invented - think about "Kafkaesque," "Shakespearean," "Dickinsonian." It's like holding a bag of adjectives when we really need nouns and verbs.
In other words, we don't attach enough importance to tone, which is the sensitivity to the various textures and colors and meaning-implications of feeling. Tone is in a category along with other much-maligned words that, to my mind, have more to do with art than anything else, like hunches, intuitions, glimpses, crumbs, clues, shots in the dark, weird rumblings of "huh's" and "hmmmms." A good work of art should make us squint just as much as stare. It's a feeling thing. One of the first times I read something that really made me say to myself, "this is the kind of feeling I resonate with, that I aspire to create along the lines of," was when I started reading a translation of the Zohar, an (the most?) important book in Jewish mysticism. It felt warm, fuzzy, kind of friendly in a welcoming way; it was excited about life; there was something sweet and ridiculous about it that I loved, like the fuzz on a peach and its taste afterward. This sounds impressionistic, of course, but that's the point - feelings are often impressionistic, just as much like a painting by Frankenthaler as one by Munch.
If we ever "find our voice" as artists, I think it's a matter of a series of fittings in, like finding a corner or a wedge in which we feel comfortable and right. That's why artists are mice just as much as they are lions. I remember visiting the Sistine Chapel and crying when I saw it, but I cried in part because it reminded me of some universal comic book. Years later I went to a Spiderman movie, and ridiculously watched that opening sequence with the flashing red panels and the "Marvel" word, and I teared up. Why? The corner, the wedge, is the sweet spot, because it's composed of all the various things we've loved, especially as kids, and because we've loved them, the corner is charged with emotion. We tend to think of Da Vinci's Last Supper as representative, and a later painting by Guston as more eccentric perhaps, but they both are examples of artists using material that is charged for them, and because it is, we experience it as charged as well. The danger with art is when we think of it as something dignified or intimidating, when it has nothing to do with that. Art is made by weirdos. It is deeply personal and deeply idiosyncratic. If you look at Da Vinci's notebooks, through the fog of our hazy ideas about "Da Vinci," you can sense a big weirdo writing words to be read backwards in mirrors, and taking it upon himself to discover things about the universe. What is weirder and more marvelous than that?
The point is that, artists are always working in the corners. That's why they're interesting. It's also perhaps why cartoons and comics have become such an astounding literary form. If you look at works by Spiegelman, R. Crumb, Chris Ware, Liana Finck, Ben Katchor, and Gabrielle Bell, for example, there is the strong feeling that here are a bunch of artists who work in corners, and who need and like it that way. Built into cartoons and comics is a kind of ridiculousness, which make sense; think about the Krazy Kat cartoons, and the way in which their originality is matched by their unassumingness. Comics and cartoons are the art of the schlemiel proper - they are small, like a fly in one's soup; but they are also willfully exaggerated, like a caricature. They seem to hold the most extreme contraries in natural ways that make one chuckle or groan or cry or feel inspired, and always, in the best works, without affectation, even if the work, like Katchor's, is enormously slanted in the direction of a very specific felt sense. If you read Liana Finck's A Bintel Brief: Love and Longing in Old New York, or Gabrielle Bell's Cecil and Jordan in New York, one feels one is in the hands of some of the best work in art being done today, in part because this lack of affectation is combined with an enormous degree of subtlety. Both cartoonists are somehow enormously natural and enormously original. Bell's work is the most remarkable combination of a sort of rustic feralness with a lyricism and penetration so deep, one has to reach for annoyingly literary metaphors: The Wife of Bath with Rosalind, for example. Yet her originality, like Finck's, is hard to see, which is one more reason why she is so original, and why these literary cartoonists do not get the attention they deserve. Bell's voice, like Finck's, or Ware's, or Katchor's, is immediately recognizable, and each of these four has a unique felt sense that is theirs alone.
Maybe in a later post I can talk more specifically about the works of these artists. But it seems important to say that Bell and Finck do not get enough attention because 1. They are women, 2. They draw comics, and 3. They're work is so natural and original that it escapes the radar of many people. I think this is done deliberately, in a way; let me give one example of this and then I'll end this blog post. Bell's covers, for example, are somehow startlingly unassuming, as if playing a kind of trick - are you looking at this work because of the cover, or because you recognize the worth inside? And yet if we look at the cover of The Voyeurs, for example, we can get a sense of how much subtlety lives inside the seeming simplicity:
Voyeurs, of course, are people unhappy with their lives, who read about others to get their thrills by proxy. This is not a bad thing, necessarily - I'm sure there is a quality of voyeurism for why we read in the first place. Yet the cover positions us in such a provocative way in relationship to that term, while not calling attention to that positioning in any way that would necessarily alert us to the positioning. That is one of the qualities of Bell's work that makes it hard to see, and therefore to appreciate. But we are looking inside a window, of course, from a black background that seems almost Hitchcockian. Immediately there are ethical questions raised, just as there are with other of Bell's unassuming covers. We want to know about Bell, or the book; okay, but who are we? We are going to "read Bell," but is that the case? What are our intentions? Where do public and private meet in the work of an artist who writes a "hybrid memoir and semi-autobiographical short stories"*? These questions sound dry and philosophical maybe, but they are given sometimes shockingly vivid shape in Bell's work. One therefore laments, hopefully understandably, that writers like Ben Lerner or Tao Lin or Sheila Heti or Karl Ove Knaussgard, get much attention for moving us to think in different ways about these important issues, while Bell, whose work is equally as strong as these writers, while working in both image and word, is neglected outside the world of comics and cartoons. She, like Finck, Katchor, and, to a lesser extent, Ware, who has made some inroads into the more literary world, deserves more attention from institutions like academia, or magazines, or libraries, or the public in general, because these institutions always follow the trends, but Bell, Finck, Katchor and Ware are setting them. This seems proper for an art of corners and wedges.