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What is the Relationship Between Graphic Novels, Paintings, and Film?



Manny Farber


In an earlier post we talked about possible relationships between graphic novels and films, and we concluded, I think and hope sensibly, that we could interpret graphic novels as a readerly form of film. Today I want to throw painting into the mix, in order to be able to at least try and differentiate these three art forms some more.


I want to do this because it seems to me that there is work that blurs these categories in fascinating and important ways, and therefore understanding the differences can help us to understand the similarities, and therefore hopefully open up some avenues for critical and artistic work and thought. Two artists I am thinking about right now are the films of Chantal Akerman, and the graphic novels of Austin English. If you watch Akerman's Hotel Monterey, for example, it is the moving moving and profound silent movie, in which suspense is created by mood and arrangement, like an ominous Abstract Expressionist painting brought to life, and containing within it the richness and markedness of living breathing humans beings in all their folly and strangeness. This is not a new comment to say that film can be thought of as moving portraits - Manny Farber writes about this. But it is important to call attention to this sometimes, for analogies between arts are inevitable, even while the arts themselves can be quite different and distinct.


Painting, for example - in the criticism of Greenberg - seems to often use analogies to poetry to make sense of the form. We will hear of allusions; a discussion of the symbolic logic of images; something related to a kind of unity inhering within the words, like conceptuality then moved in painting into something sensuous though still needful of an awareness of arrangement to make of the canvas any sense at all; a sense of a kind of drama, whether from the bristling and friction of words against words, or figures against figures. Cubism itself, which was probably the most influential art movement of the 20th century, and Picasso the greatest visual artist, seems to borrow its main ideational thrust from the heteroglossia of the novel translated into pictorial terms, which artists like Bob Dylan, in "Tangled Up in Blue," or Chris Ware in his work, extend into their own art forms to attempt to make sense via song or graphic novel of the inescapability of the reality of perspectivism. When Picasso shattered the pictorial plane, he made way for movements like Abstract Expressionism, but also the poetry of John Ashbery, when his poems, also breaking the customary logic of the monoglossic "I," moves and shifts from various speaker's voices, creating a kind of tapestry of perspective in poem. To achieve this is not to be a mat for other voices, but to be strong enough to shatter a convention; and I suppose graphic novels are, in a very real and large way, also forms that shatter conventions, for they are, in their best versions, works of literature that incorporate image and story, which is unprecedented.


And yet I'm not sure Cubism is the best metaphor for graphic novels as an art form, and it would presumptuous to state it so, even if it is a kind of ekphrastic precursor. And earlier we stated we thought it useful to interpret graphic novels as a kind of readerly film. But let me step back for a moment from that comment, because I think when we consider Abstract Expressionism, we gain some clarity on these issues.


What was, what is, Abstract Expressionism? It's a term, of course, and so tells us as much about the works, in a way, as the individuals who are considered under that conceptual umbrella. But the works are united by an interest in nonrepresentationality, I suppose it is safe to say. And an interest in nonrepresentatinality, it seems to me, is an interest akin to a Freudian obsession with the pregnancy or vagueness, in the best sense, of images shorn from their customary associations to create something new; or, images that connect us to the unconscious without unconscious assumptions getting in the way; and therefore images that unite us with the force of the imagination, contrary to any weak rational scheme attempting to check us from truly embarking on an adventure of the mind. The best works of the Abstract Expressionists seem all to do this in different ways - they give us images that are bottomlessly polysemous, for they endlessly compel the imagination in new directions. And it is this fertility, and its connection to the logic of the shattering of the pictorial plane, and therefore a kind of boredom with the representational, and a lust for the color that Matisse made so prominent, that to my somewhat neophyte eyes seems to speak in large part for the contribution that Abstract Expressionism has given to visual art.


When we move from consideration of this moment to graphic novels - an art form, not a movement, which is an important difference - we can see that graphic novels are a kind of shattering of the pictorial plane of lexical literature, for they both move away from the askesis of pure abstraction via language, while also incorporating the visual as a natural and organic part of the narration. Therefore Cubism and its offspring, Abstract Expressionism, seem to have influenced not only individual artist's work, like Ware's, (and I suppose we could consider a philosopher like Nietzsche enormously influential for an artist like Picasso because of Nietzsche's aesthetic perspectivism), but also in some sense the graphic novel as a form, since it showed us that what we thought for millennia to be a truth of art - representationality - was only a truism, something I suppose happened similarly with Schoenberg's atonal work, about which I know next to nothing.


But at some point these analogies also do not hold up very well, because graphic novels are sensuously representational, and the human figure is vital to the telling of the story, though I suppose that, too, is a matter more for the individual artist than any kind of prescription. What I mean is that, because graphic novels come from the traditions of comic books and comic strips, they rely on conventions like human figures - whether represented as animals, like Krazy Kat and Ignatz, or mice, like Art and Vladek Spiegelman, or human beings, like Crumb's drawings of himself and Aline Kominsky Crumb - and this convention is an important motif, I think, of graphic novel's self-image, of how they see themselves as an art form in contradistinction to painting, or film, or poetry. And I think the best way we can think of this self-image at this point is captured by Manny Farber's notion of "termite art," and what I try to get at when I talk about unassumingness. Here's Farber, from "White Elephant Art Vs. Termite Art":


"The best examples of termite art appear in places other than films, where the spotlight of culture is nowhere in evidence, so that the craftsman can be ornery, wasteful, stubbornly selfinvolved, doing go-for-broke art and not caring what comes of it."


Farber is talking about a kind of smallness, something preposterous, absurd, even (he would have hated this word, or loved it, I'm not sure), quixotic. He himself was sick of the pallid Abstract Expressionists, and probably sick as well of Greenberg's influence, and perhaps Harold Bloom's as well (the two elephants in the room, to my mind, in the title), and so he moved into other areas of art to make his own claim as a major critic, and he did it on his own terms, termite-style. Of course, every critic, like every artist, has to read another critic or artist in their own way in order to become themselves - that's Bloom's notion of misreading, and it is spot-on. For of course, Greenberg was a termite, and so was Bloom - they became central, but only because they worked on the peripheries. If you read Bloom on Ashbery, talking about the strange Orphic power of Ashbery's quietness, or Greenberg about Cezanne's contribution to Cubism, we immediately sense on both their parts a valuing of smallness, of the inching forward of hard work, though each critic phrased it in their own way, for the sake of the forms they wrote about, and their own needs as critics and human beings. For art itself is nothing but that - talented people create out of a need which pushes forward because it can't do anything else, like the most rebellious form of obedience, or vice versa. We've always had a hard time in our culture with accepting that not only is disagreement the best form of agreement, but that that is what makes culture culture and people people, since it is the how of individuation that is interesting, just as the basic facts of individuation, based on the relationship of parents and children in whatever guise, remains the same.




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