Sunday, September 9, 2007

Territory VI: On Method; the Limits of Biography

Several years ago, in the opening line of an essay devoted to the relationship between comics and animation, I wrote: Graphic history is littered with singularities. By this I meant that many isolated tales of distinguished careers have not resulted in an overarching story or master narrative of our parallel, vernacular art history. Winsor McCay, N.C.Wyeth, Walt Disney, Norman Rockwell, etc., etc. It’s as if none of these people have a relationship to a common tradition. It’s all very here and there, so-and-so and so-and-so. Little theory has been written in the realm of commercial images, which is what it would take to bind up all this activity and material and shape it into something you could properly reflect on. Meanwhile we use a raft of terms—illustration, cartoon, fine art—that have ended up in the language but seem to have been very poorly defined for analytical purposes. So how would one begin to answer a question like the one anticipated by recent exchanges on this blog: to wit, what is the relationship between cartooning and illustration? What does it mean to “be” a cartoonist, or to “be” an illustrator?

There are of course a variety of approaches or lines of reasoning available to answer a question like this. From my perspective, these include: 1) the historical, 2) the economic & distributive, 3) the technological, 4) the cultural, 5) the stylistic, and 6) the synthetic product of the preceding, the analytic. Note what is missing: the biographical.

The anecdotal and necessarily granular aspects of the biographical approach have substituted for broader cultural reflection in this arena. Despite the considerable merits of individual works and authors, biographers do not often systematically engage the professional contexts of their subjects. In less formal precincts, what passes for the biographical is really simple fandom, which offers limited charms. For the time being, I really am inclined toward the swearing off of hortatory tales of this or that neglected artist.

Finally, the failure to develop coherent and useful frameworks for thinking and talking about this field of modern graphic pictorial culture isn’t about individuals. It’s about categories and artifacts and practices. What we have here is a failure to describe. Think about it. The world is full of fashioned images which seek to inform, persuade, activate or decorate, and entertain. Cartoons, comic strips, package graphics, advertisements, posters, editorial illustrations, matchbook covers, you name it. We’re surrounded by the stuff.

All great criticism starts with description: of an experience, a set of objects, a context. Judgments—both legal and cultural—are rendered after the facts have been established. We need more facts. We need an empirical mindset. For starters, it will be necessary to address the great corpus of commercial and functional images in the world. Not one by one, but set by set. What, exactly, do these things look like, and to what ends do we see them deployed in the world?

It may seem contradictory to call for an empirical approach while setting aside biographical writing. What is biography, but a focused investigation of a particular life in a culture? Isn’t that empirical? I guess I am suggesting that the anecdote should be shelved in favor of the analysis. Clear-headedness, please, not nostalgia or enthusiasm.

We’re badly in need of clear-headedness in these times. Can’t hurt to practice, even on vernacular art forms.

Images: cover illustration, Davy Crockett, American Hero, a Rand McNally Elf Book, circa 1965. Illustrator uncredited; endpaper illustration, Best in Children’s Books, Nelson Doubleday, 1957. Illustrator uncredited. (Thanks to Jenn Kaye); detail, American economic components illustration, Life Magazine, January 5, 1953. Illustrator uncredited.

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