Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Danish Cartoons and Visual Rhetoric

Recently I came across an op-ed column I wrote in February 2006 and submitted to the opinion pages of the New York Times and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, concerning the disastrous episode known as the Danish Cartoon Controversy. By way of brief summary: you may recall that a Danish paper, Jyllands-Posten, published a nose-tweaking series of cartoons addressing the subject, as opposed to the person, of the Prophet Mohammed. The images ran in the autumn of 2005, causing friction and a local attempt to secure legal action by the Danish government against the paper's publishers. No such action occurred. Two Danish imams then headed off on a Mideast tour to whip up outrage. They succeeded. Cartoon riots in Nigeria, Libya, Pakistan and Afghanistan took the lives of approximately 140 people.

The weekend of February 11th and 12th, 2006 represented the high-water mark of American comment on the controversy. The Times art critic Michael Kimmelman wrote a snarky Critic's Notebook item on February 8, which prompted my response, at least in part. But the gray lady declined my offering without comment, and the editorial page of the Post-Dispatch, with which I have enjoyed a working relationship, did not return my call or reply to my email. Fair enough. Obviously, most such submissions do not see print. At the time it was my general impression that the classically liberal response to these events seemed to have been judged unhelpfully pugnacious by the nation's opinion pages.

I have decided to post the column here because it serves the emerging purposes of Graphic Tales, which is to add my voice to a discussion about popular images and their purposes.

Images: above, Ben Shahn smiles at dour Protestants in Sunday Morning; below, visual rhetorician Thomas Nast offers up an anti-Catholic broadside in "American Ganges," published by Harper's in 1876.
February 9, 2006

I wish the Danish Cartoons were a sports franchise. Because I want to root for them. After the week they’ve had—hysteria, lethal violence, international crisis—yesterday the art critic from The New York Times, Michael Kimmelman, pronounced them “callous” and, much worse, “feeble.” Vile is one thing, but lousy is another!

Certainly nobody expects a serious art critic to linger long in the realm of popular picture-making, where images are asked to do specific work. Unlike philosophically-oriented art, popular images, including editorial art, must inform, entertain, or persuade. So while Mr. Kimmelman ascribes these images to the authority-tweaking traditions of modern art, they come from something older and more grounded in political life—the very beginning of satirical printing in Europe. These roots extend at least as far as James Gillray and the birth of modern political cartooning in Georgian England, and arguably go all the way back to scatological pope-bashing in the Age of Luther. The “oblivion” that Kimmelman judges these Danish cartoons deserve has always been their lot in the culture industry, from the beginning.

What is a cartoon, anyway? As Steven Heller has reported [in Merz to Émigré and Beyond: Avant-Garde Magazine Design in the 20th Century; Phaidon 2003] the wags at Punch, the British humor magazine, breathed new life into an old term in 1843. An exhibition of preparatory cartoons for a cycle of murals to be installed in Parliament provoked a mocking response, in the form of Punch’s own round of “cartoons.” Today, the word suggests a comic vignette with a caption.

As a piece of vocabulary, the word “caricature” does more work, coming from the Latin carrus, for wagon, carricare, to load, and caricare, to overload. As surely Richard Nixon could have attested, the caricature relies on strategic exaggeration for emphasis and effect. The greater the exaggeration, the heavier the load. In rhetorical terms, this maneuver is called hyperbole.

The great Thomas Nast, the 19th century editorial illustrator for Harper’s, was a master of visual rhetoric. He used figures of speech basic to colorful argumentation--metaphor, pun, metonymy, personification--and applied them to visual forms. Boss Tweed morphs into a vulture, A bishop’s mitre becomes a crocodile’s mouth. A politics is compressed into the Tamanny Tiger. The female figure of Columbia embodies America.

I’d argue that the most potent editorial artworks succeed without much language to attend them. That is to say, they function first as visuals. Like millions of people curious to see the source of all the trouble, I tracked down the Danish cartoons online at Wikipedia. In their original context in Jyllands-Posten they appeared around the perimeter of a single broadsheet page. They are uneven in quality and varied in form. Some are cartoons in the traditional sense: a vignette with a caption below. Others resemble a comic panel: a character with a voice bubble. By far, the strongest of the lot as a piece of visual form as well as a pithy statement is the work of a certain “KW.” This is the image most often referred to in press accounts of the controversy, unsurprisingly, because it looks like what it is: a portrait of sorts, in which the Prophet, rendered in a vaguely orientalist idiom, wears a turban that looks like “a bomb” in the conventional shorthand of such things--a circular form with a squat stem and a flaming wick. The brooding anger of contemporary Islamism is projected onto the historical figure of the Prophet (personification); the ideology of the suicide bomber is imputed to the Prophet by transforming his turban into a bomb (visual pun). The distribution of black shapes, gray passages, and white negative spaces works well; as an image, it coheres very competently. So far as I know, KW has not been identified, probably for his or her own safety. But I find the work neither callous nor feeble.[Subsequent comment has identified KW as a staff artist at Jyllands-Posten, though not by name.]

We cannot assign culpability to editors and cartoonists for violence cynically fomented by others. I was annoyed to the point of outrage to hear an American government spokesman describe religious feather-ruffling as “unacceptable.” Count me among the unapologetic liberals in the classical sense of the term who regard the bruised sensitivities of the faithful as a (not terribly) unfortunate aspect of life in an open society.

The editorial artists who give visual form to cultural argument have added color to our politics. That the thrust of their work is fundamentally rhetorical does not damn it to irrelevance. It may lead some to consider the political cartoon as a kind of visual speech, and thus to recoil from granting the status accorded other forms of visual art. The cultural work taken on by KW et al. is fundamentally different than that assumed by painters and sculptors. Different perspectives will be required to make sense of it in larger cultural terms. But in the meantime, I offer three cheers for the Danish cartoons and the people who draw them. They are the draftspeople of our civilization. Their exaggerations and distortions are only the wild strokes of our own halting sketch of the world we invent as we go.

Best Book Cover Ever, Part 2

The book cover bearing the planaria worm (not, alas, a squid, but nonetheless a character whose comedic potential has never been adequately explored) and his posse will continue to yield visual pleasures and commentary. As it happens, I cannot resist the visual joke provided by invertebrates on a spine. Professor Buchsbaum and the University of Chicago Press (first edition 1938, second edition, 1948; this a fourth printing in 1955) refuse to disappoint.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Aspirations & Intentions

Image: Harry Beckhoff, two-color illustration for Colliers, 1937

This is an activity--serial writing on [ideally] linked topics--which poses certain dangers, not the least of which may be to mistake one's own preoccupations for others' concerns.

I intend to frame some thoughts about modern graphic culture that I hope will help to clarify terminology, establish commonalities, sharpen distinctions, and otherwise bring some analytical rigor to a subject that suffers from 1) an excess of enthusiasm and 2) longstanding aesethetic dismissal.

Plainly 1) is the greater danger to the field. If we can think, speak and write clearly about images in a functional context we can dispense with some of the old hierarchies.

During the months of August and September I intend to use this forum to chart some visual and argumentative territory for ongoing consideration. For example: why does illustration lack a theory of itself? What is a cartoon? It will be necessary to define a few terms, both verbally and visually, to make any progress on such topics. On the whole, I think that English, otherwise a useful language, has done less well than it might have in commercial imagemaking. Our vocabulary under-performs.

So expect some editorial flag-planting in the next 60 days or so, as well as intermittent posts about studio projects and idle visual pleasures.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Golf Mayhem

An illustration for a benefit golf tournament. I had a lot of fun with this foursome.

Al Parker at the Rockwell

For anyone in the Northeast, I would recommend a trip to Stockbridge, Massachusetts to the Norman Rockwell Museum to see an exhibition on the work of Al Parker, a mid-century illustrator for women's magazines. I was lucky enough to work on this project with Stephanie Plunkett, the chief curator at NRM. Parker's illustration brings verve, brains, and sophistication to women's fiction work. Ephemeral Beauty: Al Parker and the American Women's Magazine 1940-1960 will travel to Washington University in St. Louis (where Parker's papers are housed) and will be on view from mid-November 2007 through January 2008. Image above from Good Housekeeping, 1956.

Here's another fiction illustration from 1943, from a serialized story called "Government Girl" in Ladies Home Journal.

Critics and historians have not paid much attention to periodical illustration, which makes it an interesting subject to study. I wrote an essay for the Ephemeral Beauty catalogue on Parker's work and its relation to modernism, "Abstraction in (dis)Guise; Al Parker, Fiction Illustration, and Commercial Modernism." Part of the fun was engaging the visual landscape across the market, including pulpier magazines of the period.

From my essay, concerning the spread above:
What,finally, is an Al Parker fiction illustration for? As a
general question, fiction illustrations seek to
entertain by staging scenes to enliven the text. But
Parker himself wrote dismissively of mere arrangements
of figures with complimentary shapes and
contemporary props. And strictly speaking, the
positioning of characters in dramatic displays does
not require an illustrator at all. Indeed, downmarket
women’s magazines stopped with the photo shoot.
The June 1951 issue of Life Romances, a typical
publication of its kind, features “nonfiction” articles
describing the misadventures of wayward women.
The story "Bride of Fear" uses a poor imitation of
a Parker illustration layout with display typography
and a pair of photographic cut-out figures, each on
the phone: the compromised bride-to-be and the
creepy blackmailing lout from her past, armed with
a highball and a grin. The photo credit for these
and comparable images throughout the magazine
goes to Trend Studios, an outfit billing substantially
less than a Westport illustrator with a swimming
pool. Understandably so: Ladies’ Home Journal
sold for a quarter a copy in 1951; Life Romances
went for fifteen cents.
Ephemeral Beauty will be at the Rockwell museum through the month of October. It's a bang-up show, and worth your while if you study visual culture.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Old Gypsy Project

My interest in the history of visual culture and my own practice as an illustrator converge quite a bit. This project is based on a deck of fortune telling cards I found in an antique shop in Naples, Florida near the end of 2006. Whitman Publishing, of Big Little Books fame, produced a deck of "Old Gypsy Fortune Telling Cards" in 1936-37. There's plenty to say about them, but for present purposes I have begun to rework the deck from a more contemporary point of view while retaining some of the period sensibility. The color scheme of the original involves a key drawing in black with orange and green, with variations to create four suits: hearts, diamonds, balls, and acorns. I have assumed that basic scheme but added a complimentary color pair of yellow and blue. The space pilot is a new card; the Indian card appears in the original deck (some of which I will show in a later post). The original Indian card has a whiff of the cartoon, and features a peace pipe and a headdress.

The representation of various groups is a subtheme in the Whitman deck, and in many commercial images from the 1930s. The "Gypsy" deck includes a particularly heinous actor card which features two characters in blackface. They will not appear in my deck. The stoic warrior American Indian is of course a stereotype as well, but a more complex one. In this case the historicist quotation of the period style references a time of shifting ideas about Indians and the West--developing tourism and the promotion of national parks, the birth of the film Western, and a budding sense of tragedy about what befell the native population. I would contrast that context with the unambiguous hostility of the Jim Crow South to blacks, or the racialist Japanese monster caricatures of the WW2 years. More recently the use of the term "Gypsy" has given rise to objection. People in the academy tend to be extremely aware of these things, which can result in self-policing to excess.

One of the things that I actually like about work that appears in the popular sphere--that aspires to find a commercial niche--is the general lack of cultural positioning of a certain kind. For both good and ill, commercial images display the terms of agreement between buyer and seller in a given culture at a particular moment.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Astro Boy in Black and White

During this run-up to a proper launch, I am largely resisting the urge to post. But last night I managed to overcome the limitations of Apple's DVD player, which constrain the user's ability to change region codes. I downloaded VLC, a shareware media player, which has enabled me to play variable region DVDs. Significantly, these include Madman Entertainment's English-language version of Osamu Tezuka's Mighty Atom, or Astro Boy. This is the series that NBC picked up from Tezuka and selectively redubbed in English. The Japanese show debuted in 1963. I will discuss the series in a later post, but thought I'd offer up a still in the meantime. This is from Episode #30, "Super Duper Robot." We are looking at said robot from the rear in this shot, as Astro Boy offers his threat assessment to Dr. Elefun.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Scenes from Starkdale, Ohio

Late last year, I finished an experimental animated film that has recently appeared at a handful of film festivals. The project took two years, hardly notable by film standards. Starkdale explores suburban life in the age of sprawl and global terror. I will post updates when the film shows elsewhere--so far it has appeared in the Rebel Planet festival in Los Angeles, The Athens festival in Ohio (no, not that one) and the Nickel Festival in Newfoundland. I'll put up the odd still now and again to keep things fresh. This is one of my favorite shots from the film.

Coming Soon

This project will hit the pavement for real around September 1, 2007. I look forward to using this medium to form thoughts about the sprawling realm of pictorial graphic culture, and to foster discussion and exchange about commercial images and what they mean. The image above was taken from the cover of a textbook titled The Making of Modern America, published in 1960--the year of my birth--by Houghton Mifflin as part of the Riverside Social Studies Series. Ah the majesty of hydroelectric power, commercial shipping, and modern chemical production; o the immaculate cityscape and handsome (plus handy) hills, just past the crisply-defined edge of settlement. It's all quite hopeful and confident: industrial-arcadian self-sufficiency. Sheeler, a little buzzed, with watercolors from a helicopter. The spatial compression of high desert, widening river, green foothills, urban archictecture and ocean port activitity is agreeably managed. The illustrator is uncredited.