Monday, July 28, 2008

Habits of Mind, Retarded Taxonomies

I have been repopulating my studio walls with new inspiration, and I hope to offer a series of posts on what I'm looking at, and being inspired by. (Eck! Ugly prepositions sticking out of the end of those phrases, at and by like spines on an anenome. Sigh. As one says sweatily in a rec-league game: my bad.)

Here's a PSA: Milton Caniff is a genius.

I recognize that this discovery is a little late, since Caniff was lionized long ago as one of the midcentury greats, and is by now serious old hat several times over. As a visual matter, I find it odd that Caniff is classified as a cartoonist, as surely he is: he served as president of the National Cartoonists' Society, and was feted repeatedly as a leading practitioner of the cartoonist's art. But here's the problem. He draws like an illustrator. He concocts stories like an adventure writer, and is in that sense a cartoonist--he generates his own content. But in every other respect his approach to image-making is based on an ideology of non-fiction, which is finally a hallmark of the tribe of illustrators. Cartoonists operate on the rules of comedy and caprice; illustrators embrace the constraints of fact and fidelity. Caniff's airplanes are well-researched, his costumes reliable, his narration utterly plausible in the context of a World War Two pacific theater "adventure." Caniff knows his material well enough to pass muster with the servicemen who became a key part of his audience. This makes him an illustrator in spirit, if not in name. (But we all know he's a cartoonist.)


Hmmph.

The misclassification bugs me.

Why?

These inconsistencies of category and nomenclature betray a lack of clarity concerning fundamental critical issues. Like: what is a cartoon? What is a cartoonist? The first question may be answered commonsensically, at least as far conventional understanding takes us, even though these ideas should be subjected to review.

The second query is an issue of self-identification. If Caniff saw himself as a cartoonist rather than an illustrator, he should be taken at his word. To a degree. Certainly he could have been honest and mistaken. Indeed, critically speaking, he could well have been wrong--that is, if a rigorous engagement with the question suggests an answer which can be shown to diverge from Caniff's self-conception. People are wrong all the time, often about basic things. The intentionalist fallacy stalks the grounds, especially after nightfall...

At any rate, these questions have prodded me to work toward a series of essays designed to create a meaningful taxonomy of commerical visual artifacts. More on that someday down the line. But in the meantime, I am happy to celebrate Caniff's accomplishments. I understand there's decent biography on him, which I'd like to get my mitts on. (There it is again, the dread preoposition sticking out from an otherwise smooth surface of acceptable sentences and knitted paragraphs.) I'd also like to spend some time with Steve Canyon.

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