Friday, May 25, 2007

The folly of "Art vs. language"

Hello, my name is Nathan Sandler and on this blog I'll be posting my musings on politics, culture and comics, which is what my first post is on.

The Folly of "Art vs. language"

I would like to say right off the top that I have nothing but respect and admiration for Neil Cohn and his thought provoking work, but I do disagree with him on what seem to be the fundamental levels of his theories. At the heart of this is his argument that what we see in comics is a language not art, now this is a vast simplification of his ideas it does provide us with a staring point.

What is art?

A tricky question but if we are arguing whether or not something is art it's one you have to tackle sooner or later. Lets start with a definition from Webster, first we see that there are many definitions of art, we shall start with the noun: “skill acquired by experience, study, or observation”* (the example here is worth pointing out: the art of making friends) art may also be an adjective: “produced as an artistic effort or for decorative purposes.”* Not the most technical of definitions but it gives something to start with. The simple fact is postmodernism and Dadaism have been trying to get people to question what constitutes art since the thirties, and in doing so have rendered Cohn's statement that: "Likewise, not all statues and things painted are considered "art" by definition, only the ones that meet certain individual and cultural qualifications to be included in that category."** a moot point.

In a way Cohn is right, comics will probably never be a medium, like oil panting, were it's tend to be expected that every thing made in it is "Art" to one degree or another by the general public it'll be closer to TV in that it will always be seen as "just a mass medium" and thus expected to put out stuff purely on the lower end of "culture " but can on rare occasions may make something that is worthwhile. What Cohn seems to be taking about in his "art vs. language" arguments is the act of drawing and the traditional skills that one is believed to need to have in order to be considered talented in the field of making the pictures in comics. In time this will raise more questions, but for know lets look at the second part of the art language divided.

What is language?

Again let’s start with Webster: "systematic means of communicating ideas or feelings by the use of conventionalized signs, sounds, gestures, or marks having understood meanings"* about as accurate as we need right now. Now, Colon states that comics are a "visual language" but what makes that different from a non-visual language? Most languages are sound based so that's easy, but what about sign language isn't that a visual language? Is their not a term that suits what is done in comics far better than language? I'd say there is and that term is writing. This is a subtle but important distinction; for one not all human cultures have a written language but all speak a language.

This distinction brings up that writing is a visible and thus visual language. Here's were things get tricky because when someone writes using a pen or pencil or other handwriting tool they are making a visual mark and a certain amount of "cultural qualifications" are excepted to be met, in other words when they are handwriting they are drawing. If you look at handwriting as drawing and therefore compatible with drawing comics a few new qualifications for a good comic drawing appear then if you just deal with the parts of language found in both spoken and written forms of language; this gives raise to one of the most important comparison to be made in between languages and good comic drawing, legibility.

A well made sentence conveying the most insightful thoughts is worthless if you can't make out what's being said. In a rare defense of Liefeld Cohn states: "that Liefeld is undeniably graphically fluent"*** defending the individual drawings (words) but ignoring Liefeld's panel layouts (grammar) which to put it simply are atrocious. (That’s another story for another time.) As for Mr. Liefeld's "handwrittening" to put it simply, it's bad. I have hard time figuring out where characters are suppose to be, and when not in costume who's suppose to be who, and only the broadest of body language and facial expressions are used to tell me what the characters are feeling.

Cohn believes a lack of a single "look" is hurting American comics from exploiting the fact that its a language, which intently uses a set sounds or symbols to convey meaning. This view tends to isolate Cohn, as many comic fans and creators tend to either prefer naturalistic art or individual styles. Cohn states that this stops comics from truly reaching their potential by hurting the language side of comics in favor of the art side. First their is nothing in art that says that one must be 100% original in every aspect of it, that is an aspect introduced by modernism. For years each culture's art has had a standard template for how certain things look, in the case of the western world that look has largely been a naturalistic centered one for a long time, but other culture employ a more stylized look.

Art gives comics more ways to communicate ideas then a simple language based approach has to offer. Aspects like composition, lighting and others can all help tell the story just as much as a standardized symbol for sadness can. These aspects that art gives comics are not as easily picked up on as the more symbolic language-like parts, and therefore take greater time to both learn and master, but this has precedent,not in spoken langue but in written langue. most written languages are made up of easily duplicated symbols like English, others like Chinese calligraphy take years to master as changes such as line thickness contribute to the symbol, rather then just the basic shape.

This leads into the next subject, typography. in stating that a single look make comics more popular Cohn points to manga, ignoring for a second the details of each Mangaka’s look one must admit their are at least a few that different sub-styles or typographies in manga, the style used in most Shonen (EX: Naruto) the one used in Shojo (Ex: Fruit Basket) and a far more naturalistic one (EX: Sanctuary). Add to this fact that deviations in anything handmade (everyone has unique handwriting.) so that even when working in the same style on the same character the natural impulse is for some from of an individual style to show up. For example look at these two stills done by two different artists from a Bugs Bunny cartoon directed by Bob Clampett:****


A symbolic and graphic froms of writing have already been devolved, hieroglyphs, and logograms in general. If one completely standardized the graphic depictions of objects and ideas in comics and simplified them so they would be easy to "read" then hieroglyphs is what one ends up. Now there is nothing wrong with this, expect it almost completely removes drawing from the equation, To me this is a great shame, one of the things that can get people to want to read or make comics is that they enjoy looking at or making drawings, and with that gone why not simply use the written language that's already available?

Also, a reliance on symbols can strip a work of its subtlety and ruin suspension of disbelief, having a villain twirl a handlebar moustache will tell your audience that this is a bad man, but will probably also leave them rolling their eyes at the clicheness of it, and instead of just "going along with it" many will be thinking abut how few people have handlebar moustaches, much less go around twirling them. (Though I do admit I am tempted to grow one just so I can twirl at the right moment, say some asks me about what I'm thinking I can answer sinisterly "nothing." well twirling it, and then maybe chuckle, yeah, that'd be awesome.)

Even symbols that we are used and accepted might be thrown out if one is trying for subtlety. The manga and anime "sweat drop" for example is the equivalent of an author writing "Joe was annoyed" well it clearly tells the reader what is going on it does so in such an unrealistic manner that it draws attention to the fact that it is written, under other circumstances that might be excused, but the lack of complexities or nuance in the sentence leaves the whole thing as an unnecessary braking of storytelling’s number one rule, "show don't tell".

The visual symbols do seem easier for most people to accept then such poor prose and that would prove an interesting avenue of investigation but the point I'm making is that an attempt to "purge" (as it were) comics of its art side and codify a "language" for it does not free the medium but shackles it to being little more than a secondary version of the written language already in place instead of being an entity in and of itself.