January 18, 2006

Tangle of Influences

I just got introduced to the work of R. Crumb. Anyone who has avoided his work for whatever reason needs to go and start reading it now. He's this amazing talent who just seems to have sprung up out of nowhere — no art school or formal training, no apprenticeships with big names in the business. There seem to be a lot of parallels between the careers of Crumb and Frank Zappa. Both of them are associated with '60s counterculture, despite the fact that both of them loathe hippies. They're both self-taught and work in the "low" arts, but have attracted the attention of many "high" artists. They also seem to have similar down-to-earth, no-nonsense attitudes.

One continuous feature in Crumb's work are all these old-timey cartoon archetypes: dancing movie theater snacks, people-like animals who wear shirts but no pants, the general layout and lettering in much of his work. He often transforms these stock tools of his trade into a means of cultural criticism. The targets of his criticism are artifacts of the present, though, not the archetypes which he has such deep affection for.

He maintains the appearances of these archetypes, but puts them in unexpected situations. This juxtaposition isn't made for its own sake, however. It's used to call attention to the assumptions that you may have about about these characters. These expectations fit into a broader cultural context which is usually covered with a patina of normality. When Crumb draws black people as racist stereotypes or puts together an incest story with Dick and Jane-style characters, he is suggesting that perhaps we shouldn't be accepting these images as part of the status quo.

Comic archetypes are reinterpreted in another way in Daniel Clowes's Ice Haven. It has a large-scale narrative, but it's broken down into very short strips. Basically, it's like you opened up the Sunday comics and each strip centered around an individual character, but you find they all lived in the same town and interacted with each other. The individual parts dip into the lives of their respective characters, but together, they form a larger story.

The characters in the strips are not your usual funny pages fodder, though. They're the black sheep of Dagwood and Blondie's extended family. You get six frames of a depressed kid staring at the ceiling and Family Circus-style single frames about grade schoolers contemplating murder. Clowes's work isn't a simplistic shockfest, either. He has a story to tell, but his preferred tools are usually employed in tamer settings. He takes to Sunday comics — as much of a throwaway form as you get — with novelistic aspirations.

If you check out your local comics shop, you'll notice that Crumb and Clowes aren't the only ones who like dipping into past images and forms. However, there's a big difference between the shallow nostalgia practiced by most of them and the deep love demonstrated by the much smaller group that these two fall into. The collection of images and ideas that they all chew over and redraw are the backbone of their medium's tradition. The artists even have a typical persona. They're "weirdos." They like drawing "sick" and "twisted" things.

Artistic media come attached with a set of cultural norms for the things they communicate, the ways in which they're communicated, and typical behaviors for the artists themselves (the sum of these norms usually goes by the name of "tradition."). They've got well-dressed farm animals with ukuleles, we've got polyphonic masses. As Feldman pointed out, the central point of interest from Machaut to Boulez is the construction (an observation he made to contrast music with the other arts). You can probably fill in the rest.

The question for the artist: how much of a weight does tradition bear on your work? Are you regurgitating its practices, building on them, or finding new ones (if that's even possible)? Crumb and Clowes provide examples of artists who can make new, personal work that is close to their tradition, but not close enough to suffocate it.

2 comments:

Daniel Wolf said...

You might enjoy listening to Crumb's string band, The Cheap Suit Serenaders:

http://www.timshome.com/css/

rgable said...

This post reminds me of the book Understanding Comics. If you aren't familiar with it, it's an extended comic book does an amazing (if slightly tedious) job at explaining the art and aesthetics of comics.

The musical equivalent would be a composition comprehensively describing the fundamental aesthetic properties and dimensions of music.

Robert Gable
http://rgable.typepad.com/aworks