Matthias Wivel wrote an extended response to Caro’s post on Chris Ware and criticism. I hated to see it buried at the end of that long comment thread, so I thought I’d give it it’s own post. Hopefully Matthias won’t take it amiss. So here it is:
Wow, great discussion! I’m not sure where to pick up, but let’s see…
Your basic criticism of Ware seems to me somewhat beside the mark and fairly typical of a ‘literary’ point of view. But comics is a visual medium too, if not first and foremost, and there’s nothing ‘merely’ about concentrating one’s efforts, if that’s indeed what Ware does, in the ‘drawings’ — by his own rather sophisticated, if unacademic, analysis of cartooning, that’s precisely what cartooning is about; a visual language that one reads, rather than looks at.
At a more fundamental level, the whole idea of separating form from content in the way you suggest — in order to locate some intellectual premise — is false. It strikes me as a more advanced iteration of the familiar “the drawings are good, but the story sucks”-type criticism one reads so often in comics reviews. Form and content are one, and attempting to separate them is an abstraction that does not necessarily tell us much of anything about the work.
And even if you could separate them, why is it that works that have an intellectual premise are inherently better than ones that concentrate on emotion, as you say Ware’s do? And, by extension, why does the ability of the artist to articulate this premise independently of the work make it greater? I like Cocteau and Jeff Wall fine (Rushdie less so), but they strike me precisely as the kind of intellectual, ‘literary’ artists, whose work gains from this kind of intellectual parsing, while that of, say, Rembrandt doesn’t. And there is no doubt in my mind whose work is greater.
As to whether Ware has written a text like Wall’s very interesting one (thanks for calling attention to it!) — no, I’m not sure, but he has written and talked at length about his medium of choice, addressing as does Wall both his precursors and his practice. One may well disagree with his take on it, which as mentioned carries a non-academic bias in favor of his own approach, but it is hard to deny that it is an intensely analytical, not to mention sophisticated, one — clearly formulated by a highly experienced and self-critical practitioner.
Regardless, therefore, of whether Ware thumbs his nose at ‘criticism’ — and I agree that the Imp letter is dumb — he practices it himself. The Comics Journal cover tells us as much, it being a commentary precisely on the history and reception of his chosen medium. Reading it straight, as you did in your piece, seems to me to be missing its point; that he places criticism at the bottom of the ladder, along with pornography, is (besides being a dig at Fantagraphics’ livelihood) only natural: what else could he do when covering the a magazine whose stated purpose it has been to drag the still fledgling, and frankly impoverished, discipline out of its primordial state?
The reason I’m engaging your criticism, is because I’m struggling with some of the same aspects of Ware’s work that you seem to. I don’t think the emotional truthfulness of his work is quite as advanced or true to life as he would wish it to be — pace the tenor of his Datebooks — but at the same time I admire him for trying so hard to arrive at it. In this regard, he has matured considerably as an artist, and I find his latest work — especially the “Building Stories” series — promising in terms of presenting a more fully human point of view.
I disagree that he is unwilling to make a mess — I think that’s largely what he’s been doing, by hacking away at the same set of emotions for so long — it’s just that the mess he makes is so neat that one doesn’t immediately notice.
Ware seems to me to be using comics to convey a specific perception of time and space — a kind of visual epistemology that reflects his own inner life and that of his characters, and ultimately speaks to our experience of the world. The ‘premise’ is precisely the creation of ‘a sympathetic world for the mind to go to’ that you deride in your post, ‘however stupid that sounds’, and I believe that we are the richer for it.