“The gift of judgment is rarer than the gift of creativity.”
Oskar Loerke as quoted by Walter Benjamin.
In the tradition of appreciative stealing, this post will consist of a series of quotes by Walter Benjamin, one of the main ports of call for people seeking a voice of authority on art, literature, children’s books, toys, blogging and, of course, comics.
As one of the fathers of popular culture studies, Benjamin has been quoted and used liberally by comics academics and critics, largely with respect to his seminal essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction“. Gary Groth relies on him in his discussion of Reinventing Comics, as does Ernesto Priego in his paper on comics and digital reproduction. I, myself, have used some of his statements on children’s books and nostalgia in a disappreciation of EC comics I once wrote. It should also be noted that our host, Noah, recently wrote a post making fun of Mr. Benjamin so this could be seen as another opportunity for him to laugh at a dead man.
Most of the quotations which follow are from notes and fragments which remained unpublished prior to his death by suicide. They provide a glimpse into the man’s unfiltered thoughts.
In a recent discussion of theory begun by Vom Marlowe, Noah suggested that:
“Most people who review comics…come up with ad hoc ideas which refer in general to received bodies of knowledge, rather than looking to particular theories or texts. I’d argue that there are some problems with deliberately refusing to learn from people who have already covered the ground you’re walking on — for one thing, you tend to end up wandering around the same turf a lot.”
This gentle censure against reinventing the wheel might well apply to the art (let’s assume it is an art for the time being) of criticism, especially in its generalities. Therefore, to begin (all quotes in bold from hereon are by Walter Benjamin):
(1) “Suppose you make the acquaintance of a young person who is handsome and attractive, but who seems to be harboring a secret. It would be tactless and reprehensible to try to penetrate this secret and wrest it from him. But it is doubtless permissible to inquire whether he has any siblings to see whether their nature could not perhaps explain somewhat the enigmatic character of the stranger. This is exactly how the true critic inquires into the siblings of the work of art. And every great work has its sibling (brother or sister?) in the realm of philosophy.”
Which relates to the preamble.
(2) “Good criticism is composed of at most two elements: the critical gloss and the quotation. Very good criticism can be made from both glosses and quotations. What must be avoided like the plague is rehearsing the summary of the contents. In contrast, a criticism consisting entirely of quotations should be developed.”
A recurring idea in Benjamin’s notes. He was writing about literature. The equivalent in terms of comics would not be a a quotation of the text but the reproduction of panels (preferably whole pages) from the work in question. The print Journal was intermittently castigated for relying too greatly on words in what is largely a visual art form, an error which was seen to be rectified in Todd Hignite’s Comic Art magazine. The only valid excuses for refraining from doing as such online are poverty and sloth.
(3) “Honest criticism from the standpoint of unprejudiced taste is uninteresting and basically lacking in substance. What is crucial about any critical activity is whether it it is based on a concrete sketch (strategic plan) that has its own logic and its own integrity…This is missing almost universally nowadays, because political and critical strategies coincide only in the most outstanding cases. Nevertheless, such a coincidence should be the ultimate goal.”
“The false and unsustainable fiction that literary criticism today can still expect to derive its standards from pure aesthetics, and that criticism is basically nothing but the application of those standards. Criticism has failed to notice that the time for aesthetics in every sense, and especially in the sense practiced by Friedrich Theodor Vischer, is gone forever.”
An exemplar may be found in the excerpt from”The Newspaper” which Noah quotes in his Splice Today article where the author’s Marxist leanings are laid bare for all to see:
“For as writing gains in breadth what it loses in depth, the conventional distinctions between author and public, which is upheld by the bourgeois press, begins in the Soviet press to disappear. For the reader is at all times ready to become a writer, that is, a describer, but also a prescriber. As an expert—even if not on a subject, but only on the post he occupies—he gains access to authorship […] It is in the theater of the unbridled debasement of the word—the newspaper—that its salvation is being prepared.”
Concerning aesthetics: Benjamin was talking specifically about literary criticism. If there is a problem with the application of aesthetic standards, they apply less to comics than they do to literature for we have barely begun to understand the extent to which they pertain to the former.
It must be said that I’ve often found critics who focus on a single strategic plan (Benjamin suggests a plan but there is no hint as to their number) uninteresting and tedious over the course of time. The reader can certainly avoid these writers but if said person infects a favorite publication, then there can only be weeping and the gnashing of teeth, even if their goals appear to be noble and right (e.g. feminism and issues concerning race).
A counter example. The print Journal was singular in its focus – that comics (a medium once thought thoroughly disposable) could be art and should be treated with all the respect and severity the term entails. This is a situation which we find mirrored in the following strand from Benjamin’s “Program for Literary Criticism”:
“Germany’s reading public has a highly peculiar structure. It can be divided into two roughly equal parts: ‘the public’ and ‘the literary circles.’ There is scarcely any overlap between the two. The public regards literature as an instrument of entertainment, animation or the deepening of sociability – a pastime in a higher or lower sense. The literary circles regard books as books of life, as sources of wisdom, as the statutes of their small groups – groups that alone bring bliss. Hitherto, criticism has concerned itself almost exclusively – and very wrongly – with what catches the attention of the public.”
The print Journal of old was noted for its in-depth interviews which looked beyond temporary and purely commercial needs; there was probing long form criticism the like of which will not be seen for some time in a non-scholarly venue and it possessed a careless disregard for political expediency. In the face of falling circulation numbers earlier this century, the print Journal reinvented itself and died. The battles of old had been won and the marketplace more accepting of a wider literary and artistic approach. The larger comics reading public was seen as a new potential customer base; superheroes and their genre brothers worthy of deeper investigation and equal consideration. The magazine’s tone became less confrontational and rigorous, its “statutes” in a sense denigrated, its older audience thus alienated and whittled down. The advance of technology took care of the rest.
(4) “Historical retrospect: the decay of literary criticism since the Romantic movement. A contributory factor is the absence of a collective authority that could judge great objects and slogans. Every cohort of critics has seen itself as a “generation” in all its limitations, as a puny guardian of “posterity”. In this way, caught between productive writers and posterity, it didn’t dare move a muscle, and so foundered in epigonism.”
Benjamin is talking specifically about critics and not the artists they write about. A strange concept for comics – that criticism should be seen as part of the grand weave of art. I have the impression that this idea is viewed as a kind of vanity both by comics critics themselves and the reading public at large. It is, after all, hardly a “professional” endeavor. Nor is the medium about which they write sanctioned by the ages. Free from such constraints, comics critics often find themselves at ease to find new “masterpieces” and condemn “posterity”. We do not feel the weight of history or tradition for there is none.
On the question of posterity in comics, the following quote was culled from a message board thread discussing the value of collecting original art:
“A quote from a conversation between a collector and the director of a Museum in Amsterdam: ‘Director: Do you really believe that the art world gives a damn about all those memorabilia? Their so called iconic value is eroding, because it’s not generation-crossing. The people who grew up with Tintin are now in places where they can keep their childhood hero alive (press, media). Once they are gone, attention will slowly fade away, and so will your so called icon. It has happened before.'”
Are these words based on experience or blind ignorance? Let’s dispense first with the idea that mere quality guarantees the survival of a work of art. Central to the idea presented above is that what keeps a work of art alive through the centuries is patronage, the academy and the art establishment as personified by major galleries; that comics must form an essential part of formalized education and the study of human progress in order to ensure its longevity. Quite apart from a simple seeking after recognition, this explains the desire by so many to place comics within the safe houses of Western civilization. It might be useful to compare the extent to which the public (now empowered; see subquotation 3) as opposed to the academy has influenced the durability of individual films.
(5) “The stronger a critic is, the more comprehensively he is able to digest the entire personality of his adversary, right down to the details of his character.”
Is the adversary the artist, his fellow critics or both? In a private discussion with a certain critic, I discussed in a limited way the idea of being forthright and the morality of conferring on a writer’s proclivities behind the subject’s back. How else are we to refine our ideas concerning the positions of our fellow writers and critics if not through such discussions? How else are we to perceive not only his stated ideas but the nature of his deficiencies and sensitivities? From this statement, it would appear that Benjamin saw such adversarial relationships as a certainty though they may be looked upon with sadness when unexpected and unplanned.
(6) “The risk in bestowing praise: the critic forfeits his credit. Looked at strategically, every expression of praise is a blank check…There is fine art in giving praise. But it is also a fine art to bring out the importance of something apparently peripheral through negative criticism.”
“Highly symptomatic of modern criticism: it never compromises an author more than when it bestows praise. And on the whole, that is right and proper, since the critics prefer to praise worthless books. But significant works are not treated any differently.”
Of course, Benjamin never suggests that these “risks” are not worth taking. He also seems to allude to a kind of susceptibility in all works of art, a flaw which is acquired from their construction through human hands. I am certainly “thankful” when critics leave themselves open through unqualified praise of “worthless” comics. So much the better to beat them over the head with if one so chooses.
As for the predisposition to praise among comics critics, this quality may be seen as the corollary of our freedom from history (see quotation 4) and hence any sense of responsibility or guilt relating to shoddy standards and craftsmanship.
A recent example of bringing out the “peripheral” through negative criticism on The Hooded Utilitarian was Caro’s dissection of Chris Ware’s deficiencies where we find an analysis of a half-formed quote deriding the critical establishment; statements concerning his artistic ease and difficulties; and a discussion of his desire and ability to create fully-formed worlds for the mind to inhabit, less so a corresponding swathe of complex ideas (I am of the opinion they do exist). The reader who is convinced of Ware’s merits may be led to search for that which he senses intuitively (Ball and Kuhlman’s The Comics of Chris Ware is an adequate starting point).
It is when the light shines brightest that I long for the comforts of darkness. Negative criticism to me is least useful in matters of consumer guidance though this is frequently needful. It very often has the unlikely (predictable?) side effect of strengthening my convictions as to the worth of the work in question.
Readers often presume a complex but logical process in the work of criticism, an almost empirical basis for the evaluation of books. But Benjamin recognizes something more mystical, a process of appreciation based on the fleeting and unconscious rather than definitive knowledge:
“Reading is only one of a hundred ways of gaining access to a book. Always ultimately essential (within limits) as a means of verification, but often no more than this. What does it mean to have a sense of the aura surrounding a book? Perhaps it means the ability to forget. To forget a work or conversation about a book, or a glance through its pages, means perhaps consigning it to the judgment of our unconscious. The unconscious – which has the power to turn impressions and images, however fleeting, into extracts we often recognize in our dreams. This often explains why the true critic often has waking dreams about a book even before he comes to know it.”
(7) “The critic must know how to give the public the feeling that it will know where to expect him. When he will speak out and in what way.”
A trait much more typical of critics of the comics industry, less so the formless void which addresses aesthetics (see quotation 3) and value. This requires time and a concerted effort on the part of the critic. We can sense the values of Dan Nadel in matters of historical accuracy and in his concern for attention to detail in curatorialship. There’s Jeet Heer’s respectful and less adversarial stance towards the comics and cartoonists he covers, and Ken Parille’s obsession with form, structure and close readings. Noah’s disdain for the modern literary comic is palpable, as is his theory-based appreciation of pulp and genre. It is hard to say if this is an essential aspect of the comics critic. It may have the happy side effect of creating a loyal and expectant readership. Is predictability of this sort a valuable trait? This has some connection to quotation 8 which follows…
(8) “Regarding the terrible misconception that the quality indispensable to the true critic is “his own opinion”: it is quite meaningless to learn the opinion of someone about something when you do not even know who he is. The more important the critic, the more he will avoid baldly asserting his own opinion. And the more his insights will absorb his opinions. Instead of giving his own opinion, a great critic enables others to form their opinion on the basis of his critical analysis…What we should know about a critic is what he stands for. He should tell us this.”
(9) “The wretched state of German book criticism is a secret to no one. Unlike the reasons for it. But chief among these are the absence of comradeship, of opposition, and of clarity in the commerce between writers. Hence the astoundingly wishy-washy nature of trends and their representatives, and the sterile dignity of a criticism that is merely the expression of the stiflingly narrowminded spirit in which it is practiced.”
I assume that Benjamin’s claims here were charged with the political. The problems faced by comics criticism are much more basic.
As stated under quotation 3, that brief “shining” moment for comics criticism (that challenge to the aesthetic possibilities of the form) is now over. Grendel and his dam are dead and we wait expectantly for the next monster in the firm knowledge that it will not be the dragon. These are the best of times and the worst of times.
Divorced from the larger narrative of art and civilization, comics criticism in its most popular form has largely subsisted on a type of specialized knowledge, a kind of insularity which has become easy and habitual. The perspective here is narrow and vested. An unhealthy state of affairs to some onlookers who appreciate and demand the application of a wider field of knowledge. Is comics criticism trendless and “sterile”, and do we wish it as such?
(10) “One should adopt a maxim; never write a critique without at least one quotation from the work under review.”
Which explains all of the above.