We’ve been having a spirited debate about the place of theory in comics in response to Caro’s recent post on the subject. In particular, Franklin Einspruch vigorously contested Caro’s position. It seemed a shame to leave his responses buried in comments, so I thought I’d pull a couple out and highlight them here.
There’s only one way to verify Caro’s assertion, stated a few different ways, that lowercase-t theory or uppercase-T Theory have something important to offer comics. That is to create said comics and see how they turn out. There’s nothing wrong with suggesting that such-and-such might to be possible in comics, but there’s a huge problem with suggesting that “truly ambitious, truly literary comics” would come into existence if only the creators employed particular philosophical or literary models. Art just doesn’t work that way. Attempting to make it that work that way gives you mannerism. I call it the Shopping List Problem. One can see certain characteristics in a successful innovation of style, inspiring other creators to copy the characteristics. But quality in art is not a shopping list of characteristics, checked off and accounted for in the new work. It’s an integrated whole that generates forward from the intuited feelings of individual creators. The head serves the heart. The other way around is poisonous.
At least as far as visual art is concerned, Theory has totally failed to account for that aspect of art-making. In fact it has put concerted effort into demolishing the very notion of universal value, and replace it with these checklists. I recently learned that a friend of mine, a beautiful realist painter, is having a show of new work in which she has more or less discarded painting. The gallery is thrilled that the exhibition “will be strikingly conceptual in its trajectory” and that she has been “gradually moving in a more conceptual direction.” A conceptual program, of course, is the major item on the checklist of contemporaneity as subscribed to by a certain species of art-worlder. People used to take it as a sign of progress when figurative artists went abstract. Now people expect them to go conceptual. This is mannerism at its worst. I nearly cried.
With all due respect to Caro, I suspect that her idea of “truly ambitious, truly literary comics” is in fact comics that better emulate the characteristics she finds attractive in a particular strain of literature. Someone who finds those characteristics exciting, and I mean genuinely enthused, butterflies-in-the-tummy excited about them, ought to have a go at it. The rest of us ought to be left alone to pursue our ambitions and literary inclinations as we see fit to do so. Something entirely new might arise, not dreamed of in her philosophies. I hope she doesn’t subscribe to the arrogant presumptions of historical inevitability, finality, and perfection that makes the culture of capital-T Theory the moral and intellectual sinkhole that it is.
One more observation: A picture is only worth a thousand words when you’re dealing with description. When it comes to dense, complicated fiction, words become noticiably more efficient. It distresses me that comics critics calling for Booker-sized ambitions seem not to notice this.
And after a bit more back and forth, Franklin added:
I have run into these notions before, namely that any kind of intellectual work done on behalf of art is theory, and that only theory stands in the way of sentimental or formal disasters. Both of them are mistaken.
Recasting traditional poetics and narrative as just another theory, even if you have to scare-quote “theory” to assert it, is certainly flattering to the culture of theory. Thus theory can be said to exist everywhere and at all times. I’ve even seen references to “Greenbergian Theory” as if non- or even anti-theoretical approaches to art merely constituted another theory. (For the uninitiated, the reference is to Clement Greenberg.) “Non-ideology, or non-theory, is an ideological and theoretical position, even if unacknowledged,” as Noah puts it. I’m sorry to be rude, but this is the sound of academic culture pleasuring itself. A finally fed-up Robert Storr wrote this in late 2009:
Speaking with a po-mo savvy young artist this week, I felt compelled to ask him what, given his approach to critical theory, was his attitude toward praxis? A puzzled look crept over his face, and, with a candour as admirable as it is rare among those who keep their verbal game up, he replied, ‘What’s that?’
The fact of the matter is that certain structures look good, sound good, or read well for some reason and seem ripe for reuse in an original way. Thus art progresses forward, by execution, not theory. When Caro claims that “You can’t feel your way around a 600-page novel unless you want that 600-page novel to be a rambling, solipsistic disaster,” I have to ask her how many 600-page novels she’s written, because that doesn’t sound right to me at all. I’m going to guess from the longer nonfiction I’ve written that really do have to feel your way around it, and you have to feel your way around it so thoroughly, self-critically, and intensely that the ramblings, solipsisms, and all the other weaknesses expose themselves as such. Then you root them out. Theory doesn’t save you from this work. As far as I know nothing does.
Are there broad biases against “literary thinking” in comicdom? I’m just as inclined to think that the Booker-style graphic novel envisioned by Caro would have to be the size of a children’s encyclopedia in order to achieve the same scope of ambition, because for certain narrative problems a picture is worth about six words instead of a thousand. Can one really just use more words? In my experience the words and the images have to sync at a certain rate or you’re not making comics anymore. We like making comics.
There’s something more than a little silly about critics, having trained on a certain specialty of literature, calling upon comics creators to acquire the same training so they can make equivalent comics. This is getting the cart so far in front of the horse that they’re not even attached anymore. Look, Caro, you’re a writer, you understand the literary angle that you’re looking for better than anyone, so do what I did when I wanted to see comics done a certain way and make the damn things yourself. As it is you might as well be standing on the sidelines of a football game yelling at the players to start playing hockey.
Jane Freilicher, Dark Afternoon. Franklin mentioned Freilicher in the course of the discussion.