I’ve done a ton of post about Bart Beaty’s writing — but I think this will be the last. No promises though!

Anyway, I read Beaty’s book Frederic Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture recently. In general I found his argument quite convincing — that argument being that,

(a) Wertham was not a monster, and that his good works — such as providing clinical services in Harlem and providing key evidence to support Brown v Board of Education — more than outweighed his negative impact on the comic industry, and

(b) that negative impact has been seriously overstated anyway, and has been used as an excuse to neglect other more important reasons for comics decline — like television.

Anyway, as I said, Beaty largely convinced me. I was interested, though, in one paragraph towards the end of the book in which he is actually criticizing Wertham. Beaty says he disagrees with Wertham about the divide between high culture and low culture, and about the clear superiority of high culture. He argues that the privileging of high culture has hurt America — and he adds that “it is high culture that has most aggressively championed the conservative culture of individualism — often through the figure of the artistic “genius”— against more inclusive and progressive social possibilities.”

To back up this claim, Beaty says this:

It is no coincidence that at the time of the comic book controversy the Central Intelligence Agency was funding international touring exhibitions of American modernist art that had been championed by conservative critics such as Clement Greenberg and Dwight MacDonald. Art, the product of a individual creative expression, existed in the postwar period in opposition to mass cultural kitsch, and the celebration of art acted as a hegemonic force in American culture. Wertham did not recognize this fact, and consequently his writings played into the burgeoning ideology of individualism that he otherwise rejected.

Sounds reasonable. Except…well, I just recently read Justin Hart’s Empire of Ideas, about US efforts to influence foreign public opinion. I’ve got a forthcoming review of Hart’s book, so I’m not going to discuss it at any length here, but I did want to highlight a passage about the State Department’s support for abstract expressionism. As you’ll see, Hart’s take is pretty different from Beaty’s.

Stefan then flashed up slides of paintings from a well-reviewed, but highly abstract, show of modern art the State Department had put together for an international tour. “Mr. Benton, what is this?” Stefan barked out. “I can’t tell you,” Benton replied. Stefan continued: “I am putting it just about a foot from your eyes. Do you know what it is?” After Benton repeated that he would not even “hazard a guess of what that picture is,” Stefan scolded him: “You paid $700 for it and you can’t identify it.” Stefan closed his examination of Benton by quoting from a letter he had solicited from one of his constituents, a mural painter from Shelby, Nebraska. The artist from Shelby called the exhibit the “product of a tight little group in New York,” neither “sane” nor “American in spirit.” When Stefan asked Benton whether the exhibit depicted “America as it is,” Benton responded: “that was not the purpose of the art.”

Benton’s rejoinder entirely missed the most important point. The State Department, playing its role in supplementing private cultural exchanges and conversations, put together an art show to counteract what policymakers perceived as the contemptuous attitude of foreigners toward American culture. In so doing, they emphasized certain aspects of American art (abstract expressionism), while largely ignoring others (folk art and mural painting). Benton and his staff made a calculated, strategic judgment about how best to capitalize on American culture to
enhance the nation’s image, but this was an inherently political activity, subject to endless debate about who should speak for America and what they should say. In this particular case, Stefan had the last word when the House voted to slash all funds for public diplomacy from the State Department budget.”

For Beaty, high art was a conservative hegemonic discourse, supported by the US government, which contributed to the dominant American discourse of individualism. But Hart calls virtually all those assumptions into question. The US government did support AbEx — but it did so not to impose hegemony on the US, but rather to impress other nations. Moreover, it was attacked for so doing by conservatives, who successfully (hegemonically?) torpedoed future efforts in this direction. The reason they did so was precisely because of the discourse of individualism — to them, in fact, “individualism” of this sort seemed insane and foreign — or, if you will, un-American. The conservatives probably, Hart suggests, would have preferred folk art (though probably not mass culture art like comics.)

This doesn’t mean that Beaty is wrong, of course. Power and ideology are complicated things; there could easily have been contexts in which AbEx proponents were hegemonic, just as there are perspectives from which a classic liberal like Dwight MacDonald could be seen as conservative.

My point though is that, as I’ve mentioned before, I think Beaty — and comicdom in general, to the extent that there is such a thing — can overlook the extent to which relationship between comics and high art is not antagonistic, but parallel — or, rather, perhaps, the extent to which is it antagonistic because it is parallel.

That is, Beaty is certainly correct that AbEx enthusiastically promoted the ideal of individualism and the unique genius. But I think he misses the extent to which it promoted that ideology not out of untrammeled hegemonic power, but rather as a reaction to it’s own unstable and nervous position — an unstable and nervous position not that far divorced from comics’ own. The cult of individualism in AbEx is a way to justify the painting’s worth..and that justification was needed precisely because a lot of Americans viewed AbEx with a lot of suspicion. That suspicion was different in specifics than the suspicion directed at comics (i.e., arty farty nonsense vs. a danger to children) but I think you could argue that in many respects it was similar in structure and in effect.

If this is the case, Wertham’s assault on comics wasn’t because he failed to see the hegemonic power of high art. It was because he knew well that high art was not hegemonic. He was championing high art because he felt that it needed champions — and one way to so champion it was to point out its distance from bad art (just as comic strip creators distanced themselves from comic books.)

This discussion also, maybe, calls into question some of Beaty’s discussion of individualism. I actually agree that the cult of the genius is deployed against more inclusive social responsibilities in art. But it’s useful to realize that those more inclusive social responsibilities vary widely depending on where you’re looking. They could mean helping the poor and creating a more equitable society. But they could also mean — as just one for instance — a loud and intolerant xenophobia. Or they could mean denouncing homosexuals, which Wertham certainly did. Getting rid of the high/low binary doesn’t necessarily lead to progressive results, and it certainly wouldn’t necessarily lead to artists, high or low, throwing off hegemony, and/or hegemonies. Individualism shouldn’t be trusted, but social responsibility has its downsides as well.


Painting attributed to Irv Novick

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