Caroline Small has been away from HU too long. She left a comment recently on Suat’s post about comics criticism, though, and so in the absence of a real full length post, I thought I’d highlight this, in part because I miss new Caro content, but mostly because it’s worth highlighting.
Having spent a great deal of time lately thinking about critical theory and art practice in the company of some marvelous, critically minded practitioners (and not thinking at all about comics), I second Suat’s suggestion that at least one reason comics criticism is in this condition is because so few cartoonists practice criticism. And by “practice”, I mean read and write not journalism, not the “theory of craft” (as Frank Santoro does so brilliantly and charmingly), but classical “criticism” – argumentative/philosophical/descriptive essays, about art in general, both inside and outside their area of specialization. In fields where there is a strong critical culture, there is typically also a significant population of working artists who consider critical conversations about art, with other artists and critics, in their own and other fields, to be an essential part of their creative practice. Something they do for themselves, because it makes their art richer and better.
Film and literature and music have extremely healthy critical cultures, but they also have large numbers of engaged critic-practitioners – not just practitioners who occasionally toss off a piece of writing about something they’ve read or something they think is important, but practitioners who consider the work of criticism (i.e, reading incisive, informed essays on a range of art-related topics as well as working out their own ideas about their art and practice in essay form) to be an essential facet of being an original, challenging practitioner. (Fine art has a tremendous history in this regard although post-postmodernism is a bit of a nadir.)
This is not to say you have to be a practitioner to be a great critic (or vice versa), but to have a great critical conversation about any field, you need a critical mass of practitioners participating in that conversation at the highest levels. The conversation between…let’s call them practitioner-critics and philosopher-critics — so many of the great critical ideas historically have come out of that conversation. But the practitioner-critic has an exceptionally tough go in comics’ supercool, DIY, populist, “a picture is worth a thousand words” climate. There are vigilant souls, but by in large the critical stance seems to be treacherous waters for cartoonists.