Wednesday, March 19, 2014

After Critical Thinking: The Non-Thought of Frenemies

In "After Criticism," Lane Relyea notes, the evaluation of contemporary art has passed from "the paranoid guardianship of cliquish connoisseurs" (357) to
professional art historians who are more institutionally networked. The critic, by comparison, looks isolated and unconnected: she or he is too inward turned, still supposedly privileging a subjective interior, the place where the experience of art is received and submitted to aesthetic judgment. The art historian instead privileges an exterior, a field of [...] disciplinary discourses, all bridged and related. Art historians are strongly identified and integrated as professionals; they conduct their practices within institutionally defined fields that are striated and organized by title, rank, and collegiality; they belong to professional associations; they advance their respective fields by situating their efforts in relation to contributions by their fellow practitioners. In short, they are abundantly hyperlinked [...]. Critics don't have any equivalent of academia or the museum world; they lack institutional grounding and organization; they have no well-organized system of training that erects high educational barriers of qualifications. [...] Compared to professional historians, critics are unincorporated, even amateurish (361-2).
I felt a chill down my spine when I first read this passage, as I think anyone would who has managed to climb over those "high educational barriers" to see what passes for collegiality on the other side. I find Relyea's view of scholarship as enforcing a bland, careerist, credentialed, tribalistic group-think, supplanting an independent, not to say introverted, contemplation of aesthetics deeply chilling. This situation is not presented by Relyea as a good or bad thing, but simply the way things happen to be now. But in fact we have a choice. We always have to choose whether we will conform to the herd or not.

Relyea's remarks are from an excellent anthology called Contemporary Art: 1989 to the Present, a volume I am using in a class I currently teach. It was recommended by an extremely intelligent colleague as a supplement to a more conventional textbook, and it has more or less supplanted that other resource as the semester has progressed. The anthology is filled with a number of texts by what another author in the volume refers to as "friendly enemies" of the art world (186). Like Relyea's penetrating if unsettling assessment of the current state of art evaluation, which expresses neither a preference nor an abhorrence for the current situation, there are many clear-headed and sober observations on the current art world to be found within its pages. Scholars today are nothing if not acutely aware of the many contradictions to be seen in contemporary art, and their own conflicts of interest stemming from their reliance on the very institutions of that art, but their observations are always carefully offered as frenemies. I have supplemented these offerings with a further reading or two from more snarky mainstream observers of art (disaffiliated critics who, one is tempted to say, are good enough writers to get their work published in magazines like Harper's and Vanity Fair) who for whatever paranoid or cliquish reason cannot find it in themselves to remain quite so obligingly neutral. My hope is to influence my students at least to the extent that they consider the possibility of thinking for themselves, and above all to question the material presented to them, particularly the version of contemporary art history as presented by the institutionally-connected and interest-conflicted.

I am reminded of this passage because of very recent interactions with my own "hyperlinked network." Anyone who knows the conformist, hierarchical culture of academia will realize that what is sacrificed in the passage from the critic to the art historian is more than mere personal opinion; it is perhaps individuality itself. Relyea sees this somewhat optimistically as "the demise of consensus" (358), but it is in fact its opposite. It is a mindless consensus supported by endless footnotes (ingratiating oneself to one's more important peers), CVs (one's life lived and career pursued always in contrivance of what will look good on paper), and favorable letters of recommendation (the most subtle form of institutional behavioral control ever devised), yielding a consensus of opinion that is safe and utterly without meaning to the extent that it  remains impersonal. As Boris Groys remarks, the end result is an art that "expresses no taste at all—no public taste, no personal taste, not even the taste of the artists themselves." It is an art that appears to have happened at the behest of the Invisible Hand of History. It is an art and a scholarship of non-taste and non-thought, more rigorously policed by cliques far more draconian than those they have supposedly supplanted.

Scholarship developed in the West as a means of situating one's intellectual efforts among and building upon the ideas and thinkers of the past. It was a means of interacting with and reanimating a cultural heritage that would have otherwise become remote and inaccessible, if not lost, over time. As a means of advancing one's career among the living, and of excluding the noncomformist, the amateur, and the heretical in favor of the unoriginal, the conventional, and the pedestrian, it is worse than a corruption. Diachronically, scholarship is a means of connecting with the greatest minds across time. Synchronically, the institutional networking of contemporaneity serves only as a totalitarian means of mystifying contemporary life and culture, of exclusion and barriers, and promoting a stifling and repressive status quo.

Minor edits and additions made 3/20/2014, including the modification of the subtitle. The final paragraph was added 3/21/2014.

Alexander Dumbadze and Suzanne Hudson, eds., Contemporary Art: 1989 to the Present (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013).

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Can Doc Savage be Adapted to Comics? Or to Anything?

I've been looking forward to Dynamite Entertainment's new comic book adaptation of Doc Savage ever since I heard about it through Comic Shop News last fall. Not because I was particularly impressed with any of the preview art, or even the Alex Ross faux-James Bama covers, but because of this very question: Can Doc Savage be adapted to comics? Or to anything?

I was first exposed to Doc Savage with Marvel Comics' Doc Savage #1 with the cover date of October, 1972. This was the second month for me as a Marvel reader (the September 1972 cover date, probably June or July in reality, still holding a nigh-cosmic significance in my life experience), and the first #1 issue of a comic book series I ever bought, thus an unforgettable milestone. It was a weird experience: a crimefighter who was not a super-powered costumed character, set in the Depression era, and adapted from another medium, books. I immediately latched onto several of the Bantam Books paperbacks, themselves reprints of something from the past called pulps, and within months had also sent away for Steranko's History of Comics volume I, which included a chapter called "The Bloody Pulps," positing the even stranger thesis that the comic book artform had evolved out of pulp fiction (still problematic in my mind), with a lengthy passage on Lester Dent's (the real name of the pseduonymous author Kenneth Robeson) Doc Savage adventures. Later, I bought Bantam's 1976 edition of Philip José Farmer's Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, an even weirder experience. (This mind-blowing tome suggested, among other things, that Doc Savage, The Shadow, Tarzan, and Sherlock Holmes, among others, were all real and in fact related to one another through something called the Wold-Newton family tree.) Lastly, I recall Marvel's Doc Savage magazine by Doug Moench, John Buscema, and Tony DeZuniga, perhaps the best adaptation of Doc Savage ever done (peremptorily answering my own question on one level, that yes, Doc Savage can be adapted to comics, at least in longer-format chunks), in any case more satisfying than the Steve Englehart and Ross Andru version of 1972.

To make a long story short, I was nearly as much a Doc Savage fan, for a certain portion of my teenage years, as I was a Marvel fan, and at least as much as I was a fan of Jeff Rice's Kolchak: The Night Stalker, Pierre Boulle's Planet of the Apes, and Martin Caidin's The Six-Million Dollar Man. While I can't say that I've read more than twenty of the 181 "supersagas," I've read Farmer's Gnostic history of The Man of Bronze at least a dozen times, and pondered the impracticalities (to say nothing of the social implications) of the Wold-Newton Universe.

To make a short story even shorter, I don't think the new Dynamite version is very good. Let me be clear that my purpose is not to pick on writer Chris Roberson (who after all boasts three editions of Farmer's Apocalyptic Life in his library) or newcomer artist Bilquis Evely, for whom this is clearly a labor of love. Let me further state that I could never imagine performing the research on all the Art Deco necessary to pull off an even passable period adaptation of Doc Savage.

In any case, the first two issues are far from satisfying. I can't imagine anyone other than a diehard Savage fan being at all interested in this project. In each, a complete, original "supersaga" is presented, telescoped into something barely as long as your average movie trailer. The Savage supersagas were known for there outlandishly improbably and inexhaustible twists and turns, if not intellectual complexity; here they are simplified into brief glimpses of icon Savage locales: the Empire State Building, the Fortress of Solitude, the Crime College. In these two installments, the nemeses turns out to a be lone nut jobs with ham radios who are easily dispensed with a few punches, hardly the Johnny Sunlight-caliber evil-doers who could keep Doc and his fabulous five at bay for at least a hundred prose pages. Further, it is often difficult to tell Doc apart from his fabulous five aides, since this adaptation has forgone the dark bronze complexion, has chosen to integrate both the Clark Gable loose hair and James Bama widow's peak, and not even shown him in a torn shirt (except for the Ross covers), or even the 1972 Marvel blue vest.

On the other hand, I will say that there does come across, even in these absurdly truncated exploits, a certain egalitarian camaraderie among Doc and his five aides that is quite enjoyable, reminiscent perhaps more of Buckaroo Banzai than the Doc stories proper, or of any of Doc's artistic progeny (James Bond, Indiana Jones, Jor El -- all of whom I at least tend to think of as loners). And Ms. Evely's art, although indecisive when it comes to depicting the male characters (they all wear suits and are about the same stature, with even Monk blending into the crowd), her art really comes alive when she is drawing that butch-femme dynamo Pat Savage. Pat, Doc's proto-feminist metrosexual sister, is seen in jodhurs and unbuttoned safari shirt that, while not torn to shreds, recalls the iconography of the Bama covers associated with Doc more vividly and convincingly than even the Ross covers (the first of which fetishize the shreds into a kind of swirling whirlwind of flames--a kind of divine transfiguration). One is tempted to say just to forget the traced skyscrapers and cardboard male characters altogether, and let Evely draw Pat kicking ass for 17 pages an issue. And let the shirt get torn to shreds. I would buy it.*

"Do these jodhpurs make my thighs look fat?" More problematic is the shirt, clearly made of more durable fabric than those of her clothing-optional cousin. Bilquis Evely's art comes (Tarzan!) alive when she draws Pat Savage, from the Dynamite adaptation.

It is too soon to tell where Roberson (not to say Robeson) is going with his multi-decade story arc (if you can call these fleeting episodes stories at all). It seems clear that Doc and Pat are the only ones who will not age (although whether this is the result of Doc's pharmacological ingenuity or of immortal chromosomes mutated by the Wold-Newton meteor remain to be seen), while Monk, Ham, and the other three (who were never very discernible anyway) are slated to die off, to be replaced by next-gen whiz kids. Frankly, I would prefer to see the comics adapters attempt a "rattling good story" faithful to the original time period rather than a meta-discursus on the post-Street and Smith narrative (with its obsession of integrating the various hair-eras of Doc with Farmer's Gnostic history of pulplit). Needless to say, the only creative idea that Marvel and DC have been able to come up with these past few decades have been these kinds of Talmudic exegesis on continuity rather than creative storylines, and this is hardly in the spirit of the American comic book. Neither is it in the spirit of Doc or the pulps.

On the other hand, it just may be that Doc is too plainclothes, too cerebral (after a fashion), too literary a property to be properly adapted to such a visual medium as comics (the George Pal and Ron Ely film version not offering much a rebuttal on behalf of film). I have always felt, since the time I was enjoying various entertainment in media in my teen years, that certain ideas lent themselves to certain artforms better than other, and that adaptation for the sake of spin-off licensing always involved either radical alteration or sheer loss of the charm and magic of the idea in its native form. Doc Savage was best in prose; Planet of the Apes (as it was transformed by Rod Serling and others) best in film; superheroes (prior to big-budget special effects in the late 1970s and cgi since) in comics, and so on. Since Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter, however, we've all gotten used to the idea that properties that can be more than just merchandising bonanzas but actually artistically successful on multiple platforms while at the same time faithful to their original conceptions. But I'm still not convinced this is now a universal law, hence my continued interest in the Dynamite Doc Savage as it unfolds. Can Doc Savage be adapted to comics? Or to anything? To my mind, the jury is still out.

More art from the Dynamite adaptation and an interview with Chris Roberson @ Between the Covers.

* Let's be honest, I would draw it. Jenny Woodlore, the female protagonist from my series Border Worlds, had her origins in an eroticized drawing I made in high school of a brunette in a Bamaesque torn shirt and jodhpurs--not exactly Pat Savage, but close enough. Such is the power of that curious motif over one young (now middle-aged) male imagination.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

American Illustration and Modern Art: Mind the Gap

Here is my letter to the editors of The New York Review of Books, in response to Christopher Benfey's article on Norman Rockwell ("An American Romantic," December 19, 2013). Since I've never had a letter to the editor published in a national periodical (and don't expect this one to be published either), I've decided to peremptorily blog it here.

To the editors:

[Norman] Rockwell's body of work will compare poorly with [Edward] Hopper's as long as it goes unremarked that the greatness of such artists as Hopper has largely been constructed in opposition to the popularity of artists such as Rockwell to begin with. The modern canon after all exists only in opposition to that which is outside the canon. Never mind Hopper's beginnings as an illustrator, or the fact that by now he can be relied upon to sell a comparable number of calendars. If you’ve seen six great Hoppers, you've pretty much seen them all; whereas you need to see several dozen Rockwells before you can say the same of his career. In other words, as important as Hopper’s view of America, it is rather simple if not monotonous (composed as it is of alienation, unfulfilled desire, and large empty voids, even when more than one human figure is present on a canvas), while Rockwell’s America is far more varied, subtle, and complex. It may be a largely contrived and sentimental complexity, in a Dickensian sense, but it is a complexity that can no more be grasped by the handful of images circulated around the holidays than the literary scope of Dickens can be fully derived from A Christmas Carol.

Alas, "the old battles" over canonical modernism have not waned nearly so much as Christopher Benfey suggests. As an art history instructor, I can report from the front lines that the most daring young researchers wishing to study American illustration end up getting diverted by their advisers from straight art history into "visual culture studies," a circuitous theoretical slog presented as tolerant and open-minded interdisciplinarity, but which in reality is a ham-fisted effort to defend and keep pure the realm of high art at all costs. It is a move sadly rendered necessary only because [Peter] Schjeldahl’s "gap" between illustration and high art is still reified as "a battle line," blinding art history to material the study of which clearly belongs in its domain.

This despite the fact that the conveyance of such narratives of exclusion has become increasingly untenable in the twenty-first century classroom. Fewer and fewer undergraduate art history majors today are equipped to grasp unaided the concept of print distribution, let alone any rationale for the exclusion from consideration of an entire class of imagery created for such bygone artifacts as mass-market magazines. Particularly when the work is as demonstrably fecund and accomplished (use of the word talented being forbidden) as Rockwell's. Many students, of course, will accept that Rockwell is "not an artist" in the modern sense if that is what they are told (and understand will be on the exam), just as many will accept at face value the narrative in which Maya Lin is the hero and Frederick Hart the villain of the 1980 Vietnam Veterans' Memorial competition. But those students who think at all critically (or simply for themselves) about such assertions, as we ask them to do, will see no more validity in academia’s blatant discrimination against proletarian (i.e., working professional and almost always representational) artists of the modern era than that suffered by females prior to Linda Nochlin’s 1971 "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?," an essay that suggested for the first time that the problem may not have been with the quality of the art so much as with criteria that had been meticulously stacked.

It is only when the gap itself can be seen as entirely illusory that it may begin to close or completely vanish, and an assessment of the full spectrum of artistic practice in the twentieth century become possible. Until then, any history that picks winners and losers (as art history has so blatantly done over the past generation or two), instead of supplying an objective and critical account of what actually transpired, is a history unworthy of the name.


Donald E. Simpson, PhD
History of Art and Architecture
University of Pittsburgh

See also: The Withering Away of Drawing

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Shakespeare on Allegheny Commons

Here are some shots from the Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks production of Romeo & Juliet, performed on a luscious Saturday afternoon on the North Shore of Pittsburgh. The dappled light through the trees and the light, warm breeze made for a beautiful afternoon of outdoor theater, while screeching trains, barking dogs, and impossibly well-timed church bells added to the ambiance.

See my previous sketches of rehearsals: Part 1 | Part 2

Michael Mykita as Lord Capulet

Andrew William Miller as Romeo

Daniell Powell as Juliet greets a well-wisher

Director Helen M. Meade watches on as Charles Beikert, Andrew William Miller, and Bradford Sadler discuss Romeo's post-break-up blues

Three of my favorite photos of the couple being wed. Andrew, Danielle, and Ronald.

Nice color coordination by production designer Lisa Liebering (lighting by Pierre-Auguste Renoir)

Charles Beikert as Mercutio has at Adam Rutledge as Tybalt

Ronald Siebert as Friar Laurence

Andrew and Ronald debate the semantic implications of the word "banish-ed"!

Mike Magliocca as Paris waits in the wings

Gretchen Breslawski as Balthasar

Juliet laid to rest

Romeo enters Juliet's tomb

Jeffrey Chips as the scolding Prince of Verona brings the play to a conclusion

Some of the audience members, having chosen sides between the Capulets and Montagues, had to be kept apart as disagreements broke out after the performance!

Jeffrey Chips raises funds for more Shakespeare in the Park!

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Colors of Shakespeare!

Okay, so I lied. I couldn't sketch Romeo and Juliet just once, so I went back Saturday for a longer rehearsal, using Prismacolor sticks and pencils to capture the Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks' production. It was another, final, glorious summer afternoon in Frick Park, and it was a privilege to draw these talented performers. Sketching is such sweet sorrow! But students flock to Oakland, and it is time to bid summer's follies and frolics adieu!

(Actually, I suggested that the Capulets and Montagues be updated to rival Mexican drug cartels, who off the Prince in Act I, but this idea was rejected, so you could say I am parting ways with the production over creative differences!! Just kidding.)

Warm ups: 50 jumping jacks!

More circle warm-ups.

The personalities of Chuck and Jeff emerge.

Street brawl in fair Verona!

Pre-rehearsal notes.

Chuck as a Falstaffian Mercutio.

Jeff Chips as the Prince following the script; Danielle Powell wondering, "Wherefore art thou, Romeo?"; and Mike Magliocca as Paris.

Ron Siebert as the Friar, harvesting his narcotizing blossoms.

Andy as Romeo; Andy and Chuck after Mercutio gets sliced.

Andy Miller as Romeo, Danielle Powell as Juliet, in the bedroom scene.
Previously, the Friar tells the banished Romeo to pull himself together!

Juliet dies, then Romeo dies, then Juliet dies again!

Michael Mykita and an overworked sketch of Danielle during notes.

Andy stretching out during notes.

Danielle during notes.
See also: Romeo ... Banish-ed!

Thursday, August 22, 2013


Last evening I was invited to sketch the rehearsal of Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks' forthcoming production of Romeo and Juliet by Danielle Powell, who plays Juliet. It would take longer than two hours to get to know the various personalities involved in this intricate production, and these miserable scribbles barely scratch the surface or do justice to what I witnessed, but it was fascinating to watch the creative process unfold.

I used light blue and graphite pencil on white paper, and darkened the scans, giving some of them a greenish tinge, but you get the idea. I had barely gotten warmed up when darkness descended upon Frick Park, enshrouding us in the tender embrace of a warm summer's eve (okay, I'm no Shakespeare). Unfortunately, the school year beckons, and I won't get a chance to do this again, but I look forward to catching a performance! Thanks to the cast and crew for letting me sit in. (And the cookies were wonderful!)

A park bench serves as a balcony.

Jeff Chips runs lines for a scene in the Capulet household.

Juliet learns that Romeo is banished from fair Verona.

The agony and the ecstasy of the young couple.

Juliet warming up.

Performers warming up before rehearsal, and a cart.

Juliet laid out in the crypt.

A maid drops to her knees in grief; Juliet; Mercutio.

Danielle Powell warming up prior to rehearsal.

Helen Meade directs Yvonne Hudson as the Nurse.

Danielle going over how to drink the poison.