Friday, November 12, 2010

Gravediggers of Comic Art

I'm coming around on the Lichentstein issue.
Two days ago, there was a Christie's auction. A Lichenstein painting, based on (some would say stolen from) a comic panel, set a record price.

Lichetnstein irritates the beejezus out of me. His work dissects comic art and parades pieces of the cadaver. While he had every right to paint what he chose, I have a right to my view of his work too.
And my view is that Roy was working with no respect for his source material, yet taking full advantage of said material.
I get the theory behind it. He's made the paintings about period-specific production techniques, a sort of deconstruction/reconstruction.
Strangely, people who object to the inclusion of once-living tissue and creatures in art have no such objections to the dissection of art itself.
But the fact that he never once acknowledged his sources beyond the vague "comic book panels" speaks directly to a dismissive attitude towards the source material. David Barsalou has done a scathing one-to-one comparison of Lichtenstien's paintings with his "source works".
Art Speigleman said, "I have all sorts of issues with the idea that a Lichtenstein painting of a comic book panel is art but the original comic panel it draws on is not considered art. I hate that whole attitude and way of looking at this stuff. Lichtenstein did for comics what Warhol did for Campbell's Soup - it had nothing to do with comics. It had to do with exploiting the form without any of the content."
Speigleman's response was also represented in his work, specifically this piece, High Art Lowdown, done in response to the tepid treatment of comics at MoMA's High Art/Low Art exhibition.

I modified my views a bit when I read about Roy attending a National Cartoonist's Society meeting in 1964.
Mort Walker, creator of Hi and Lois and of Lois's nephew Beetle Bailey, offered a remarkably kind memory of that experience. Walker is a keen observer of comic history, and the seeming simplicity of his work belies his profound understanding of the mechanics of the medium of comics.
As such, I respect his perspective a great deal.

"Thanks for saving my life."
Okay, then. But you still felt no need to give back to the art form that gave you so much, did you, Roy? You could have at least given proper credit to the creators whose panels you, ahem, adapted.
My friends from other parts of the art world take me to task for this attitude. They contend that I'm rather thin-skinned when it comes to comics being taken seriously.
Maybe so.
But until I see an Alex Toth original, or a Hugo Pratt, scoring this kind of dough and being taken seriously by the "legitimate" art world, until that work is shown in museums alongside the Lichtenstein works, I don't think comic art has yet attained its proper position in the art world.
I'll grant we're closer than we ever have been, but there's still work to be done!


  1. As you probably know, I'm researching and thinking about these issues quite a lot. In this case, it seems like a "chicken and egg" issue. If Lichtenstien & others in that era had not appropriated comic art, would comic art be as respected as it is today? Would it have been better if comics had been left to their own path? How influential have fine art imagery and practice been on contemporary comics novels? I think there's been a constant mirroring and response between the two media since the 60's.

    1. I think Lichtenstein and others did NOTHING to make comic art respected. Who in the comic world ever did anything under his influence? He had no effect on the comic world, except to piss oof people who had a right to be pissed off. If I take a Miles Davis record and re-record it in a slightly altered manner, in what way have I created a damn thing?

  2. I missed this post the first time around -- glad you had a link on the Bleeding Cool message board! Lichtenstein of course makes me irate... hopefully I will get around to writing an essay on it someday!!!

  3. As an artist who has had one hand in the fine arts world and one foot in the door of the comic art world for many decades, I'd like to offer my thoughts. I am not surprised that people are troubled by this, and art has a long history of being controversial. My position is that what the comic artists did-- and what Roy Lictenstein did are two different things. True, his imagery was based largely on comic book panels. But art is about a lot more than just the subject matter. In this case, it was also about the context--a comment on the art world, on pop culture. And no doubt about other things as well. No two people see anything the same way. Who knows what his intentions were? Who cares? It's up to the viewer to find his or her own answers. Some people are never going to like it. Which is too bad, really because it's theirs for free. Even if you pay 35 million dollars for an artwork you can no more own it than someone looking at the painting on the wall of a gallery or museum. In fact it's possible that you own it even less depending on what you bring to the experience--even though you are out 35 million. I believe it was Jasper Johns--or maybe it was Andy Warhol--who did a collage composed of strips cut from the Sunday funnies. Did the artists whose work was in those newspaper strips get all idignant and up in arms about it? I don't think so. Picasso made collages out of newspapers--should the writers of those articles be upset? Marcel DuChamp made art by signing his name on a urinal and exhibiting it in NYC? Should the designer of that urinal be upset. No, of course not. Art is about a lot more than just the subject matter.