Thursday, July 30, 2009

Postmodernism Reflux

Geoff's last post speaks to the difficulty of applying (let alone agreeing on) a definition of Modernism to comics. Add in the complicating factor of the shift to Postmodernism and you've got Hobbes by the tail. I think that the problem with this discussion is that comics produced during the heyday of Modernism were still almost entirely a popular ("low") form. Other, older media - the novel for example - already had a well developed spectrum of production ranging from popular (pulp magazines) to modernist/experimental (the Bloomsbury Group) - and it's the latter type of work which the particular definitions of Modernism getting discussed in the last thread were developed for.

So - instead of weighing in on Geoff and Andrei's back-and-forth about the Ur-text of Modernist comics, I'm going to take my cue from commenter Jason Ramos and look at the larger picture historically and structurally - to try and articulate definitions of Modernism/Postmodernism broad enough to apply to early comics as well as other media.

(Occasionally I'm going to make use of a pair of loaded terms: "high" and "low" culture. I don't mean these in the irritating heirarchical sense of "high" being better than "low" (I tend to like the "low" stuff myself - just ask my wife) but I'm using them anyway because of their handy old Modernist associations: with experimentally inclined artists working for a smaller, critically engaged audience on the one hand ("high") and craft oriented artists working for a larger audience disinterested in experiment ("low") on the other. Please bear in mind that it's just for the sake of convenience. Agreed? Okay, here goes:)

From a very broad perspective, Modernism seems to me to be mostly about the technologically-driven erosion of geographically-based difference. The rise of industrialization demanded the rise of standardization, so that widgets produced in Birmingham would be interchangeable with widgets produced in Chicago. This also applied to labor - instead of extended families rooted to local village traditions of craft, Modernity wanted the "nuclear" family, headed by an "individual" worker who could be shuttled from place to place as capital dictated.

At the same time, new communication technologies were making the rise of national and international popular culture possible for the first time. Decoration and embellishment were stripped away so things could be mass produced and as cheap as possible. For instance, by midcentury people had so many clothes that for the first time most new homes included closets to put them in (too late for my World War I row house in Jersey, sadly). The high water mark for this process was sometime in the 50's/60's, when it seemed for a while as though the whole world would be speaking English, watching Milton Berle on television, and eating McDonald's hamburgers.

(images collected by Roadsidepictures)

Then, to just about everyone's surprise, it all started to shatter. New differences appeared, but this time they weren't based on geography. Instead, they resulted from overproduction: once industrial abstraction had triumphantly delivered TV sets and too much food into every home in the western world, new indiosyncracies could (had to) emerge. Three TV networks became three hundred channels, and eventually three million websites. Rock music became punk, heavy metal, prog, emo and on and on. Coca-Cola became New Coke, and Coke Classic, and then Diet Cherry Caffeine-Free Crystal Coke - you get the idea.

None of these new micro forms ever seems to go away - they just splinter into tinier and tinier sub-genres, each with its own increasingly narrow demographic. That's Postmodernism in its broadest sense - the abandonment of the single abstract Truth around which we could all rally (or be herded) in favor of millions of lifestyles we can mix and match. Instead of being defined by your town or neighborhood as in premodernity, or belonging to a global monoculture as in moderism, postmodernity allows us to form borderless tribes - the Goth kid from Montreal recognizes his tribemates in San Francisco without ever having been there before.

(Bangkok punk gig. Image by Cedric Arnold)

Mostly this is a familiar point: trends in culture are driven by trends in technology and economics. But these forces express themselves differently in different media: in architecture and industrial design it's easy to see how a loss of ornamentation could be driven by a need for standardization, but in visual art it's more complicated. Painting was forced into abstraction by the invention of photography - it had to reinvent itself once its traditional role as the recorder of visual reality was usurped. Comics, as Jason Ramos points out, are themselves the product of a typically Modernist set of technologies of mass reproduction and had no need to reinvent themselves until television starting killing their market.

So does that make early-to-mid 20th century comics Modernist? In the broad sense I described above - sure, why not... they mass produced 'em, right? Are they Postmodernist now? In that same sense, yes - the million selling pop comics of 1950 (see: Walt Disney's Comics and Stories) have been reduced to the 100,000 selling "fanboy" comics of today. Moving down the spectrum of popularity, hundreds (thousands?) of increasingly niche-y titles are produced for ever smaller audiences connected not by geography but through comic book shops and websites (and blogs).

But this hardly satisfies the problem of relating comics - especially "art comics" - to trends in "high" culture. Prior to the 1960's, comics had genres like the rest of mass culture but not yet a real axis of "high" to "low". Suppose painting never had an avant garde, only a populist mainstream. Was Norman Rockwell more "abstract" than Howard Pyle? Does it really matter?

(top image by Howard Pyle, bottom image by Norman Rockwell)

Only after "underground" comics emerged - right as Modernism ruptured! - and provided American comics with its first deep break from mainstream populism did these questions start to make sense. That break multiplied in a typically Postmodern way: underground comics begat "ground level" comics and "art comics" and "indie comics" and "literary comics" and "abstract comics" and on and on. These forms, produced in the context of a real engagement with "high" culture, finally bear direct comparison with it.

So, when Andrei (Molotiu) says, in one of his comments on Geoff's first post:

"The problem is that from the chronological standpoint that sees modernism as somehow surpassed by postmodernism, my own interest--abstract comics--could be seen as old hat. I don't think it is (obviously!), but I also don't think it could comfortably fit into a specific pomo section of art history..."

-- I think he has nothing to worry about. Abstract comics are entirely Postmodern in a way that abstract painting - because of its history - never could be.


  1. Whew! Well, that's a relief!

    I don't know, Kevin. As far as I'm concerned, I thought we had done talking about "postmodernism" sometime around 1997, and that we stopped criticizing modernism as monolithic, hegemonic, etc., around the same time too. I see your points--and thanks!--but maybe if we stopped using these categories altogether (and I do think they are used quite differently in your posts and Geoff's, not to mention in many other texts on the subject) we might actually be able to see a more nuanced history of our time. Using them as polar opposites focuses too much on the discontinuities and tends to obscure the continuities (not to mention that even those two terms are much too simple--maybe we should only be talking about evolutions, changes, "derives," metamorphoses--never a simple continuity OR discontinuity). I certainly know how much my work owes to, for example, Jackson Pollock--and his work is much more, contains much more, than history has made of it. In the end, any great work always does.

  2. Andrei - sounds to me like you're a splitter, not a lumper - which is another sign of your postmodernism, heheh.

  3. But seriously, Andrei - I'm gonna post a better reply shortly - gotta take the kids for ice cream...

  4. Okay, here's a "better reply":

    Yes, revisiting those terms with respect to art is a bit tired. God knows critical theory went way too far in the 80's/90's when everybody got so academic and grad school-y. But nowadays artists are more likely to design skateboards than quote Derrida.

    Anyway, my point here was the (mis)application of those terms to COMICS, which as Geoff points out IS getting raised more and more as it becomes self-evident that some part of that medium is developing into a form of (high/serious/grownup - take your pick) culture.

    And actually, I don't see Moderism/Postmodernism as polar opposites - rather more as a funny sort of continuum with a long thickening root topped by a sudden complicated branching - like a carrot!

    Besides, isn't it obvious that terms like these serve some useful purpose at certain points? Like you, I'm not very impressed with the current state of visual art - I've become interested in comics again pretty much in direction proportion to my loss of interest in art - these days art strikes me as an aimless decaying mess whereas comics strikes me as not yet fully formed - a medium near the beginning of a series of interesting differentiations.

    Given that, I think the art world and the artcomics world could both use a dose of critical theory these days - and a little categorization might be a good way to start.

  5. I too have much to say. Ice cream...I have collected my thoughts on my blog. It's like ice cream, but less ice-y and creamy; but conceptually the same.

  6. (part one, due to: Your HTML cannot be accepted: Must be at most 4,096 characters )

    blogger platform needs to fix this annoying glitch!!!

    ice cream being ice cream, a melt to mesh.

    many fine points raised here, i don't mind the " academic and grad school-y" terminology at all, in fact, i kind of embrace it -- i think it puts things into a historical philosophical perspective.

    slaso, the choice of illo's for yr essay are topnotch, bringing the point home, as it were.

    which is where is was when last seen but now this blipp is blapp'd & a nanoseconnd flew niche into a crosscultural hat-rack of many heads...

    ...but, speaking of heads, i'm glad you brought up underground comix, they were truly somethin' else, entertaining like the Tijuana bibles, yet exploratory in reaching a wild terrain -- & many of the undergrounders explored abstract avenues, most prominently of course, Moscosco & Griffin, as well as heretofore nearly unexplored lands which Rory Hayes dug his speedfreak shovel -- but also, in this lifestyle niche, was an excellent distribution system, the "head shops" at that time carried full racks of underground comix to the masses -- everybody could giggle along w/ the Fab Furry Freak Bros. & Zap thr brainz inthru zithertudes of animalistic zoologies!!!
    = )

    well, starting in particular w/ American pop culture, as discussed here, the advertising agents grew ever more adept at exploiting any "lifestyle" in rapid fashion -- the 'square' write-ups of Beat Culture via Time Magazine gave way to the BoingBoing we know & love today, an immediate media, equipt w/ instantaneous pattern recognition & where 'cool hunters' goggle the scape for the freshest funky sneakers... has all become just too much, if i want to know about grafitti writing in Bangladesh, it's justa click away...

    ..but, that's beside the point, a couple of things brought to mind while reading this:
    as Andrei says " maybe we should only be talking about evolutions, changes, "derives," metamorphoses--never a simple continuity OR discontinuity ", & bringing up Jackson Pollock; Pollock was so successful, i think, for precisely this reason, taking the somewhat traditionlist teachings of Thomas Hart Benton & turning them on ear, you can still see trace of the teacher, compare a prime Pollock composition w/ a Benton visual essay about musculature & you'll see the seminal influx of a reality twisted to fit the times... the high/low thing, i mean artists like Sue Williams & Arturo Herrera bathe themselves in a kind of poppish formality & are praised by erudite critics for subverting massmarket mediums & diverting "art proper" away from any painterly concern into a more sociological approach...

    ...i think abstract comics puts a good spin on this, altho not operating onna "high" level, abstract comics are all inclusive of art history as a whole, as opposed to being strictly concerned w/ the funnypapers only, i mean, the funnypapers surely serve as that primal goo, but by incorporating any & all media into the medium of abstract comics, i think perhaps that they contain a relevant paradigm of the times, saying that 'unspeakable thing' (pmodernity) by not saying anything at all & in the process saying everything that could be said -- how abstract comics are mostly wordless & in that capacity reflecting the unilingual thrust of hypercomm interconnectivity...

  7. ...etc, um, geez, i am a ramble wreck -- but yes, back to the point about "empire", all roads lead to the internet, as it were, breeding & breeding in the paperless ephemera of pixel-bitt'd screenshotz L'ing out the Loudz alldaylong...

    ...the niches are filled too quickly, by savvy venturists seeking a return on investment, i can only hope that this pirate anarchist mentality ethos ethics of the internet will trickle down to info-users & all it takes is to realize the culture we made is the culture we made, we don't need anybody to repackage it fancy & ad it out extravagent because what we made is what we made...the timelines are increasingly blurred between this distinction, aiming adverts only on goal of pocket to wallet a bottom dollar while the appropriated culture exists as it exists regardless of massmedia interface...which always brings me back to the example of Fort Thunder, i mean, maybe i idealize it, but it seemed so fucking real, outside of any underline drive, being for being & sharing that being with anybody who cared to be...

    ...damn, i'm offtrack, but i wanted to mention, as obvious as day is long, how innovative comics were in the begininng of the 20th cent., how all over the place & crazy experimental they were -- until a formula was concocted which provided fairly strict guidelines to 'stay within the boundaries', only a handful of comics-artists funnypages-people strayed beyond those lines, but now look at the funnypapers...2 or 3 gems amongst mostly tripe, but hey, even the tripe is good in its own way, like Mary Worth or Mark Trail or whatever, just because it contains an iconic topography all its own, y'know?...

    ...i dunno what i'm garbling about at this point, but i'll say this: pmodern comix have come a long way, one need not look far to glisten the examples fruiting the trees of gagpanel forest -- yes, mostly remaining a niche, but at least an enthused niche...

    ...i can hardly think of any 'genre readers' outside of comics fans, who are so voracious & eager to collect...that is a good thing, ethics aside, Quimby the Mouse lunchboxes & $99 comic books, are fucking great...i'm glad they have a market to support such things!

    maybe i'll start collecting Yellow Kid pinbacks, i dig that early century use of seems to be missing nowadays...

    ...23 skidoo!

  8. As Jason Ramos mentions above, he's posted a long and thoughtful response to the above on his blog (it's at: To avoid making anyone following this get dizzy, I'm going to reply to him on this page.

    Jason - I agree with the gist of everything you say, and will only add a few comments:

    "...there is an advantage to be gained, artistically, from comics retaining something of its culturally illegitimate status... And to retain that, we have to stop trying to figure out how comics fit into art history..." - I sympathize with this "outlaw" model for comics, but surely if we stop trying to "figure out how comics fit into art history" we're just leaving it for others to make that judgement. After all, this entire discussion was initiated by a review in the New York Times (see Geoff's Modernism Redux post).

    "...Mutch, in his last post, attempts to identify an initial postmodern moment in comics, using the high / low model of culture. Though he disclaims it, the very recognition of the oppressive, power and class based foundations of that model prevent comics from doing anything but become the authorless source material for the “high” art..." Hah! I love that last part. It's so true - but what's to be done? Do we throw out any sort of judgement or context? Is Krazy Kat just the same as Mondrian?

    Obviously not, and I agree with you that the development of a comics-specific critical language is the ideal place to start describing those differences in a meaningful way. The point of my post was not to recapitulate "high" culture's old condescension towards comics but instead to point out the inadequacy of the critical language involved - except when used in the broadest possible context: not art history or even cultural history exactly, but history in general.

    PS: as penance for using the dreaded "high" and "low" (I knew I was gonna get into trouble...) I'm going to write a whole post about how "multiple" forms like comics, literature and music are way better than original objects like paintings, and how bummed I am by the whole trend towards super-expensive "designerly" comics as objets d'art epitomized by the last Kramer's.

  9. " need not look far to glisten the examples fruiting the trees of gagpanel forest..."


  10. This is and has been one of the best discussions of Modernism/ PoMo I have read, concerning fine art or comic art. Great job.