Tuesday, February 28, 2006


Fans of Chris Ware, Art Spiegelman and other popular graphic novelists patiently explained to me last week that I am wrong to expect "slick, commercial" design in art that deals with higher truths about alienation and the tortured soul of the artist. Technical skill may be important for commercial art used to sell Coca-Cola, but is less relevant to today's more honest and personal artwork, with its tragic or subversive messages.

I admit it's difficult to criticize Maus or Fun Home merely because the authors do not draw well. But personally, I don't think the epithet "commercial" is a useful tool when seeking out quality art. Many bad pictures of sincere, personal subjects can be found hanging in art museums. Many brilliant pictures of dishwashing detergent can be found in magazine ads. As far as I know, nobody has yet established a connection between purity of motive and quality of picture.

It may be sad that, as Thoreau remarked, "most men lead lives of quiet desperation," but after reading Chris Ware, we might wish that desperate men would be a little quieter.

If artistic purity is what matters to you, I'm not sure you'll find much difference between commercial illustration, graphic novels and the pictures hanging in the Museum of Modern Art. They are all commercial. (Andy Warhol famously remarked that "good business is the best art.") Instead, try setting your sights a little higher and check out the true "outsider" artists. If the stink of commercialism offends you, you have to be prepared to hang around artists who don't use soap regularly.

Henry Darger

Often untrained, working in obscurity and poverty, ignored by the New York glitterati, "outsider" artists work only to serve their god or their muse, or sometimes their alien leaders on the planet Zarbtron.

For example, the artist Henry Darger was an impoverished janitor and dishwasher who lived for 50 years in a shabby apartment so tiny he had to sleep sitting up. He worked late into the night illustrating his magnificent graphic novel, In the Realms of the Unreal.

Henry Darger

Darger led a life of isolation and pain that makes Jimmy Corrigan's life look like a day at Disneyworld. Yet, Darger's artwork is filled with dazzling images. He did not use his suffering as a justification for ignoring composition, design, color or the other standards inherent in his chosen medium. His beautiful pictures were able to advance, rather than work in opposition to, his troubling personal message.

It is also worth noting that Darger never dwelled on his own suffering and insecurities. Instead, he elevated his personal misery to epic tragedy with his art. You will find no self-obssessed whimpering in Darger's work.

Henry Darger

Darger kept these exquisite illustrations to himself until the day he died. He was not working to impress the critics or harvest royalties. He used art to struggle with his own personal demons.

Henry Darger

Another "outsider" artist, James Hampton, was a janitor who lived a lonely life of poverty. Beginning in the late 1940s, Hampton began writing about his religious visions using pictograms and secret codes.

He drew marvelous symbols such as lightning bolts and omniscient eyes. Hampton spent the last fifteen years of his life integrating these symbols and pictograms into astonishing sculptures comprised of aluminum foil, light bulbs and pieces of old furniture.

He called his strange and beautiful masterpiece, "The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly."

James Hampton

Like Darger, Hampton was not out to impress Art News. He did not whine or complain about the unfairness of life. Hampton's own landlord had no idea what Hampton was up to. After Hampton died, his landlord was shocked to discover Hampton's masterpiece in the unheated garage where Hampton had labored all those years.

James Hampton

The Throne of the Third Heaven is made up of 177 separate art objects, combining words, symbols, drawings and sculpture. Standing before it, the cumulative effect is enough to inspire dread for your immortal soul.

Although they never received recognition during their lives, the work of Darger and Hampton is superior to anything I have seen from Spiegelman or Ware. Darger and Hampton worked with greater handicaps, under more difficult circumstances, and yet made better art.

There is also an important philosophical difference here, which should probably be irrelevant to a blog about illustration, but which I confess colors my judgment. It seems to me that the artistic response of these outsider artists to personal pain and the weight of their humanity was a more noble, less self-indulgent response. The guys who seem to know the most about this tragedy business-- Shakespeare, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripedes-- remind us that suffering and doom are an inescapable part of the human condition, and that our only meager defense is the tragic hero's capacity to elevate mere misery into the majesty of tragedy. This is done through courage, perseverance and understanding in the face of hopelessness. (Not much of a consolation prize, I admit, but hey, what other options are you offering?) My purely subjective judgment is that Jimmy Corrigan dwells at the misery level, and I find no nutritional content from visiting him a second or third time.

One of my readers, in explaining where I've gone wrong, compared Chris Ware to Shakespeare. In my view, for all his sincerity, Chris Ware's work is artistically feeble compared to Darger's.

There are of course thousands of other "outsider" artists, some making beautiful art, some making terrible art. But if you genuinely reject "commercialism" in art and strive for artistic purity, put down your graphic novels and invest a little time with real outsiders.


Anonymous Karen said...

I saw the Darger film a few weeks ago, then more recently saw works by Ware and Spiegelman at MOCA in Los Angeles. You make a very astute observation about their suffering and the true 'outsider' nature of Darger compared the more commercial graphic novels. I have to disagree about the quality of illustration, though. I have not seen Darger's work in person but in the film it appeared that much of what he did was to trace from other sources to assemble his tableaus. Still, it is stunning in its scope and impact. Thanks for a thought-provoking essay.

3/08/2006 2:23 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

You are right, Karen, that Darger often used photographs from old newspapers and tattered magazines for reference. Sometimes he traced them using old carbon paper. He certainly couldn't afford models and he had no projector or photoshop.

I think the way Darger transformed them was key. Not only did he completely change them into beautiful designs in phantasmagorical settings, but he also became emotionally involved with his reference pictures in a way that no other illustrator had before. For example, he found a newspaper picture of a 5 year old girl who had been abducted and brutally murdered. He was so upset that he traced her blurry photo repeatedly, making her a child rebel leader and martyr in his cosmic battle between good and evil. As his obsession grew, he built an altar for her and even claimed that he witnessed her slashing and strangulation. When he later misplaced his precious photograph, he searched for years and became so frustrated and angry that he began to threaten God: if the picture was not returned, Darger would change the outcome of the cosmic battle between good and evil, and the terrible Glandelinians would triumph over the Vivian Girls and their Christian armies!

I don't know anyone who used reference pictures quite the same way!

3/08/2006 8:27 AM  
Blogger leif said...

Hellooo? Hhmmm... that's funny, where'd all those harsh critics go?

Thanks for another enlightening post, David. L ;-)

3/10/2006 9:38 AM  
Blogger Jeff P said...

Is this still the Chris Ware discussion? I'm confused about what your point is. Legitimately. I'm not saying that as a coy way to disagree with you (though I may disagree withyou). Are we talking about the critics exaggerated praise? Or about a lack of drawing skill? Or commercialism? I do think that comparing him to Shakespeare on both ends is ridiculous (in comparing favorably) and unfair (in comparing negatively). My two cents on Ware: I enjoy his work. If I can elaborate on my feelings on illustration "today" as a whole... I love looking at Chris Ware's work, and work like his. The unfortunate thing is that that style is an overwhelming presence in the art/illustration/comics world, and work from artists who can really DRAW is missing, and that's a shame. (John K., of Ren and Stimpy fame, recently made a similar point on the current state of animation). And this is where I'd like to thank Leif for Today's Inspiration.

3/14/2006 11:16 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

You and I agree 100% on Leif's blog, Jeff-- it is always a treat to vsit.

As for Chris Ware, I was trying to use this post as a springboard to get beyond previous discussions about him and move on to a different topic. A number of his fans, when pressed to the wall about the quality of his drawing, claimed that the power and sadness of his message transcended traditional criteria and somehow put him on a more lofty plane than crass commercial artists who sell toothpaste. I had two reactions in this post: 1.) that ain't necessarily so; and 2.) if you're really interested in agonized messages about the human condition, you need to look beyond both the toothpaste illustrators and Chris Ware, to people whose work and life really demonstrate tragedy. Compared to other art out there, I think Chris Ware offers a thin, adolescent (and ultimately self-indulgent) notion of tragedy. So I wanted to showcase some excellent artists who, by their art and deed, were REALLY non-commercial, and who exemplified real tragedy.

3/15/2006 7:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Right on. I can't stand Chris Ware's work at all. It is so self-indulgent and inane. He forces you to go through his visual obstacle courses which are mistaken for good design only to end up with some trite and predictable statement on human loneliness. Big deal. It's not even suitable for adolescents.

3/18/2006 10:56 AM  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

many of the same things could be said of contemporary fiction. i couldn't agree with you more


8/13/2006 2:12 AM  
Anonymous Troy said...

Darger has had a bigger impact on the contemporary art world than all but a few artists.

But holy shit his novel is bad. It's unreadable.

And remember that it was Art Spegelman who brought Darger to the public (in one of the early Raw magazines in the early 80s).

12/07/2006 3:03 PM  
Blogger snsptr said...

This is the 1st time I've blogged on this site. I wanted to commend you on an excellent forum. I'm very impressed on the quality of your scans of images. Whatever hardware and settings you use are top notch. and I realize this is an older topic but I wanted to leave a comment about Hampton's work I saw James Hampton's "throne" exhibit in Baltimore. In a word - astonishing. I'm learning a lot reading these blogs. Kudos to all.

7/17/2008 11:08 PM  

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