Saturday, August 23, 2008

THE LANGUAGE OF FORMS

I love this picture from an old reference book about birds.



The anonymous artist could have presented the same basic information a thousand different ways, but he chose to emphasize the design. When you look at the shape, the colors, the negative space, you know right away: this was an artist who understood the language of forms.

In previous posts about the enduring importance of design, I have shown pictures from the Museum of Modern Art or recent graphic novels that are not as concerned with design or other aesthetic qualities. For example, one famous graphic novelist wrote, "if one tries to look at my strips as 'good' drawings... they're not, but ... I'm able to write with pictures without worrying about how I'm drawing something."

I always thought it was the job of an artist to be "worrying about how I'm drawing something," but my narrow minded attitude has only provoked scorn from readers who believe that "good," well designed pictures are no longer as important, especially for sequential art. Samples of their feedback:

Art Spiegelman and Chris Ware are geniuses and should not be judged by old fashioned standards for drawing.

The drawings in Panter's comics... are not meant to be studied like... paintings..., they are meant to tell a story.

You are completely on crack. I have never seen such a misguided discussion in my life.... the art world is horrifically driven by vacant aetheticisms...

I think you are mistaking the sequential storytelling of comics with illustration.... If the focus of your blog is ILLUSTRATION ART, perhaps you should stick to that and not try to include Chris Ware in a category he does not belong.

A couple of suggestions for you Dave; grow up & wise up.

Sorry, David, but you have no idea what you're talking about. Go back to reading batman; you're totally out of your depth in trying to understand why Ware is a great artist

These artists make images that could be called bad drawings by someone looking for something pretty, but in actuality have great ideas behind them... Maybe because the drawings are essentially "bad drawings", it is hard to distinguish what is actually good from what is bad.

But good design doesn't limit an artist to pretty or ugly, detailed or simple, realistic or abstract, fast or slow. Any of these approaches can be either well designed or poorly designed. Ever since art began, the challenge for the artist has been to marry content with "good" pictures, not to surrender one for the other.

The map maker who drew this 15th century map of the world could have displayed accurate information without worrying about composition, style or color. Yet, he obviously felt that a visual medium demanded attention to aesthetics as well as content:



The same could be said about this Tibetan image explaining the "wheel of law." The artist could easily have ignored considerations of form and resorted solely to a technical diagram. He did not.



Egyptian wall paintings tell complex religious and historical narratives. Yet, after overcoming dozens of obstacles not faced by artists today, the artist made sure that his images were also beautifully designed, right down to the smallest little figure in the corner:



Artists who can speak the language of forms are sensitive to the balance, the rhythm, the harmony and aesthetic designs of nature, and are capable of employing those magical powers in images. The artist who drew that bird understood he was in the presence of sacred things.

Artists are of course free to grant themselves exemptions from any standard or challenge. There is no law preventing an artist from saying, "I don't care about making good pictures because I have other priorities and I can't handle both at once." But 30,000 years of art history proves that good content is not incompatible with good form. Artists who lack this ability, or who lack the drive to do things with this ability, will always be second rate to me.

26 Comments:

Blogger The Sanity Inspector said...

Quibble: That top picture doesn't look like it's anonymous, but rather has an Arabic or Persian signature. I can't read either language, so I can't say for sure.

8/23/2008 12:14 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Sanity, you're right. The original that I scanned (which is from a Persian book) was smaller than the big version you see here, and the text was hard to read. Each of the pictures had text (which appeared to be in farsi) describing the bird. I'm glad that the artist's name got in there too,

8/23/2008 1:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

David,

Fantastic post. I completely agree with you regarding the contemporary work and its lack of design consideration. Have you thought about doing a post on Alex Toth? It seems that he would fit in perfectly within this debate(at least with comics/graphic novels). Just an idea. The tibetan design is fascinating. Thanks for the post.

-nicolai

8/23/2008 3:54 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Anonymous, Alex Toth's work is a perfect example of how an artist does not need to compromise on the quality of individual pictures or overall layout when producing sequential art. I am a big admirer of his strong personal style, his powerful sense of design, and his high standards. When it comes to the quality of the artwork, he puts many of the so-called "Masters of Comic Art" to shame.

8/23/2008 6:22 PM  
Blogger Matthew Adams said...

I guess the main problem is coming to a consensus on what is good and what is bad in relation to art. We talk about a picture's design, it's line, it's color and a fairly scientific and absolute way but quite often individuals look at these things differently.

I have always felt that the little squibbly drawings that edward lear did for his nonsense books were damn near perfect, something I have a lot of diffulculty convincing others about. Is it something only I can see because of my personal likes and dislikes? I would like to think it goes beyond that i.e. they are truly good, and not something i think is good because I'm a nut.

And whoever thinks that the "sequential story telling" (stupid description, sequential art should be rephrased as sequential arse)in comics does not involve illustration is a moron.

Good post David

8/23/2008 10:21 PM  
Blogger R. Fiore said...

Great post as always. Those who argue that there are no agreed upon standards in art are as blind to greatness as they are to mediocrity.

8/24/2008 6:21 PM  
Blogger Matthew Adams said...

Those who can't see that differences might arise due to complexity of language and thought are in danger of simplifying everything

8/24/2008 6:53 PM  
Blogger R. Fiore said...

I love complexity and nuance of thought and language...I also know a bad drawing when I see one. You see, there is a new class of pseudo-intellectuals who try to over-complicate things to sound smarter and deeper than they really are.

8/24/2008 10:08 PM  
Anonymous random word said...

it's precisely by simplifying that we overcome the differences which arise due to complexity of language and thought.

As John Dewey wrote, "Because experience is the fulfillment of an organism in its struggles and achievements in a world of things, it is art in germ. Even in its rudimentary forms, it contains the promise of that delightful perception which is esthetic experience."

The relationships between parts of an image, the tension and release of form is the language of aesthetics...that's the one "agreed upon standard" that can always be counted upon.

8/24/2008 11:21 PM  
Blogger Matthew Adams said...

I should probably rephrase myself. Simplification isn't always bad, but in most cases it is. The nazi's are a good example of this. They loved to simplify things down into specific boxes, i.e. German/non-german, degenerative art/good art, etc.
Another example is definitons with comics nowadays(though thankfully without the devestating effects) Some people claim comis are sequental art, and therefore anything that is not sequential is not comics, a definition that did not really exist before mcloud's understanding comics. Due to this, comic artists like Lat are left out of the comics field.

r.fiore said "...I also know a bad drawing when I see one."

This is still a personal judgement, and can not be considered an absolute.

Random word said "The relationships between parts of an image, the tension and release of form is the language of aesthetics...that's the one "agreed upon standard" that can always be counted upon." Again, what do you mean by parts of an image, what do you mean by tension and release? These are often understood differently by individuals, and therefore cannot be considered absolute.

8/25/2008 3:03 AM  
Blogger Peter S. said...

David,

I read through your previous posts and your follow-up comments on Ware, and it seems to me that you are still making something of a aesthetic category mistake.

Chris Ware clearly does care about form – indeed, as many of your supporters note, his work is often disparaged as “formalism for formalism’s sake.” But Ware would probably insist – regardless of a positive or negative review – that there is a distinction between illustrative form and “comics form” (which also differs from simple “cartooning form”). Indeed, Ware and other newer artists are trying to recapture something that they think has been lost in the comics form since the 1930s, when many comic were led astray buy the vocabulary and techniques of film. (Ware, for example, seems to dislike the cinematic Milton Caniff as much as he reveres McCay, Herriman, and Frank King.)

I will not presume to present either Ware’s or my own theory of comics form and how it works, but an understanding of that form would definitely include the idea that comics are made of pages (not images), that comics are created out of the effect and rhythms of sequences (not single frames), that comics are made to be “read” and not simply “looked at.”

Art Spiegelman, for example, has talked about comics panels and pages as corridors through which one should move, not rooms in which one should sit and luxuriate. This, of course, if part of what Ware means when he talks about he drawing as “poor” – or when he say that he intentionally creating images that are “flat,” “banal,” “cold.” Simply put, he is downplaying one aspect of illustration (the aspects tat might make you pause too much here, and here, and here) to bring out another aspect of narration – the movement and internal music that happens when one is interacting with a comic page.

(Ware says that comics are something of a loud, clanking, and brittle medium; he is doing what he can to soften them, quiet them, and slow them down.)

So, yes, one could look at individual panels from this page from the New Yorker and call them poor illustrations. Perhaps this page doesn’t deserve to be on a gallery wall (in part, because it was never meant to be).

Or you could talk about final page, in situ, as a single piece of comic storytelling. (Make sure you zoom in to 100% and scroll.) Such a discussion would not simply ask whether these are “good words” paired with “good drawings,” but would analyze how a comics page uses comics form and comics design to approach its end. In this case, you would talk about how an artist uses a “standard” 16 x 16 grid, divided and re-arranged, leading the reader in different directions, establishing rhythms or color and shape, evoking the flow of memory.

If the pages works for you as comics, then it works. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. But at least it will fail on its own formal terms.

My best, Peter

8/25/2008 9:48 AM  
Blogger Peter S. said...

Sorry for the handful of typos above("when he says," "the final page," etc.). I hope they didn't get too much in the way of my ideas.

Also, I wonder if you've had a chance to look at either of Ware's published sketchbooks, as some of your previous commentors suggested. In those volumes, you will find a decidedly different style of drawing -- and, therefore, a clearer sense of the illustrative work Ware is not trying to make.

8/25/2008 1:10 PM  
Blogger Matthew Adams said...

Peter. S, you said

"an understanding of that form would definitely include the idea that comics are made of pages (not images), that comics are created out of the effect and rhythms of sequences (not single frames), that comics are made to be “read” and not simply “looked at.”"

You could subsitute the word comic for the words picture (I don't want to say childrens book because not all picture books are for children). Picture books are of course illustrated. It would read like this, and would be just as true.

an understanding of that form would definitely include the idea that picture books are made of pages (not images), that pcture books are created out of the effect and rhythms of sequences (not single frames), that picture books are made to be “read” and not simply “looked at.”

8/25/2008 6:03 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Thanks, Matthew and R. Fiore.

Random, I love that quote from Dewey. Right on the mark.

Peter, if you went back and looked at those previous posts, you deserve a medal. I appreciate your thoughtful response. I probably wasn't sufficiently clear when I talked about form, but I intended something more elemental than just the format or structure or "formalism" of a particular medium (whether comics or anything else). When you look at that bird, and you see the taper of its neck, the curve of its body, the swoop of its throat, the interaction of colors, you know that the artist is sensitive to the aesthetics of nature and can apply what Peter Behrens referred to as "the fundamental principles of all form creating work" in his art. My intended point was that, even accepting regional variations for taste and culture and personal preference, the language of forms is a language almost as universal as nature. You can recognize it in paintings, in Inuit designs, Dogun sculture, Japanese textiles, and yes, even sequential art. I fully agree with your point that a series of images combined for one work has a different rhythm than single frames. I also agree with your quote from Spiegelman that comics pages are corridors through which one should move rather than sit and luxuriate (although I find that the comic artists who are really good are capable of operating on both levels simultaneously). But the "corridor" format should not exempt someone who has elected to work in the visual arts from confronting the broader issue of aesthetic form.

8/25/2008 6:15 PM  
Blogger R. Fiore said...

Thanks, David Apatoff for sparking such an interesting debate.

You make a good point, Matthew. There are no absolutes in art when it comes right down to it.

So it seems we must resign ourselves to the reality that art will continue down the enlightened path of open-mindedness, slouching ever further toward aesthetic poverty.

And God help those who proclaim a drawing is poor in quality--they'll be dismissed as nazis...

8/25/2008 8:22 PM  
Blogger Stephen Worth said...

Cinema has nothing to do with the shift in cartooning over the past 70 or 80 years. The thing that has been missing from cartooning since the 30s is popular appeal and real and uncontrived humor based on the differences between unique individuals and cultures. American popular culture has homogenized and cartoons have homogenized with it. The solution to this problem isn't to put cartoons in art galleries and make up ten dollar words to describe scribbles... it's to take cartooning back to the streets and have it serve humanity as it really is, not the way we want to imagine it is.

Ironically, Krazy Kat is more real than Cathy, even today.

See ya
Steve

8/25/2008 8:29 PM  
Blogger Stephen Worth said...

One point to add... If you take an art form to the people, "high concept" won't be a substitute for expressive skill. Real people want to be amazed and awed. Even your great aunt Bertha knows that Bugs Bunny is better than Homer Simpson, and Polly and her Pals is better than Drabble. She knows that Rembrandt is better than Gary Panter too, but no one ever bothrs to ask her opinion of that. Maybe somebody should.

Some things are self evident... Not all art is created equal.

See ya
Steve

8/25/2008 8:42 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Thanks, r. fiore. I get genuine pleasure from people with strong interests and diverse backgrounds coming together to debate and sharpen their ideas on these topics. It's the healthiest, most valuable kind of input I could ask for.

Stephen, you are one of the contributors I had in mind when I wrote the preceding sentences. Thanks for your comment.

8/27/2008 12:49 PM  
Anonymous Kage said...

If what artists like Ware and Spiegelman set out to do was to gain attention from all audiences towards their comics, they sure have achieved it. Whether through good storytelling or bad art (in this case an amusing mix of both), the point of the fact is they're memorable because of it.

From an advertising and marketing standpoint they've achieved their goal through the best medium; word-of-mouth plus a good dose of controversy.

And personally, i appreciate any art that manages to achieve its goal; to communicate a message (even if it looks bad).

8/27/2008 10:24 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Kage, that's a very sensible position and I don't disagree. The art of advertising and marketing is complex and difficult and requires great instincts. I concur that these artists are "masters" of that art, and I really do salute them for it.

My problem is that the artists you mention are celebrated as "geniuses" not in marketing agencies but in art museums. (The Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art catalog says of Chris Ware, "Ware is capable of creating beauty anywhere and always. Ware's work, in this way, is also quite like Bach's.") Mind you, Ware is not just today's equivalent of Herriman, McCay or Raymond, he is today's equivalent of Bach.

It pains me to think that a member of the human race is capable of believing such things.

8/28/2008 11:49 AM  
Blogger joe bloke said...

this reminds me a lot of that whole movement a few years back when it became an intellectual no-no to utter the opinion that one thing was better than another. the basic idea was that the Sex Pistols were as good as Beethoven. no argument, no discussion, and to speak out against this idea was anathema. i believe that there IS such a thing as good art and bad art. and i don't believe that it is a subjective thing, that it is a matter of opinion or taste. a thing can be judged by it's parts. a close friend of mine gained his degree from St Martins by nailing a small cicular piece of metal up in one corner of an empty room. that was it. for the best part of the day, the two of us stood in the opposite corner of the room, drinking beer and laughing at all the people who stood around going on about what a brave and radical concept it was. he was taking the piss. he is now, officially, an artist. it says so on his passport. he gets paid a lot of money to go and stand up in colleges and talk about art, despite the fact that, by his own admission, he cannot draw or paint. i think that to blindly praise bad art because it's hip or fashionable, which is how i view the current attitude towards ware and most modern art in general, is to do a great dis-service towards those who have genuinely toiled towards the perfection of their skill. probably not a popular view, i conceed, but how i feel none-the-less.

8/29/2008 1:09 PM  
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8/30/2008 10:13 AM  
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8/30/2008 5:29 PM  
Blogger Traven said...

Peter, you said

"Indeed, Ware and other newer artists are trying to recapture something that they think has been lost in the comics form since the 1930s"

Are they still trying, rather than succeeding? I tend to think so.

"Art Spiegelman, for example, has talked about comics panels and pages as corridors through which one should move, not rooms in which one should sit and luxuriate. This, of course, if part of what Ware means when he talks about he drawing as “poor” – or when he say that he intentionally creating images that are “flat,” “banal,” “cold.” "

I think you are quite wrong about Ware: My reaction to Ware's drawings is exactly to sit and luxuriate in them, to enjoy them in melancholy and contemplation.

And I can support this with the rest of what you said of Ware:

"(Ware, for example, seems to dislike the cinematic Milton Caniff ..."

"Ware says that comics are something of a loud, clanking, and brittle medium; he is doing what he can to soften them, quiet them, and slow them down."

To be sure, I'm unusually grateful to Chris Ware for what he is doing. But no force will make me not cringe at his perfect circles and other perfect geometrical shapes, nor am I going to respect his faces.

Art Spiegelman, on the other hand, has quite a different effect...

I have to say I never finish reading longer comics. I just don't believe in these people's capacity to tell a story of value. Who knows if it personal.

11/15/2008 1:40 PM  
Blogger Traven said...

When I said "My reaction to Ware's drawings is exactly to sit and luxuriate in them," I meant the full page of the drawings, not the simple individual ones.

11/15/2008 2:13 PM  
Anonymous Unbelieveable Stuff said...

Nice one..

10/16/2009 2:53 AM  

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