Friday, August 01, 2008


Artist Gary Panter is all over the news lately. Hollywood gossip magazine Entertainment Weekly placed him on this week's "Must" List along with Cher's new Las Vegas show. The New York Times applauded the arrival of a fancy new two volume, boxed collection of his work.


His recent New York gallery opening was touted (by the gallery) as a "visual tour de force." And Panter's own website announces that Panter is
"possibly the most influential graphic artist of his generation, a fact acknowledged by the Chrysler Design award he received..."
It would take a lot of nerve to question the artistic judgment of Chrysler (which announced this week it had lost another half billion dollars due to its inability to design a decent car). Nevertheless, let's be brave and explore together: Panter's web site proclaims that he "successfully broke down the barrier that separates 'trash' from 'art'...." Of course, previous artists have made similar claims. In 1961, Italian artist Piero Manzoni claimed that he successfully broke down the barrier that separates art from shit.


 But I'm still not ready to concede that the barrier is completely gone. Perhaps the more interesting question is: which side of the barrier is Panter on? Panter is a "cyber punk" artist, most famous as the creator of Jimbo, "a post-nuclear punk-rock cartoon character" who first appeared in the LA hardcore-punk paper Slash and later in RAW. Occasionally Panter creates a fine, strong image: 


But most of the time, Panter produces the kind of art you'd expect to find in a decent high school literary magazine:


 And all too often, Panter's work is (in my opinion) downright awful:

I can hear the Gary Panter fans out there fuming, "the punk movement is exempt from bourgeois standards of taste and beauty. The New York Times didn't compliment the beauty of Panter's images, it complimented his 'raw lunatic expression.'" It's true that genuine punk was never pretty, but at least it gained some legitimacy from its brute, energetic defiance. I love Johnny Rotten's response to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame when it tried to honor the Sex Pistols:


 What a fabulous message: "Were [sic] not coming. Your [sic] not paying attention." I doubt you would ever see Johnny Rotten bragging on his web site that the Chrysler Corporation had vouched for his artistic ability. But the point of this post (and believe it or not, I do have one) is not to take a poke at an overrated artist or the the fans who fawn over such minor work. If "raw lunatic expression" is your game, artists such as Jean Dubuffet out-punk Panter by a mile.

Dubuffet's art embodied genuine rebellion. He preferred the art of the mentally ill to the work of classical artists. He wrote raging manifestoes about trashing all museums and abolishing culture. But despite his rebellious message, Dubuffet's drawings and paintings are still deeply beautiful. This is the most important difference between Panter and Dubuffet. Punk or no-punk, Panter is an artistic failure because he never seems to achieve (or even understand) some form of beauty. Regardless of the boldness of his color or line, his work is artistically anemic. He hasn't paid the dues required of those who seek to participate genuinely in form-creating activity.

And I'll even go one step further.  For a man who is so eager to eliminate any barrier between art and trash, Panter repeatedly draws a bright line between his art and what he considers lowly "commercial" art.  For this barrier, commercial artists should be grateful. 

But it is a tired cliche for Panter to suggest that illustration or other commercial forms of art can't be as raw as Panter's. Even within the straightjacket of commercial illustration, serious artists manage to look deeper into the abyss than Panter ever does. Panter's fans celebrate his "ratty line," but I don't find his line nearly as raw or unsettling as the truly scary linework in this spot illustration by commercial illustrator Robert Fawcett:


 Take a close look at the violence and anarchy of Fawcett's line. For those with eyes to see, Panter is splashing around in a far shallower pool than Fawcett.

I've read the adulatory reviews of Panter's work, searching for help in learning what I am missing. So far, I can't shake the conclusion that Panter is primarily an entertainer who tells amusing stories for people of a certain maturity level. 

Nothing wrong with that. But if that's all he is, how do we explain this much attention to his work? My only explanation is that shallow, immature times call for shallow, immature art.


Alexandre Mandarino said...

Wow... I dig Panter's work, but totally agree with you: it's overrated. That Lydon letter and the Chrysler vouch totally address your pojnt. Perfect.

ces said...

Never heard of him. Now I know why.

Dominic Bugatto said...

Great post.

I'm a fan of 'some' of Panter's work , though not all of it. I'd say the same about Raymond Pettibone.

Dubuffet's works killer , as is the work of collective called Cobra Group , who may even predate him. Philip Guston also rocked 'punk style' .

Dominic Bugatto said...

A link to some info on the Cobra Group ...

ZD said...

"My only explanation is that shallow, immature times call for shallow, immature art." That's an awesome line.

Anonymous said...

Agree with ces and zd.

Anonymous said...

The only thing I've ever liked by Panter is his work on "Pee-Wee's Playhouse." Strange praise for a supposedly anti-commercial artist.

J. J. Hunsecker said...

I completely agree with your assessment of Panter's work. I've always found his comics too off-putting to slog through. His drawings look amateurish, and like you said, his seems like a poor artist. I never understood the praise for him, either.

That letter from Johnny Rotten is funny. I guess semi-literacy is totally punk rock, man!

David Apatoff said...

Thanks, Alexandre. I appreciate your balanced response.

ces, if you've never heard of Panter, I'm sorry to be the one to introduce you.

Dominic, I knew of Pettibone and Guston but I'd never heard of the Cobra Group. Thanks-- one of the best things about this blogging process is getting the benefit of the experiences of other members of the community.

David Apatoff said...

Many thanks, ZD and anonymous.

Zack, I agree with you. Pee-Wee's playhouse is his best work, perhaps because it just fun, without the annoying pretensions.

JJ, I'm glad you enjoyed that hilarious letter as much as I did. Thanks too for your reactions to the quality of Panter's work. I am expecting to be pilloried any minute now when Panter's fanatic fans hear about my heresy. I hope you will speak up when they do.

Henry Chamberlain said...

I love Panter's work. He is one of those great artists with such an expressive/gestural quality to his work, be it comics or work more defined as "fine art."

Did you happen to see his work recently in Marvel Comics? Check out the limited series, Omega the Unknown. I review the series here:

Feel free to visit my blog here on blogger. I am an artist too.


David Apatoff said...

Henry, I did not see Panter's work for Marvel comics. I checked out your review, but the only reference to Panter I could find was the phrase, "this is the first time that the art of Gary Panter as appeared in a Marvel comic." Can you give me something more to go on regarding what you like about Panter? You say here that you like his "expressive quality." What is he expressing and why do you like the way he expresses it?

Rob Howard said...

David, I tend to agree with most of your observations and find your taste remarkably consistent with mine (scary). With rare exception, Panter's works is a bloodless resurrection of the raw and visceral punk art of 25 years ago (good grief, has it been that long?).

Your counter examples are well chosen. Dubuffet had a powerful intellect, something sorely missing in Panter's work. Fawcett, of course, was a towering draughtsman (he really made that dried-out Flomaster sing).

Comparing Panter to Manzoni is valid in that they are celebs and one-trick ponies rather than artists of lasting merit. Sadly, their work encourages the marginally skilled to remain as they are rather than work and grow, leading me to conclude...give a man a crutch and he'll learn how to limp.

Henry Chamberlain said...

Issue 7 has the Panter art. I would say the art speaks for itself in that issue and in the rest of his work. When I talk about an expressive quality I mean that he has a signature style. He has a distinctive look. I think it really comes down to taste because Panter has done what is expected of an artist at a professional level. He's delivered. If you don't like his work, that's fine but it doesn't make him any less of an artist. Is he a great artist? Yeah, he's a great artist. There's a lot of hit or miss in any art career. Panter hasn't done that bad. He's no amateur.

David Apatoff said...

Rob, if you find that our views are similar, you should probably keep that a secret until you've had a chance to reconsider your positions. But thanks for stepping forward. I'm glad to hear from you. I like your comment about Fawcett's Flomasters. It sounds like you know your stuff!

David Apatoff said...

Henry, I know that many people these days feel that quality in art should be a matter of subjective taste, like personal preference in chocolate, vanilla or strawberry ice cream. That may be an interesting philosophy in the short term, but ultimately I think it has proven to be a dead end for art, and a justification for slovenly and self-indulgent work.

Somebody who passes judgment on art (even if it's only in the privacy of his own home) should keep an open mind, and check out issue number 7 when someone brings it to his attention. But the obligation does not end there. An open mind unaccompanied by a discriminating eye will not get you very far. Someone who wants to convincingly call an artist "great" should not try to apply that label merely because the artist's work is "distinctive" and he is "no amateur" and "hasn't done that bad." I'm sure you can think of many terrible artists who meet those three criteria.

Henry Chamberlain said...

I like your comments! You are certainly correct. Actually, I don't know that we want to rush to judgment on Panter being great or dismal. I think of "great," in the context of this casual discourse, as someone who has a solid history and is a bonafide professional artist. No doubt, he's not going to rank among the very best artists in history. Maybe I will have to get Jimbo in Purgatory and give it a careful read and see how it holds up. Who knows, if you were to see a retrospective on Panter maybe you'd be pleasantly surprised. That's about all I can say for now.

Josh (musarter) said...

Your line "Panter produces the kind of art you'd expect to find in a decent high school literary magazine" captures his style/abilities best.

He seems to be a "great" artist by promotion and exposure. We must ask ourselves, is an artist great because we know his/her work and can recognize it, or if the work is meaningful and/or appealing.

By the way, the Johnny Rotten letter is priceless; really great in the context of this entry.

Anonymous said...

I think there must be room for "deliberate badness" in the expressive spectrum.

In a way DuBuffet, because his work has more aesthetic merit, shows himself less committed to the punk aesthetic than Panter, because Panter is willing to create unequivocally bad art to achieve his artistic goals. Bad art is the true spit in the eye. Beautiful bad art, like that of Dubuffet, redeems the badness. An argument can be made, therefore, that Panter's badness, paradoxically, makes him the better artist in the punk genre.

Those of us who are determined to make the world more beautiful have an almost physical revulsion at the thought of making anti-aesthetic work and in we should admire Panter's guts, at least, if not his work. I prefer DuBuffet myself.

David, you continually amaze me with your ability to arrive at meaningful topics and interesting artists to discuss and I am grateful for your integrity and creativity in this regard.


Matthew Adams said...

DeBuffet wasn't interested in a punk anti-aesthetic as much as he was interested in outsider art. I think the two are different. Punk is a deliberate attack on the establishment, where as DeBuffet was looking outside of the establishment.

And my little knowledge of Panter (I have only come across him in raw, and wasn't impressed) leads me to think that he is using the punk aesthetic as the springboard for a rather comercial career. In a sense he is formalising the punk aesthetic (I hate those two words together) to turn it into a markatable product, the Panter corporate identity. He is definately not attacking any established asthetic, instead he is using an established one because it is an easy way to make bucks.

David Apatoff said...

Matthew, I recommend to you, and to everybody in the world, Dubuffet's brilliant, iconoclastic book of essays, "Asphyxiating Culture and Other Writings." He doesn't exactly call museums a "piss stain" the way that Johnny Rotten does, but he does say, "it is much more dangerous for a nation to allow a museum to be installed on its territory than a church." Dubuffet has a tough, defiant view that not only likes outsider art but is hostile to all culture, claiming that "only nihilism is constructive." For me, the biggest difference between Dubuffet and punks is that Dubuffet is intelligent and literate.

As for Panter, you could very well be right. I would think more highly of him if I thought he was exploiting the punk aesthetic to make a buck.

J. J. Hunsecker said...

Looking at Panter's jumbled artwork is like staring into a bowl of soup. It's not just amateurish, it's confused and muddled -- and nearly unreadable. In fact, I think it's unfair to amateurs to use that word to describe Panter's "art". Some amateurs, though their art is crude, are able to at least present a clear and readable layout on the page. Even a non-artist like Matt Groening is able to do that.

With Panter, on the other hand, it often seems like the most important thing is to fill as much of the page as possible with squiggles of ink.

"Punk Rock Aesthetics" doesn't rationalize it for me. At what point does self-consciously bad become plain old bad?

Matthew Adams said...

Heh, I didn't know that about DuBuffet. Ive only seen samples of his art, and read books on outsider art that mention Dubuffet briefly as an encourager of the movement. I would tend to agree with his views on museums. I go to them to see the artwork, but they have always struck me as bureaucratic institutions where art has to fit a certian idealogical criteria, and that there is probably a lot of good stuff out there I dont see because it will never fit in any type of pigeonhole.

I dont have a problem with artists who are trying to make a buck, or even with artists who dare to be honest and call themselves commercial artists. I have always prefered illustration and cartoons over most 'non-commercial' art. But I have no respect for Panter's lame arse approach to his work. He is like a garbage collecter who instead of emptying the bin into the garbage truck, dumps it in the gutter. "Here" he says, "I've emptied your bin for you..."

David Apatoff said...

Thanks, Henry. You may be right about that Panter retrospective, but I am guessing it would have to be a long, looonnnng time. How about if we meet back here in 500 years and re-evaluate his work?

Josh, I suppose that if public relations is an art form, we should give Panter his due. Glad you liked that letter; it takes just the right sense of humor...

David Apatoff said...

Kev, I would feel better about your deliberate badness argument if I was sure Panter was exercising a choice. It's awfully hard to stay that deliberately bad for so long without some relief, just as it is hard to deliberately sing off key without occasionally slipping back to the "right" notes.

But if we assume that Panter could draw well if he wanted to, and that he creates bad art out of principle, then (as usual) you put your finger on the most interesting question at the most advanced stage of the debate. What is the proper place for "deliberate badness"? Performance artists have tried variations on deliberate badness-- for example, living for a year with absolutely no art in your life, or refusing to make anything beautiful (which we have discussed here and here) and I agree that these are interesting concepts that make us more aware of the nature of art. But long term, living with such work seems like a mighty heavy price to pay for a concept with such rapidly diminishing returns.

David Apatoff said...

J.J.-- that is the perfect description of Panter's work. I wish I'd said it.

But now I have to ask-- if this is so obvious to all of the people who are chatting on this blog, who in the world are these people at the Smithsonian Institution and the LA art museum who are annointing Panter a "master" of comic art? What can they possibly be thinking?

Anonymous said...

I agree maybe he's overrated, but don't let your angst over his recognition cloud your judgement of his work. I think his work is evidence of a smart artist always pushing himself to go somewhere else, you can see it in your first post just by the varying quality and styles. Most artists, especially commercial ones, are lucky to be able to have so much variety. I think this man has mastered his craft and is tying together loads of conceptual ideas (Rauschenberg, Pop) with a swarm of aesthetic ideas (folk art, comic art, punk art, pop art).
I think marginalizing in comparison to Dubuffet and Fawcett is trying to peg him on a single side of the fence. That's why I like him, is that his art shows evidence of years of craftsmanship while roughing up the edges a bit. I see mastery while not letting that constrain him to an aesthetic for it's "prettier" work. Its comic based art with a huge amount of influences that smartly tiptoe around ideas without being an abrasive nitwit.
Also, Fawcett's line is as intelligent as always, his brush just adds a little bit of roughness, where Panter's line is a conscious effort to blend informed and uniformed line. I guess part of my problem is that the stuff you showed that was "bad" I liked. Those Jimbo comics are unpublished stuff (and Panter agrees most of that stuff he doesn't like) to be fair, and at the same time I love that expressive mix of free and tightness. There's this sloppy, flowing brushwork and then some really hard lines...I don't know, but it seems pretty smart and natural to me. The whole trash thing and amateur thing is what I see as somone who is continuing the Rauschenberg/Pop/contemporary "trash" obsessions. I don't think it's a result of his lack of talent.
Also, the guy has been around for how many years? All of a sudden now he becomes popular and it's a big deal. We're just now seeing like 30 years of unreleased stuff from an artist that works at a prolific pace. In that regards, as far as I'm concerned, the man has more than paid his dues to get the recognition he's getting. He lived poor for years and still doesn't exactly make a killing.

also, I can't imagine what some of you think of the new amazing generation of comic artists like Brian Chippendale or C.F. If readability is your criteria for comics, then I hate to see your reaction to these guys.

Anonymous said...

also, the reason why Gary Panter's work isn't just the "badness" of Dubuffet is because his source material evolved from a different spectrum of bad, stuff that Dubuffet couldn't have been around for:bad angry angsty highschool drawings, bathroom graffiti, bad 50's and 60's graphic design, good 50's and 60's graphic design...I think his "trash" roots are what make him idiosyncratic, and my conviction in his craftsmanship mixed with his collage of source material and mix of influences in his work makes me think the guy is pretty damn good. (that's not saying I just enjoy him conceptually, I think personally it all adds up visually for me, as well)
Also, I find it weird that you praise Dubuffet for being craftless, and then say that Panter is no good because he's something to the effect of a craftless individual under the guise of having craftsmanship, but not as good as Dubuffet because he makes it look like he has craft, but only a little.
so which is it? should he have craft or should he not?

DB Dowd said...

David, you are truly a resource--you help unearth lost careers, you bring interesting insight to much of what you present, and (as you know) I think occasionally you succumb to the torches-and-pitchfork school of art criticism, often in defense of that ill-defined, shimmering notion of Great Art.

On those occasions when you light the lantern and rush to the barn to grab an implement, one of the tools you select is your rusted but still useful outflanking hoe, or rake, or whatever it is that you use to deflect potential charges from the left by quoting the antibourgeois perspective. Shrewdly, you swing that thing more aggressively than your expected attacker. Hence, you attempt to club Gary Panter over the head with Johnny Rotten and Jean Dubuffet, the latter with dink in hand. Quite a maneuver! (I trust you didn't pull an oblique muscle)

Except. I am unpersuaded that your encounter with Panter does not begin with irritation. I know his work, I have heard him lecture. I have met him, though I do not know him. And my impression from hearing him speak is that he strikes a pose in much the same way that many artists do, as an urgent naif. He works crudely when he wants, which is often, and he reins it in when he needs to. He's quite a canny guy, and in our managed-perception era he plays the role necessary to create a cult of interest.

I'll come back to Panter in a minute, but consider that success in competitive markets is a matter of focus, drive and strategy. Look at the Olympics. The monomania required to achieve near superhuman feats is one thing. The careful crafting of the character, the narrative, and the fervid entourage. The figure we follow and "bond with" (women's gymnastics being the best example over the decades). Folks, this is how it's done. The child actor with the pushy parents, etcetera etcetera.

Most of us are unwilling to live our lives this way, or to push our children to do so, or to buy into the worldview that such an enterprise requires.

But Gary Panter has worked for a long time to become "Gary Panter," and others are involved in that process. The crafted persona, the feigned disinterest in commercial work as inauthentic, the sheer volume of work, much of it so "urgent" as to be structurally indifferent to an extreme, it's all part of the same thing, and it's based on prevailing biases in the market and in the persisting Van Gogh-Pollock-Basquiat myth, except minus the death part and with cartoons thrown in. I don't think it's cynical. But it is conscious.

We can evaluate the work and address its unevenness--and it is uneven, to a great degree. We can assess what its reception may tell us about contemporary values and whatnot.

But I don't think we can hold the fact that Gary Panter is willing to become "Gary Panter" against him. That's the price of entry. It's not an insult against art history. It's what really ambitious people do, whether in sports or art or politics. They bust their butts, craft a way of presenting themselves, and go for the brass ring. Most of us aren't willing to do that, for lots of good reasons. But some are, and they're the ones who end up on TV.

Anyway, I had another thought, about "badness," but I've highjacked your comments long enough. Thanks, as always, for the sport that takes place in this space.

Anonymous said...

Panter has always been waaaaaaay overblown, overexposed and overpraised, in my humble opinion. In fact, he might have started that whole 'I'm drawing in a naive style, so it's ok if I look like I just learned to draw yesterday' movement that has always irked me.

Ken Meyer Jr.
(the doofus who continues to forget his password)

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

DB Dowd: I very much disagree. Where's the artistic integrity in what he does?

All the things you described isn't what "ambitious" people do. It's what people who want to be famous or rich do. It's what Paris Hilton does. She's not as stupid as she looks.

What truly, honest ambitious people do is work their butts off ON THEIR CRAFT, and keep their integrity. Yes, some will mistake fame for success and fall of their tracks after a while. But doing what you described "consciously" is without artistic integrity whatsoever. It's greedy and selfcentric.

Is it what Gary Panter really does? I have no idea, since I don't really know him or his work. But that's what I feel when reading your comment.

DB Dowd said...

Benjamin, I understand your point. But of course Panter has been working for many years. He's produced a great deal of material, and he is very good at what he does. This "he can't really draw" thing. What is this? Of course he can draw. Look at his work in a sustained way. As I said in my earlier post, he caroms back and forth between "out-of-control zany" and relatively tight as the occasion permits. I actually prefer his commercial work, as it is usually the more disciplined.

Finally, the Puritanical zeal of this "artistic integrity" thing is offputting. Lots of harrumphing on this comment thread. So who gets to wear the big hat and pass judgment on my integrity? Or yours? Because you might not like some pictures I make? If you're going to make those statements, you had better be prepared to make cogent arguments, not tossed off remarks.

For starters, style and integrity go in different categories. David's original post made this clear, yet also blended them a little by citing his counter examples.

David Apatoff said...

DB, don't stop now-- you're doing fine. What's your thought about "badness"?

You are definitely right about the examples I use, although hopefully it isn't just to "outflank" detractors. I generally believe that when you judge art, you have to measure success against the artist's objectives. For example, it's not terribly enlightening to compare a tulip with a rose and blame the tulip for being a bad version of a rose. They have different ambitions. So if Gary Panter is trying to be a "punk" artist, it wouldn't be fair (or even relevant) to fault him for not drawing like Norman Rockwell. That's why I chose to compare him to other rebellious bad boys such as Johnny Rotten or Dubuffet. Measured against true rebels, it seems to me that Panter is a lightweight (and also a hypocrite, judging from his embrace of the Chrysler corporation, or his bragging about the value of trash while disavowing nasty "commercial" art ).

Another reason for using "outflanking" examples is that when you criticize a trendy artist like Panter, a lot of angry fans assume you must be wedded to old fashioned "realistic" artists or obsolete technical skills. To remove a pointless distraction, I sometimes make clear from my examples that in addition to Norman Rockwell, I get a big kick out of abstract art, prehistoric and tribal art, conceptual art, children's art, earth works, etc. Even when you're dealing with conceptual art, it is still possible to draw distinctions between good examples and crummy examples.

Finally, as for my "irritation" with Panter and his fans, I confess that I find it a travesty that a deluxe monograph of Panter's work is published with such fanfare, while there has never been a single book preserving the work of far superior artists, such as Robert Fawcett, Noel Sickles, John Gannam, Bernie Fuchs, etc. Similarly, I think it is sad for our culture that Panter should be selected as one of the few "masters" of comic art exhibited by prestigious museums, while a long, rich history of far superior art is spurned by thin blooded and clueless curators. I have had a good laugh in earlier posts about the foolish people who write fawning, pretentious reviews about the "timeless genius" of artists such as Panter or Chris Ware. In my opinion, these critics and curators just embarrass themselves. I have to remind myself not to hold the artists responsible for the ignorance of their fan base.

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

DB: I wasn't passing judgement on Panter, as I believed I made clear. I was merely commenting on the description you offered.

And to me "artistic integrity" has nothing to do with anyone liking the art. To me, it's about honesty as an artist (as opposed to as a businessman). Does the artist really stand behind and believe in what he's doing? Does he truly think that this is what he is supposed to be doing with the talents (however great or small) given to him? I won't judge Panter in this way because I hardly know anything about him. But the profile you sketched seemed like it's just about money and fame, and not the creation.

DB Dowd said...

Benjamin, I guess the points I am trying to make in response to your comment are 1) the work is always occurring in a social and professional context--it's not some pristine elemental thing, it's tangled up in the world from the beginning, and 2) your criteria for integrity involve questions that we cannot answer and which may ultimately be none of our beeswax. So making judgments on somebody's supposed integrity based on invisible interior thoughts and motives seems rather brazen.

David Apatoff said...

Benjamin and db, I am enjoying and learning from your exchange and would love to jump in, but right now I have to race for the airport and will be traveling for few days. Let me just add for now that I understand that passing judgment on an artist's integrity is a very slippery slope, as elusive as DB's "ill-defined, shimmering notion of Great Art." It is hazardous to even go there, but still under some circumstances, if you can retain some semblance of humility and self-awareness, the benefits can outweigh the risks. I don't pretend to be able to read Panter's mind. If he is deliberately producing bad art because he knows it will be lucrative, I will think more highly of him than if he just can't do any better. But DB, I do think we are on firmer ground if we talk about hypocrisy, which is one step removed from integrity. If we can agree that Panter holds himself out as a subversive, counter culture type who purports to draw all stray trash into his creative scope, then it seems more than a little hypocritical (and also lacking in integrity) for him to speak with disdain about the quality of commercial art.

Michael Spence said...

Wait a second. David, the problem with your criticism is that you have attempted to tear down Panter's reputation based on theories of what he is trying to be rather than what he has done. While i love the paintings and lithographs i have seen of his, my main knowledge of his work comes from these books.

1. Jimbo in Paradise
2. Cola Madnes
3. Jimbo in Purgatory
4. Jimbo's Inferno

Looking at this work I don't see how anyone who isn't stuck in an old fashioned "Realism is king" mode could say that he cant draw. The drawings in Panter's comics, like those in Chris Ware's, or Charles Schultz or many others, are not meant to be studied like the painting's of Dubeffet, they are meant to tell a story. Where Panter differs from Chris and Charles is that he adds tension to his work by keeping his lines loose and not clean the way most illustrative art has been.
Also, Panter, and the Fort Thunder based artists like Chippendale, Brinkman, C.F. and others, do not tell linear, literary stories in the same way as an Adrian Tomine or a Alison Bechdel. His stories in the Jimbo in Paradise and Cola Madnes volumes are satirical and border on surrealism. When i first tried to read Paradise i thought it was a disjointed mess but on re-reading it I found that the seeming random stories set in a nightmarish post-punk-apocalyptic consumer obsessed world actually coalesced into a powerful and moving vision of what we face when we ignore our decaying flesh and blood society and only focus on machinery. Their is a picture of a horse towards the end of the volume that is absolutely heartrending.
Cola Madnes is one of my all time favorite graphic novels and features some of Panter's greatest art in the service of a more linear story.
The Purgatory and Inferno volumes truly belie your assumption that Panter is trying to represent himself as some kind of serious revolutionary. Panter did numerous interviews when Purgatory came out and consistently spoke of his obsession with classic literary works. He spoke eloquently about the passion he had for re-interpreting these works using his character Jimbo. While he may have said that he started as the champion of a Punk aesthetic it is clear to me from the last 20 years of his work that he has matured and isn't spending his time thinking up ways to debunk the "Man" by throwing paint on the Mona Lisa or something. Your description of Dubuffet makes him sound like an Asshole although there is a strong possibility that you have simplified his outlook. I love the Sex Pistols but Johnny Rotten is definitely an asshole. Not going to an awards ceremony isn't making any other statement than "I am an asshole." Their album doesn't become better that say, the Clashes album because Joe Strummer may have accepted an award and I believe if you ask Gary Panter he'll probably say the same thing. Panter isn't trying to keep up with the Rotten's or the Dubuffet's, he's trying to make powerful images or tell strong stories and the fact that this book was published, and that many intelligent people who have done more than quickly glance through his work and then run to the internet to bash it by comparing him to people he isn't trying to emulate, tells me that he has succeeded in many of his goals and makes me keep my fingers crossed that someday there will be a second volume for You all to hate.

Michael Spence said...

Just wanted to clarify the last part of my comment. I am not saying that Panter is great because everyone says he is. What I am saying is that if one is going to tear down an artist with as great a reputation as Panter's you should at least discuss his work in detail, reference respected critics that like the work and describe why they are wrong, and be familiar with the artists complete catalog and important interviews.
It seems like too many Bloggers think that simply saying "Robert Altman is a lousy filmmaker and everyone knows it," without backing up their statements, is some form of intelligent criticism.
Read Cola Madnes, with an open mind to different kind of storytelling than you are used to, and then talk about it. This is criticism.

DB Dowd said...

Michael, well said. Bravo.

Anonymous said...

I don't know why my comments were ignored, but where did Panter ever seem disinterested in commerical art of anything like that? do you think because of his aesthetic that he was automatically a punk artist disinterested in actual culture? I don't understand, just because he's some kind of "trash collecter" artist doesn't make me think he shuns any idea of financial/critical sucess. That's the one point I don't understand. I never really thought his "breaking of the barrier" was based off of some kind of contempt for modern/contemporary culture, just kind of enjoying both sides of the fence and making art that reflects it.

DB Dowd said...

At the lecture I heard him give he acknowledged doing some illustration work, but he deliberately downplayed and acted as if he didn't like to do it much. Not really "his" work, is how he categorized it. He likes to draw what he likes to draw, and likes to be free to do it. But again, from my perspective, I think this is a little bit of a pose, and clearly not an unsuccessful one.

Joshua said...

I'm with you man. Gary Panter is a horrible artist and it has always baffled me why some people (mostly of claimed high taste) enjoy his work so much. Ugh ...

Another comics artist that I loathe but who receives a lot of acclaim is Paul Pope. I really don't see the appeal there, either.

Anonymous said...

well, not liking having to work for other people is reasonable though. If he doesn't like that work, he doesn't. I think my point is is that I find it hard to believe this guy is "posing". He spent 30 years prior to this working hard and being relatively unknown until his work on Pee Wee's, and then his comics. But it seems to me like his popular reputation is on those two things, not the things he does most now: painting and Dal Tokyo (which is for a Japanese Reggae magazine, the least "posing" thing I feel like he could do.) If I was under the impression he was posing I don't think I would see him doing as much painting as he does now, I would see him building on the idea he's this "punk" artist or the Jimbo/Pee Wee's guy, but instead he went into this painting direction and his drawing style has changed remarkable since the late 70's/early 80's. I imagine he does revel in his sucess and he has admitted to trying to make a buck but I think people under the impression he's trying to get rich and famous are overstating how well known he is.

I don't know. I'm pretty convinced he's just a hard working artist and I find a lot of his work great. I don't really see him revelling in the nostalgia of his past identity to make a buck and further build a reputation. He's altogether stopped doing comics (for the most part), he does light shows, kind of crappy psychedelic country with Devin Flynn, and painting. I just don't really see where he's this ambitious guy building an identity. We do all know he has a friend named Matt Groening, right? I mean, as long as we're talking about somone trying to build an identity here...

DB Dowd said...

Mr. V: I would agree with much of this. In my original post I said his positioning of himself vis a vis commerical work and the way he presents himself is conscious, but not cynical. I would stand by that. (To put my thoughts in context, I am working on some writing on the cultural positions and self-conceptions of illustrators and cartoonists. There is plenty of data to suggest that from a cultural perspective, the work of illustrators and cartoonists is not art, plain and simple. So his distancing from commerical work makes plenty of sense as a strategy, even if that strategy is more instinctually-driven than consiously so.

Anonymous said...

When I heard about the artists that were to be featured in the "Masters of American Comics" exhibit that was at MOCA and the Hammer gallery I was extremely excited about all of them except Panter. I know Art Spiegelman has been a big champion of Panter's work and he helped put the exhibit together, but when I went to see it, my misgivings were confirmed. Compared to the other artists in that show, Panter's work simply pales to the point of insignificance. There were a dozen other artists who could have had that spot and should have-if they needed to use an example of someone not working in a realistic mode they could have at least gone out and broken the gender barrier they created by including the work of someone like Lynda Barry, whose work far surpasses him in just about every way imaginable.

Anonymous said...

man, I hate to seem like some kind of cynicist or something, but I gotta defend my man here-- personally, I feel like a lot of those (living, working) guys in the show weren't worth much to begin with. For the record, I didn't see it, but my opinion is that of the contemporary artists exhibited (Crumb, Spiegalman, Panter, and Ware) only two of them were worth showing-- Panter and Ware. I feel like Art Spiegalman got lucky with Maus- yeah, it's amazing, but the only really amazing thing about it was how it defied the notions of comics at the time, it wasn't necesarily formally inventive or masterfully done. This to me was proven further after reading his dialogue in "In the Studio" by Todd Hignite. He seemed to me like pretentious and trying too hard to be an intellectual. The Shadow of No Towers appeared to me that he was trying to come off as experimental and still relevant...R. Crumb. I've never understood the intense hyperbolic love for the guy-- he made goofy little gag cartoons, only bringing to the table a maturer version of immaturity. The times he wasn't making the same overly crosshatched joke (something to the effect that he likes women with big thighs, probably) he was either a wimpering little boy or a cynical tough guy. For whatever reason, everyone loved him, and sadly enough those of his devoted following who went into comics carried his torch of 50/50 "no one loves me/I'm so angry" with them.
As for Panter and Ware, though, I find that on Ware's side, he brings to the table the most innovative and groundbreaking design (both panel and color) as well as some interesting, human stories. Panter, on the other side was the first real "art comic" maker, before C.F. and Chippendale. He brought (and still brings) to the table heavy surrealistic narrative (and visual) elements that, to me, is an approach to comics less appreciated because it is not as straightforward (but just as good). I hate to seem cynical, again, but to me Lynda Barry seems more like a cutesy but less artistically sucessful version of Panter. I guess that's the aesthetic to her work over all-- playful immaturity, but I think Brian Chippendale's Ninja did that just as well and more interestingly.

leifpeng said...

"There is plenty of data to suggest that from a cultural perspective, the work of illustrators and cartoonists is not art, plain and simple."

Wow - nothing plain or simple in that blanket statement, db. As an illustrator and cartoonist who considers his work to be (from a cultural perspective) art, I don't know whether to angry or intrigued... or both!

DB Dowd said...


Yes, a provocative statement. I would welcome your click to
where a more extended discussion of this very point is presented. There is much more to day, of course, but that's a fair start.

DB Dowd said...

Oops, that link didn't work. Go to and run a search for "kant" only one post will come up--that's the relevant one.

David Apatoff said...

Villainer, I owe you an apology. I didn't intend to ignore your comments-- quite the contrary, I thought you devoted some time to making serious comments and felt I owed it to you and to this discussion to try to articulate my differences in a way that advanced the debate. As I explained in an earlier post, I had to travel on business this week and have been away from this blog. I just got back, and will be jumping into the fray again tonight and will be able to give you the serious response your comments deserve.

For purposes of this initial response, let me just give you an easy answer to your question "where did Panter ever seem disinterested in commerical art [or] anything like that?" To cite just one example, in the book, "In The Studio," Panter said, "The main thing that I stress to my students is the separation of personal expression versus commercial art.... When you do commercial illustration-- and I've said this a billion times because someone said it to me when I was in college-- you need to take your ego out and out and put it in a box to be a commercial artist." This is what I was talking about when I referred to Panter's attitude toward commercial illustration.

Anonymous said...

I never really saw that as Panter being all about anti commercial work, but just kind of saying from the perspective of a teacher: you can't just do what you want and think you'll be a illustrator who works for other people. as an art student I made this realization too, that if I want to be hired at least I can just be all willy nilly and "fuck rules", as fun and cool as that is. I imagine if I were, too, to be a professional illustrator then I would vastly change my approach based on the client...I don't see his attitude as negative or degrading commercial work, just saying that the differences between the two require different approaches. Maybe I'm missing the point, but I don't really see some kind of Dubuffet punk attitude in him, just kind of an adoption of punk aesthetic. also, thanks for replying, I understood you were travellin.

Anonymous said...

*can't be all willy nilly

David Apatoff said...

Villainer, I don't really know whether Panter is down on commercial illustration or not; as a number of people have noted here, he is not averse to harvesting the benefits of commercial success himself, and I respect him for that. But he does repeatedly talk down about commercial ilustration "because you have to serve people" which is inconsistent with "personal expression." If there is a point here beyond the obvious platitude, someone will have to explain it to me. When Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel, he was serving the Pope who commissioned it. When Rembrandt painted portraits, he was serving the people who paid him. The same with Goya. The same with John Singer Sargent. When ancient Egyptian artists did those exquisite illustrations for the Book of the Dead, their client was the Pharoah. Is Panter suggesting that the "free expression" of his unfettered soul is superior to the work of those commerical artists?

Anonymous said...

I guess from the interviews and writings on him I've read (I'm not sure what we've read that the other hasn't, but I don't recall him downplaying commercial work overall for "having to serve people") he's never really downplayed that type of work (personal) as superior, just different. Maybe I'm wrong, maybe somewhere he has said personal work is somehow superior or something, but I just see from his attitude from the quote indicated and my knowledge that he acknowledges differences between the two types of work but never states one being superior.

David Apatoff said...

Villainer, I would like to circle back to some of the points that you and others made a few days ago while I was traveling. I have spent more time looking at Panter's work than I normally would, solely because people seem to find something there that I am missing. It's no secret that I think his drawing is pretty lame and his painting is worse. His messages seem largely juvenile to me, and no matter what you are looking for from art there seem to be so many stronger,smarter alternatives around that it is hard to justify devoting a lot of time to an artist or writer like Panter.

Let's put aside my personal views about the ideal characteristics of good art and instead take the language from Panter's very own (copyrighted) bio on his website. Are you looking for art with "passion" or "madness" or "psychedelic perversity and creativity"? Do you have a taste for the kind of art the "king of the preposterous" would make? Is your interest in punk art made by the "king of punk art"? I have no problem at all with these preferences; my problem is that I don't think Panter achieves them very well. In my post, I offered a few examples of other artists who I thought were more genuinely and meaningfully "raw," than Panter. It would not be hard to list many others. When I read Panter's web site and tried to figure out what I was missing, I came across bald assertions such as, "As an illustrator, Panter was one of the first to stop worrying about graphic perfection" or, "Possibly the most influential graphic artist of his generation" and I realized that the reason I was having trouble connecting was that the author was fundamentally ignorant about the history of art (and illustration, for those of you like DB who apparently place illustration in a separate category). The most crass, commercial self-aggrandizing establshment illustrator would be embarrassed to put such language into his self-promotional literature. The fact that Panter has no qualms about it makes me think even less of him.

I view the current exchanges with people who disagree with my post about Panter, and who clearly DO understand something about art, as my single best chance to get educated, so I continue to struggle, and I am sincerely grateful for the efforts by some of the commenters.

I looked at Panter's original artwork close up in the Masters of Comic Art show. Under normal circumstances, that would be enough for me. I also read his work in the Smithsonian anthology, read a series of interviews, saw a couple of video interviews, and looked through some Elvis Zombies and Jimbo stories (I kinda liked the cover to Jimbo #5. I thought it was a strong statement).

Based on that effort, I just don't see what you mean when you say that Panter has "mastered his craft" and had "years of craftsmanship" behind him. I find his work devoid of any real craft or skill, but that doesn't bother me. It is extremely hard to draw well in an anarchistic way, throwing off the shackles of your training and returning to a child-like state. I think Dubuffet did that well. Basquiat did it well. But I don't see the same intensity or honesty or quality from Panter. If as you say, Panter's line is a "conscious effort to blend informed and uninformed line," I will need help understanding how it is successful. Let's talk about a specific example-- Panter's famous self portrait reproduced on my post. The lines on his face are repetitive (he seems to use twenty little lines where one would do), random (there is no artistic decision about where a line is laid down-- any line could just as easily be a quarter of an inch to the right or to the left) weak (look at how uncertain the lines are, as they vacillate into cross hatching and feebly peter out), monotonous (they are virtually all the same width and length, and all are devoid of character). One of the things I like best about good naive art is its primitive brutality and confidence, but there is none of that boldness here. Theer is also no great design, the colors are amateurish, no great message or content-- so tell me: what am I looking at, and why is Panter worth the effort?

John Hankiewicz said...

I'm late to this, and reluctant to say anything, but I want to amplify Michael's statement above. There is absolutely no evidence in David's slam of Gary Panter that he has read a single comics page by Panter, much less the recent monograph or any of the books listed in Michael's reply.

I know it's asking a lot of bloggers who want to discuss an artist to do more than look at a few jpgs of the artist's work. It does help, though.

John Hankiewicz said...

Well, David posted as I was posting, so I stand corrected. He's not totally unfamiliar with Panter's work. He's just almost totally unfamiliar with it.

To wit:

"I looked at Panter's original artwork close up in the Masters of Comic Art show. Under normal circumstances, that would be enough for me."

Enough to do what? I guess it's "enough" if you want to critique his work in that show (which I also saw), but your post is making a much larger point about Panter's worth as an artist. That show focused on comics; it showed none of his paintings. They are a major part of his output.

"I also read his work in the Smithsonian anthology, read a series of interviews, saw a couple of video interviews, and looked through some Elvis Zombies and Jimbo stories (I kinda liked the cover to Jimbo #5. I thought it was a strong statement)."

Again, the above experiences would be enough if you were discussing Panter's contribution to a specific anthology, or analyzing one of his covers, or musing about his interview responses. But you want to make the grander, trenchant point "that Panter is primarily an entertainer who tells amusing stories for people of a certain maturity level." You can't be taken seriously on that point unless you a) actually refer to those stories in your critique and b) read more of them than you've indicated you've read. And by "read," I don't mean "look through."

David Apatoff said...

John, I hope you aren't "reluctant to say anything" here, but if you are, perhaps you should be reluctant to say the one thing you chose to say. I have already described the Panter work I looked at-- admittedly not everything that Michael flagged, but a healthy cross section of original art and printed material, including some of the work for which Panter is best known, in addition to reading interviews and watching the Youtube footage. I went to Panter's own web site, fer cryin' out loud, where he had ample opportunity to put his best foot forward. Where I had problems, I cited the specific language I found objectionable. Did you have any reaction to that?

Even if I hadn't invested the time, I'm not sure why you think an artist can't be fairly judged from the seven images I posted. Such a sampling may not be enough for a definitive, final assessment, but on the other hand I don't think an artist of real quality would let work like that out the door.

I don't take much solace from the argument that if I looked at every single thing Panter did, I would find more good work. I've already said that I liked the cover of Raw I posted, the cover of Jimbo #5, and Panter's work on Pee Wee's playhouse. I have no doubt that there is more out there, but the ratio of wheat to chaff is mighty depressing.

David Apatoff said...

Michael Spence, I am grateful for your comments for two reasons. First, you do an excellent job of spelling out the standards to which a critic should aspire: don't jump to conclusions, take time to familiarize yourself with the artist's full catalog of work, keep an open mind.

Second, you do an even better job of showing how difficult it is to adhere to those standards: Johnny Rotten is "definitely an asshole." Not going to an award ceremony can only mean "I am an asshole." Dubuffet (whose work you apparently don't know) "sounds like an asshole." Anyone who doesn't share your view of Panter must be "stuck in an old fashioned "realism is king" mode" (kind of an odd comment in view ot the fact that Panter is far more realistic than Dubuffet, but that's OK, you're not familiar with Dubuffet's work). You assume, with no factual foundation, "that I must have "quickly glanced through [Panter's] work and then run to the internet to bash it" when if you had bothered to check MY full catalog of work, you'd have seen that I have been commenting on Panter for at least a year and a half.

Tough work, this criticism business, ain't it? I would say that we both can aspire to do better. On your recommendation, I will seek out Cola Madness and read it with an open mind.

David Apatoff said...

DB, there seems to be a temporary lull on the battlefield, so it may be a good moment for me to respond to what must be the single most provocative and intriguing statement of this whole exchange: your suggestion that "There is plenty of data to suggest that from a cultural perspective, the work of illustrators and cartoonists is not art, plain and simple."

I have read your thoughtful post on this subject, and if I have it right, you are not passing judgment on the relative value or importance of art vs. illustration; you are simply building on Immanuel Kant's definitional foundation in which he categorically excludes anything that serves a purpose (such as illustration) from the realm of beauty.

I have been looking forward to reading your forthcoming expansion of this theme, but since the point has resurfaced here, let me tell you two reasons why I think it is a mistake to rely on Kant's definition, no matter how influential he is in the field of aesthetics.

First, I think Kant has been overtaken by the facts. He was unquestionably brilliant, but with Kant a little bit of empirical data went a lonnng way. His Euro-centric, enlightenment era view of art is not surprising, coming from a strict Prussian pedant who never married or strayed from his home town and who had no access to other cultures. But if you read modern cross-cultural analyses of art (The book Calliope's Sisters, which examines the concept of art across ten widely divergent cultures around the world, is an excellent example) you will see that Kant's definition of art gets slaughtered by the facts. The vast majority of people in the world who make and get pleasure from aesthetic objects do so with all kinds of purposes and objectives. Cultural anthropologists who have visited remote islands and jungles and studied the data that Kant never saw have had to fashion a much broader definition and would laugh at the prospect of capturing the wild, unruly family of art-related practices under Kant's precious little framework. If you believe Kant, then only a tiny portion of the world's population, coincidentally centered in western Europe and its progeny, creates true beauty. If I were the rest of the world, I would give Kant a good smack on the head with that little walking stick of his for his arrogance.

The second reason I wouldn't build on Kant's definitional foundation is that it seems untenable to the point of being useless. If an object starts out with a purpose but that purpose becomes lost in time (like an old illustration advertising a product that is now obsolete) or the object is transported to another country where the purpose is unknown, does that suddenly make the object "beautiful" under Kant's standard? If the artist lies about or conceals the commercial purpose of his object and it is later discovered, does that make the object less beautiful? If an object has half a purpose, or an unfocused purpose, is it half art? And if so, what is the value of the label "art?" Did Andy Warhol or Claes Oldenburg or Winslow Homer or Edward Hopper start making art when they dipped a brush in paint for non-commercial work? It seems to me that you inherit a whole lot of misery withour much gain by adopting Kant's intellectual framework.

PS-- I can't resist asking: if Kant is going to be our arbiter, what do you think he would say about Panter's work?

DB Dowd said...


My response here will be necessarily brief, because as you know, this is a gigantic can of worms.

My thinking has been evolving on this point. I have always been drawn to graphic images. I started as a printmaker due to the medium's democratic spirit, and also because in a small college art department the notion of teaching illustration would never have been countenanced. I don't think I even knew what illustration really truly was until I was already credentialed--that is, after graduate school. Slowly my career evolved toward cartooning and illustration.

I began to wonder: why are cartoons and illustrations --the latter, in the modern industrial image production sense of the term--not represented in art museums?

I approached this question empirically. First, is that opening question based on a reliable supposition? Recently an art history graduate student who is working for me on a book project on this subject conducted a comprehensive sample of the current year (2008) in the following areas: leading academic publishers of art books, art history curricula, doctoral theses in art history (2005-2007) and exhibitions at major art museums. The incidence of shows, books, and courses that address cartoons and illustration in particular was in the very low single digits. I am still working with the data, but for discussion's sake, say 1%.

I think that's a pretty clear empirical basis for saying that in this culture up until now and at this moment, the cultural apparatus that defines what art is does not include cartoons and illustration under that umbrella. Forget the elision of "the art of" X of Y.

If we were talking about trucks or geology or hair care products, less than one percent would clearly fall outside the given category.

My recourse to Kant (and Hume and Burke, as prior sources that inspired him) represents an attempt to understand how this came to be. And of course Kant's work on this subject merely represents a guy trying to figure something out--what is beauty, really, and how does it work? The concept of disinterestedness, borrowed from the Brits, represents an attempt to isolate the question and answer it.

More on this another day, but I think that a new discipline or subdiscipline will have to be founded that sits between art history and cultural anthropology and draws on the insights of both. I think that illustrations are better understood as artifacts, not objets d'art. But they possess aesthetic properties that must me engaged if they are to be understood.

I think this is better than bitching about the lack of inclusion.

As for your question about Panter and Kant: nice try, and hilarious to contemplate. I think such questions are akin to asking what the Framers would have thought about the right to privacy in a digital age: impossible to answer, and thus pointless. The cultural norms for art in the late 18th century could not have imagined most of what serves as art today.

Also, as a final thought, the role of art in traditional cultures is one thing, and a subject of active interest to me. But the internationalist culture of art on view in places like the Venice Biennale makes plain that the modern Western conception of art has become the globalist version of same. Installations, etc.

David Apatoff said...

DB, I'm always glad to hear that people with brains and resources (glory be-- an art history graduate student to do real live research!!!) are looking at the big picture, tectonic plate-type issues in this field. It sounds like you are off on a fascinating path, and I look forward to reading your results (or perhaps even interim progress reports from your blog?)

A few reactions to your methodology: I assume that your survey of books and art history curricula did not take into consideration Michelangelo's illustrations of the Bible for the Sistine chapel, or Rembrandt's illustration for Faust, or the twenty books illustrated by Picasso, or the numerous books illustrated by Matisse, or William Blake's illustrations, or Durer's, etc. etc. If not, I think you will have to be very precise about defining your terms at the outset, as each of these works seems to have all the ingredients of a prototypical illustration: work done by an artist for hire, to illustrate a story or narrative, paid for by a client.

If instead you are restricting your focus to a particular subsection of illustration that began in the latter half of the 19th century when printing technology gave birth to posters, magazines and the democratization of art, I would point out that there were a lot of other things happening simultaneously that caused the "cultural apparatus" to reject many forms of traditional and representative art that it once adored (Bouguereau, etc.) That's when "art for art's sake" was first spawned, when the camera eliminated much of the value of technical skill, and many other changes occurred that may make it hard to draw a causal connection.

I agree that this is not the place to discuss the point ad nauseum, but I think the cultural anthropologists would still tell you that, notwithstanding the Venice Biennale, for almost the entire history of humanity everywhere in the entire world, artistic practices did not conform to Kant's narrow definition. I think it is interesting too that during those long millennia before the very recent triumph of western capitalism (when art became a competitive sport at the Biennale) people living subsistence lives in the most harsh, challenging environments paid a far heavier price to create art than we do today, and yet they persisted and the art they made was often better.

I'm no Kant, but my own test is far simpler-- if it makes my heart skip and my nerve endings tingle, it's good art even if it has a (shudder) "purpose." (I don't think Kant was allowed to have tingling nerve endings in strictly religious 18th century Prussia, so he had to adopt his standard by default.)

PS-- it probably won't surprise you to hear that measured by my standard, Cromagnon art fares a lot better than much of what the Biennale has to offer. Last time around, the Biennale gave Barbara Kruger its "lifetime achievement" award for those silly little fortune cookie platitudes she superimposes on photographs. Can you imagine? That's what passes for profundity in western "fine" art these days. No wonder good, honest commercial art shines by comparison.

DB Dowd said...

A last point. What we call "art" is a recent cultural contraption, not really any older than the Renaissance. So the sacramental or magical objects produced by traditional cultures aren't "art" either. "Art" is a totally made up thing. It's culture, not nature. It's like basketball or legislation. So when I use the term, I am using it as historically contingent phenomenon. It's not loaded for me--it's a descriptor.

Re Barbara Kruger: by implication, she is neither "good" or "honest" since you contrast her with your preferred commercial folks. Seems like a backdoor ad hominem, and a rhetorical manuever like "hardworking Americans" as opposed to those slothful unspoken ones. Can't you just not like her work? I really think you have good things to say, David, but you mar your prose with flourishes like that. You are better at defense than prosecution--spirited in the first case, harsh without adequate support in the latter.

I will continue to read you in any case!

David Apatoff said...

Thanks, DB. I want you to know that I did pay attention in prior posts when you commented on my negative rhetorical flourishes, because I certainly respect your opinion (which is why I was surprised above when you said "bravo" to Michael Spence calling a number of people "assholes" and making other "ad hominem" attacks without support.)

Here for the record is my code of honor on negative attacks, and you are certainly welcome to bash me if I ever violate these principles:

1.) I reserve them for certain artists at the top of the pyramid in an era of false praise and low standards. You will never see me attack struggling young artists, the downtrodden or the underdogs, or those who are still earnestly trying but need time and room to grow.

2.) I won't attack the rich and famous simply because they are surrounded by fawning fans and reviewers who are convinced the artist is the reincarnation of Michelangelo (although I certainly may ridicule the fans). In my view, one of the most creditworthy things about Chris Ware is that he recognizes that his drawing is not very good and tells his fans so (even if they don't believe him). My point is a little subtler than that; as you saw in the case of Gary Panter, I will criticize the artist when he or she begins to believe their own press releases. I offered several quotes from his web site which, if he knows anything about art, he should be embarrassed to have up.

3.) I try not to criticize an artist without taking pains to understand their work, but on the other hand I don't share the view that you cannot criticize unless you address an artist's "complete catalog" and discuss his work "in detail." I maintain that if you know what you are doing, you can at least form rebuttable presumptions about the quality of an artist by looking at 7 prominent examples of their art. Anyone who can't should find a different line of work.

4.) Blogs being blogs, I have limited expectations about the possibilities for detailed analysis, but if anyone wants to engage me on the merits of any of these images, I will certainly respond in kind. (You'll note there was a resounding silence when I offered specific comments on the Panter self-portrait). As a result of the nature of blogs, some of my comments will necessarily be less supported than others, but if you ever want to pause to discuss Barbara Kruger, I'm your man.

5.) Finally, as I have often quoted before from William Blake, I criticize not so much to persuade my opponents as to defend those who know the truth. There are a lot of underrated and neglected artists out there who work their asses off to do something meaningful and profound because they do not subscribe to our current cultural ethos of "it's all good." They are underrated in part because the prevailing lack of discriminating taste and judgment causes other work to be overrated. People in the art business are not in a good position to come out and say "the emperor has no clothes." I can. I hope that by publicly saying such things about sacred cows I can at least start the process of making it legitimate for others to do so.

It's not the main thing I do here, but it is nevertheless very satisfying.

DB Dowd said...

David, thanks for your substantial reply. I will spend some time with it, and go back to review the post you chided me for, no doubt with justification.

I think the crucial point is your embrace of Blake's approach. Fair enough. You can argue to defend "the truth" as opposed to persuade.

In matters of taste the truth is not so fixed, but perhaps from your perspective that will seem like an academic point. Ultimately the challenge faced by writers on popular graphic history will, alas, require persuasion, due to the ghettoization of the field. I think these works and careers matter in the wide sphere of culture, but others do not, mostly because they have never really thought about it. Illustration especially has suffered this fate, but its adherents and proponents have done it much harm by failing to argue persuasively--specifically, by engaging the discourse of "high" culture on its own terms, and by writing and speaking with a (often very large) chip on their shoulders. (Blake, of course, was a famously difficult person.)

Ultimately I am interested in how culture works. I want to understand it. And illustration has its own culture.

Partisan swipes, especially about alleged "skills" or lack of same, shed more light on the author than the subject. There is a subcurrent of resentment running through much writing in this area. It's as old as Howard Pyle. This resentment has many sources and manifestations, but it's the most prominent psychic feature of the profession of illustration.

DB Dowd said...

David: okay, I can't stand it, especially since you took silence as capitulation on your critique of Panter's self-portrait. This has been gnawing at me for the last day or two.

According to what criteria do you assent to the proposition that Chris Ware's drawing "isn't very good." In other words, define "good drawing" from your perspective. (This could be a good launch post, if you are up for it. I'll play.)

David Apatoff said...

DB-- I am not foolish enough to construe the silence about Panter's self-portrait as "capitulation." Rather, I construed it more as contempt for my views. Some commenters had argued that if I was going to criticize Panter I should "at least discuss his work in detail." I thought that was a fair point, so I tried discussing the details in that one image. Unfortunately, nobody seemed interested in responding at that level of detail(either because it is inherently boring and awkward to discuss through the medium of a blog, or (more likely) because they didn't want to waste their breath on me).

As for why I don't think Chris Ware's drawing is very good, he has repeatedly said the same thing and I think he is correct. I suspect you would agree with me that there are a thousand variables that can distinguish a good drawing from a bad drawing. I find Ware's line monotonous-- there is none of the variety, the prioritization, the nuance, the wisdom, the vitality that we tend to associate with better drawing. I think much of his work is stolid technical drawing; compared to other drawing done with a T square and triangle (such as Frank Lloyd Wright's architectural drawings) it is simplistic and flat and lifeless. I further think Ware's work is highly repetitive, perhaps because he uses the drawing process as a form of self-therapy, which in limited doses can have dramatic effect, but taken to his extremes is often tedious. I don't think there is anything terribly inventive or creative about his graphic solutions-- for example, the way he chooses to depict people or faces or buildings. I think his compositions within individual panels are unremarkable.

I could go on, but I think the broader question you raise-- how to define "good drawing"-- is a far more interesting topic and I would love to engage with you on that. Is it fair if I start by saying I don't think there is such a thing as a "definition" of good drawing, but there are several general "principles" of good drawing (which evolve over time)?

Jack Ruttan said...

I think that much "good art" can become stifling, and types such as Panter and Chris Ware, whom I find interesting, but not my cup of tea, get noticed because they're breaking the mold a little.

Thank goodness for them, I say, otherwise we'd all still be painting crucifixions, or people in togas.

You need a little bit of experimentation to move ahead, and while that can be exciting of itself, it's not always the best artists who are first to try something.

Of course, there's a danger of fetishizing novelty or unusualness for its own sake. Popularity is not very fair, but you can't control what catches on. Usually posterity will sort it all out.

Robert Cook said...

It's probably WAY too late to add a comment to this blog post, over two months old as I type this, but I wanted to add a thought about what has been said about Panter's alleged attitude towards doing commercial art. (By the way, I won't argue here for or against Panter's achievement as an artist; I'm hot and cold on him myself, admiring some of his work tremendously, and finding other of his works to be of no interest.)

I think Panter is not scornful of commercial work at all, but, as would any artist, simply prefer to be able to do his own work if he could afford to do so. That being a given, he's been a professional illustrator for decades, so he obviously knows how to place commercial assignments in their proper context of his career and do the jobs he is given.

More to the point, the long quote of Panter's wherein he tells his students to "put their egos aside" when doing commercial work, etc. is simply practical, worthwhile advice. He is not putting down any illustrator's work or goals, he is simply telling his students: don't be a prima donna. Don't mistake a job of work as an opportunity for you to "express yourself." Don't assume you're so great that you can ignore the requirements of the job and do as you wish. Don't assume you know better than your client what he wants or needs from you. Don't take it personally if your client asks for changes. Don't view each commercial job as an opportunity for you to demonstrate your "genius." In other words, see commercial work for what it is: you are putting your skills at the service of others who are paying you to meet their needs.
I can't think of advice that young art school graduates might need more than this simple reminder that, as illustrators, they and their work are subordinate to other persons and their purposes. It seems to me this must be the bedrock attitude of any artist who takes commercial assignments.

David Apatoff said...

Robert, thanks for a thoughtful post. At some level, you are of course right about the nature of commercial work. Especially at the start, an artist must subordinate his or her judgment to that of the client. But many of the commercial artists I have described on this blog have turned away work that was not "right" for them, or because they disagreed with the client. Other commercial artists have developed a strong voice as they matured and find that clients come to them specifically for that voice, turning total control over to the artist. Finally, there are many commercial artists who have actually benefited from the give and take with a client, much the way that great writers have benefited from the outside perspective of an editor. In this last category, an obnoxious commercial market serves as an antidote for artists who might otherwise become too insular and narcissistic and self-indulgent (such as, perhaps, Panter).

Anonymous said...

this blog is RETARDED. i've never heard anyone try to talk so cleverly about punk and its role in art.

first off, if you think johnny rotten is punk you've already missed the entire point of punk rock. he started a bad band to make money (which by what i've read is something you would respect). go pick up a crass record. punk isn't nihilism. punk isn't about sticking it to the man. punk isn't something you can define with an individual example of a person. punk is defined by what it isn't.

second, i don't really know how you can compare panter's work to dubuffet (and dubuffet alone). it's not similar at all. drawing like you're mentally ill and drawing like you're a high schooler are completely different. gary panter's work is more like pop art. it's a satire. it's deconstructing art by taking it's most disliked elements and putting it back together the way it should have been. gary panter uses irreverence as a key element in visual narration which is why he is a big deal; he reinvented comics (and now we spell it comix). dubuffet on the other hand thought mental patients were cool and tried to contrive something not characteristic of himself. not punk.

but like i said, you can't really define punk as a single thing, and that's why it's retarded to talk about it in this manner.

David Apatoff said...

Dear fake David Apatoff-- it is quite possible that I don't understand punk (although I take some comfort from the fact that you don't think Johnny Rotten understands it either). It is also quite apparent that you don't understand Dubuffet, and that it wasn't worth your effort to read any of his essays. Given our mutual ignorance, there surely has to be a better way to bridge the gap than by calling me retarded.

For starters, you could explain to me who this "we" is, when you say "we spell it comix." Since you have chosen to use my name, it is a little difficult for me to understand who you purport to represent.

Also, please elaborate on what you mean by "gary panter uses irreverence as a key element in visual narration which is why he is a big deal." Sometimes irreverence makes you a big deal, but sometimes it makes you a twerp. You can't just end there. If you have something to teach, I am eager to learn.

DB Dowd said...

David: I returned to your blog recently after a hiatus and encountered your piece on Kerry James Marshall, which I must say quite disheartened me. So I dug out a set-aside post on this Panter controversy, feeling that I ought to return to an issue that it brought to the fore. The new post is at

I hope to address your Kerry James Marshall post in coming days.

David Apatoff said...

Thanks, DB. I am glad you decided to make use of your set-aside post, as I always find your views illuminating (even when we disagree). I look forward to reading what you have to say.

DB Dowd said...

David: Okay, next chapter up over at my place. I look forward to your rebuttal...

Q B said...

I think Panter is primarily a storyteller. As a young artist he was friends with Matt Groening and did a better, harder version of the pop culture mashing that Groening popularised in the Simpsons. He also was a very popular commercial artist, doing sets for Pee Wees playhouse and commercial illustration, which gave him some cash and esteem in the short term, but considerably detracted from the overall sprit of his work. I do think it's a bit stupid to pit a very painterly painter like Dubuffet against a graphic novellist like panter, but it's an interesting example of how th internet flattens everything out.

David Apatoff said...

QB-- "I do think it's a bit stupid to pit a very painterly painter like Dubuffet against a graphic novellist like panter"

Actually, Dubuffet did a huge number of pen and ink drawings and, just like Panter, used them to illustrate record album covers and books. I think Dubuffet's work in that medium was far superior to Panter's, but I do like Panter's work for Peewee's playhouse-- very imaginative and well done.