Monday, August 30, 2021


This week an appellate court in New Jersey ruled on the economic impact of cartoons. (Michelle Migut v. State of New Jersey Administrative Office of The Courts, Docket no. A-2787-18)

A woman claimed she experienced pain and suffering because she had to walk down a flight of stairs during a fire drill.  She said that a prior foot injury gave her a rare condition known as "complex regional pain syndrome" (CRPS). This CRPS caused her to experience "a lot of pain" when she had to use the stairs rather than the elevator, so she sued her employer for millions of dollars.  

 The lawyer for the plaintiff, perhaps doubting her ability to persuade the jury with mere words, commissioned three cartoons to use with the jury:

The cartoons must have been effective because the jury saw them and awarded $2.5 million in damages.  This confirms what I've long suspected: cartoonists are underpaid.

On appeal, the defendant claimed the drawings improperly influenced the jury. This forced the appellate court to analyze key issues of aesthetic theory that have long puzzled the sages.

The court decided to overturn the verdict for several reasons.

The court was obviously no fan of artistic license.  It ruled, 
The cartoon of a woman in a wheelchair with no legs sitting in front of a closed elevator with smoke bore no resemblance to the plaintiff, who has legs and does not rely on a wheelchair. It also mischaracterized the circumstances of the events, which unfolded in the context of a fire drill, not an actual fire. 
This is a very literalist approach to art by a court that is apparently steeped in the traditions of 19th century realism. We are forced to ask: Would an abstract expressionist court have been more open minded?

Second, when the cartoons were used at trial the judge instructed the jury to disregard them because they were "inflammatory and misleading." The appellate court nevertheless overturned the verdict because it believed the jury would not be able to forget the pictures. "The instruction to ignore... after the jury had already seen them was not sufficient." In other words, the prejudicial effect of a picture cannot be overcome by mere words. The court's ruling goes straight to the heart of aesthetic theory about the relative impact of words and pictures.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, the trial court might have avoided reversal if it had used 3,000 words to instruct the jury. However, if 3 pictures are worth $2.5 million, we may have entered a new paradigm in faded bromides about art.

Finally, the appellate court, warming to its new role as art critic, disapproved of the way the drawings distorted the jury's view of reality and thereby "inflated compensation for the plaintiff's alleged emotional distress." One cartoon depicted the plaintiff's employer as a "buffoon." Another cartoon of "a woman covering her face with her hands under the title: 'Compensation for Emotional Damages' was an appeal to sympathy intended to inflate compensation...."

Philosophers and aesthetes may haggle endlessly about the metaphysics of art, but as I've said before, if you need a concrete answer you're always better off consulting a lawyer.

Thursday, August 12, 2021


Compare this picture of a garter belt by Olivia de Berardinis...

...with this one by John Sloan:
John Sloan, Subway Stairs, 1926

Why is the Sloan illustration more suggestive and provocative?  What makes it a more successful work of art?

In Sloan's picture, a random updraft reveals a small, brief glimpse of thigh in an otherwise cold, impersonal sea of travelers bundled in winter coats.  Look at the narratives that radiate from those few inches of flesh:  Only one person (presumably Sloan) among hundreds is positioned to witness this unexpected gift:

The experience clearly left an impression on him.

The woman catches him looking:

Is he embarrassed?  Does he avert his eyes?  What is she thinking?  She can't hold down her dress because her arms are full.  Does propriety even matter any more if they're anonymous ships passing in the night?  Her face, her exposed thigh and the back of the man's head form a narrative triangle here.  It took Sloan seven versions of this drawing before he felt he got the balance just right. 

Olivia's fantasy trambo, on the other hand, has no such narratives.  She's too one-dimensional to contain penetralium. 

Amorous pictures today have become fairly predictable, even from masters of the skill such as Frank Cho or Adam Hughes.  We see the same routine provocative poses with the same anatomical distortions.  We see nudity, or at least an abundance of flesh, drawn with the same smooth, rounded lines.  We see soft, blended colors.  When censorship disappeared and printing quality improved, the same formulas became more and more entrenched. 

But 100 years ago, artists working with far less freedom and more primitive tools created pictures that were more intense than much of what is produced today.  Creativity, like passion, often comes from constrained circumstances. 

For example, etchings-- an inky black medium full of smudges and scratchy lines-- could be quite steamy, especially capturing moments of passion in a gritty, urban world.       

Edward Hopper (above) and John Sloan (below) show us couples grasping for intimacy in a crowded city.  These drawings capture serious moments that we know were preceded by hours of anticipation and followed by hours of reflection.

In Sloan's etching, Turning Out The Light, we see a woman preparing to remove her nightgown but simultaneously turning out the light.  There will be no unearned intimacy for us here; our imaginations will have to work for it.  But these are figures with real humanity, and the expression on her face as she looks over her shoulder at her partner shows us that there is another worthwhile narrative taking place. 

This last etching by Hopper, Evening Wind, is a sensuous tour de force.  Once again an errant breeze plays a central role.  

This time it brings relief from the heat of the city in an era before air conditioning.  Hopper didn't need spandex or corsets or stiletto heels.  He didn't need huge breasts.  His evocation of the sweetness of sticky summer sweat is enough to demonstrate the difference between a real artist and amateurs.