Archive for the 'aesthetics' Category

“All bad art is the result of good intentions”

Wilde (1997)
dir: Brian Gilbert

Stephen Fry is a treasure and it’s a privilege to see him perform in any circumstances.

To see him portray Oscar Wilde, an even greater genius and one of Fry’s personal heroes, should have been a delightful experience. Unfortunately, the result is disappointingly lifeless and generic.

I think the primary fact crippling this production was the filmmakers’ goal of presenting Wilde as 1) an ordinary man to whom we can all relate and 2) a tragic hero of gay liberation. Undoubtedly both of these elements are present in Wilde’s story, but the emphasis on his ordinariness in this production ultimately left him uninteresting, a passive character in his own life story, often at a loss as to what to say or do. Oscar Wilde was many things, but he was never uninteresting and never at a loss for words. The humanizing of a genius only works if we are shown the genius, at least a little bit — which this team has either forgotten, or deliberately declined, to do. Wilde’s conversational wit, his outlandish manner and costume, his ideas about interior decorating, his unprecedented celebrity, and most of all his writing, are all mentioned but barely shown. Fry has said “it’s very important that we don’t see him as this sort of peacock, this kind of posing, prancing queen,” and screenwriter Julian Mitchell mentions not wanting to pack the script with Wilde’s “greatest hits,” which is fair enough, but we’re left with no sense of scale, and no reason to care about him at all.

It’s typical that the film poster, featuring Fry as Wilde in this outrageous suit striding through the grumpy barristers, has been digitally altered to make the suit a supersaturated pink. With several openly gay folks involved in the production, one clear goal of the film was to reach contemporary gay audiences and connect Wilde to “the contemporary gay experience.” But on the other hand, he doesn’t wear anything so shocking in the film itself — the suit in that scene is actually a modest pale tan, and the scene isn’t particularly outrageous at all. The filmmakers are stuck with either cliché or ordinariness, both of which seem rather treasonous in a film about Wilde, of all people.

Fry is a captivating critic and speaker with a deep understanding of Wilde (see podcast #3) — indeed, watching him in the making-of featurettes and interviews is more fun than the film itself. That he as Wilde is so often forced to keep quiet and stare thoughtfully off-camera is a great waste. Young Jude Law is appropriately angelic in appearance and infantile in behavior.

The score, like the film itself, is too easy — standard Hollywood melodrama.

Oscar Wilde was certainly a man who loved men, but if that’s all he had been, we would not remember him today. That’s essentially all we’re shown here, and the result is forgettable. It’s not the film Oscar would have made.


We each might quibble with some of his specific choices (not to mention his abuse of the subjunctive!), but can anyone deny the sentiment of this post by Josh Hechinger?

If I was a musician right now, I’d be wishing I was one in the 90s (because I like slacker wit plus guitars and girls in Army surplus jackets, I dunno).

If I was a filmmaker, I’d be wishing I was one in the 70s (because there’s a sort of art + trash vibe I associate with that period.)

If I was a journalist, I’d be wishing I was one in the 60s (for Rolling Stone).

But I can’t think of any other time I’d rather be trying to make comics, except maybe the future.

The meme lately is “the recent aesthetic boom has not translated into an economic boom for artists & publishers,” which I won’t deny. But for those of us young and foolish enough to be able to value aesthetics over economics (for now),* it’s a thrilling time that’s only getting thrillinger.

*And, historically, isn’t it always these types who introduce the new ideas?

“gold appearing in hands”: money, poetry, politics

ἀλλὰ κέρδει καὶ σοφία δέδεται.
ἔτραπεν καὶ κεῖνον ἀγάνορι μισθῷ χρυσὸς ἐν χερσὶν φανεὶς
ἄνδρ[α …]

But even wisdom is enslaved to profit.
And gold appearing in hands (reckless wage!) turned
that man […]

Pindar, Pythian 3.551

At Powell’s the other day, I noticed an anthology called Poetry After Modernism (Robert McDowell, ed). Since I think contemporary poetry, in its overwhelming rejection of traditional forms, has often thrown the baby out with the bathwater and created a new, equally boring, status quo, I was curious to see what the deal was with the “New Formalists” mentioned in one essay. The author was particularly enamored with Dana Gioia, author of the apparently-famous essay “Can Poetry Matter?,” and one of Gioia’s poems quoted in the book impressed me. Some research at home reveals that Gioia is an ex-corporate-executive and current chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, appointed by George W. Bush.

So I’ve been having a morning of cognitive dissonance, reading through this essay by Steve Evans, “Free (Market) Verse” and sorting through some thorny questions about art, commerce, populism, tradition, and form. These questions seem especially relevant now that I’m a member of the arts industry. I’m currently living off (running out of!) the cash award I got for the poetry I wrote for my thesis. As I begin working with Top Shelf I’m going to be intimately concerned with (and dependent on!) the principle of charging people money for art.

My thesis was centrally concerned with questions of accessibility. I may not have succeeded in my goal of writing a thesis my grandmother could read, but I’m a big fan of art that actually reaches people, and in some ways to translate is to popularize (or to vulgarize — in Latin they’re synonyms!). I wanted to get the poems out of the Classics department and into the ears of the public.

My work in comics activism/advocacy is similarly rooted in a desire for accessibility, although I hadn’t made the connection until now. I try to promote comics to people who don’t read them; I hunt for books that appeal to those readers. I’m more likely to change somebody’s life by giving them Blankets or Strangers in Paradise than Crisis on Infinite Earths. The comic book scene, like (Gioia argues) the academic poetry scene, has its head up its own ass and is busy talking to itself rather than communicating with the world.

Yet I’m uncomfortable with the idea of connections between aesthetics and politics. Does nostalgia for an old-fashioned art form imply nostalgia for an old-fashioned ideology? Is the impulse to defend the institution of rhyme related to the impulse to defend the institution of marriage? I think not, in my case at least. I think there are a few more things at work here.

I’ve been asked to write a new school song for Reed College. Writing an alma mater is one of the most public, populist things you can do. The alma mater genre, like the Pindaric victory ode, is inherently conservative — institutionally normative, you might say, or counterrevolutionary — but I love the challenge of writing an anthem that the notoriously cynical student body of Reed can proudly stand behind. (Luckily, Reed itself is weirdly conservative in many ways.) It’s the same challenge I enjoyed as an atheist at Baptist Youth Camp, serving on the worship planning committee: finding ways to create a service that would be meaningful to everyone. In my thesis, I loved the challenge of writing deliberately old-fashioned translations of old avant-garde texts for a contemporary audience.

My father once made a remark that has stuck with me ever since: I was raised in a relentlessly heterogeneous environment, in a world of apparent contradictions. A liberal & educated city in a relatively rural state, a fiercely progressive church in a resolutely conservative denomination, a lower-end neighborhood in a wealthy suburb. My brother and I are both devoted to the idea of applying high-culture perspectives to low culture, and vice versa. I tend to feel like the geekiest person in a room full of “normal folks” and the most well-adjusted in a room full of geeks. In the Taijitu, my father implied, I’m the white in the black and the black in the white.

I don’t think I’m going to figure this all out today. I don’t think that everyone who agrees with my aesthetic values is going to be someone I’m comfortable standing with. But, I realize, that’s nothing new. I’ve been preaching the gospel of heavy metal and comic books for years, and God knows I have a pretty dim view of the average metalhead and comic fan. The fun part, after all, is loving something that’s insufficiently loved by people I respect, and then teaching them to love it.

[Did that make any sense? All of these points could use some elaboration, but this has been sitting on my computer for a long time now and I need to get it out. I’m sure there’s more to come.]

1 Pindar is describing the corrupting influence of wealth on the ancient healer Asclepius, who was once paid a ton of cash to resurrect a dead man. Zeus, outraged at this violation of the laws of nature, killed him with a thunderbolt. As a freelance poet who sold his praise to the highest bidder, Pindar is very careful to denounce the evils of capitalism and conceal the economic realities of his own situation. The way he operates, the poet assures us, Pindar only writes poems about people who are genuinely his friends, and every word is deserved because his patrons really are that awesome.

thinking caps on! comics and oikoumenikos

In response to this post by Christopher Butcher, excerpted below:

I totally love comics, and the schizophrenic state of my bookshelves will explain that it is not a certain genre, style, or delivery format that I love, but comics as a medium.

This all-encompassing love of comics is not universally shared; I’ve known this for a very long time. I try not to let the clique-ism and self-consciousness bother me when it comes to people dismissing work out of hand, but honestly? I think about the same of someone who writes off manga as a whole as someone who writes off comics as a whole: not much. And it’s not just manga, but any genre/format/style/country’s work. It seems so completely limited in scope, and more often than not those words seem spoken from a position of ignorance rather than any considered or researched position.

My initial reaction is, I’m with Chris. I’m up for anything, in any style, on any topic, by anyone. Those of you who’ve tracked our institutional purchasing patterns over the last two years can testify to that. (Interestingly, I imagine a lot of that comes from my self-image as purchaser for a diverse group of readers and the possibility that I’ve subsumed my own interests as a reader to the simple question “will someone like it?” But that’s a different topic.)

I often wonder at the disparity between the kind of comics reader I am (a fan of comics as a medium, interested in its possibilities of form and content, in every genre and style) and the kind of attitude I try to cultivate in others. I don’t expect anyone else to be as all-inclusive as I am, and I don’t mind when someone lacks interest in any particular title — I just hope everyone finds things that they like. I try to cultivate the attitude that comics is a medium of art and entertainment, on par with any other medium, and that casual fans are normal and welcome.

The idea of all-or-nothing comics fandom, the idea that there are two kinds of people in the world: comic fans and everyone else, is false and counterproductive (and I’m not accusing Chris of it, I’m just saying it’s common). For one thing, it’s intimidating for newcomers to imagine that they need to read everything in order to appreciate anything. For another, someone who reads one comic and dislikes it is consequently discouraged from trying another one. I’d much prefer that people feel that it’s acceptable to only pick up what appeals to them and bugger the rest. Video stores stock both Requiem for a Dream and You’ve Got Mail; you wouldn’t insist that fans of one should try the other, although there are certainly people who would enjoy both.

Most of the most interesting people writing about comics — Chris and Tom and Dirk and everyone else — are like me; we love everything. But sometimes I feel like that very universalism — this (dare I say it) “team comics” mentality — is contrary to some of our goals about mainstream penetration, at the same time that it’s essential to it.

Chris is right, of course, in pointing out that people’s preconceptions about what they like are often built on shaky ground, and that a trained critic can suggest connections that cut across conventional boundaries and help people fall in love with books they would never have thought to read. Like, say, pointing out that Achewood fans would enjoy the hell out of Cromartie High School, or that Sleeper might cross-pollinate with Death Note, or that We3 is interesting for many of the same reasons as the work of Chris Ware and David Mack.

who are you calling an aesthete?

(11:58:27 PM) me: i have been having really strange thoughts about visual art this year
(11:58:32 PM) madeline: ?
(11:59:03 PM) me: sometimes it seems like i am much more impressed by art than most people
(11:59:14 PM) me: and not just visual art.
(11:59:22 PM) me: there’s like this essential mystery that blows my mind
(11:59:45 PM) me: somebody can put a few lines together, or a few words together, and suddenly it is this extremely meaningful thing
(11:59:57 PM) me: and it communicates so much
(12:01:37 AM) me: maybe it’s because i’ve never been a creator myself
(12:01:50 AM) me: so it seems like this magical act
(12:01:54 AM) madeline: I think you think too much about never being a creator
(12:02:12 AM) madeline: I think you need to just forget worrying about whether you can create and whether it’d be perfect and do it
(12:02:19 AM) me: but i mean, a while back i sat down and sketched out some ideas for comics stuff
(12:02:25 AM) me: and i was impressed at the things i was able to make
(12:02:30 AM) madeline: *nod8
(12:02:31 AM) me: i was like “it’s this easy?”
(12:02:34 AM) madeline: er
(12:02:34 AM) madeline: *nod*
(12:02:35 AM) madeline: heh
(12:02:44 AM) me: i guess i have written songs
(12:02:56 AM) me: but they were silly and easy
(12:03:01 AM) me: like the Pope song from 24-hr theater [essentially: an acoustic guitar, a chord progression, some witty lyrics, an ordinary melody, and a repetitive chorus, that I continued to get compliments on for weeks after the show]
(12:03:13 AM) me: that doesn’t feel like real creation
(12:03:37 AM) madeline: heh
(12:03:45 AM) me:
(12:03:46 AM) madeline: “real creation”? What is that?
(12:03:53 AM) me: but i’m sure that’s how Jaime Hernandez feels about that sketch
(12:03:56 AM) me: took him five minutes
(12:04:07 AM) me: and somebody will treasure it forever
(12:04:09 AM) madeline: I think that term is, inherently, a little bit insulting for just the reason you said
(12:04:33 AM) madeline: to yourself, to everyone who does create
(12:04:46 AM) me: i don’t understand the “economics” of art
(12:04:54 AM) me: how can something be so disposable and so valuable at once?
so unlabored, so unintentional, so accidental, and yet so meaningful?

spring 06 begins.

In conversation with Devin today, I realized that my current aesthetic is largely based on a “complexity = depth/density/richness/skill/value (=good)” mindset. Probably influenced by (and or influential upon) my years of listening to metal. Whatever the reasons, I am much more comfortable praising texts (here used in the most broad sense of “text,” i.e. any work of art) that are multilayered or dense. Partially it’s just sheer respect for a) talent and b) effort. Partially it’s because I know how to analyze a multilayered piece: strip apart the layers, decode all the different things that are going on, and put the pieces back together and see how they interact with each other. It’s what I’ve been doing with Mega Man; it’s what I do with Chris Ware. It’s what I did with Bach, that one time.

The problem is that this is a pretty limiting aesthetic. It seems naïve to me now. Obviously, I have appreciated and do appreciate works that are profoundly simple, or simply profound, or whatever. I can admire the emotion in a single curved line of a cartoon face, or the elegance of a melody, or the color balance of a design, or the look of a typeface, or the phrasing of a line of poetry, or the profundity of a statement. But I don’t have the tools to explain why, and I think that makes me uncomfortable.

I also secretly wonder whether it wouldn’t be better, maybe, to read a beautifully-phrased line of poetry, in a well-designed typeface, as part of a well-balanced design, spoken by an elegantly-drawn cartoon face, stating a profound truth… perhaps even while hearing a beautiful melody. And if that isn’t so, then I’d like to figure out why.

It is true that different aspects of a work can often work at cross purposes. The beauty of a writer’s phrasing can distract (or detract) from the content of his/her work. An intricate comics page that takes you 30 minutes to read will probably lose any sense of urgency that the story may have been building toward. But shouldn’t it be possible, for a capable enough creator, to anticipate such interactions and actually work with them? That is, for the piece’s form to be perfectly suited to its function, and vice versa? Clearly it’s not the case that every combination (of form and function, or combination of different aspects of form) is advantageous. But I’m still not able to dispel the notion that More Is (or at least Could Theoretically Be) Better.

~ ~ ~

In writing this, I realized that I read texts differently than I do comics, visual art, and music. Warren Ellis has written before that music feels like is the closest medium to comics. I suppose I see what he means, in a way. Text seems inherently different from visual and audial media because there’s no sensory component to the reading experience – or at most, a very very tiny component (like, controlling the reader’s reaction by controlling the spacing on a page).


But in general, the visual form the text takes matters almost not at all, especially in prose. In some types of prose it seems that the goal is almost a stylelessness – so that there are as few barriers as possible to complicate the process of getting the ideas into your head. To get back on topic a bit: it seems that when you read a text, everything is cerebral. Everything is ideas. Whereas the sensual arts, the audiovisual (possibly also kinaesthetic?) arts, are fundamentally rooted in some kind of concrete thing. At this point in the conversation I would be gesturing with my hands a lot. Both visual art and music feel like things I can visualize in the air in front of me, things that I can gesture with my hands to talk about.

I do think the cerebral/concrete distinction is real. But maybe some of this other stuff… Maybe the reason I can visualize music is because I’m used to doing so. As David Schiff tried to impress upon me, the way I think about music is almost entirely dependent upon the way I’ve been taught to think about music, by various cultural influences. I’ve seen videogame music represented as diagrams and scores and waveforms and codes, so I can visualize it in all of those ways. I surely have a completely different conception of music than does, say, an Indian tabla player, or a Tuvan throat singer, or a West African drummer.


i’m not sure what to say.

which, i suppose, is as appropriate an opening as any. because what i’m feeling right now is a general inability to capture what i can clearly see.

(00:22:23) me: i am growing ever-more-impatient with any experience that falls short of the sublime
(00:22:40) me: i think because i’m becoming more aware of what sublimity is possible

also, a line from Blake: “damn braces. bless relaxes.”

~ ~ ~

wandering through Barnes & Noble with Chawk and Lauren (great fun), we looked through the teen girl section and found (and mocked) a novel consisting entirely
of chopped-off sentences
and pseudo-free-verse
like this.

~ ~ ~

my brother once was to deliver a speech
to the congregation of my church.
he worried that he would speak too quickly
(as he sometimes does)
and be hard to understand.
so he wrote his entire “meditation”
in fragments like this
to encourage himself
to speak at an appropriate pace.

~ ~ ~

i often enjoy speaking on instant messenger
because i can deliver my thoughts in such segments
unrestricted by concerns of
“appropriate English style.”

~ ~ ~

apparently, i still have friends
(good ones even)
who are capable of saying:
“I wasn’t even aware they had serious comics in a more ‘literary’ style.”
i still have work to do.

anyway, i was talking to this friend
about jeff smith
and craig thompson
[i wish i could link to print articles in the comics journal. issue 266 had brilliant articles on both men.]

what i was trying to convey
was both men’s sense of space
and visual storytelling,
visual writing.
i guess “composition” is a good term after all.

thompson especially
is influenced by french art comics
and life drawing – “fine art.”
one of the consequences of that
is that his work – at least in Blankets

each moment takes exactly as much time –
– which, in comics, means exactly as much space
as it deserves.

especially magical moments
(a new snowfall,
a first look at an unclothed girlfriend)
are given entire pages
if not more.






~ ~ ~

i respect ambition, in art.
i don’t think very much of people who overreach their capabilities,
but I’m much more inclined to like something if a heart and soul (and mind?) has been put into it.

i ran across sarah ellerton’s inverloch graphic webnovel tonight.
the entire 700-page novel is already plotted and scripted.
she illustrates roughly four pages a week,
and she’s halfway done.

every page is a work of art.

i like the confidence it shows.
she knows exactly what she’s doing and how she wants to do it.

is that jealousy on my part?
maybe it’s just resonance. inspiration.
i am very ambitious. i’d like to think i could accomplish great things.
it’s nice to see confirmation that such things can be done.

~ ~ ~

i have never been more excited for the future of comics than i am now. DC and Marvel are having a bit of a crap year, because they’ve forgotten how to do superheroes and they don’t know how to do anything else, but they’ll either come around soon or collapse. there’s a renewed interest in the old classics (schultz, mccay, herriman, king). independently-minded creators are putting out amazing work – that’s been true for decades, but there’s just more of them doing it now. we’re finally, slowly, looking at comics as an international medium as American publishers import more and more European and Asian work.

and i understand it better, have a better view on things than ever before.

~ ~ ~

I’m wandering off topic.

listening to
great works of art
always fuels my ambition
and my discontent.


all i need is TIME.

god, i need it so badly tonight.

Leigh Walton talks comics and maybe other arts. (RSS)
He also works for the very excellent publisher Top Shelf Productions (which does not necessarily endorse the views and opinions, etc, herein).


Header by me. Contains an interpolation of the final panel from All-Star Superman #1 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. Speaking of which.