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Review of Bart Beaty’s Comics Versus Art

By Cameron Kunzelman

Beaty, Bart. Comics Versus Art. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012. Print.

Bart Beaty’s Comics Versus Art is an analysis of the relationship between comics and art in the 20th and 21st centuries. Beaty’s methodology is decidedly original, eschewing literary or fan-centered accounts of both art and the comics community in favor of “a sociology of the arts” that surrounds comics and art culture more broadly (12). Because of this, the chapters in Comics Versus Art take a wide breadth of topics in addressing comics and art proper. Toys, Wizard Magazine, Roy Lichtenstein, Clement Greenberg, and even Friedrich Nietzsche take their place in analysis beside the curated art shows, auctions, and comics anthologies that populate the comics-art assemblage. In the following, I will tease at some of the throughlines of Beaty’s work, specifically highlighting the economic and nostalgic threads that Beaty brings to light over the course of Comics Versus Art.

Comics Versus Art opens with a reading of a painting containing a comic panel. The painting is Lucy McKenzie’s Untitled?, a large portrait of a woman at a table with a framed pornographic comic panel from Milo Manara’s Il gioco (Click!) hanging over her head. Beaty explains McKenzie’s work through the tension that it embodies—the high art of the painting itself is asserted through the semi-ironic appropriation of the explicitly pornographic low art comic panel. The painting itself is shorthand for the critical question that Comics Versus Art seeks to answer: why are comics not treated as art? Why are the legends of comics art rarely considered to be artists by the “art world” on the whole? There is not a simple, global answer to the question. Instead, there are paths to be followed and specific relations to analyze in order to understand the order of things in the relationship between the “art world” and the “comics world.” Beaty explicitly states that he is concerned with “the specific hierarchies” that create certain cultural value judgements about works like Untitled? (7). It is in these analyses that we find the reality of the material object to be a key motivator and commanding force in the art-comics debate.

A central concern in the high art criticism of comics is that they are perishable objects. The argument holds that comics have a certain lifespan after which they are extinguished; they hold no value to humans after their use value is expended. Their content is taken in as knowledge by the user and their lives are over. This is contrasted with high art, which is constantly rewarding to the viewer, listener, or reader. It returns to life when a viewer comes into contact with it. That is to say that high art objects are, in a sense, immortal where the pop object, mass produced and disposable, lives a life that is nasty, short, and brutish. The intervention of pop art during the 1960s shattered this division between high and low art. As Beaty writes, pop art itself “constituted a threat to the established hierarchies of the arts” (63). Taking it one step further, pop art’s existence dismissed the notion that art was necessarily the product of unique objects in the world. Art was no longer the immortal object, but instead it was everywhere—on soda cans, in the grocery store, and drawn larger than life on billboards. Pop art revealed art as a multitude and wounded the art apparatus irrevocably; the project of high art after pop art is one of applying balm. Beaty’s analysis of the comic-referencing art of Roy Lichtenstein is wholly concerned with this wound and the way that the art world patched it over by accepting Lichtenstein into the canon of 20th century artists, prefiguring the collection and processing of artists like Robert Crumb and Chris Ware in the decades to come.

The sociological project that Beaty embarks on is not merely concerned with the human elements of the comics-art assemblage, the artists, but it also takes into account the wounding objects themselves—physical comic books and related paraphernalia. Two chapters are devoted to the material, and commodity, qualities of comic books and their related offspring which most often take the form of toys and fan magazines. It is in these chapters that the economics of both worlds is most cleanly laid out for the reader. The comic book is necessarily a mass-produced item, and Beaty highlights the processes like “grading” that have allowed for comics to enter into the economic arena of “fine art.”

This thread of economics moves through the entire work and is highlighted when Beaty discusses the concept of the comic “pedigree collection” in regards to comic book auctions. Pedigree collections are “rare collection[s] of extremely well-preserved comic books” which have avoided yellowing with age, reading damage, or any other quality that removes them from absolutely mint condition (163). These comics then determine the value of other, similar comics in the comic book economy. By determining the highest value of a comic book, the mid-range and down is also defined.

The valuing of comics holds a funhouse mirror up to the economics of fine art. In the latter’s case, a work of art is valued because of critical praise and its uniqueness in the world. A sculpture or a photograph print is limited in order to generate a certain value for that work. Comic books only come to this status through age and consumption by the marketplace. In this case, consumption is quite literal—the market chews the work up, gets it dirty, and crushes it under bus seats until it no longer contains value. Only the pedigree books that survive or avoid a being-public have an existence as commodities. In contrast to the gallery art piece, which has value based on its limited existence in the world from the start, the comic book only gains value when it is killed off issue by issue.

However, the individual lives of comic book issues can never account for the desire for those comics in the future. If, as the critics of comics remind us, comics are expendable, then why are they so highly sought after by collectors? For Beaty it is “nostalgia, the endless pining for a past that can not be recreated” that drives the economy of comic books (154). This discussion of nostalgia, however, must be tempered with an understanding of why nostalgia is so addicting. A critical part of nostalgia is the creation of a relationship that was possible in a specific time and place and which is no longer possible today. When a comics fan in her forties states that reading a comic or seeing an advertisement “takes her back,” what she is really saying is that the object interpellates her in a particular way. She adopts a new subjectivity in the face of the comic book object.

From the account that Beaty presents in Comics Versus Art, there is little for the art world to do in the face of this nostalgic desire other than adapt. This adaptation is exemplified in the adoption of two comics artists into the canon of 20th century artists: Robert Crumb and Chris Ware. In a number of ways, these creators are in complete opposition to one another. Crumb’s ragged, dirty lines and cheap 1970s-style logos contrast sharply with Ware’s clean lines and early 20th century design aesthetic. However, both artists play into the mythology that high art has set of itself in the contemporary period. Both artists are, in a sense, tortured by their subjective experiences in the world. They allow their own lives, passions, and fears to spill out onto the page; thin layers of fiction coat the biographies that form the basis for most of their comics work.

The critical component to the adoption of Ware and Crumb, however, is that they both allow for a disavowal of the commodity form of art. While comics-as-objects can never lose their mass produced, commodity status, a particular stance of an artist allows for a selective forgetting to occur on the part of art community. As Beaty writes, Crumb has established himself as “an autonomous artist, completely unconcerned with the art market” (207). It is no coincidence that the sale of golden age comic books was vastly overshadowed by the sale of an original R. Crumb cover illustration at a record-setting auction in 1996 (181). The over-the-top persona of Crumb, combined with his unapologetic autobiographical comics that highlight his flaws, including brutal sexism and racism, allows him to easily be absorbed into the masculine standard practices of the art world. Beaty’s analysis of Roy Lichtenstein’s paintings are appropriate here—the inclusion of comics into art “threatened to feminize the realm of artistic production” by associating the art world with the “feminine” practices of mass consumption (63). Crumb’s work thus embodies an overcoding of comics itself—his highly subjective, masculine behavior constitutes his work as a particularly masculine product, masking the feminine commodity property that the comic book inherently carries.

Chris Ware operates in a slightly different register. His movement into being accepted as an artist in his own right is also based on the art community’s ability to disavow, but instead of operating as a mask of economic function, Ware is a way of dealing with the fetish of nostalgia. Beaty writes that Ware’s “visual aesthetic, which is highly influenced by outmoded styles, seems deeply nostalgic for an era in which he never lived” (215). Ware’s art operates in much the same way as contemporary comic collecting operates, and will operate in the next twenty-five to fifty years. In the foreseeable future, the hot commodity that is the first appearance of Spider-Man will be fetishized by people who were not alive for the event. It is already occurring now. Ware’s art, situated in a gallery space, becomes a way of distancing the viewer from the affective power of nostalgia. By wearing a desire for the past as a badge, the contemporary art world is able to mask its adoption of a fundamentally backward-facing format. Ware’s art, then, takes on an ironic character. Is there anything that the curator can do when viewing Ware’s work other than laugh at how profoundly sad it is to be living in this moment in time?

These artists are but two of many that have made, are making, or will make the transition between obscurity in the comics ghetto and fame in galleries across the planet. If I come across as callous about the induction of these artists into the art world, it is because I am. Beaty suggests that this process of allowing certain artists into the art world under certain conditions has been crucial to how “the art world has managed to preserve old hierarchies while using a more celebratory language in keeping with its own version of postmodernism” (209). The inclusion of comics art is a way of patching the wound that mass media has made in the body of the art world as a whole.

Bart Beaty gives us a smart sociological understanding of the comics-art assemblage in Comics Versus Art, but he also give us something more. The book contains a tool box for understanding relations between humans and the material reality of art objects. He imparts on the reader a healthy distrust in the way that any artist can neatly “occupy the space allotted” to her or him. He forces us to interrogate not only the “why” in questions of dominance, but also the “how” by explaining, in detail, the order and arrangement of events and bodies.

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