From its beginning in 2007, this blog has attempted to frame some thoughts about modern graphic culture that...will help to clarify terminology, establish commonalities, sharpen distinctions, and otherwise bring some analytical rigor to a subject that suffers from 1) an excess of enthusiasm and 2) longstanding aesthetic dismissal. (Aspirations and Intentions, July 2007.)
This post was written in the run up to the midterm elections of 2010, which turned out badly for the President's party, but could have been worse, given some of the candidates on offer that fall. Now the 2014 midterms are upon us, and the climate is uncertain.
I have tended to avoid general pronouncements on the political culture of our era, except as it impinges on the practices of cartooning and illustration, most notably in the presidential campaign of 2008. Examples here and here. But the midterm campaign and the Apotheosis of the Dumb Ass (see: United States Senate races in Alaska, Delaware and Nevada) have pushed me over the edge. The Know-Nothingism of the 21st century revels in its distaste for “elites;” celebrates an ahistorical view of the Constitution according to which Philadelphia has been relocated to Mt. Sinai; ignores and even mocks basic standards of evidence in economics, biology, and physics; has constructed a completely fantastic view of Barack Obama as a crypto-Marxist anti-colonialist; and promotes a view of our civic life worthy of a 200-foot concrete Jesus on the Washington Mall.
Most of my writing addresses things made for and by members of the middle classes, so I don’t think I exactly qualify as some effete Brahmin. But by the standards of Tea Party darlings, it doesn’t take much to qualify as inauthentic, un-“real” American. What a load of crap. Enough already. Things are bad enough without picking at ancient faux-populist scabs.
I readily admit that the ugly, captivating huckster is a quintessentially American figure. Radio birthed many such people. (Isn’t it weird that talk radio still really matters on the American right, when the act of listening to the radio at all seems almost quaint to many of us? I guess I own a radio, but I only actually use the clock it’s built into. Okay, so I still sometimes listen to a radio in my car. Even that, not so much.) So I reserve the right to be fascinated and repulsed. Mostly, just now, it’s the latter.
Which brings me to a question: what is the antidote for this malady? I have been pondering it.
I gave a talk last evening at Christian Brothers College High School, having been invited by Bill Canavan, who runs their honors program. I did not imagine that a group of high school students would find what I do all that interesting, so I tried to tease out a few thoughts–admonitions, pieces of advice–for being a citizen of our culture today. I grounded those thoughts in my practice for the sake of examples, but the talk was directed to the boys. How to be a citizen of the present?
My six admonitions:
1. Read primary sources: textually, musically, materially
2. Cultivate your powers of observation; pay attention
3. Learn to write clearly
4. Look for structures and processes; be skeptical of surfaces
5. Make things well (I make pictures; we all make something)
6. Love something, and pursue it fervently
I had the impression that the boys found the talk passably entertaining. There maybe 200 of them, plus some faculty and parents. I got some good questions, and some excellently firm handshakes and eye contact following. I showed some work and screened Scenes from Starkdale, Ohio, my animated film from 2006-07. (Under make things well, in case you’re wondering.)
I’ve been thinking a quite a bit about the first point. In one sense I was referring to the superficialities of Wikipedia glosses. Why read Reflections on the Revolution in France when you can Google Burke and get the gist?
Primary texts take many forms. The image at the top of this post was drawn from the Farmer Fred sculpture and signage array at the Sappington Farmers Market in St. Louis. (Editorial note August 2014: Farmer Fred and his mini-me are no more. They were dismantled and sent away when the market went south a year or two ago.) The material form of the goofy statue is a primary source: it addresses a tradition of roadside commercial figures, images of farm families in American life, and nostalgic constructions of a(n imagined) bucolic past. The fragmentary bits of text on the sign provide evidence of market commodities, textual forms of promotion, and technologies of presentation.
All of which is to say: we live in a particular moment in history. We pump out products, we push dirt around and build things, we sell things to each other, we manifest our thoughts in material form. The objects, structures and communication experiences which surround us are the primary texts of our civilization. Ditto for things that people do, what they wear, what they say to each other on their cell phones.
Recently: “I’m cool with you, but no–not Dave. No! Dave is an asshole.”
As a visual reporter I draw on the authority of the concrete, in two senses: I draw from, and I draw upon. What is happening here? Which elements from the visual-spatial field emerge? Where are the visual rhymes, the narrative inflections? Reportage drawings (and other forms of non-fiction) are grounded in fact. But they’re not transcriptions, either.
Careful looking is a prerequisite for discernment. Which–to return to where we started–is not a word you’re likely to hear on cable news...