In the Cultural Garage

R.F. Outcault, "Buster Brown" comic reprint in Buster Brown's Antics, 1903. The Brown Shoe Company and Washington University are in conversation about bringing the Brown Shoe Archives to the Modern Graphic History Library, where they will provide a wonderful opportunity to study the development of modern merchandising and cartooning, among many other things. The deal has not been finalized, but the company authorized us to mention it in the MGHL catalogue as a developing story. An enlightened and generous move, on the company's part. I have my fingers crossed; I worked with the collection in curating a show in 2004, and it is fabulous resource.

It’s been a bracing interlude here at Graphic Tales, what with competing theories of visual culture vis-à-vis art being hashed out in real time, yet on the basis of long reflection. Stay tuned for more. 

In the meantime, I thought I would post an edited version of an essay I wrote for the introductory Modern Graphic History catalogue, published weeks ago at Washington University for the launching of the enterprise. We are looking to build collections and program. I have been invited to join the American Culture Studies faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences, which means that aside from my studio responsibilities, as a joint appointment I will be in a position to work with graduate fellows in popular visual culture scholarship. Thus I post this by way of invitation, both to collectors and potential students. 


We live in a commercial culture. Many of the words and most of the images that we encounter on a daily basis have been fashioned to some commercial purpose. Images in particular are pressed into service for persuasive, informational, and entertaining ends. Cartoons, comic strips, animated films, illustrations, package designs—these visual artifacts make claims on our attention, and we may be happy to grant them, in part because strong examples provide visual pleasure and a slice of zeitgeist to boot. The timely, winsomely crafted, and cunning work of commercial art may deliver intense pleasure—not unlike a hit song heard before it crests in popularity. Popular art delivers the ultra-now, the super-here. Often, over-exposure or simple datedness follows, and such works are consigned to the garage, literally and figuratively. But later, reconnected with lost contexts and seen afresh, they provide the frisson of frozen history.

As variant forms of pictorial sales literature, these images don’t lie. Unlike works of art in the standard philosophical sense, which often aspire to timelessness, commercial images are always busy selling something—an item, an experience, a heinous stereotype—to somebody. That is, Art tends to be on review, in the parade; Commerce is typically off working the crowd, hawking treats. The academic disciplines of Art and Art History have often tended to eschew commercial images for just these reasons—their alleged lack of self-awareness, their alignment with corporate interests, their money-grubbing.

Since the advent of the anti-aesthetic in modern art, dated to the despair of World War I and embodied by Dadaists like Marcel Duchamp who famously offered a “readymade” urinal as a work of art, high visual culture has flirted with mockery of the entire artistic project. There is a well-scrubbed elegant modernism, to be sure, orderly and utopian. But Dada, the evil twin of modernism, introduced systemic ambivalence into art. This ambivalence has created confusion about criteria. What makes an art object qualitatively good? How can you tell a lousy piece of art from a really great one? What if the art doesn’t want to be “good”? The diffidence engendered by these developments has eaten into the audience for high visual culture, and may have helped to create today’s boom in popular forms—graphic novels, vinyl toys, illustrative artworks—distinguished by surprising levels of connoisseurship 

Commercial practitioners and their audiences operate in narrower contexts. The illustrator strives to make a smart, attractive, appropriate picture. The cartoonist works to tell a satisfying story in a graphically compelling way, using an established format. The animation director does the same, using a screen instead of a page. In all cases, the evaluative criteria are widely available and shared: clarity of conception, strong sense of design, inventive presentation, effective execution. The focus on qualitative criteria and explicit consideration of audience—of the customer base, in effect—has helped to create large and lasting audiences for these artforms, even if those forms have not been systematically, or even substantially, engaged by the academy. Illustrators and cartoonists speak the language of the cultural moment because they must in order to do their work, whether the audience in question is a broad one—say, middle-class American women circa 1950—or an oddball sliver of a market, like adolescent boys with a taste for neo-medieval fiction. 

The traditional charge that commercial images lack self-reflexivity—that they fail to signal awareness of history, or acknowledge the existence of convention—does not hold up. In fact, the opposite is true. A lack of historical literature beyond straightforward chronicles has driven commercial image history underground. Cartoonists especially have worked to implant the history of comics and cartooning in their work, in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways. They are largely the keepers of a history that others have ignored. And the cultural self-awareness of certain animated shorts, feature films and television shows can scarcely be exceeded. Work in all of these areas has unfolded in a parallel relationship with non-commercial art practice, most provocatively in the period associated with the development of visual high modernism and its commercial variants and contributions, especially between 1940 and 1960.


… Modern Graphic History is our coinage. We seek to name and unify a gaggle of things in that cultural garage, to provide a context, a place, and a mode of inquiry that sees the intersection of art, technology, culture, and economics as an arena for the study of modern visual culture.

Washington University possesses the right mix of organizational and intellectual resources to realize these ambitions. The interplay of the cross-university American Culture Studies faculty, the College of Arts and Sciences including the departments of History and Art History, the Center for Humanities, the Visual Communications program in the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts, and the Department of Special Collections provides a rich mixture of resources. We are actively creating relationships with similarly engaged museums and study centers around the country. 

Finally we see a bright future in this under-considered but extremely significant area of cultural production, and we are honored to find our place in that effort. We invite the participation of students, scholars, donors, collectors, artists, and other interested parties.