Tuesday, February 13, 2007

From W.H. Auden's The Dyer's Hand (Commonplace Book)

In my post on New X-Men 121 I wrote "Everyone looks like fashion models again, and the aims of the manifesto come rushing back. The Beak and Angel are not around to mess with the aesthetic integrity of this issue. " That is not a very nice thing to say. The fact that I side with the uber-cool, uber-sexy and against the "freaks" like Beak and Angel does not make me look like a good guy. Even worse: this is an X-Men book, in which the "freaks" are a long-established metaphor for the nerds and high-school outcasts. As it stands, I end up looking like I am rooting for a world in which football players and cheerleaders are the only high school students visible and everyone who reads or has acne is shoved in a dark corner and forgotten about. Even worse, I myself was an outcast bookworm as a teenager, so I come of as self-loathing. And all I wanted to do was appreciate good comics.

To make a clear statement where I stand on this I have selected W.H. Auden for a commonplace book quote today, from the Dyer's Hand. Replace "poem" with "X-Men comic book" as you read:
A society which was really like a good poem, embodying the aesthetic virtues of beauty, order, economy and subordination of detail to the whole, would be a nightmare of horror for, given the historical reality of actual men, such a society could only come into being through selective breeding, extermination of the mentally and physically unfit, absolute obedience to its Director, and a large slave caste kept out of sight in cellars.

Long story short: a good comic book is not a model of a good society. My comments on this blog are about good comics, not good social principles. I am interested in aesthetics first, which is why I blog on Grant Morrison and John Ashbery and not president Bush; philosophy, theory, politics, psychology, and the rest, come second.


Anonymous said...

How could someone be offended by a statement made by you? You're such a adorable lil' guy. You're like Howard the Duck(from the comics, not that god awful movie) you could say the most hateful thing and nobody would take offense.

Geoff Klock said...

Howard the Duck! I forgot about that guy. Chris Bachalo drew an issue of Generation X with Howard the Duck as the guest star. I am going to have to get that out of my collection and read it again.

Anonymous said...

the question has to be asked, though, whether one can actually separate aesthetics and politics. as banal as it sounds, i think you're expressing a politics of aesthetics, and so denying your own political investment rather than avoiding politics altogether.

i'd also guess that people with some investment in the progressive politics that are associated with the X-Men are uncomfortable with the suggestion that the politics could ever be ignored, since it seems that the stated goal of separating politics and aesthetics historically happens through resort to ostensibly "universal" aesthetic principles that are actually incredibly - and even secretly - politically motivated. (and i'm thinking of people like Matthew Arnold rather than, say, extreme examples like Nazis and 'entartete kunst')

the question i come back to, though, is why should the X-Men be sexy and attractive? beyond aesthetic appeal, what's the point in merely aspiring to resemble sexy and attractive humans? and does Morrison fail purposely so as to point to the ultimate futility and even counter-productive aim of this trajectory - in much the same way that Whedon's X-Men have failed to convince the public (and, i think, themselves) that they're heroes just like the Fantastic Four and Avengers?

Anonymous said...

Great character. Based partly on Albert Camus' the Stranger. Howard thinks he's plain and normal, and wants nothing but comfort and peace, but gets forced into situations of danger because he's an anthromorphic duck. He also tends to be rude, but usually people think it's cute and adorable, becuase he's an anthromorphic duck. haha

It's one of my fav non superhero characters.

Unknown said...

That Auden quote is fantastic and this article about keeping business out of poetry is a variation on Auden’s idea: http://www.newyorker.com/fact/content/articles/070219fa_fact_goodyear

A “businessman-poet” at the center of the article makes a criticism of contemporary poetry: “It’s when there is no audience beyond each other that artists talk about art for art’s sake. It’s when there’s no one else to write for that artists write for the ages." This is an interesting, flawed idea, and it made me think about this blog: you do a great job connecting comics and poetry at an aesthetic level (“Grant Morrison and John Ashbery and not president Bush” for “Grant Morrison and John Ashbery and not president Bush’s” sake)

However, the really fascinating difference, for me, between poetry and comics is business. There is something very political to be said about society, or capitalism, or art that a poetics of influence exists in the business of superhero comics. I think one could argue very effectively that poetry is less affected by external market pressure than almost all other contemporary art. Superhero comics, by contrast, is one of the only art forms created with the almost sole intention of extracting money from an audience.

Patrick Sanders said...

I don't buy the idea that politics are somehow more "real" than aesthetics. I also don't buy that anyone who suggests that aesthetic values can stand by themselves is particpating "politics of aesthetics."

My problem with merging politics and aesthetics is you essentially render all artistic works into propaganda and strip them of any ontological identity.

The primary purpose of reading literature-poems, stories, comic books-is the giving and receiving of aesthetic pleasure. Now this sort of pleasure can be linked to a greater political or moral purpose, but the pleasure of the text is still its first and final causes.

neilshyminsky said...

patrick - the problem is, though perhaps you don't subscribe to post-structuralist philosophy, that any one person's notions of aesthetic pleasure are unavoidably tied intimately to contingent discursive truths that are only ever political. your notion of aesthetics, for example, probably differ greatly from those held by your friends, much less those in another country. how do we explain that? if aesthetic pleasure is not universal, then it must be ideological - and if it's ideological, it's always serving someone's interests to the detriment of others.

we might agree that aesthetic pleasure is subjective, but on deeper analysis we'd probably realize that those subjectivities are class-based, gender-based, culturally-based, or more generally value-based. for instance, it belies a tremendous amount of privilege on your part, i think, to suggest that your primary purpose in reading is for pleasure. and i think it belies a certain degree of privilege, and the politics of that privilege, to read for beauty's sake as well.

i'm not saying that i don't enjoy reading for reading's sake - i comic books and poetry too - but i'm always honest about how my ability to indulge in these interests speaks loudly to my privileged status as a straight, white, middle-class male grad student who has been afforded the ability to spend his time on these things.

btw - exactly how does artwork have 'ontological identity'? i get suspicious whenever someone starts getting metaphysical in these sorts of discussions - metaphysics often leads to grandiose claims without any sort of actual proof.


Patrick Sanders said...
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Patrick Sanders said...
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Patrick Sanders said...

1) No- I don’t follow post- structuralist philosophies, and I’ve never found arguments linking aesthetic values to political ideologies at all persuasive, particularly because the people who have the greatest political power rarely have aesthetic values.

2) I won’t deny the part of privilege. I am in an economic position to have leisure time and to devote that leisure time to reading and to mediation on that reading. Ideally, I’d want everyone to have such leisure time for reading or what have you. My aesthetics are not written in stone, and they can be expanded by exposure to the aesthetic standards of other people and other cultures. Hence my presence at this blog to dialogue with others and their own aesthetic values. But the idea that such values are reducible to “merely” being class-based, gender-based, etc-that I reject. As Bloom has said, ridding ourselves of Shakespeare will not rid us of our tyrants.

3) What I mean by ‘ontological identity”-a work of art is a work of art-A poem, a novel, a comic book-and not an artifact or an example of someone’s oppressive ideology. It has a psychological reality.

Btw-I’m trying not to be offended by your dismissal of metaphysics.

Geoff Klock said...

Ah, Neil: several of my readers have personally contacted me to respond to you expecting a big battle here – Sara actually wanted to declare “Shenanigans!” on you South Park style (if you have seen that episode). :)


Someone (I won’t say who) posted a response to you, accidentally double posted, and then took them both down. All comments go to my e mail box, so I read them before they were taken down; the author thought better of it, I guess. I don’t know why I am telling you that though; it just seemed important. To that author: feel free to post stuff like that; I will come to your defence.

“The politics of aesthetics” is right there at the heart of the problem. You are right to point out that aesthetics and politics (and ideology) cannot be separated. A huge amount of French theory has proved this, and it would be naive to disagree that aesthetic taste is to some degree mediated by politics and ideology. Where you go wrong is where almost all people interested in continental theory go wrong: you assume politics and ideology are the big umbrella terms and that aesthetics is a sub-set, an area those terms cover and go beyond. If it were a Venn diagram I imagine you would make politics and ideology the great big circle, and aesthetics would be one of the little circles it contains.

Here is the Gospel according to Geoff: You have it backwards. Aesthetics is the master term, and politics is one of the things it contains. All art is political not because politics determines art, but because politics is a sub-set of the aesthetic: metaphors, themes, story structure, the confessional mode of Rousseau, manipulation of the audience’s emotions and thoughts by a speaker and so on. My point with the quote was casually put, so let me be more precise since you are taking me to task: the aesthetics of comic books and poetry should not guide the aesthetic arrangement of society (that is implicit in what Auden in saying, the way he describes the world as a poem, but I could have been more clear).

I am back to a point I made to Stephen Frug (and he agreed): the politics of the X-Men are not deep philosophy – they make the book appealing, but should be subordinated to the aesthetic aims of the creative team – the enjoyment of comics (and poetry for that matter) is primarily aesthetic. You can do philosophy all you want and can do powerful things with politics and philosophy in a story, but once you let a political philosophy take PRIMARY importance over aesthetic concerns you are now writing a bad political pamphlet, one that is very unlikely to do what political pamphlets are supposed to do (convert people to the cause and so on).

When you say “Why should the X-Men be sexy and attractive? beyond aesthetic appeal …” you assume the answer to the question you have been asking – that there is this giant area beyond aesthetics that superhero comics should be making primarily important.

Pat Moler: I never thought of the Stranger connection; that is interesting…

Scott S: Thanks for the link and the comment. I am glad you found the article flawed; I have not had time to look at it but I agree that the ideas you paraphrased from it are flawed. But I am not as sure that poetry and comics are as different as you think: you are dead right that poetry is freer of direct market forces (like editors and big AOL-TIME-WARNER-DC COMICS companies and fans with fists full of money); but Neil is going to tell you they are both determined at a deep level by ideology, and would probably be right (but is also means he may have missed the point, as I am going to show).

Patrick: “I don’t buy the idea that politics are somehow more ‘real’ that aesthetics … The pleasure of the text is still its first and final causes”. Awesome. Welcome to the team.

Neil (responding to your second comment): I will admit that “aesthetic pleasure [is] unavoidably tied intimately to contingent discursive truths that are only ever political.” All of your class-gender-cultural-value stuff is also basically accurate. But your accuracy misses the point – it is the ice cold dangerously soul killing accuracy of Blake’s Urizen. When you describe reading like this you remind me of the person who goes to see a Mozart String Quartet and, when asked what it was like, replies “it was like cat gut scratching across wire.” Well of course it is, that is the physical reality of how stringed instruments get played. But the experience of the music is sublime, and the enjoyment of the music is the reason we go.

People like yourself professionally study the dangerous cultural side effects of the assumptions that allow entertainment like superhero comics to be created; but we are not all obligated to do the same anymore than we are all obligated to try to do good deeds like cure HIV all the time, to the exclusion of doing everyday things like going to the movies, and having fun.


Geoff Klock said...

Patrick: "the people who have the greatest political power rarely have aesthetic values". That is funny but unfortunatly not true -- the Nazis were great art collectors.

Anonymous said...

What's with you always talking about aesthetic?

Geoff Klock said...

Pat: it's my thing, man

Patrick Sanders said...

The double post was me-I deleted those statements because I thought they were too much from the gut, and I wanted to revise them under a cooler head. I couldn't help but feel I was being personally attacked.

Geoff you Da Man. Thank you.

Unknown said...

Can you clarify the gospel according to geoff? I totally agree that ideology has become an overdetermined, lazy category to which everything can be attributed. But why just replace it with aesthetics?

The superhero comics we read are awesomely complex, chock full of politics, ethics, aesthetics, etc. If you give any one of them PRIMARY importance, the artwork becomes tedious and boring. Propaganda artwork is just as dull as art that takes formal experimentation too far. Enjoyment of art goes way beyond our aesthetic faculties, and I don’t agree that reading Grant Morrison et al is primarily aesthetic. These comics are really interesting and can alter the way I think about some moral value, a way of life, the war in iraq, anything. There is much pleasure in that.

Your Mozart example reminded me of Edward Said, the father of postcolonial studies and an accomplished pianist. He could uncover “dangerous cultural side effects” in art just as beautifully as he wrote about the artistic excellence of Conrad or Glenn Gould.

Unknown said...

by "artwork" i meant "work of art," not pencilling/graphic artwork. that's confusing, sorry.

sara d. reiss said...
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Geoff Klock said...

Patrick: a cool head it best in internet debates.

Scott S: I think there may be some initial confusion, but forgive me if I have misunderstood you: aesthetics does not mean radical formal experimentation; it just means the study of beauty, usually on a formal level. That can be as simple as appreciating a well told story for being a well told story.

I think aesthetics is primary because I think enjoyment is primary. If pressed I would tell you that the point of being alive is to enjoy yourself; focusing on aesthetics is the best way to get that done when looking at art. I agree that comics are chock full of politics and ethics as well, but look at it this way: if a story has great ethics or politics but is horribly told (a confusing, boring, story, repulsive artwork where you can’t make out what the storyteller is trying to do, filled with unbelievable characters you have no sympathy for) you are going to have to call it a failure. What difference does it make what a story is trying to say if the writer can’t say it properly? If he can’t tell a story well he is welcome to write a political pamphlet or a book of practical philosophy.

Now look at it the other way: a story with horrible ethics and politics can be enjoyed on an aesthetic level: I do not agree with any of John Milton’s ethics, politics, or theology in Paradise Lost, but Paradise Lost is a fantastic poem, with musical language and fascinating characters, and a huge and shocking scope. Someone famous said Milton could have written everything he had to say about god in a pamphlet of 2 or 3 pages; the fact that he wrote a 12 book poem tells us that the poem – they poetry – is what really matters. If a guy wants to write a comic book he MUST be a good storyteller, and so aesthetics is primary, since that is what aesthetics looks at. Only after he can tell a story should be concern himself with ethics and politics, so ethics and politics are secondary.

Imagine we were reading political or ethical essays and I argued that one essay was better than another because it was more beautiful, even though the ideas were impractical, cruel and stupid. I would be laughed out of the room, because there, ideas come first. Well in a story, storytelling comes first, and in poetry poetry comes first and so on.

Geoff Klock said...
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Geoff Klock said...

Therefore: aesthetics are primary when talking about art

Geoff Klock said...

The deleted posts were me and sara: sara asked me to delete her post because she posted accidently.

Petter Malmberg said...

The force of Miltons poem comes in part from the politics in it or rather the confusing politics.
(Like Pounds poems from his fascist-period aren´t good despite they are fascist but-among other things -because they are fascist).
A political reading of a text doesn´t have to be about how well it stands up to the party-line. In the interesting parts of the marxian traditions(and personally I feel free to ignore the others) nothing can be "merely" based on class. Class maybe determing but it is so in rich and varied ways.
Political readings if they are good can add to the enjoyment of a text. They are not the only valid way to view a work but they are not in-valid either.

Geoff Klock said...

"The force of Miltons poem comes in part from the politics in it or rather the confusing politics." I ain't sucking that down without evidence. Hit me with the argument, or at least where to find it if it is not yours (is it Empson? -- I like him IN SPITE of the fact he is a Marxist).

sara d. reiss said...

because you asked, G money, here's that second part of the deleted post:

I went to an art school that was determined to indoctrinate it's students into conceptual artists. I spent more time reading Benjamin, Althusser, Foucalt and Derrida (not to mention Deluze and Guattari) than I did making art. They wanted good to make good little Hirsts and Emins out of us. In the end I hated it and it took me years after graduating before I could make art again. I had been convinced that if my artwork wasn't just a byproduct of some overarching concept, I'd be a joke and never make it in "The Art World" (aka: NYC, aka: Chelsea)

In the end, my drive to make work won out and now I'm a champion of making art for art's sake and looking at art for looking's sake (dunno if that translates) and I make no bones about it. I don't belive it should be one or the other, there can be concept-based art (be it political, theoretical, religious or philosophical) and there can be simply art. There is room for both and one is no more valid than the next.

now everyone should go partake in whatever particular vice they most enjoy and don't think about the why's and wherefores, just rock it. I myself will be having some burbon.

Unknown said...

Geoff: Ahh now I see where you're coming from. The milton example cleared things up. I still don't totally agree (Of course Auden's good poem, built on "beauty, order, economy and subordination of detail to the whole," is going to be a crappy society. But certainly a less rigid concept of beauty could more closely resemble a beautiful society. As much as primarily political readings would spoil milton or 24, primarily aesthetic/formal readings would ruin “the stand” or the OC). Nonetheless, understanding your philosophy of aesthetics will help me enjoy the blog more. Much appreciated.

Sara: cheers

Petter Malmberg said...

I haven´t read "Milton's God" so no not Empson(I like his piece on Alice in Wonderland).
It's been a while since I read Milton(or tried to- my english lacking and there is no enjoyment to found in reading him in translation) and I don't have a copy so I can only offer circumstantial evidence.
If Milton had written what he said and nit just meant to say bout god in P. Lost( that is from bloom right?) he would have found that it didn't add up. IN some ways aspects of the poem is a result of refusing to see this(and he couldn't- non of us can see the absurdity of our worldviews).
Milton's religious beliefs and his political can not simply be changed for one another but they were both born from the same societal clashes.
Milton championed civil rights freedom and an oppressive dictatorship.
The contradictions of Cromwell, the puritanist the English revolution and so on spawned the dialectics of good and evil within P.Lost.
The tensions within Milton's religious beliefs is part of why his poem becomes such a weird and bizarre creature.
This can be seen as part of it's esthetics. (Many people have held similar contradictory beliefs without making them into good poetry).
T. S. Eliot meant the flaw in Milton's work was that it was hard to see beyond his politics and so it failed to become pure poetry(or something like that- he must have said it better).
But if Milton's work has yet another dimension (and one that mahes itself known) it is a strength.