Caitlin Cass: Why the Art World is Irrelevant and How Enid Helped

artnews, ghostworldIn October 2011, ArtNews announced the arrival of comic books; cover emblazoned with art from Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World. There were Enid’s judging eyes staring me down from beneath the headline “WHERE ART MEETS COMICS.” I was uncomfortable. I was uncomfortable because Ghost World began in 1993 and because the feature film had been out for over ten years. But mostly I was uncomfortable because Enid Coleslaw makes me unbelievably insecure. Here I was in the last year of my Studio MFA program, and there was Enid on the cover of ArtNews telling me everything was going to be okay: comics were accepted now.  I couldn’t help feeling like she was making fun of me.  I’d read Ghost World just out of high school, when I was the same age as Enid, and at the time she embodied my biggest fears. Enid was everything I tried to convince myself I wasn’t: judgmental, manipulative, cruel, and yet somehow horrendously likeable. If I had read Ghost World in high school, I might have looked up to Enid. I might have tried to emulate her. This horrified me. I can imagine why ArtNews chose that image. Ghost World is popular. People know Ghost World—even if they don’t read comics.  Still, there was something creepily parallel about the pairing.  At nineteen, I felt toward Enid a lot like I felt toward the art world in October of 2011. The art world was everything I tried to convince myself I wasn’t: judgmental, manipulative, cruel and yet– it lured me. I wanted them to like me. Enid knew it.

Following the lead-in to the Trends section of the magazine, Carolina A. Miranda explained her reasoning. Artists like R. Crumb, Art Speigelman and Chris Ware were now in prominent museum collections at places like the Whitney and the MOMA. Their individual pages were selling in galleries for upwards of 5,000 dollars. In 2008, a Crumb original sold for over $100,000 at auction.[1] None of it was news to me, and yet seeing it like this in print had a puzzling effect on me. I am part of a generation with a paradoxical understanding of the comics climate. Growing up, I had no reason to regard comics as anything less than art and yet the notion of comics as an underground was so deeply entrenched in the graphic canon that I had harbored a repressed hatred for the art world.  I came into graduate school out of liberal arts school, thinking that I might not be allowed to make comics in grad school.  When it became clear that this was wrong, I repressed that art world hatred deeper. If comics were acceptable in an academic, non-disciplinary specific art environment, it must mean the art world was cool with them. I could make comics and become blindingly successful. Nothing could stop me.  But while reading this article, it became clear to me that my distaste for the art world hadn’t really gone away.

Already convinced that comics had “arrived”, it was difficult to accept an article that told me they were only now arriving. What did that mean anyway? Did comics even want to be accepted by the art world? I recalled R. Crumb on the subject:

“Art is just a racket! A hoax perpetuated on the public by the so called ‘Artists’ who set themselves up on a pedestal and are promoted by pantywaist ivory tower intellectuals and sob-sister critics who think the world owes them a living”. [2]

Paige West, Art of Buying ArtStill, that other side of me, the side that wanted to be legitimized by the popular kids, won out. I went to the library. I would learn what it means to be accepted in the art world, from a book– The Art of Buying Art by Paige West.[3] (“This is so easy! Why didn’t I do this before?”)  West wrote the book for typical upper-middle class Americans. It reads like a European travel guide or a book about fine wine. While it uses a few too many images from artists West’s gallery represents, the way it speaks about the art world seems almost… clean. After three years of art school I had become convinced that the art world was a dark and filthy place, where artists are exploited and creativity goes to die. Now here was Paige West telling me that buying art was no different then buying a really nice couch. I might never be able to buy a really nice couch, but that didn’t mean other people shouldn’t.

Under the tagline, “Good vs. Bad Art, Who Decides?” West laid it out in the open—as if she wasn’t even ashamed by it.  Museum curators, prominent collectors, galleries and art critics: these were the “key players” who decided what good art was. Listen to them until you develop your own taste. Sure there are inherent problems with this notion. Why not go from the ground up? Why not just look at art and decide for yourself whether or not you like it? But stepping back, Paige West was being remarkably reasonable. She wasn’t telling people to believe in these key players absolutely. In fact, she encouraged people to see the art before reading the reviews. She firmly stated that the stock market was a far better place to make money than the art market. While it is difficult to listen to her compare famous actors wearing designer clothing to prominent collectors buying art, they are undeniably related.  Sure, she told readers to study how other people formulate their tastes and opinions, but in the end she told them to buy the clothes they like.

At least, this is what I told myself as I began applying her model to comics. It’s okay if the buyers don’t always appreciate the work for the artist’s intentions. As a graduate student I’d read “Death of the Author.” As an unpretentious member of contemporary society I could let the art buyers choose a Chris Ware original simply because it looked charming over their piano. It turns out comics stack up reasonably well by these standards. Commercial galleries like Richard Heller and Adam Baumgold now represent comic artists. Daniel Clowes sells original pages for between $5,000 and $20,000.[4] Chris Ware was in the 2002 Whitney Biennial.  Joe Sacco and Art Spiegelman have both won Guggenheim Fellowships in Fine Arts.[5]

MOMA, Modern ContemporaryFlipping through the MOMA’s Modern Contemporary: Art Since 1980, which highlights acquisitions from 1980-2000, you can find Art Spiegelman’s Maus and tons of comic-inspired art. Mind you, none of this is as recent as ArtNews would have you believe. Hard-to-please New York Times Art Critic Roberta Smith stated her position on the medium all the way back in 1994 in an article celebrating female underground cartoonists:

“They are definitely art, these little movies that seem projected on a page for your eyes only. Mass-produced yet overtly handmade, they can brim with artistic intention and personality. They are both as malleable and as resilient as painting.”[6]

By Paige West’s “key player” standards, I think it’s fair to say that comics have, indeed, arrived, and have been arriving steadily for the last twenty years. Still, I took all this in with mixed feelings. The other part of me, the part that makes comics and reads comics, couldn’t help but focus on the negative. Like Charlie Brown waiting for a valentine that never arrived and then suddenly getting one, comic people have a tendency toward skepticism. Maybe the art world is just making fun of comics. Flipping through Modern Contemporary, it quickly became clear that while Maus was in the book, it was also the only comic listed. And while Roberta Smith praised the medium in that 1994 article, she also made an astute observation:

“At a time when artists like Nicole Eisenman, Amy Sillman, Sue Williams, Lily van der Stokker and Katie Merz are gaining prominence by using cartooning riffs to make visually compelling, mordantly feminist paintings, there is increasing interest in women who do the real thing.”[7]

Caitlin Cass, MOMA Comic AbstractionThe further I looked, the more it became clear that comics were getting attention from the art world largely because artists were giving them attention. In 2007 the MOMA put out Comic Abstraction: an entire book filled with vague painterly or sculptural references to cartoons. The only work in it that could truly be considered comics was Rivane Neuenschwander’s Zé Carioca; a series of comic book pages in which all the figures and text are blocked out with paint, leaving only empty colored panels and word bubbles. Zé Carioca began to embody the whole ordeal for me. The art world seemed to have some kind of beef with the narrative and representational aspects of comic books. Simply put, they preferred their comics to be anything but comics.

In his Acme Novelty Library Datebook, Vol 2. Chris Ware documents his experience at the 2002 Whitney Biennial. While he appreciated his inclusion, he notes how frustrating it was to discover that his paper sculptures were being displayed without any explanatory text. In Ware’s eyes this lack of information completely missed the point. He had made these build-your-own ACME products because they served as important literary elements in the larger structure of his project Jimmy Corrigan: the Smartest Kid on Earth. Removed from this context they were mere aesthetic objects divorced from their meaning. They were no longer comics.

In MOMA’s Modern Contemporary, the book that included Maus and no other comics, there are well over twenty feature films represented, including works such as Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, Fargo, and Goodfellas.[8] Film was invented in the 1880s. Comics were invented in the 1830s.[9]  Why were so many films represented and only one comic? Why has it taken so long for comics to be legitimized by high culture? Comics historians usually respond to this question with a combination of the following: 1.Comics are produced quickly and cheaply in huge editions 2. Comics have been historically associated with the lower-class and children and 3. Comics are an interdisciplinary art form. The Mass Production argument is the most straightforward and it meshes well with everything Paige West taught me. Comics are cheap and reproducible. This makes them undesirable to the market.

“Why comics have not been invited to enter the cozy world conjured up by that term [art] is not difficult to explain. Throughout their history they have been perceived as intrinsically commercial, mass-produced for the lowest common denominator audience, and therefore automatically outside notions of artistic credibility,” argues Roger Sabin, author of Comics, Comix and Graphic Novels: A History of Comic Art.[10]

Since the beginning, comics were distributed as ephemera, printed on newspaper and accessible to everyone. This hardly translates well into a profitable, market-friendly art form. Beyond the throwaway nature of newsprint, the format simply confuses gallery people.    “A comic book or the display of it in a newspaper is generally considered the final version of the work,” Miranda quotes a Curator from the Hammer Museum, “For the art world, however, this presents challenges in terms of what to display. Is the art the relatively inexpensive mass-produced book? Or the original drawing?” Curators literally did not know and still struggle to understand how to market an art form that can be bought for under ten dollars at the comic book store.

Caitlin Cass, Yellow KidTo add to this, comics have a long history of appealing to the lower classes. In the early nineteenth century, The Yellow Kid offered specific appeal to low-class immigrants. These people were learning English for the first time and often struggled with the rest of the paper. The Yellow Kid offered them some light-hearted respite. What’s more, the comic was largely aimed at the working class.  The Yellow Kid and his friends from Hogan’s Alley did things like golf and play lawn tennis to humorous and raucous results.  Interested to see if any of the Yellow Kid comics referred directly to high art I found an installment of “Around the World with the Yellow Kid” in which the Hogan’s Alley gang cause havoc in the Louvre. On the right the Venus di Milo muses: “If I had arms I would spank some of these kids.” (Figure 1) All of this happened at a time when plumbers were being denied entrance to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for wearing overalls.[11]  Poking fun at social status, the Yellow Kid himself wears stilts to artificially raise himself above the masses while he paints. In one symbolic gesture, Yellow Kid artist R.F. Outcault reveals that the cartoonist-art world antagonism was present from the very beginning.

Finally, comics were interdisciplinary in a time when interdisciplinarity was out of style. If we believe the contemporary art meta-narrative, the advent of Modernism coincided almost directly with the advent of comics. Unfortunately, Modernism meant abstraction and purism in art. Artists began moving more and more away from representing figures in their work. Successful artists during this time became increasingly concerned with capturing the pure aesthetic form of their mediums. This trend in the art market made it difficult for comics, as an interdisciplinary and thus impure art form, to receive critical acclaim until well into the 1980s. Comic theorist Thierry Groensteen sets out this problem in her article, “Why Are Comics Still in Search of Cultural Legitimization?” and even goes so far as to suggest that this ideal of artistic purism is present to this day:

“In art our modernity has never ceased preaching the deepening, by each discipline, of its own specificity. Music, literature and painting have turned inwards to their own domains. This means they have eliminated or marginalized melody, subject, representation, narration and signification, in favor of working on form and basic materials (sound, color,… etc.) in their search for pure music, pure poetry, pure painting… I only wish to show the extent to which comics (where text and drawings contribute to the same narrative project) dispute the validity of the dominant trend of thought and therefore could not do otherwise than to provoke the disdain and contempt of the defenders of official culture.”[12]

In Groensteen’s eyes, cultural purism is the main reason comics took so long to “arrive” in the art market. She further suggests that this purism has caused the ever-widening gap between high and popular culture.[13]   And yet, evidenced by the number of popular films in Modern Contemporary, fiction and entertainment are no longer considered unfit for museums. Films are clearly interdisciplinary and yet film has managed to get its foot in the door much more successfully than comics. I posit that this can be explained by presentation format. While film is a primarily passive visual and auditory experience, comics must be read. They take a long time to read. They fit better in libraries.

Caitlin Cass, Maus issue 1Maus was not featured in the MOMA collection in its entirety. Only two pages were included (and as of May 7th, 2012 even those pages cannot be found in the online collection listing). The rest of Maus, the first edition published by RAW, was housed in the MOMA/ Franklin Furnace library collection. The Franklin Furnace Artist Book collection was gifted to the MOMA in 1993, and houses artists’ books made since 1960 with a radical inclusion policy. Any artist could make any multiple (book, print, etc.) that they considered art and send it to the Franklin Furnace Foundation for inclusion in the collection. MOMA has maintained this policy. While Maus is now housed in several different branches and departments of the MOMA library, in several different formats and capacities, it is the Foundation copy cited in the Modern Contemporary book, suggesting that comics belong not in the Museum of Contemporary Art but in the all-inclusive Museum of Modern Art/Franklin Furnace/ Artist Book collection.

                                                           And don’t they?

I spent a lot of time trying to decide if this should upset me. I thought about Aline Kominsky-Crumb telling Roberta Smith that she liked that the things she made would be read by people sitting on toilets: “Comics are cheap and funny and throwaway. I definitely want to stay away from the pretentious end of the art world.”[14]  I thought about all of that “Comic Abstraction” in that MOMA show and how it caused me inner turmoil.  And I then thought about standing in a cold white museum trying to read miniscule text on a comic behind glass. Suddenly, I understood why R. Crumb seemed only mildly amused that he was having a retrospective at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. “I went to the Louvre once,” he told the New York Times, “I don’t really like museums. You get too close to the art, and the guard is going to yell at you.”[15]

Comics already have a readily accessible gallery system. Roberta Smith pointed this out in 1994. “Instead of gallery shows, this universe has comic books, which come in solo and group varieties and are published irregularly by presses with wry, iconoclastic names like Last Gasp, Rip Off Press, Fantagraphics, Kitchen Sink Press and Drawn & Quarterly.”[16]  While many of these companies no longer have print anthologies, websites are filling in the gaps. Comics are much easier to read in books or on the computer screen then they are hanging on walls. I’m not saying that gallery shows are bad. The beauty of this interdisciplinary medium is that it can feed off of many systems that already exist (i.e. art and literature). The more alternative comics reach out to preexisting art and literary outlets, the stronger the alternative comics industry will become. I am merely pointing out that which is obvious to most comic people, that which was not apparent to me as a younger comic person: comics don’t need the art world to sustain themselves. In fact, they’re where they are because they did not have the art world behind them.

Perhaps it’s good that it took so long for ArtNews to catch on.  It has left the medium wide open for experimentation.  Historically, comics have even offered an outlet for “high artists” like Ad Reinhardt, a place for them to criticize and talk about their distaste with the art world. Perhaps an outright denial of comics as an art form is exactly what it needed to perpetuate itself. The comics world is filled with disaffected, self-effacing loners, who feel uncomfortable in a world filled with  artists trying to promote themselves and sell individual paintings for half a million dollars. With comics they were free to make work because it was deeply meaningful and necessary to them and not because it directly referenced some towering post-modern meta-narrative. Cartoonists are free to force the hybrid back into art and writing, stating up front that pure form is simply beside the point. Comics and comics history are sort of like a freshly raked pile of leaves that the garbage men haven’t picked up yet (In this metaphor the garbage men are the critics, apologies to all the garbage men). Someday, some pretentious jerk might come by and throw a rotting pumpkin in, but right now the leaves are fresh and there’s time to play.

“In the end, if the official arbiters of taste will not acknowledge comics cultural value,” writes Sabin, “then at least this means that the form remains a ‘free medium’—and there are not many of those left.”[17] 

*

{Why the Art World is Irrelevant and How Enid Helped: essay by Caitlin Cass}

Caitlin Cass calls herselves “The Great Moments in Western Civilization Cooperative.” The cooperative makes comics, drawings, performances and museums that folklorize the Western Canon.  Cass holds a Bachelor’s degree in Liberal Arts from St. John’s College and an MFA in Visual Studies from the University at Buffalo, SUNY. View work from Cass’s series, “Towers,” in this issue and find more of Cass’s work at caitlincass.com

Works Cited

Groensteen, Thierry. “Why Are Comics Still in Search of Cultural Legitimization?” Comics & Culture: Analytical and Theoretical Approaches to Comics. By Anne Magnussen and Hans-Christian Christiansen. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum, University of Copenhagen, 2000. 29-41. Print.

Marcoci, Roxana. Comic Abstraction: Image Breaking, Image Making. New York, NY: Museum of Modern Art, 2007. Print.

Miranda, Caroline A. “Comic Relief.” ArtNews Oct. 2011. Print.

Sabin, Roger. Comics, Comix & Graphic Novels. London: Phaidon, 1996. Print.

Sciolino, Elaine. “An Artist’s Journey From Comic Books to Museum Walls:R. Crumb Gets a Show at the Musée D’Art Moderne De La Ville De Paris.” The New York Times 13 Apr. 2012. The New York Times. 12 Apr. 2012. Web. 6 May 2012. <www.nytimes.com>.

Smith, Roberta. “ART VIEW; A Parellel Art World, Vast and Unruly.” New York Times 20

Nov.    1994: 1. Newspaper Source Plus. Web. 24 Apr. 2012.

Varnedoe, Kirk, Paola Antonelli, and Joshua Siegel. Modern Contemporary. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2004. Print.

West, Paige. The Art of Buying Art: An Insider’s Guide to Collecting Contemporary Art. New York: HarperCollins, 2007. Print.

Wood, Mary. “Origins of the Kid: High Art.” The Yellow Kid on The Paper Stage. The University of Virginia, 4 Feb. 2004. Web. 07 May 2012. <http://xroads.virginia.edu/~MA04/wood/ykid/highart.htm&gt;.


[1] Miranda, Caroline A. “Comic Relief.” ArtNews Oct. 2011. Print.

[2] Sabin, Roger. Comics, Comix & Graphic Novels. London: Phaidon, 1996. Print. Pg 9

[3] West, Paige. The Art of Buying Art: An Insider’s Guide to Collecting Contemporary Art. New York: HarperCollins, 2007. Print.

[4] Miranda

[5] I should mention that Ben Katchor and Allison Bechdel (and probably some others I have missed) have received Guggenheim fellowships in fiction and non-fiction. The stratification of the medium across multiple fields could be one of the reasons it has taken so long for comics to get attention.

[6] Smith, Roberta. “ART VIEW; A Parellel Art World, Vast and Unruly.” New York Times 20 Nov. 1994: 1. Newspaper Source Plus. Web. 24 Apr. 2012.

[7] Smith

[8] Varnedoe, Kirk, Paola Antonelli, and Joshua Siegel. Modern Contemporary. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2004. Print.

[9] With Rodolphe Topffer’s Histoire de M. Vieux Bois, published in English as The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck.

[10] Sabin, Roger. Comics, Comix & Graphic Novels. London: Phaidon, 1996. Print.

[11] Wood, Mary. “Origins of the Kid: High Art.” The Yellow Kid on The Paper Stage. The University of Virginia, 4 Feb. 2004. Web. 07 May 2012. <http://xroads.virginia.edu/~MA04/wood/ykid/highart.htm&gt;.

[12] Groensteen, Thierry. “Why Are Comics Still in Search of Cultural Legitimization?” Comics & Culture: Analytical and Theoretical Approaches to Comics. By Anne Magnussen and Hans-Christian Christiansen. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum, University of Copenhagen, 2000. 38. Print.

[13] Goensteen, 38

[14] Smith

[15] Groensteen, Thierry. “Why Are Comics Still in Search of Cultural Legitimization?” Comics & Culture: Analytical and Theoretical Approaches to Comics. By Anne Magnussen and Hans-Christian Christiansen. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum, University of Copenhagen, 2000. 29-41. Print.

[16] Smith

[17] Sabin, 9

4 thoughts on “Caitlin Cass: Why the Art World is Irrelevant and How Enid Helped

  1. Theirry Groensteen is a man. A couple of books may address some further points for you – Ian Gordon’s “Comic Strips and Consumer Culture, 1890-1945″ looks at the actual readership of the Yellow Kid strips. Bart Beaty’s recent “Comics Versus Art: Comics in the Art World” addresses issues in your entire article.

  2. Thierry Groensteen is a man. A couple of books may address some of your points. Ian Gordon’s “Comic Strips and Consumer Culture, 1890-1945″ examines the Yellow Kid phenomena, in light of facts such as close to 90% of the urban working class was literate by around 1895. Bart Beaty’s recent “Comics Versus Art: Comics in the Art World” addresses your whole arguement.

    • HI Mike, Thanks for correcting Thierry Groensteen’s gender. Never met him so. Also thanks for the heads up about the Bart Beaty book. I originally wrote this article about a year ago and I don’t think his book was out at that time, but now I’ll have to check it out.

  3. Pingback: Meanwhile . . . #1 : Bad at Sports

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