Friday, December 30, 2016

how we take

In 1953, the artist Robert Rauschenberg convinced Willem de Kooning, one of his personal heroes, to give him a drawing. It was a big ask. De Kooning was one of the most famous artists in the world, and then there were Rauschenberg’s plans for the piece. He wanted to erase it, as in literally remove every mark.

A white page with traces of the original crayon, grease pencil, and ink, “Erased de Kooning Drawing” was a lot of things. Most obviously: a dick move. Blatant provocation. A work that walks the line between a gimmick and a deep thought. Art historians like to call it symbolic patricide, and it’s true that Rauschenberg was unimpressed with the Abstract Expressionist idea that you use paint to vomit up your deepest inner hero. But the thing that makes the piece interesting—the reason it’s an enduring work of art instead of just a footnote in an Urban Outfitters book about Banksy—was that it was more than just a critique. It was also a reverent act.

“There wasn’t any resistance to abstract expressionists,” Rauschenberg said. “I think that only Jasper Johns and myself gave them enough respect not to copy them.”

It’s said that art is borne of passion, but I think that’s only half right. Art is borne of deep ambivalence.

***

To my knowledge, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has the best Rauschenberg collection in the world, around 90 works. “Erased de Kooning,” which looks like a dirty sheet of paper, is requested for exhibition and reproduction not just more than all its cooler-looking brethren, but more than every other piece in the museum. I submit that this is because people never feel more self-satisfied than when they recognize what one thing takes from something else.

It’s a dumb thrill, isn’t it? For me one of life’s purest pleasures is spotting some piece of Chicago in the movies. I clapped like a seal when I recognized a street in that one car chase scene in The Dark Knight. I think a similar sentiment must fuel a certain mode of comics writing, where the author cross-references a comic with the index in his mind palace and a transcript of some message board exchange circa 2003 and thinks he’s had a thought. I like how Abhay Khosla described this phenomenon in an essay about Michel Fiffe’s COPRA for The Savage Critic: “Categorize. Classify. Regiment. Bag. Board. Bleh.” Clapping like a seal is all fine and good when you’re sitting home alone, but if you look at something like COPRA and your first thought is copyright law, there’s plainly something wrong with your life.

Have you ever read an interview with Fiffe? It’s like two men reading names from the Vietnam Memorial to each other, but comics. When writers focus so much on the granular comics history that COPRA so consciously transcends, it’s not just that it’s boring (to me); I think they’re sort of missing the point.

***

In graduate school I spent a lot of time thinking about a poem called The Waste Land. I don’t know, maybe you’ve heard of it. One thing I found interesting was the tension between the poem’s reputation as inscrutable and the many rows of books in the library that were written by people who wished to explain it. Often scholars focus on the way that T.S. Eliot referenced other literary works. Like an asshole, Eliot himself published footnotes with later editions of the poem that explained his every allusion to Dante, Shakespeare, etc. It was an ambivalent gesture—sort of a joke but also not a joke—that Eliot himself would later observe generated “the wrong kind of interest.”

Some 65 years later, Michael Palmer, an earnest poet with a great deal of chest hair, published a poem called Sun. Inspired by “Erased de Kooning Drawing,” Palmer conceived of it as an erasure of Eliot’s poem. Walking the line between parody and tribute, Sun critiqued the notion of what Palmer called the “perfectly enclosed” poem—the idea that The Waste Land, or any poem, can be dissected and explained. “I felt it as a typing over the text,” he said. “At the same time, it was obviously an echo and homage…. It enacts a kind of ambivalence. Certainly my own ambivalence toward the culture of modernism and toward those figures that, to some degree, we arise out of.” Sun had the same number of lines as The Waste Land and many of the same literary references, plus allusions to “low” sources. The title and the image that opens the poem, a headless man, were taken from a supermarket tabloid.

Palmer never published any footnotes, but he discussed all of this, at length, in interviews.

As someone who finds the idea of decoding a work of art to be off-putting, I enjoyed the many levels of irony at work there: the ways in which Sun undermines, yet inadvertently upholds, some dim idea of literary seriousness; how it foregrounds, and at the same time destabilizes, poetic conventions; how it appropriates images and emotional textures from the best-known poem of the 20th century even as it concedes that doing so is sort of bullshit. Most of all I liked the idea that there’s some critical space where you can attend to a work that’s not just a take—that criticism is capable, perhaps, of transcending whatever it’s about.

Sun is a beautiful poem, truly. I like the passage at the end where the decapitated tabloid man finds his head.

Tie something to something else
Hold your head

as a lantern
a light for this impossible season


***

Robert Rauschenberg didn’t believe in the sanctity of the self, which he conceptualized as incoherent and always in flux, or of art, which could be anything. “Painting relates to both art and life,” he said. “Neither can be made. (I try to act in that gap between the two.)”

I think that’s also where a critic works. What you’re reading now isn’t a piece of criticism about COPRA, but if it were I’d try to render my own experience of that liminal space: the nostalgia that COPRA’s fanciful character design makes me feel, not as a comics reader, but as someone who spent a lot of time paging through boys’ sketchbooks as a teen; COPRA as an education in comics craft and some of the people who practiced it; the COPRA trades as beautiful objects I can hold in my hands, a cool thing I admire a pal for his role in; my love for the excellent hand-lettered fonts of COPRA, and the regretful lack thereof in indie comics; my appreciation for Fiffe’s desire to entertain; and finally, of particular interest to me, COPRA as a work that seems more interested in opening up possibilities (for stories, for style, for meaning, for audience) than pinning them down.

But this is, after all, an essay about taking, and what it means to do so well or badly. Thank Christ.

***

You don’t have to be aware of COPRA’s relationship to Suicide Squad to recognize it a comic that engages—and estranges—certain markers of medium and genre. It’s a comic about comics, not just in the world of the story, but also as an object in the world; COPRA exists in a sort of conversation with the exploited creators it honors in the way that it’s made (by an auteur) and sold (by him, on Etsy). Storywise part of its thing is engaging and estranging the way that violence has been depicted and understood and enjoyed in comics.

Curiously, while COPRA is an incredibly violent comic, its violence isn’t really sexual or sexualized. The comics project that’s lauded for interrogating the way that’s been depicted and understood and enjoyed is TV’s Jessica Jones.

Feminist noir, with a (more) rapey Time Lord! Listen closely, and you can hear an Internet’s worth of cultural critics seal-clapping themselves into the sea.

In Episode 6, Jessica’s pal Malcolm tries to convince her to go to a support group.

JESSICA:         Look, I’m not going to talk about my shitty story, Malcolm, because there’s always  someone who’s had it worse. Someone’s life who was ruined worse.

MALCOLM:      It’s not a competition.

Which: of course it’s a competition. On television (as in corporate comics), it always has been. That’s why Jessica Jones is about a girl named (1) Hope who (2) is held captive and raped repeatedly, (3) forced to murder her parents before (4) going to jail for her rapist’s crime and (5) finding out she’s pregnant with his baby. Of course she (6) aborts it and (7) mortally stabs herself in the throat. As one does, with such a heavy hand.

I’m interested in people’s shitty, but not quite shitty enough, stories. I think a lot of people struggle with that bar. In the absence of your own grisly murder, does your own shitty story even register next to the ones that we all know (and love)? What if no one’s even murdered in your vicinity?

Jessica Jones may not cater to the male gaze or whatever it is that people like about it, but it’s intensely sensational. You can gender-flip your gumshoe, throw in some lesbians kissing and call it Marvel’s feminist triumph, but what I see there is the same old shit.  

There was a time in television history when the victimization of women was used in the service of exploring male characters, a phenomenon we know in comics as “women in refrigerators.” At some point television writers (more so than their counterparts in comics) pivoted so that sex crimes deepened women’s own characterizations (like Dr. Melfi on The Sopranos). Most recently, “feminist” investigations of sex crimes themselves became the subjects of entire shows (Veronica Mars, The Fall, Top of the Lake). This is progress, or so I’m told.

Feminist or not, procedurals from Law & Order: SVU to Jessica Jones are built around the central task of making sense of an act of sexual violence and bringing the perpetrator to justice—a premise I find patently absurd.

The only show I know that really gets that is Twin Peaks.

***

Superhero stories, as I understand them, are revenge fantasies that mythologize the experiences of victims and losers and underdogs. Peter Parker got bitten by a radioactive spider. Superman survived the death of his planet. Mutants are oppressed by humans. Those comics are allegories about emotional struggles—loneliness, grief, feeling ugly, whatever. They may be thinly disguised, but they’re rarely literal. Superheroes’ problems are generally way cooler.

In a world where one in five women have been raped and almost half have been sexually assaulted, Jessica Jones, a rape story about rape, doesn’t mythologize anything. Instead it sensationalizes abuse and caricaturizes abusers, potentially estranging victims from lived experience. I guess Jessica has super strength? Is that the allegory—that even strong ladies get raped and feel bad? Probably you thought it was just weaklings and crybabies but now you get it. Marvel Television received a Peabody Award for this important social message. The showrunner took home a Hugo for crafting such a nuanced fantasy.
  
In the stories it tells, and the stories it chooses not to tell, COPRA questions the most basic assumptions on which superheroes’ fictional worlds (and, by extension, ours) are built. Must violence, revenge, and betrayal have meaning or make sense? Is identity really forged in the crucible of conflict? Do our backstories make us who we are any more than whatever’s happening now? Is justice real? Is evil absolute? Should fiction have an easy or coherent message? And it asks these questions in a way that doesn’t preach, or scold, or lose sight of what I believe to be an urgent, deeply misunderstood truth: that entertainment is the highest form of art.

If you really want to interrogate how we tell stories about sexual violence, those are the levers. And—this is critical—you have to explore the trappings of genre with more than just cleverness and derision. Veronica Mars on noir, Twin Peaks on soaps, Misfits on sci-fi and superheroes—those shows were interesting even when they went off the rails because they had warm human feelings about the genre tropes they played with, even in subverting them. Jessica Jones isn’t homage; it’s a joyless genre exercise. The noir elements feel flat. The superhero stuff is an afterthought. But most of all? It’s no fun whatsoever. It’s just a message.

Theodor Adorno had a phrase I’ve always liked: rattle the cage of meaning.

Someone needs to rattle the cage.

***

People talk about “Erased de Kooning Drawing” as a work that’s about the past. But Rauschenberg was an artist with a particular interest in forward movement.

The work bears the marks of a struggle that remains, to some degree, unresolved.

You can’t erase the past, girl, I can hear him say. You can only try to tell it better.











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This essay originally appeared in Critical Chips, a zine of comics criticism, and has been republished here due to a snafu in production. You can buy Critical Chips for around $5 usd.

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