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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


Aesthetic criticism may be loosely described as a reaction to ethical criticism's emphasis on literature's moral nature. The slogan "art for art's sake" has come to describe the emphases of aesthetic criticism, even where the critics would claim that their favored works have some ethical value despite lacking any clear moral as such. This criterion is not as commonly purveyed through secondary-school lit-classes as the ethical type, but most non-critics are aware what's implied by the aesthetic position, if only through spoofs of wild-eyed beatniks creating incomprehensible non-representational art. In essence aestheticism implies the distanced contemplation of the finely-wrought work of art, and within the sphere of comics-criticism this type of criticism has traditionally focused more on the visuals of a comics-work rather than the written text, though this has been changing in the last decade or so.

Whereas in my last essay I asserted that ethical criticism probably accounted for both WATCHMEN or SQUADRON making John Jakala's informal "literary merit" list, I wouldn't claim that aesthetic criticism had much influence on SQUADRON's appearance there. While both the text and visuals of WATCHMEN are clearly crafted to be contemplated aesthetically-- Gibbons' grid-like pattern serving to continually emphasize the formal blending of the two narrative elements-- not even SQUADRON's most fervent adherents could argue that there's anything aesthetically remarkable about the Gruenwald work. (For what it's worth, Mark Gruenwald and one of his SQUADRON collaborators Paul Ryan produced a much more aesthetically-pleasing blend of art and text in the Marvel "New Universe" series D.P.7, an example of a "good melodrama" in my book.)

Aesthetic criticism does, if nothing else, help correct ethical criticism's utilitarian need for an edifying or challenging moral dilemna, which fails to account for the literary standing of a figure like Edgar Allen Poe, himself a critic who advocated a position much like "art for art's sake." On a personal note, I can see the appeal of aesthetic criticism, as years ago I briefly debated Dave Sim on the matter, with me taking Oscar Wilde's position that "aesthetics are more important than ethics" while Dave took the opposing position. But as should be clear from my D.P. 7 example, my notion of aesthetics takes in the excellence of popular art according to whatever mode and/or genre the work belongs to. Just as ethical criticism devolves into mere ideological criticism, so too does aesthetic criticism devolve into the superficial avant-gardism of a Clement Greenberg, who believed that the avant-garde poet's originality was comparable to that of some creative deity:

"The avant-garde poet or artist tries in effect to imitate God by creating something valid solely on its own terms, in the way nature itself is valid, in the way a landscape -- not its picture -- is aesthetically valid; something given, increate, independent of meanings, similars or originals. Content is to be dissolved so completely into form that the work of art or literature cannot be reduced in whole or in part to anything not itself."-- Greenberg, "Avant Garde and Kitsch," 1939.

I understand the appeal of this extreme aestheticism but I don't endorse it: it leads to severe misperceptions like Greenberg's demonstrably-false notion of popular art as some sort of "rear guard" action against the supposed profundities of the avant-garde. Content and form are of course never truly dissolved; what Greenberg has been caught up in is the avant-garde artist's attention to *style,* just as the ethical critic is obsessed with a particular form of *content,* that of moral concerns. In my next essay (which will probably work in a little more about WATCHMEN and SQUADRON than this one did) I will show why I believe archetypal criticism to be a successful mediator between the two extremes, thanks to its concentration on the aspects of *form.*

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