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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

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, February 9, 2011

WOLK HARD

In this essay I mentioned that I had not yet watched Douglas Wolk's 5-minute condensation of Kant's Critique of Aesthetic Judgment, which has apparently been bopping around since early 2009. I wanted to reread that part of the JUDGMENT myself first, but now I've done both, and I have to admit that, despite my earlier dismissive review of Wolk's book READING COMICS, the video doesn't suck.

But before I can say anything about the video, I have to address Wolk's problematic reading of Kant from the 2007 book. Fortunately, Wolk's brevity, whatever it does to his argument, makes him easy to quick-critique; he only quotes Kant on four pages of the book and only two of those pages deal with all four of Kant's categories of "reflective judgments" regarding how the power of art affects audiences.

To a pluralist like myself Wolk's greatest sin is that he takes Immanuel Kant-- who, as I've remarked in the KANT STOPS THE MUSIC essays, was probably no lover of simple pleasures-- and presses Kantian elitism into the questionable of service of artcomics.

To some extent I suppose this is an understandable marketing strategy. READING COMICS directs itself to an audience outside the hardcore comic-book readership, and chooses, not surprisingly, the strategy of "these ain't your father's silly old comics," a strategy beloved by hundreds of Sunday-supplement newspaper articles. Still, though Wolk doesn't go on any Grothian rants against mainstream comics, and occasionally points out a few of their virtues, he does mainstream creators no favors in attempting to use Kant as a bully pulpit in favor of artcomics.

Wolk addresses each of Kant's affective categories in the same order Kant does, so the section on Kant begins with "the agreeable." For Kant this affect is one spawned by a subject's response to the sensations communicated by a work. Wolk aligns this category with the mainstream comics-artist's attempt to make his work seem "sexy or exciting" to the audience by gratifying "desires and specific tastes."
Wolk asserts that because artcomics don't attempt "somatically effective" artwork, they are largely outside this category. Underground comics and the artcomics that followed them offered the reader an "embrace of ugliness" as against the slickly beautiful styles of mainstream comics.

The problem here is that Kant does not validate ugliness in itself as an alternative to slick beauty. He does say that fine art can make ugly things seem pleasant, but not simply by "embracing ugliness." He does tend in Section 207 to speak of agreeable art in terms of pleasurable sensations in that its audiences may call the art "lovely" or "gladdening." However, his base definition is that "we say of the agreeable not merely that we like it but that it gratifies us."

Based on that criterion, then, when Robert Crumb evinces his real-life taste for women with big asses, that is a reflective judgment based on his finding big-assed women agreeable. And from that it follows that the reader of Crumb comics *may* have a similar gratificatory feeling for big-assed women. The reader also *may* have no such natural inclinations himself and *may* be approaching the art in the more disinterested sense that Wolk advocates. But it's plain that many practitioners of artcomics, not just Crumb, are far from offering purely disinterested pleasures.

The second category is "the good." Wolk botches this by saying that works in this category "refer to something besides themselves that we find valuable or laudable." Kant himself makes much clearer that he's talking about a specific type of art that evinces a *concept* with which the reader agrees. Wolk's example of "political art" is appropriate, though here too, it's impossible to exonerate artcomics from this type of personal interest, be it as broad as Crumb's excoriation of capitalist culture or as simple as Gilbert Shelton portraying all the cops in FREAK BROTHERS as fools and bullies. Obviously a negative portrait of law enforcement would appeal to the personal "interest" of any of Shelton's doper readers.

Wolk doesn't do much with Kant's third category of "the beautiful," which, as I mentioned earlier, deals with one's disinterested appreciation of the "boundedness" of certain physical forms. Wolk only observes that he doesn't consider superheroic beauty to fall into the category of Kantian beauty, but merely agreeability. I'll note here that it may depend greatly on the nature of the superhero artist. Wolk strains to find "beauty" in the artcomics images he's expressly called "ugly," and ends up claiming that it's the artcomics-artist's ability to direct his reader to "the intentionality of the cartoonist's style." Kant's concept of "intentionality," which my edition translates as "purposiveness," is important in the CRITIQUE, but I question to what extent it applies to artists attempting to break with established forms, given that at the end of Section 326 Kant advises that "it is generally the beauties of nature that are most beneficial, if we are habituated early to observe, judge and admire them."

Finally, Wolk tackles Kant's category of "the sublime." I noted earlier that Kant treats the sublime as an affect arising from exposure to that which seems boundless, particularly in nature. This natural "might" at once awes the subject with the sense that it is irresistable, and yet simultaneously boosts the subject's own feeling of his capacity to stand in the midst of such awesomeness, as long as said subject feels himself "in a safe place."

Surprisingly, here alone Wolk does seem to appreciate how a given category can apply to both mainstream comics and artcomics, for though he gives three examples of "sublime" artcomics, he allows that the Human Torch's journey through infinity in FANTASTIC FOUR #50 may carry aspects of the sublime. And the aforementioned video seems to follow through on this notion, for in it Wolk illustrates all four categories of reflective judgment with examples from mainstream comics; mostly using Marvel's Wolverine. I don't agree with Wolk's examples so much as his later, less polarizing attitude.

My own ideas on Kant's sublime take a very different course from Wolk's, but I won't expand on them here. I will note that his lecture-video may actually take advantage of mythopoeic comics-images for precisely the same idea they don't work as well for him in a print-book: a live lecture-audience responds more quickly to the sensual imagery of mainstream comics. It is difficult, though not impossible, to apply post-Kantian aesthetics so as to improve our understanding as to how the comics-medium works upon all audiences, "high" and "low."

Wolk isn't the guy who will do that, but I give him a grudging tip of the hat for having broached the matter first.

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