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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...

Thursday, April 17, 2008

TWO AND A HALF QUESTIONS

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe directed that Three Questions be asked about any work of art. They must be answered in order.1. What was the artist trying to do?2. How well did he do it?3. Was it worth the doing?

I've heard this Goethe-nugget tossed out many times, at least once by comics-critic Gary Groth, and you can be sure what kind of comics he would consider not "worth the doing." However, the last question has always struck me as really half a question. The other two are complete in themselves, for the first involves the critic summing up the artist's intentions as the critic understands them, while the second is the critic's opinion as to the skill with which the intention was executed. Both are questions that a given critic might judge inaccurately, but one can easily see that there is some degree of objectivity involved in each query: the artist is likely to have intended some things more than others (no matter what Roland Barthes might think), and since there is a definite difference in skill between authors, that fact makes it possible to judge failures in executing one's intentions.

However, with the third question, "worth the doing" takes for granted that worthiness is a constant, which of course it is not. At the beginning of ANATOMY OF CRITICISM Northrop Frye pretty much demolishes the usual arguments for valuing this author over another author for superficially "sophisticated" reasons, and shows, with an almost Nietzschean perspectivism, how such valuations depend on what factors the critic chooses to find worthy.

This ineluctable fact does not mean that no one should ever attempt to place value about what works are or are not worthy. As Nietzsche also observed, man is an animal who must create meaning. The danger of regarding artistic worthiness as a constant is that it makes the critic unable to judge anything that is outside his personal realm of preferences.

Therefore, if I praise a JUSTICE LEAGUE adventure for its mythic qualities, I am saying that it compares favorably in artistic execution with others of its type. And if I say that I consider Dan Clowes' DAVID BORING a failure in terms of worthiness, despite the fact that it executes exactly what its artist intended, then it is because I have compared it to other works of the same basic type and found BORING-- er-- wanting.

More about comparing type to type later.

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