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Comics Versus Art by Beaty, Bart (review)

From: College Literature
Volume 40, Number 2, Spring 2013
pp. 176-178 | 10.1353/lit.2013.0011

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Bart Beaty, author of Unpopular Culture: Transforming the European Comic Book in the 1990s (2007), has now turned his attention to the contested terrain between comics and the arts establishment in the American context. Apart from Thierry Groensteen’s Un objet culturel non-identifié (2006), which concerns the European comics scene (and is not currently available in English translation), there isn’t any sustained full-length study of the intersections between art and comics. Thus, Beaty’s work fills a gap in current scholarship, and enters into the noisy fray about what constitutes ‘art’ that has arisen in the past twenty years among museum curators, cartoonists, fans, and academics as these various constituencies debate the cultural status of comics. In his introduction, he is careful to situate himself as an observer who is not proposing “a manifesto calling for comics to be viewed as an art form.” Instead, he sees himself as a critic in the model of Pierre Bourdieu, examining the field of cultural production as different constituencies make the case for why comics should or should not be considered ‘art,’ and ultimately claims that “outmoded biases” regarding the separation of high and low “continue to persist in the shaping of culture more broadly” (7).

To begin to unravel the vexed relationship between comics and the arts establishment, Beaty points out that the study of comics has emerged from departments of literature and cultural studies, but has been strikingly absent from art history departments. Given the legacy of comics as a medium reviled by child psychologist Fredric Wertham, who blamed them for corrupting youth on the one hand, and art critic Clement Greenberg, who dismissed them as kitsch on the other, comics have been historically regarded as ‘mass culture,’ for better or worse. Of course, this banishment from high culture has suited some cartoonists just fine, and Beaty quotes the ever-colorful Robert Crumb, who characterizes art as “a HOAX perpetrated on the public by so-called ‘Artists’ who set themselves up on a pedestal, and promoted by pantywaste [sic] ivory-tower intellectuals” (19). Academics and critics, in turn, have responded to the charge that comics are merely mass culture by developing a variety of strategic positions. For cultural studies critics, relegating comics to popular culture is obviously not a problem and even an advantage insofar as one could claim that comics have a subversive function (Beaty cites Roger Sabin, Les Daniels, and Maurice Horn as examples of this stance). Another approach, most famously promoted by Scott McCloud, is to recast and expand the formal definition of comics in order to discover precursors for comics within the history of art, such as the Bayeux Tapestry, and thus smuggle in a claim for legitimacy. Lastly, a growing number of academics have tended to argue against the denigration of comics as low culture by stressing the narrative and literary qualities of the medium; Charles Hatfield’s book Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature (2005) is exemplary of this trend. None of these approaches, however, really addresses comics on aesthetic terms as art.

In the chapters that follow, Beaty pursues the relationship between comics and art across diverse fields, examining the process by which comics have been appropriated by Pop Art, the concept of the cartoonist as a unique author in the sense of the cinematic ‘auteur’ (drawing upon the examples of Carl Barks, Jack Kirby, and Charles Schulz), the formation of a comics ‘canon,’ the connection between comics and the ‘lowbrow’ art movement (citing Gary Panter and the magazine Juxtapoz), the impact of collectors’ markets and auction houses on the fluctuating economic status of comics, and the role of museums in negotiating the cultural legitimacy of comics. Throughout, Beaty’s rigorous research in such disparate areas of expertise is impressive, and he manages to critique and expose blind spots in the solipsistic categories of each discipline.

From the perspective of someone who teaches comics, I find the chapter on Pop Art (“Roy Lichtenstein’s Tears”), the related chapter “The Place of Comics in Art Museums,” and the chapter on the comics canon (“Cartoons as Masterpieces”) to be the most engaging, because I can imagine using them to frame debates over definitions of...


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