Art, Philosophy and Comics:
Beyond The End of Art History


A Discussion of
The Aesthetics of Comics

Pennsylvania State University Press
Hardback: $32.95 TR | 0-271-01962-X
Paperback: $21.95 TR | 0-271-02188-8
52 pp. 19 mono illus
ISBN 0-271-01962-X

I opened the book The Aesthetics of Comics with a combined sense of both excitement and trepidation. The author, David Carrier, is a favourite of mine. He is a stimulating philosopher of art whose writings I have enjoyed in his many books and The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. Additionally, Carrier, a professor of philosophy at Carnegie Mellon University, is a skilled art critic, publishing readable and insightful reviews in Artforum and Leonardo. But comics? And the history of art? These are the centres of Carrier’s book, which he analyses philosophically. I am often put-off by experts in other fields  when they begin to criticise comics or art history. All too frequently, such people repeat ancient observations long grappled with in these fields themselves, presenting their “insights” as if they were new and shocking. Perhaps I am a bit sectarian, being a fine artist who studied art history and who has an active involvement with the comic-art world.

Fortunately, such misgivings do not apply to this work. Carrier’s book is an example of a laudable current phenomenon: more and more aestheticians have a true command of the arts they philosophise about, including contemporary manifestations and here, comics. Now if only we could encourage a reciprocal development, where fine artists, art historians and even comic creators would know as much about recent, exciting developments in the philosophy of art. The importance of this book for readers of The Art Book lies in several of its attributes. First, it is a promising cross-over among art history, philosophy and comics. Second, Carrier presents a direct struggle with the Danto-Dickie Institutional Theory of the ontology of art and its proclaimed “End of Art / End of Art History.” Finally, for those of us who are active in the dissolution or combination of the cultural categories of “high” and “low,” this book recognises comics as a legitimate form of expression. Carrier writes that “[t]he standards of comics include inventiveness, originality, and consistency. The best comics really are great artworks — great by the intrinsic standards of that art form.” (p. 95)[1]

Carrier assuaged some of my fears at the very onset of reading his book. The cover of The Aesthetics of Comics bears a photo of the author as an 8 year-old child sitting on the pavement reading a comic book. It shows he learned to appreciate comics at an appropriate age and in an appropriate fashion. He mentions cartoonist and comic theorist Scott McCloud’s book Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art forthwith on page 2; in nearby paragraphs both philosopher Arthur C. Danto and art historian E. H. Gombrich appear. Carrier knows his arena of debate. Furthermore, to embody his integrative yet divided allegiance, Carrier has given each chapter two titles, “one relating to comics, the other alluding to related issues from within philosophy.” For instance, Chapter 2 is titled “The Speech Balloon; or, The Problem of Representing Other Minds.” As he states, “[m]y dual concerns, art-historical and philosophical, thus run through the entire book.” (p. 3)

Principal sections of The Aesthetics of Comics are those where Carrier investigates the definition of comics as an art form. He attempts to do this without any Greenbergian, formalist exclusivity; indeed the subject demands this approach. Comics are radically technically non-exclusive, even expansive. Since the appearance of the McCloud book mentioned above, a definition of comics is one primary debate within the comics sub-culture. What components of the form are necessary and sufficient to its identity? Carrier finds these in the word balloon, “linked narrative,” book-sized scale and comics’ general inclusive “impurity.” The word balloon is the king of these key elements, according to the author. It is the ultimate combination and unity of word and image. Far beyond captions, or other such additive devices, the balloon becomes both a visual motif and a verbal vehicle, yet remains purely neither. By “linked narrative” Carrier means the sequentiality of panels in comics, that wonderful invention of Rodolphe Töpffer, which to my mind is the most creative and auspicious aspect of the form. With the advent and combination of these two characteristics with images, comics achieved a unique position in the arts. Carrier also makes a case for the importance of the comic in the form of a book or magazine. While there are currently many important experiments into other modes of delivery, such as on-line comics on internet or larger “coffee-table” tomes, his point is correct. In a wider view, the comic has always been successfully accessible. Its traditional forms — the magazine, the book collection, the newspaper strip — are all human-, even hand-scaled, unpretentious, and democratic. Importantly, comics have always been allographic, as opposed to autographic, to use philosopher Nelson Goodman’s terminology. That is, the actual work of art is located in the published object, not a one-of-a-kind “original” as in painting. Any new technological forms for comics must take these defining characteristics into consideration, reinventing them in an original fashion. As Carrier points out, these factors determine the specific modes of attention which comics need and which make them potentially far more radically liberating in form than many traditional or even most so-called new media. Finally, as a sum of these effects Carrier sees the comic as an inherently impure entity; I would amply this, claiming that comics offer a positively anti-purist emancipation from narrow formalist reductivism. This is a trait to applaud and emulate in the fine arts in order to construct a new road out of the cul-de-sac of Late and Post-Modernism. Perceptively, Carrier postulates that objections to comics are objections to the form’s impurity. “Breaking down seemingly essential boundaries is often thought to be unnatural, and so morally pernicious....” (p. 70) The in-betweenness of comics has important social, psychological, even ethical implications — as well as historical-philosophical ones which Carrier discusses in his argument with the linear, ontological theory of Danto.

Carrier maintains that comics have had no genuine progress, in the way that fine art has had.(Or, at least, in the way that the history of fine art has been described; Carrier equivocates a bit here.) Comics has a “social history” rather than a reductivist, formal one. That is, “all of these changes in comics’ content have not been accompanied by any dramatic developments in their visual technology.” (p. 113) I would disagree and point out the ever increasing discussions in journals and books on comics concerning history (Golden Age, Second Heroic Age, Underground Period, etc.) and formal innovation (narrative techniques, Will Eisner, “camera” angles, Jack Kirby, etc.) This assertion is important to Carrier, though, for he does not wish to denigrate comics with it, but rather highlight his belief that fine art as well no longer has, perhaps never exclusively, had a single historical tale solely based on sensational stylistic evolution. This is the brunt of his disagreement with Danto.

To understand Carrier’s significant critique of the prevailing philosophy of the history of art, one must first consider his opponent, inspiration and precursor: Arthur C. Danto. Like Carrier, Danto is both a philosopher and art critic. He has given rise to a new theory of the ontology of art, which is currently the most wide-spread and influential one. This is called the “institutional theory of art.” The assertion is that an object becomes art through being accepted by those with power in the artworld. Danto views the entire history of western art as a evolution in this direction. This structurally mimics Clement Greenberg’s view of the history of art as a progressive reduction to genre-specific elements, yet refines it intellectually. Danto feels that fine art peaked with Duchamp and his followers, especially Andy Warhol. In these artists’ works, art has become its own philosophy, finally merging with everyday objects. We have therefore experienced “the end of art history.” In the chapter titled “The End of Art” in his book The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art, Danto clearly describes the end of history, rather than art itself: “When one direction is as good as another....” He feels that art will now be too free, as the institutions to which it is subservient “whither away.” [2] I do not feel that this is the end of either art or art history. It is the death of one western, reductivist master narrative, that single simple march-of-history idea which was taken for granted until recently. This is also a history of art which has ignored popular art such as comics, content in art, the contributions of women, the entire world outside Europe and North America, and much more.

Carrier’s mind is divided on this subject. He both accepts and rejects Danto’s reasoning. We are in a period of transition. Postmodernism is a form of Mannerism, I would argue. In such a period it is difficult to see what is developing, so powerful is the shadow of what once was. Carrier in this book has discerned even more than he realises. As he writes “[U]nlike Danto I think that there is more than one way to tell the story of art’s history.” While this would seemingly call for multiple histories, Carrier terms such a position “posthistorical.” (p. 115) Numerous and divers stories are not necessarily “post-story;” they simply embody the elimination of one dominant tale of “essential properties.” Comics, with its history of addition and variation, rather than reduction, has inspired Carrier’s vision. He praises the human will to interpret and calls for new “lucid narratives” of art history. (p.118) Art history could have many narratives or narrative climaxes other than ontology or formal reduction: epistemology, hermeneutics of understanding, interpretation, human sociology, ethics, and so on. We should accept Carrier’s positive intimations and jettison the notion of “posthistoricism.” In The Aesthetics of Comics, and elsewhere, Carrier is indeed inventing a controversial “superior epistemology” which could replace such a mannerist concept.

Through his appreciation of comics, Carrier is on the verge of a radically new view of the history of art, absorbing and transuming Danto’s aesthetics. The future of both fine and comic art, to follow Carrier’s suggestions, might not be posthistorical, but rather polyhistorical. This is an portentous expansion of art and art history. If I may be so bold, I would offer the author a useful metaphor for his philosophy. Media theorist Christian Doelker has supplied an alternative reading of the word text. While most literary theorists use the term to prejudicially favour reading over seeing, Doelker traces the term back to its root in weaving or a cable. This is a highly evocative image. I picture, in a very Wittgensteinian manner, an interwoven mass of filaments, some longer, some shorter, each a “history,” each independent to an extent, yet touching on various others, some ending only to begin again farther on, all travelling nonetheless in certain concert. Suggestively, Carrier has noted that comics at their best merge reading and viewing. He offers us a philosophy which sees history as a cable of integrated stories; we have simply focused far too long on only one strand. Again to use Doelker’s terminology, we could have an art history which is plurogenic (multistrand), as opposed to Greenberg or Danto’s monogenic (single strand) conceptions. This is a promising description of history, a welcome alternative to the end-tales now so predominant. Carrier’s The Aesthetics of Comics is an indispensable and enjoyable contribution to discussions dealing with the end of Modernism, the function of art history, and the will to form a healthy development beyond current mannerist, postmodern malaise.

[1] All page reference to The Aesthetics of Comics are inserted in the text in parentheses.

[2] The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), p.115.

© 2001-2003 Mark Staff Brandl
This article was originally published in The Art Book, London, England .Volume 8, Issue 2: March 2001
A modified version also appeared in The Comics Interpreter, USA,
vol. 2, #1: 2003

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