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Gutter Talk: On Writing
posted October 12, 1997

Oct. 12, 1997 -- I think for most people, the concept of a "road not taken" is a comfortable myth, created from the inadequacies of their present day lives as both oblique criticism and subtle reassurance. If I'm a street mime, I can tell the other street mimes about the time I turned down a job with Drexel, Burnham and Lambert, emphasizing the riches that would have been mine if I'd seen fit to take them. If I'm a soulless functionary in a Wall Steet firm that saw fit to hire me after a late-'80s jail stint for my misdeeds at Drexel, I can tell people at the Christmas party about the summer in Paris training under Marcel Marceau. No one swings a guitar to the shoulder like the guy working full-time as an insurance agent.

I play these games as much if not more than most, and have any number of false starts from which to choose. I've tried a lot a things without being particularly talented or industrious at any of them. (At the age of 22, I was aptly described as a "jack-off of all trades.") This wouldn't be a bad thing, but I'm continually finding that I hold these really ridiculous ideas as truth.

The one that specifically applies to comics is a belief I've held that by choosing writing over a career in law or politics I've added years to my life because I won't get upset as often. I had an interest in politics as a young person, but found that when it came to debating issues I was less Benjamin Disraeli and more Archie Bunker, at least in terms of rhetorical strategy. I remember one of those late night college bull sessions where I ended up saying, rather obnoxiously, "if you think XXXXXXX is true, then you're just seriously deluding yourself and there's nothing I can do to change your mind." Not exactly the sort of give-and-take that leads to fruitful discussion. Or, for that matter, having a lot of friends.

I believed, until very recently, that by not pursuing a career that trafficked in what I considered "real world" issues, I would avoid getting sore and worked up all the time. In addition, I vowed to be more reasonable in whatever arguments I found myself in, motivated by an incredible speech I heard by a Christian missionary who claimed that in order to truly be able to convince someone of your position, you had to go into the discussion with the possibility present your mind might be the one that is changed. "That's dialogue," he said. "The other thing is called preaching." This made perfect sense, and I've built up a self-image of myself as this evenhanded guy willing to embrace the other person's side if convinced of it, in a career where the things being argued weren't all that important anyway. Delillo vs. Pynchon? Hare vs. Stoppard? Moore vs. Gaiman? Take your pick.

This bit of self-illusion took a big, maybe fatal, hit with two discussions that I had primarily on line. The first was about the final fate of the Mike Diana case, and the second, the death of Roy Lichtenstein. Both issues revealed that while I'm willing to look at both sides of an issue up to a point, on certain things, I'm as intractable and ornery as ever.

As the Mike Diana appeal process drew to a close (as covered in Journal #198, now on sale), what I found distressing was an over-reliance on a certain rhetorical form used in discussing his case, as evinced by the artistic community. That rhetoric is "I don't think he's that much of an artist, but I'll defend to the death his right to do what he does." This can often be a noble statement, and speaks to the truth of one aspect of the Mike Diana affair in that we must support artists we find not to have merit in First Amendment issues because all rights of free expression are protected.

I have a feeling, though, that by insisting on this sort of rhetorical structure as much as most people seem to do, what may be at work is that the speaker wishes not so much to make the distinct point about supporting unpopular or even "bad" art, but wants to make sure people know that they don't support that artist's art. This seems completely beside the point, and at worse allows people to stop seeing the sanctions on Mike Diana in terms of right or wrong and negotiate them in terms of their perceived self-interest.

What happened to Mike Diana is bad is because what happened to Mike Diana is bad, not because Mike Diana does something that approximates what real artists do, or because what happened to Mike Diana could one day happen to a "real" artist. And while I expect to have the "you don't have to like it to support it" argument with Bob and Angie down at the office supply store, I'm distressed that people feel it has to be said in a community of writers and artists, no matter what the reason.

The second issue I got all hot and bothered about was the way the rhetoric was shaped around the death of Roy Lichtenstein. Strangely, because this is an argument of aesthetics, aesthetic arguments become the point: I don't think Lichtenstein was a great or even admirable artist. His work using comics panels as found materials was often obvious, and the reworkings often drew more power from the craft work done by the original artist within the panel than by Lichtenstein's recontextualizations.

Having said that, I was stunned that a number of critics and writers on the comics art form could state so simply that what Lichtenstein was doing wasn't art but "swiping." Even with my own limited arts background, the appropriation of found materials to make art from them just seems so obviously a legitimate artistic approach that I'm kind of at a loss to put into words why this is so. The approach has adherents in visual art (Duchamp), poetry, theater, music -- there are even approximates in dance!

The reason why such a simplistic, reactionary view still has some adherents may have something to do with a related point I read in one of the on-line newsgroups: that Lichtenstein's art somehow further delegitimized comics' case as an art form. That seems silly for a lot of reasons, but primarily because comics has done so much to itself to counter the impressions that the form has artistic validity that bitching about the reception given to a pop artist betrays a huge lack of proportion. One of the things comics has done is failed to embrace a sophisticated view of itself to match that held by the practitioners in other forms. And this lack of sophistication is revealed yet again by failing to see the legitimacy of an approach that probably wouldn't be seriously questioned by any other artistic community.

So another precious self-myth is shattered. I'm no more even-handed and fair minded than I was before, and issues of art can get me just as riled and indignant as discussions of race relations and welfare reform. This probably isn't a good thing, particularly for my long-term health. -- Tom Spurgeon

P.S. — Pynchon, Stoppard, and Moore. Obviously

Originally Published in "Gutter Talk," TCJ On-Line #2, October 1997