Working on a dissertation that attempts to put early newspaper comics into their cultural context, I had hoped to avoid the topic of “art” all together. Whenever I come across analyses that depend too much on the canons of high art or literature, I grow suspicious. Even when looking at an especially well-done one, like Thomas Inge’s discussion of George Herriman and Dada in Comics as Culture, it tends to feel, to me, like an exercise in legitimization.
“Here,” these authors seem to say, “I’ll prove that comics have artistic merit. Look how many similarities we can find between this artform and your supposedly legitimate high art!” The old saw about dancing about architecture comes to mind. And as someone who believes that the medium of comics is worthy of appreciation and study on its own merits, there’s just something distasteful about trying to borrow cultural capital to legitimate the medium.
That said, historical research can often seem to develop its own agendas, independent of the researcher. And that seems to be the case with my dissertation. While I had hoped to avoid discussing art history and high modernism, I find that multiple threads of my research keep tying back to that topic. And I’ve decided to give in.
Cartoonists View the Armory Show
One of the sites of entanglement, the things I keep coming back to in spite of my own desire to leave the topic alone, is The International Exhibition of Modern Art in 1913, better known as the Armory Show, remembered as the first large exhibit to bring Modernism to the attention of a wide American audience.
Two paintings perhaps best represent what was so revolutionary about the Armory Show, and dominated much of the uproar that followed the Exhibition’s opening: Duchamp’s Nu descendant un escalier n° 2, and Matisse’s Luxury.
Looking at Duchamp’s painting, we see an artist who is actually working on a very similar project to many cartoonists of the time: both are struggling to create a new visual language that can communicate them in a static medium, and the influence of Muybridge’s experiments with motion and photography can be seen in each. Duchamp, like contemporary cartoonists, is trying to show movement over time and through space in the picture plane.
Many cultural critics and comics historians have cited various cartoonists’ parodies and pastiches of Duchamp as visual evidence of the culture’s unease with modernism. These commenters do the cartoonists a disservice, I think, in viewing them as merely cultural observers, and not as artists themselves. In fact, most of the members of the first generation of newspaper comic strip cartoonists had fine arts training from art institutes and colleges.
Moreover, I think that viewing these cartoons as merely an expression of the public discomfort with, or confusion at, modern art overlooks the similarities of their projects. I would argue that many of these cartoonists did see themselves as artists, or at the least as people engaged in the greater art world, conversant with trends in the states and abroad. They may have seen the similarities between Duchamp’s futuristic cubism, with its abstraction and focus on movement, and their own work. They are likely to even be quite sympathetic to claims about the immorality, crudeness, or lack of merit of modern art, as these claims were echoes of a largely-forgotten social panic about newspaper comics that began around 1908 and lasted until approximately 1912.
Moving on to Matisse’s Luxury, which was another flashpoint work in the exhibit, though less of a lightning rod than Duchamp’s Nude. Again, we can see an aesthetic similarity between the modern artist and the cartoonist. Matisse’s use of (relatively) flat colors, dark outlines around objects (especially in the foreground), and figures that are equally built from anatomy, symbolic representation, and an aesthetically chosen line (be it aesthetically pleasing or off-putting) are all in certain ways similar to the type of art that appeared in the Sunday comic supplements of the urban papers at that time. Images like this were probably far less shocking to cartoonists than to most of the public that came to the Armory show. Alfred Stieglitz had been exhibiting European modernists in smaller galleries, including Matisse, since at least 1905. While the Armory Show drew the broader public to the new guard of European artists, it would be unsurprising if many of these professional illustrators, many of them young men who had fairly recently trained in art schools, would have been among the patrons who attended these galleries.
Simply put, it is harder to imagine that many cartoonists saw themselves as disconnected from the world of fine art than it is to imagine that they might have seen themselves as within the broader orbit of the art world, in one way or another. It is likely that many of them frequented galleries, met artists, and were part of the world of fine arts while also working as cartoonists for newspapers.
The Cartoonist as Artist: