If you’ve heard of Lichtenstein but not Kirby you’ve a lot to learn about art

A favourite saying of mine is de gustibus non disputandem est, or something like that. Which means in matter of taste there is no room for discussion. And for most things in art I’d apply that. Damien Hirst not your cup of tea? Fine. Think Constable should have stuck to chocolate box lids? Fair enough.

One artist I will take exception to you liking though is Roy Lichtenstein.

I’ve just finished reading Kamandi by Jack Kirby, which is what’s prompted this post. Kamandi is a comic-book that ran from 73 to about 76. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic USA, where animals are super-evolved and humans are devolved. It’s based on Jack Kirby’s word of mouth knowledge of Planet of the Apes, though also drawing on elements from his own story from the 50s. The writing is typical of Kirby, random, off-the-wall, picaresque and mad as a box of frogs. The art though is so signature Kirby. Dramatic, dynamic, mannerist. Every frame is a work of art.

All art is collaborative. Mike Royer’s inks form a part of it. Pierre Bouelle and Rod Serling’s ideas form part of the narrative. Everything is built on what’s gone before. So that’s OK. We all create something that’s in the middle of plagiarism, homage, theft, and reference. But that’s justified by acknowledging the sources as much as possible, and contributing something new.

But then we come to Roy Lichtenstein.

Here is probably one of the most famous of the pieces he is credited as the artist of.

roy_lichtenstein_whaam

However, he’s not really the artist. Because it was based on this

Whamm_Irv Novick.gif

Which is by Irv Novick. Lichtenstein has changed the elements slightly, but not in any importantly creative way. He’s also produced it on a lot larger scale, and got an art gallery to buy it and hang it. That’s it for creative input.

Here are another pair. First of all the Lichtentstein copy and then the original art, by Tony Arbruzzo.

roy_lichtenstein_drowning_girl

arbruzzo

People critiquing Lichtenstein have commended its impassive style, its eroticism, the way it evokes Hokusai’s the Wave, its melodrama. Maybe. But if it does then Arbruzzo also did  all that because there is nothing in the Lichtentstein copy that is not in the original.

OK two more, and with some reluctance because I haven’t been able to track down the original artist.

Oh and actually I needn’t because in trying again to track down the source I’ve come across two other blog posts that have done this rant before

http://www.scottedelman.com/2011/12/17/a-few-words-in-defense-of-jack-kirby-sal-buscema-irv-novick-and-other-anonymized-artists/

and

http://davidbarsalou.homestead.com/LICHTENSTEINPROJECT.html

So what’s going on? Why has this been seen to be OK for so long?

The problem is that the art community (and if you’ve heard of Roy Lichtenstein but not Jack Kirby I’m going to include you in this) have divided the world of art into a hierarchy. There is “high” art and there is “low” art. For example, this pillock

http://metro.co.uk/2013/07/08/struggling-artist-accidentally-uses-rare-comics-worth-a-fortune-to-make-papier-mache-model-3874227/

He seems remarkably sanguine about the act and stands by it. His argument is along the lines of: “Well yes, because the statement to destroy something of economic value to create something worthless is a worthwhile artistic statement.” I’d buy that in essence. When the K Foundation burnt a million pounds that was an artistic statement that had some merit. What’s different is that here it’s not just economic value you’ve destroyed, it’s artistic value. You’ve destroyed a valuable work of art to make a crappy one. Avengers #1 was drawn by Kirby. But of course, this arrogant twat has probably never heard of Kirby and in this guy’s culture they weren’t art, they were just product.

The “high” art community who praise Lichtenstein discuss how the images taken out of context are transformed, devoid of the narrative before and after they become more stylised, are abstracted, and transformed. Fair enough. But anyone can do that by taking any comic frame and just really looking at it. Here’s one from Kamandi at random. Random numbers courtesy of https://www.random.org/

p.13 frame 2.

kamandi_13_2

Kamandi volume one has 500 pages, and there are between 0.5 and 6 frames per page, so you have an idea of the randomness of the image. You want to analyse that? Knock yourself out. If you were a Lichtenstein apologist you could come up with a lot of stuff I guess. The phallic protrusion of the pistol pointing out of the frame, the weird placement of the right shoulder (it’s not one of his best drawings actually, damn you random.org) I bet some artist has drawn hair like that, or grass, for you to liken it to. But do it big with Ben-Day dots and you too can be a Lichtenstein.

My point is, what random.org just did then is as artistic as anything Lichtenstein did during his Pop Art phase. If everything that is in the final art pieces is in the original then you’re not creating art in the process. Simply removing it from its context it doesn’t add anything that some algorithm can’t do. The fact that Kirby creates this art over 100 times in any one issue of a comic, rather than just once, or that there is an actual narrative before and after the frame, or that it appears in a comic at a newsstand rather than in a gallery, makes it no less art and an artist that just moves from one location to another does not transform it any more than I’ve just done.

So the high art, low art distinction just begs the question. When there is objectively no distinction in the actual art, how can the division still be made. Why do Lichtenstein fans like his stuff, when they wouldn’t be seen dead buying a comic? Or an artist feel it’s ok to use this stuff to make papier mache out of? Or actually OK to appropriate the image and not credit the original artist?

It’s not a class thing. Most art galleries are free. Working class people like art. Working class people become artists.

It’s not really an education thing. If you want to do either well you need to go to college. But maybe it’s there the distinction starts. There are fine arts degrees and there are design degrees and they never really cross-over. The one definitely has more status than the other in mainstream culture. That’s still begging the question though; where does this difference in status come from?

Could it be a chronological thing? Here are the arts in numerical order.
– the first art : architecture
– the second art : sculpture
– the third art : painting
– the fourth art : dance
– the fifth art : music
– the sixth art : poetry
– the seventh art : cinema
– the eighth art : television
– the ninth art : comic strips

And (still conjectural though) the tenth art: video games. The older arts do have more credibility still, it’s true. And prose seems to have got missed out. Which is a bit annoying as that’s the only one I do.

But obviously it’s not quite chronological, as comics have been around before cinema. So why did it take longer for them to become accepted as art? Back to the same question again.

Above all I think it’s a tribal thing. The art community, and the art brokers, and the people who make documentaries and who give out art grants (and go to art galleries and make art because they think it affords them a particular status) belong to one tribe and the people who read comics (and who also go to art galleries and make art but just because it’s something they like to do) belong to another. They are different cultures, and the one looks down on the other and refuses to engage, because comic books are something they can dismiss as beneath them (because dismissing things beneath them makes them feel better about themselves). And when someone appropriates something from that other culture and introduces it to theirs, that’s OK because it didn’t really have value before, because it was someone from the other tribe who created it.

So that’s why I’d call Lichtenstein (well he’s dead now, so the Lichtenstein apologists), and Vickers, and the people who given a choice between Lichtenstein and Kirby would choose Lichtenstein are arrogant/conceited whatever, because they believe their culture is better than mine. And it really isn’t.

I realise I’ve just said that there are two types of people in the world, those who divide people into two types of people, and those who don’t. But have you got a better answer for why this happens?

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5 thoughts on “If you’ve heard of Lichtenstein but not Kirby you’ve a lot to learn about art

  1. I could be persuaded that the dogfight pics’ similarity is just chance, but that second pair of images is really quite astonishing. I just superimposed one on the other, and it’s close enough to have actually been traced. Did the original artists not have lawyers?!!

    • I don’t think they’d have got anywhere. Lichtenstein had the whole of the art community saying that what he’d done was fair play. That the original artwork had no intellectual or artistic value, all that had been accrued when Lichtenstein appropriated it. There’s an interesting piece here http://www.scottedelman.com/2011/12/23/why-a-comic-book-isnt-a-hersheys-bar/ on why it’s not the same as Warhol’s Campbell’s soup can.

      I don’t think still that there’d be any chance of the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation being sued by the artists’ estate or by DC Comics even. However, any gallery that lists Lichtenstein as the creator, and not acknowledge the work of the original artist, is completely reprehensible.

  2. I remember doing this art style in Intermediate and thinking it was basically just copying someone else’s work. It’s the same with Pollock. Are paint splatters only art when a mad man in barn does them? Why isn’t mine valued as high? Because I copied it? In which case Liechtenstein shouldn’t be valued because he copied it! I think what I’m trying to say is: Snobbery is dumb.

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