Some Thoughts On Style

Posted: February 2, 2011 in Braak, poetics
Tags: , , ,

I was looking back at the Jezebel repost of my “Problems With Representations of Women in (Mostly) Superhero Comics“.  This was for the reason of reminding the editors at Jezebel that they and I actually have a pretty good relationship, and so they should host the livecast of my newest play, which is about Emma Goldman.  (It’s called Red Emma.  You should see it.)

Anyway, I’m always struck by internet comments, because I’m amazed by how many people either can’t or just didn’t read the article.  It’s hard, but I generally am able to resist the urge to spend all my time defending myself.

On of the last commenters on there got me thinking, though.  Not because his comment was particularly insightful, but because of how frustratingly dumb it was.  He’s trying to defend against the argument I present by arguing that the suggestion that boys and young men are influenced by comic books is both a) impossible and b) insulting to male readers because comics are “hyperstylized.”

(He also calls it a “faulty assumption”, which is just dumb, since my argument is actually a conclusion, which…well, nevermind.  There’s a lot of dumb in what he says.)

But it did get me thinking about some things, and I want to address them here, and to do that I will make this, possibly outlandish statement:  stylized art isn’t less real than realistic art; it is MORE real.

Let me clarify.  “Real” can mean a lot of things.  Well, it only means one thing, doesn’t it?  But it’s a thing that’s so expansive, so all-encompassing, that it can be deployed in any variety of ways without being directly refuted.  So, we all know that, for instance, the 1997 Volkswagon Golf is a “real” thing.  It is a thing that exists.  You could punch it, if you wanted to, and it would hurt your hand.  There is general consensus on its existence.

But if we’re being intellectually honest here, we have to start imagining that there are things that are real, but that we cannot actually punch.  For example:  music,  geometry, feelings.  (Believe me, if I could punch feelings, I would.)

Comics are a visual art form, and when they are “stylized” — that is, they are presented in a style that is manifestly different from observable reality (see some further notes about the distinction between “real” and “realistic” over here) — it is to a purpose.  That purpose is presenting things that are usually invisible (though still real) in a visible format.  That is because “visible” is the only thing comics can do.  That’s why there are words like “BANG” or “KAPOW” or “CRACKAJACKA” in comic books — because comics are not “realistic”, which is to say that they do not specifically try and emulate a photorealistic form of reality.  (Or, many of them don’t, and they definitely don’t have to.)

But does the fact that they aren’t realistic mean that they aren’t real?  On the face of it, it’s probably pretty absurd to suggest that anything that people occupy their time with is not in some way fulfilling of some particular aspect of their psychologies.  Psychology, being composed primarily of feelings, cannot be punched, nor often adequately visualized.  In fact, even with rigorous therapy, we never are really able to directly observe psychology, only sort of intuit causes and effects, obstructions and routines.

This doesn’t make it any less real, of course, and when I say that “stylized art” is more real than realistic art, what I mean is that the content of the psyche is as much and probably a more important subject for art to concern itself with than anything else.  This is because art is very good at examining psyches, while not particularly good at doing the things that direct, observable, realistic practices are (building Volkswagons, for instance).  When we say that art is “stylized”, what we are really saying is that it is using the tools at its disposal (visual storytelling, in the case of comics) in order to accurately reflect its proper subject:  that is, the unobservable and intangible qualities of the human psyche.

That (superhero) comics aren’t REALISTIC is obvious, but the problem with the way women are represented in them isn’t that people will think that those comics reflect the physical, observable world.  Comics are still REAL, and that is the problem.

So, a young girl picks up some Jim Lee comics from the late nineties; she looks at them and understands immediately that this isn’t what the world looks like.  But what she may understand, at least at a subconscious level, is that this is what both the artist and the audience of those comics WANT the world to look like.  She may understand this because it is precisely true, and it’s often used as a secondary defense of comics:  that they are a fantasy, and therefore they don’t count as anything, or are beyond criticism.

I don’t know when we started to get the idea that fantasy didn’t matter just because it was fantasy.  Instinctively, I want to blame the rise of Protestantism, as it posits a highly-simplified and concrete world that restricts fantasy life in a way that even Catholicism (itself highly restricted compared to what we’ll call “open Paganism”) still permitted.  HOWEVER, I know this is reductive, and I don’t think it really jives with the timeline.

What I do want to say is that historically, the idea that unobservable things could be presented observably was never questioned, and this is intuitively concomitant with an understanding of the supernatural world.  An ancient Greek lives in a world that is full of representations of things that are more or less what they resemble (that is, either MORE or LESS).  Zeus IS lightning, but he doesn’t LOOK like lightning, and so apprehending Zeus is an exercise in understanding that the world is full of invisible things, and that art is an activity in which we imperfectly attempt to represent them.  Brecht, in his “Short Organum on the Theatre,” points out that for thousands of years, the fact that things onstage didn’t look like reality never actually bothered anyone.  (Though this isn’t a hundred percent true, but that was Brecht for you.)

I’ve said before that realism is for idiots, and I’m going to both repeat it, but also clarify a little:  it’s not that only idiots like realism.  Anyone can like realism.  I don’t happen to, but I don’t think you’re an idiot because you do (I do think you’re wasting the power of the theater, but that’s an argument for another day).  What I will say is that realism is the only thing that idiots like, because everything else requires that you enjoy abstract thinking, and disliking abstract thinking is key to the definition of “idiot.”

It is, to bring myself back to myself here, exactly this kind of idiot who will defend “non-realistic” things as being irrelevant — because idiots lack the capacity for abstract consideration, for indulging in fantasy, for (for lack of a better term) IMAGINATION — they don’t understand how fantasy can actually be more influential to the developing psyche than reality.  How fantasy is a vast and powerful and above all REAL aspect of the human condition.

  1. Moff says:

    What you’re saying might be true, but it’s just written on a blog, so that sort invalidates your whole point. Blogs don’t even have mass!

  2. Supermassive blogholes?

  3. This is something most people don’t even bother to try and understand. Fantasy is simply escapism, and has nothing to do with reality. Except it has everything to do with our goals for reality.

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