Comics Education: Art School Confidential

Art School Confidential by Dan Clowes
Art School Confidential by Dan Clowes

This is a continuation of three previous posts on comics and education: one, two, three. Today, I continue with the ‘comics renaissance’ I started writing about in this post. Rough time period: late 70’s to late 90’s.

Here’s is an appropriate prelude for this post:

[Jack] Kirby enrolled at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, at what he said was age 14, leaving after a week. “I wasn’t the kind of student that Pratt was looking for. They wanted people who would work on something forever. I didn’t want to work on any project forever. I intended to get things done” (via)

Up until now I’ve written primarily about schools that focused specifically on comics. But there’s always been another way that aspiring cartoonists got educated: Art School. I want to look at two cartoonists who both went to art school (roughly during the same period) and who exemplified two basic attitudes about art in comics: Gary Panter and Dan Clowes. Art education was traditionally very much craft/technique oriented and focused on the core artistic pursuits: drawing, painting, sculpture. These were largely taught with a focus on representational image making. Life drawing, nature drawing, etc. By the time Panter & Clowes went to art school the focus had shifted dramatically. Most art schools still taught the basics of drawing, painting and sculpture, but these were supplemented (and in some cases supplanted) by non-traditional approaches culled from the countless art movements, avant-gardes and theories developed during the 20th century. By the late 70’s and early 80’s abstract expressionism, conceptual art installations, postmodernism, and others were well entrenched in the system.

Gary Panter studied painting at East Texas State University in the mid 70’s. In many ways his work embodies the comics as Art position. From the beginning his work never shied away from fine-art sensibility. His mind-bending, neo-cubist, cut & paste, future-caveman-punk Jimbo comics made a splash (slash?) in RAW magazine in the early 80’s. I’m not sure what Gary Panter’s school experience was like, but I don’t remember him ever speaking negatively about art school (I’ve read a lot of interviews with Panter, but I’m sure I missed a few, so if anyone knows otherwise let me know). In fact, if anything Gary’s gone out of his way to promote art to cartoonists. A recent example of that took place at the 2009 MoCCA art festival where Gary & Frank Santoro ran through a couple dozen artists that cartoonists should be aware of. In the middle of that Gary encouraged the attending crowd of comics artists and fans to “not be afraid of art.” Still, Panter was no ‘elitist arteest’ which is surely partly due to his embrace of the lowly comic-book. Panter form his 1980 Rozz Tox Manifesto:

Market saturation was reached in sixties – everyone knows that. Fine Elitist Art is of diminishing utility. There is not more reward for maintaining or joining an elite and sterile crew.

For some the artiness of Art Spiegelman’s and Françoise Mouly’s RAW (and Gary Panter’s Jimbo) was a breath of fresh air, but many cartoonists from that era caught a whiff of something else from the magazine. In an interview in Blab! #4 (1989) Dan Clowes was asked if he liked RAW:

Clowes: Not especially… I mean Spiegelman’s a very clever guy. I’m not sure if he planned it all this way or whether he just lucked into it, but he found a good way to package comics–as a magazine the Soho crowd is proud to have laying around at the foot of their loft beds, or whatever. He’s made RAW into a real big success, but I’m not sure whether it’s a great magazine. It’s certainly introduced us to some very good artists, Friedman and Burns specifically…and Muñoz and Sampayo.

Blab: Do you like Weirdo better?

Clowes: Much better. In fact, despite all the counter-culture cartoonist types I know, I can’t think anybody I’ve talked toin the last few years who really likes RAW–even people who’ve been printed in it.

In the same interview, Dan expounds further on art and artists when Blab! asks him what he thinks of Gary Panter:

Ummmm… I don’t care for it. I think he’s full of shit. There are little bits in it that I think are very amusing, but overall I think he’s pulling our collective leg. I really think that people that are into Gary Panter’s comics are, for the most part, pseudo artists or artsy fartsy types who think the’ve developed some real artistic sensibilities and can appreciate something the masses can’t appreciate. I can see what he’s doing but it doesn’t grab me. He’s certainly inventive and has a look all his own, but when it comes to drawing comics–which is what I’m talking about–why do I have to read it? It seems intentionally oblique for no reason. It’s going in a different direction than the stuff I’m interested in.

Now it’s not surprising to see the young Dan Clowes hold these views (I don’t know if he still holds them today). He is after all the author of Art School Confidential (the comic and the film). But he exemplifies the views of many other cartoonists at the time. Clowes attended the Pratt Institute in New York where he earned a BFA. By his account the school was drowning in the worst excesses of postmodernist conceptualism. The goal of the program seems to have been the creation of Art with a capital A, technique and craft were deemed secondary and determined by concept.

I don’t know if either of the cartoonists ever tried to present comics as art in any of their classes, and what the reaction might have been from the faculty or other students. But, having gone to art school myself I can at least speak to my own experience. I attended University of Minnesota in the early to mid-90’s and I graduated with a double major BFA in Art & Architecture. Cartoons and comic-books were generally seen as negatives in the art program. Several of my drawing teachers actively discouraged that kind of drawing. I assumed the print-making department would be more receptive to comics (as an art form where the end result is a printed object), but no. In my experience all printed work was created to be hung on the wall. When I at one point tried to present a comic-book that was done on a litho press, the professor insisted I matte and frame the work or I would not get credit for it. In other cases crazy performative pieces won general approval. In other words Clowes’ Art School Confidential resonated with my own experience… and that of many others:

As it turned out, every single one of my readers was either in art school or had some affiliation with it. They all responded overwhelmingly (and) were all certain I had gone to the same art school they had. The story took on a life of its own for a while.… People would Xerox it and put it up on the bulletin board at school. Somebody else would take it from there and Xerox it again. There were rumors that it had been Xeroxed so many times that nobody could discern the art style anymore. It became a kind of folk art. (via)

What art school lacked in the technique/craft area, was compensated by a kind of confident bravura that came with… well with being an Art School. Much of the art produced may have been bad or amateurish or whatever, but in almost all the cases there was a confidence in the importance of Art and it’s place in society. This was something sorely lacking in the comics world. But during this period the idea of comics as an Art form, with it’s unique qualities and effects was emerging and aggressively asserting itself. Gary Panter imported that attitude into comics from Art. Dan Clowes arrived at a similar place (with very different results) by having to actively resist the condenscending attitutes of the art world. In a weird way they followed a path described by Gary Panter. Again from Rozz Tox Manifesto:

Business 1. To create a pseudo-avant-garde that is cost effective. 2. To create merchandising platforms on popular communications and entertainment media. 3. To extensively mine our recent and ancient past for icons worth remembering and permutating: recombo archaeology.

Both artist mined the past of comic-books, newspaper strips, science-fiction and pulps, detective noir, monster & trash cinema and other detritus of past mass culture. Panter’s archaeology turned his work into a dayglo toxic feast for the eyes while Clowes’ work became a kind of high-pulp literature. Both artists found themselves at the head of a new comic-book avant-guard. The Dan Clowes literary approach to comics would win out over the next three decades, but Gary Panter’s influence is becoming increasingly visible in the new millenium.

Up next: I didn’t get to McCloud so I will try next time. Also, the English Department…

1980. RAW published by Françoise Mouly (edited by Art Spiegelman and Mouly)
Gary Panter writes the Rozz Tox Mainfesto.
1981. Weirdo published
     The Hernandez Brothers publish Love And Rockets
1985. Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art published
1986. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller
     Watchmen by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons
1989. Dan Clowes’ Eightball published
1992. Art Spiegelman’s Maus awarded the Pulitzer, the Eisner and the Harvey
1993. Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics published
1996. Will Eisner’s Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative published