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Illustrating ‘Moby-Dick’ – the Pequod and others

June 10, 2010 8 comments

For some reason, even though I have read the novel multiple times, Melville’s description of the Pequod surprises me every time. I’ve seen so many pieces of historical nautical and whaling art that eventually the ships all seem to look rather similar. The same sort of planked sides, railings along the deck, lots of ropes and masts and so on. Honestly, this kind of imagery is now so common to most people that it’s not uncommon to see it on everything from beer bottle labels to tractor trailer trucks.

I think most readers come to the Pequod expecting just that same kind of beer bottle label, tractor trailer truck wooden sailing ship. Something they, in their mind’s eye, can see so clearly that the mere presence of a rather detailed description can seem a little surprising. It’s the nature of that description and those details though which always surprises me and ignites my imagination. For rather than a simple, dull whaling vessel, Melville describes the Pequod as “a ship of the old school, rather small if anything; with an old fashioned claw-footed look about her.” Let that sink in for a moment. “Rather small, if anything…” Small! Given its central role in a story as massive, as epic, as Biblical in scope as Moby-Dick, who would imagine that the outer boundaries of this wooden island that becomes the sailors’ entire world would shrink to the size of a “rather small” ship for years on end?

Melville then goes on at length about her “antiquities” such as the bearded bows, the stiff Japanese masts standing up like the “spines of the three old kings of Cologne,” her ancient decodes wrinkled “like the pilgrim-worshiped flag-stone in Canterbury Cathedral where Beckett bled” and so on. But then it starts to get really interesting, and the Pequod begins to seem a thing of fantasy. Melville describes how Peleg has “built upon her original grotesqueness, and inlaid it, all over…” This Pequod is “appareled like any barbaric Ethiopian emperor…a thing of trophies. A cannibal of a craft, tricking herself forth in the chased bones of her enemies.” Now let the mind slowly turn, imagining a machine built for the sole purpose of sailing the seas, battling whales, and rendering them into oil. Take this machine and inlay it with grotesque designs. Upon those inlays, set the bones of the very leviathans the machine has slain. A magnificent image should even now be forming in your mind.

Melville finished the description beautifully by describing how these same whale bones and teeth are not just grotesque, not simply design elements, and not even just trophies of the Pequod’s brutal hunts, but functional tools and devices themselves. The bulwarks are garnished “like one continuous jaw, with the long sharp teeth of the Sperm Whale, inserted there for pins, to fasten her old hempen thews and tendons to.” And the all important tiller is “in one mass curiously carved from the long narrow lower jaw of her hereditary foe.” The very jaw of a whale steers that same ship which hunts and destroys whales. The whole, beautiful, grotesque paragraph concludes with the line “A noble craft, but somehow a most melancholy! All noble things are touched with that.” Quite a description and a rather daunting task.

As always, when beginning an illustration, I simply unmoor my mind and let thoughts and images roll unbidden through it. Again, betraying my admittedly less-than-fine art background, my first thoughts were of the astonishing pen and ink art of Ian Miller, particularly his spot illustrations for the early mass market paperback edition of Michael Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead, the beautifully stylized comic art of Philippe Druillet, and, for some reason, the ship that Elric, Corum, Hawkmoon and Erekose sailed on in Michael Moorcock’s The Sailor on the Seas of Fate.

An aside here. When Daryl invited me to post on this blog, I was honored but nervous. After several posts, those feelings remain. I have been awed by the level of discourse and critical analysis evident in so much of this writing. At times I worry that these crude simple illustrations of mine as well as my own level of engagement with the novel and its themes seem pedestrian at best and immature at worst. And in this post, given my own comparison of the Pequod to a ship from a 1970s pulp fantasy novel series as literarily complex as Conan and, well, you can probably understand some of my nervousness. Nonetheless, one of the things which has sustained me through 274 pieces of art and counting has been an honest commitment to my own personal vision uncluttered by deconstruction or comparison to the greater body of Melville-related art. I’ll leave that part to the experts.

So with Miller, Druillet and Moorcock in mind, I began to craft my own Pequod. Again layering the images over an electrical diagram, I started with a ballpoint pen mostly because I wanted the color of the ship to stand out just a bit against the color of the background. I knew I would have a dismal time of it if I tried to keep things realistic, so I again threw all caution to the wind and drew the ship exactly as I saw it. I knew it would have planks and masts and decks and chains but the rest was up to me. I wanted my Pequod to seem savage, barbaric, exotic, and alive. An old, wily, hungry, jaded killer. Nothing about the Pequod seemed to me to be gentle, kind, or even necessarily noble. It was a creature of function, every line and every element had to contribute to creating an image of violence and predation. It had to be squat, rather ugly, yet still lethal and fearsome. Here’s what resulted…

Later I had the opportunity to expand on the details of the craft so I chose to rather elaborately highlight the strange sea beast skull that I had adorned the prow with…

Even though I’ve only been able to lavish this level of detail on the Pequod in two pieces, I have enjoyed the task of visualizing each of the ships described in the text so far. Here is the Goney…

…and here is the Town-Ho.

And I look forward to the Jeroboam, the Rose-Bud, the Bachelor, and of course the doomed Rachel. But those are stories for another day.

Illustrating ‘Moby-Dick’ – page 030

June 8, 2010 3 comments

And now we come to it. My first whale. I suppose, for good or ill, I have never outgrown some of my childhood. Even now, at the decrepit age of 41 (!) I am still fascinated by monsters. More specifically, drawings of monsters. Monster art. Anything visual that’s monster related. As I’ve grown older, my tastes have broadened quite a bit and now it takes far more than a simple Godzilla film or drug store comic book to thrill my eye. Still, for me, it’s generally still all about the monsters, and I mean that in the simplest, purest, truest, and most genuine way.

I think that the idea of monsters is still a part, at least, of what draws many of us to Moby-Dick. Certainly the novel is far more complex, yes, but at its heart, the duel of whale and man, Ahab and Moby Dick, is a part of what starts our hearts pounding and our minds racing. So for me, an aficionado of the leviathans of air, land and sea, the prospect of embarking on an illustration project where I would be able to draw monster after monster after monster was one I found almost irresistible.

Once again, I knew I didn’t want to do the expected. There have already been enough staggeringly brilliant artists such as Rockwell Kent and Barry Moser, to name just two, who have lent a soberly powerful realism to this yarn of men and monsters. To me, the fact that these artists were able to depict the whales, men and ships of the story in much the way as they actually appear in reality while still creating thrilling and fabulous images is nothing short of miraculous. I have very real doubts about my ability to depict anything realistically, and on the few occasions when I have tried to do so, the results have been dull at best and positively banal at worst.

This freed me to cut loose the moorings and let my mind explode. I could draw any whale in any medium any way that I wanted. The mythical and Biblical underpinnings of the novel were enough, I thought, to give me some credibility in sailing the seas of fable and fantasy to dredge up these ideas. So again, a lifetime of comic books, videogames, fantasy art, cartoons, science fiction and colored pencils would swirl together and from that alchemical brew provide a bestiary I hoped would thrill me to the end of my days. The excitement was growing. My first whale!

The line I chose was from page 30 of the Signet Classics paperback edition, and I specifically looked for this opportunity so that I could practice a bit before tackling Moby Dick himself. This line would give me an opportunity to start working out some of my ideas and building my bestiary of leviathans. The line comes as Ishmael lounges in the Spouter Inn eating breakfast and staring about him at the panoply of seasoned salts, sailors and harpooneers. He, like me, seems to marvel at these men and the deeds that they are capable of, curiously contrasted by their almost meek silence at dining in the company of strangers. Ishmael remarks “Yes, here were a set of sea-dogs, many of whom without the slightest bashfulness had boarded great whales on the high seas—entire strangers to them—and duelled them dead without winking…” That was more than enough to fire my imagination. The bravery, the martial spirit in that line! These men had “boarded great whales on the high seas!” I’ve had a hard time stepping out of a secured canoe onto a pebbly but very stable shore, so I can’t imagine the skill and dexterity it took to “board” a great whale writhing in its death throes on the crashing waves! And then these men had “duelled them dead without winking.” Again, the courage! Or insanity? Probably both, but isn’t that paradox almost always a quality of the best heroes, from Gilgamesh to Theseus to O.M.A.C.? I liked also how that line alludes to the honor and dignity of whaling. These sea battles were not murder, they were duels. There were rules to be followed. Codes of conduct to be honored. The whale was a terrifying and murderous foe, but one to be treated with respect and dignity.

With all that in mind, the image I finally depicted leapt to mind almost immediately. That giant, rolling, baleful eye, preposterously bigger than the harpooneer himself. I wanted the harpoon to look like the death dealer that I knew it to be, so rather than attempt something realistic I remembered the scalpels we used to eviscerate the fetal pigs I studied in biology. The harpoon became a smoldering black scalpel poised menacingly over that fragile eye. The injury to the eye motif! The harpooneer I was especially fond of, towering implacably on the head of the leviathan, unbowed, unmoving, frozen in that single moment of time before delivering the deathblow. Careful viewers will notice the pink froth from the whale’s spout, showing the beast to be already gravely wounded and fighting to its last breath.

Sometimes, with these Moby-Dick illustrations, there are layers of meaning. Hidden symbols, personal and otherwise. But sometimes, it’s just men and monsters, sailors and whales. And those are often the most fun to make. I hope you like this one as much as I do.

Of Course You Can’t Trust Him—He’s Narrating

June 5, 2010 9 comments

“Art, whose honesty must work through artifice, cannot avoid cheating truth.”

Adrienne Rich.

It’s funny the way this book works on me: It spends 35 chapters deferring any revelations on the plot, and just as it finally establishes what’s really at stake, I go haring off after the narrator. Specifically, I want to look at the way our whole second section of the book communicates the extent to which the story is mediated through Ishmael’s narration.

Obviously, I’m not saying anything controversial when I note that no narration can be taken at face value. For all that some literature tries to pretend otherwise, there is no such thing as pure, direct truth in any narration; narration is always the result of choices and omissions that inevitably shape it. (Like I said, not controversial.) But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing interesting in the ways a narration differs from The Truth. And in Ishmael’s case, we get such a self-consciously artificial narration that I think it fairly makes the case for meaning as mostly constructed, rather than transcendentally existent.

Paul carefully traces the buildup of suspense about Ahab, and I agree with him, but I think it’s also important to recognize it as part of Ishmael’s narrative strategy. Melville foregrounds the mediated nature of the book by beginning with a narrator who refuses to vouch for the name he gives us. This is explicitly going to be Ishmael’s arrangement of events and his conclusions on their import. Paul describes Ahab as Melville’s “master creation,” which is true, but Ahab is only ever depicted as Ishmael’s creation. The whole book is Ishmael’s telling, the whole story Ishmael’s dramaturgy.

And I use the word “dramaturgy” advisedly—chapters 36 through 40 are all explicitly theatrical. “The Quarter-Deck” (ch. 36), which is by far the most eventful and dramatic chapter up to that point, begins with a stage direction. Then we get three monologues and an unwelcome premonition of Ulysses‘s interminable “Circe” episode, fully formatted as a play. At first I found this chunk of text almost inexplicably strange. I went along for the ride and enjoyed it, but I didn’t know where it came from. Then I looked back and saw that Ishmael had been patiently laying his groundwork for a couple dozen pages at least. Chapter 29 is the first with a stage direction (“Enter Ahab; to him, Stubb”), and as a title, no less. Two pages later comes the “Cetology” chapter (of which more anon)—which truthfully doesn’t much advance my dramaturgy argument, although it does foreground the artificiality of the narrative (that wasn’t the anon I was talking about)—and then at the end of chapter 33, “The Specksynder,” Ishmael gives us a straight-up statement of his mission:

Nor, will the tragic dramatist who would depict mortal indomitableness in its fullest sweep and direst swing, ever forget a hint, incidentally so important in his art, as the one now alluded to.

But Ahab, my Captain, still moves before me in all his Nantucket grimness and shagginess; and in this episode touching Emperors and Kings, I must not conceal that I have only to do with a poor old whale-hunter like him; and, therefore, all outward majestical trappings and housings are denied me. Oh, Ahab! what shall be grand in thee, it must needs be plucked at from the skies, and dived for in the deep, and featured in the unbodied air!

“I will invent what I have to,” Ishmael says, “to tell the story I want.”

And then a whole chapter that he must have invented! “The Cabin-Table” (ch. 34) describes a whole scene that Ishmael is forbidden to attend. He gives himself a possible out with a throwaway line about “peep[ing] at Flask through the cabin sky-light,” but I’m not convinced. (Chapter 35, “The Mast-Head,” avails me nothing in the line I’m taking, so I have nothing to say about it outside these parentheses.) After all that preparation for the dramaturgical angle Ishmael intends to approach on, I shouldn’t really have been surprised to see overt drama.

Now: “Cetology.” I love this chapter, because it’s so assured and almost absurd at the same time, and because it’s so obsessively detailed, and because it’s so delightfully bibliophilically artificial. The man categorizes whales by size like paper, and breaks his categorization down by books and chapters. The note on the classification scheme is a pure pleasure: “Why this [Octavo] book of whales is not denominated the Quarto is very plain. Because, while the whales of this order, though smaller than those of the former order, nevertheless retain a proportionate likeness to them in figure, yet the bookbinder’s Quarto volume in its diminished form does not preserve the shape of the Folio volume, but the Octavo volume does.” The whole scheme is arbitrary; Ishmael announces a definition of “whale,” then proceeds to lay down a division without any express authority. It’s pure ipse dixit, presented as science. This cetological plan is only barely more organized or sensible than the classification in the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. If Moby-Dick, as I’ve asserted before, wants to be about everything, within that ambition is an anti-totalizing recognition that meaning is always constructed, no matter how comprehensive it aims to be. The “Cetology” chapter stands as a perfect symbol of that tension, which is why it’s always meant so much more to me than just a dry taxonomy.

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Illustrating ‘Moby-Dick’ – page 020

June 3, 2010 4 comments

Queequeg stressed me out. A lot. I was enormously surprised, and continue to be so, at how much attention the Moby-Dick illustration project got very early on. It has generally been pretty wonderful to share the art with so many people, many of whom are total strangers. But something that I think even the most disciplined and focused artists experience is the weight of other’s expectations. While I think very few readers are likely to form a specific visual impression of Ishmael, which freed me to create that strange whale-like mask as his totem, many readers are either familiar with how Queequeg has been depicted in the various illustrated editions and films, or have in mind some kind of strange amalgam of a South Sea islander, tattoos, and shrunken heads. When trying to visualize Queequeg, I kept running aground on my fear of others expectations, and that froze me up for days. True artist block, for the first time on this project and one of the first times in my life.

In keeping with my initial focus on a reductionist approach to the art, I began stripping away what I knew I wouldn’t need. The body, the lean and athletic anatomy of a professional harpooneer was not important. Queequeg could just be a shape, like all of the other characters thus far. I had begun developing a sort of visual vocabulary that functioned as an easily readable catalog of symbols, each of which reflected a character’s role. The non-sailors, which I affectionately termed “landlubbers” on the blog, were all almost perfectly cylindrical, beak-nosed, wide-eyed toy-like shapes. The seamen and captains were all to resemble ships in some way, although, anachronistically, they generally looked more metallic and robotic. These forms have held up throughout the project so far. The harpooneers, of which Queequeg was the first, were different though. I’ve always thought of them as predators, or living weapons, beings frightfully perfect in their ability to battle and destroy monsters. For some time I thought of giving them all bird heads, but that seemed too obvious and, in a strange way, too consistent. Queequeg, Tashtego, and Daggoo are so alike and yet so vastly different and I didn’t want to be confined to a certain character type for each one of them. So for the harpooneers, the only consistency I wanted was inconsistency.

That didn’t get me much farther though in figuring just how I wanted Queequeg, that terrifying tattooed savage, to look. Back to the act of reducing, after discarding anatomy, clothing and accoutrements were next. I kept coming back to what I think each of us remembers when it comes to Queequeg. His friendliness and his tattoos. I quickly decided that rendering them too realistically would be pointless. We remember what our impressions of things are, not what they really are. Queequeg, like Ishmael, and like the captains and landlubbers, needed to be a living symbol. A mask that came to stand in for him, represent him, epitomize him.

Thoughts of his South Sea island home called to mind the bright turquoise blue of the ocean water in what I imagined would be his lagoons and beaches, so I began with that. A simple scalloped pattern, repeated over and over, built itself into a lushly but simply patterned face. For his eyes, the silhouette was a compassionate almond, but the eyes radiated red to remind the viewer that this man is indeed a killer of whales and an eater of men. All that remained was to cloak him simply in his woven poncho, equip him with his trusty harpoon, and give him a simple topknot. And of course, recalling the hilarious scene aboard the Pequod when Queequeg first signs on with Bildad and Peleg, I couldn’t resist including “his mark.”

Ultimately, I was quite pleased with this even though it has been one of the hardest of all the images to create. What has been fascinating is the way in which this color blue and this pattern have come to stand in for Queequeg. It’s been incredibly gratifying that some who visit the blog regularly even comment for that. It must have been a powerful image indeed for viewers to be able to connect these things so closely and so specifically with a single character.

Queequeg is still one of my favorites to draw. Besides whales, of course. When I finally finish, sometime next spring, I imagine I will create a more elaborate portrait of the man simply to frame and hang on my well. He always seemed like such a likeable cannibal, and I should like to get to know him better myself.

Illustrating ‘Moby-Dick’ – pages 004 and 006

I feel that my greatest artistic shortcoming is my absolute inability to render a convincing human figure. I’m sure many of you are familiar with the first Moby-Dick film as well as the exquisite Rockwell Kent illustrations. In each of those iterations, great care was taken to put forth convincing, unique, visually distinct representations of each of the characters. I didn’t think I would be able to pull that off, especially over 552 pages, and I wasn’t sure that I even wanted to. This was primarily because I wasn’t interested in creating a simple visual narrative, a linear A to B journey through the book via paintings and drawings. I wanted to dig much deeper, get to the meat of things, and show the book as I saw it in my own inner theater. One of the many things which has always astounded me about the novel and the men behind the harpoons is the staggering willpower involved in choosing such a path. I’ve already alluded to this, but the idea of leaving home for years and years at sea, for little money, living on a tiny wooden island, and setting out on the unknown watery deep to stab to death the most massive and often savage creatures to ever see the sun…well, I find that almost inconceivable. So before beginning the illustration for page 004, the first time  in this project that I would have to depict a seaman, I spent some time thinking about just who these men were. What drove them. What inner architecture supported these brave deeds. Gradually, these men began, in my mind, to resemble ships. The very ships they sailed on or the ironclads of the Civil War. In some ways, part machine, part tool, part man. That was quite honestly the only way I could even begin to rationalize the choice to endure such deprivation, such isolation, such wandering, all for the sake of a few barrels of whale oil and a handful of dollars.

The line I chose, from a much more poetic paragraph, is Ishmael wondering “What of it, if some old hunks of a sea captain orders me to get a broom and sweep down the decks?” In a way, this quick piece was a good warm-up for what I knew would be many many more seamen and captains, Ahab and otherwise, throughout the book.

A simple, prow-like head. A band of some kind of optical devices. The anchor, (for me) the universal symbol of naval authority, radiating from his forehead almost aggressively. The booming voice bellowing commands. And again, an illustrated word. Words have shown up in many of these illustrations so far, and they have always seemed inseparable from my vision of the text itself.

These stylistic choices would repeat themselves many times until reaching their apotheosis in my vision of the mad Captain Ahab. But that’s a tale for another day.

Page 006 also represented a first in that it was my first opportunity to explore the whale as a visual symbol. In a bit of foreshadowing, Ishmael describes one of his most powerful reasons for choosing a life at sea as “Chief among these motives was the overwhelming idea of the great whale himself.” Knowing that I would be exploring the meaning of the whiteness of the whale at great length later, I chose instead to focus quite literally on Ishmael’s motive, “the great whale himself.” The meaning of the whale, as embodied by the whale. The proto-whale. The avatar of the whale.

Nothing but mass. Sheer, terrifying size, rising from the horizon. Something so huge that it cannot possibly be seen in its entirety at once, with one set of eyes. It must be broken into pieces, here by the borders of the paper, to even be comprehensible. An idol of the great leviathan. And an almost perfect fusion of power and simplicity. I was deliriously happy with this piece, and although many of the later images of whales would become a great deal more dynamic, detailed, fiddly, surreal, fantastical, and more, this to me is still the epitome of the great whale himself.

On Tuesday, I will introduce you to everybody’s favorite cannibal Queequeg.

Illustrating ‘Moby-Dick’ – page 001

May 26, 2010 8 comments

I am often asked just how I decide which line of text from Moby-Dick I am going to illustrate, and if I simply read one page each day. Since I have read the book a number of times, I am relatively familiar with most of it (although each reading has revealed more and more to me). Generally, I will read a few chapters at a time and simply marinate on them for a while. Turn them over in my in my brain almost subconsciously. When the time comes, I will re-read a few pages and select a passage that I have an immediate response to. I’m not choosing passage that would simply be easy or fun to illustrate, nor am I necessarily choosing passages that I think will continue to advance the narrative in a visual way. I’m not trying to create a graphic novel version of Moby-Dick, or some sort of storyboard for the tale. I think it would actually be fairly difficult to follow and comprehend the thread of the story simply by looking at my illustrations alone, unless one had already read the novel at least once. That may be a weakness of the project, but to me it is simply another layer in the mosaic that’s been built up around the book over the decades and it doesn’t trouble me.

Once I’ve selected a line to illustrate, I will again let my subconscious go to work. I’m always aware that what I am really doing is channeling all of the visual imagery that I have soaked in over a lifetime of looking at things and reacting to the text from that state of mind. I can see all sorts of influences in nearly every one of the illustrations I’ve made so far. Some are almost obvious while others are more subtle. But again, as I mentioned before, each of these illustrations is an intensely personal reaction to the text and the novel itself, as I see it, as it plays out in my own inner theater. I’m not certain if this is the way I’ve always seen Moby-Dick, but I do know that many of these images are strangely familiar to me so at some point in the past this is what the novel became, visually, to me.

Unfortunately, I have a habit of never planning anything very well. A good example was my choice of the Signet Classics paperback edition of the novel, which uses Roman numerals for the “Front Matter” and begins Chapter 1 on page 1. That edition has 552 pages, meaning I would have to create 552 daily pieces of art. I have since learned that the Dover Giant Thrift Edition has only 464 pages, some of which are introductory material and that if I had done just a bit of searching and chosen that edition I would have saved myself almost 4 months of labor and obsession. Ah, well.

So we come to the first page. The first illustration. The first step on this 18 month (at least) voyage. To be blunt, the choice of text was a no-brainer. “Call me Ishmael.” One of the most well-known lines from the novel. Indeed, one of the most well-known lines in literature.

In a sense, my illustration again demonstrates how I don’t necessarily always think things through. We all know that Ishmael is the narrator, and that in many ways it is his voice we hear throughout the novel. He is never far from the reader, a constant companion on the waves, and I mistook that constant narrative voice for a constant visual presence. One of the many tricks one learns when illustrating a comic book is to make the main characters as simple to draw as possible. This is especially necessary since the artist will be drawing them again and again and again, panel after panel after panel, page after page after page. While it may be a thrill to create some incredible vision replete with all sorts of fiddly details like folds and pleats in the clothing, belts and pouches, wildly colorful patterns and so on, those details can become sheer misery to draw so many times. So mistaking my Ishmael for a constant visual in this series, I depicted him as simply as possible.

In retrospect, I have absolutely no regrets. This image actually turned out perfectly, just the way it had to be. Ishmael, a vaguely whale-shaped mask. A cipher. A perfect stand-in for the reader. The man with the sea inside of him.

I had been thinking a lot about the simple, almost abstract art of painters such as Yuichi Yokoyama, Paul Klee and Joan Miro and the way that, for them, identity is often expressed through almost totemic masks. Ishmael, for me, became a mask. A symbol. Which I felt appropriate because even though his voice is our constant companion, we know next to nothing about him, even after the nihilistic fury of the novel’s climax has been spent. Ishmael is the one character everyone is aware of but nobody knows. This kind of symbolic, mask-like representation was something I had been thinking about for a long time, and something I would explore again and again with every one of the characters in the novel.

Beyond that, a few simple details remained. The first chapter and its first page are largely Ishmael’s thoughts alone as he half-drifts through a reverie of ennui and aimlessness. Best, to me, depicted through the vaguely ominous, bruise-yellow storm clouds gathering above. As for the name, well, honestly, how could that not be included? Again, a nod, perhaps, to many many years of reading comic books, but for me the word as a design element is something I would return to again and again. Perfectly suited, I think, for a novel like Moby-Dick, where the white whale himself is often compared to a kind of book.

On Friday, a nameless “old hunks of a sea captain” and “the overwhelming idea of the great whale himself.” As always, comments and critiques are always deeply appreciated, even if they are negative. I value honesty far more than praise.

What Would They Criticize?

February 4, 2010 13 comments

There’s an awful lot of interesting stuff in the second chunk of reading on our schedule (how my tune changes in just 51 pages!), but I want to fly over everything in the middle and focus on the material that basically bookends the section: the story of Edwin Johns. Over at the Bolaño mothership, Brooks suggests that Johns may be based on a performance artist called Pierre Pinoncelli, and I can see where the self-mutilation invites the link, but I think of him much more as Damien Hirst. (Obviously, there’s the taxidermy, but there’s also his nationality, his age, his rebelliousness, and his outrageous sales.)

First I want to talk about the situation of the artist in the art market. We have received a Romantic idea of the artist as a brilliant male creator, receiving inspiration from external, divine sources (alright, the Muses are older than Romanticism) and struggling heroically against the world to produce great, pure testaments to his genius and skill. Art is the extension into this world of that which is divine and unsullied, and any other purpose behind the making of art—for money, for example—taints both the result and the artist. We have the stereotype of the starving artist, nobly refusing to follow any star but his art, regardless of petty concerns like lunch or rent.

And all that of course is a load of crap, foisted on the world by men who didn’t have to earn their bread or their keep, and were thus able to ignore the economic considerations that most everyone else has to take into account when deciding how to pursue their careers. (Not that they were above accepting money for their work; it just had to be a formal afterthought.) I don’t discount the expressive and aesthetic drives that lead a creative person to art, but I want to emphasize that most people have to balance the satisfaction of those drives with meeting the first one or two levels of needs in Maslow’s hierarchy. And to that extent, art must be an economic activity; it cannot be isolated from the flow of money. In truth, it can never be: the actual artist must buy her supplies from somewhere, and must have someplace to do her art (which place she either rents or pays property taxes on). But even outside the inescapable embedment of all living in economic activity, artists need to sell. To be a professional artist is to support yourself through the sale of your work.

I’m going to skip a discussion here of “selling out,” because I don’t think it’s particularly interesting. What I want to say instead is that it seems to me that the critical apparatus—the critics themselves, their reviews, their journals—is a necessary part of this situation, at least in the case of new art. (Like Edwin Johns’s.) After a certain time, artists and kinds of art and individual pieces acquire reputations, so that their relative values (both monetary and “artistic,” by which I suppose I mean a combination of aesthetic and intellectual) are reasonably apparent. With new art, though, it’s often useful to have someone to put it in context; indeed, for the purposes of market valuation, it’s essential. Basically, in my representation here, it is a purpose (among others) of the critical establishment to tell people what new art is worth.

And I say Edwin Johns’s breakthrough exhibition, the one Norton tells Morini about on 52 and 53, is included in 2666 as a straight-up indictment of that critical establishment. The man chops off his own hand and puts it in an art show, and rather than recoil, the public buys up every single piece, “although the prices were astronomical.” That’s disgusting, and something that a responsible critic would feel obligated to oppose; societies obviously can’t afford to extend financial incentives for mutilation, and a critic who cares about the field he works in (or about people at all) ought to be horrified at the idea of his discipline as a beachhead for the practice. But rather than revulsion, Johns’s exhibition inspires a whole artistic movement. Not one of amputation, true, but I think it still has to be seen as the fruit of a poisonous tree. (I’m concerned that I’ve come to sound terribly moralistic here; I hope instead I just sound firmly convinced that chopping off your own hand for monetary gain is a bad kind of business.)

And if we believe Morini, Johns did it specifically for the money, “because he believed in investments, the flow of capital, one has to play the game to win, that kind of thing” (97). That’s so deeply cynical that it feels utterly sane. And it succeeded—he played the game very well, which I can’t help but see as proof that all the players must be corrupt and monstrous, whether or not they intend to be. Of course, the correspondence between their intentions and their actions is the kind of thing critics are supposed to investigate, and here’s where I come again to the failures of the critics in this scenario. I find this whole episode so savagely…critical…of criticism that it’s almost breathtaking, and I don’t think it’s balanced out by what I see as the tenderness and affection of page 72’s characterization of outré literary criticism as a cry for love. Lots of readers identified a kind of gentle mocking of academia in the first week’s reading, but this week is much more vicious on the subject.

There are two possible mitigations here (outside of the fact that I may be taking this much too far anyway). The first is that Johns is in a mental hospital. I’m surprised at the text’s implication that there was a process of going mad involved, because I’d have said the amputation was proof that he was a danger to himself. But in any case, he may be untrustworthy. Even more, though, Morini himself may be untrustworthy. He tells Norton “he thought he knew why Johns had cut off his right hand” (my emphasis); I don’t know where Morini’s uncertainty comes from, because the text is pretty clear that Johns whispers something into his ear. Then again, that scene (on 91) undercuts itself by pointing out that it’s too dark for Pelletier to see what happened. Maybe Johns never even answered the question. It looks like we can’t be sure. But it all seems pretty sordid to me.

What do y’all think?

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