Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Art's Four Campfires

Comic artist (and theorist) Scott McCloud has written a trilogy of books about his art, comics. These books explore comics' history, mechanics, conventions, and theory, including things like a definition of comics (sequential art) and attempts at looking at the general process of art itself (worth considering). If you want to look a bit at the man's ideas, I will suggest this TED talk, or you can head over to his website. I am interested at the moment in one particular idea he has, which he somewhat hesitantly unveiled in Making Comics, the final of the trilogy. That idea is the four "campfires" in comics culture.

Around this basic idea I will write a series of posts.

According to McCloud, the motives, goals, and values underlying the majority of comic artists' work can be divided into four rough groups:

The Classicists admire craftsmanship and mastery of the artform. Their goals include creating lasting works of art which adhere to traditional aesthetic principles. Perfection is impossible, but that doesn't mean they can't try for it. According to McCloud, their catch-word is beauty, and they are an extention of Jung's sensation archetype.

The Animists are interested in content. They aim for the clearest presentation of their story or ideas. To some extent the medium must always interfere with the message, but the animist's focus on the content means they try to make the form as transparent as they possibly can. Their catch-word is content, and McCloud considers them an extention of Jung's intuition archetype.

The Formalists are fascinated with their chosen medium's form. They create their art to explore its boundaries and contours, to learn what it can be capable of and how it works internally. Their works of art incorporate experiments, and they often double as analytical critics. Their catch-word is form, and in McCloud's scheme they correspond to Jung's thinking archetype.

The Iconoclasts value truth and experience in art. To them art must be authentic, must show life as it is. They take aim at artistic conventions that gloss over the imperfections and disappointments at life. Artists who speak of "honesty" or "rawness" are voicing iconoclastic ideas. Their catch-word is truth, and they are Jung's feeling archetype.

To McCloud, these are less clear divisions than campfires around which artists group (you'll also hear them called the "tribes of art"); they draw warmth from these common ideals, and communicate with those gathered with them. He is absolutely clear that people can spend time around more than one. They may grow up at one campfire and then, later in life, find themselves drawn to another. They may switch back and forth repeatedly, even while working on a single project. But as much as it would be nice to think you gather around four campfires (McCloud says it would be awfully nice to see "honest, inventive, engaging, and beautiful" in the reveiwer comments), that rarely happens; for most people, at least two of the campfires offer little light, and one is burnt out entirely.

This tendency to stick to one or two campfires is a result of underlying tensions between the different ideals. McCloud suggests that Classicism and Formalism are bound by a devotion to art, while Animism and Iconoclasm are bound by the opposite, a devotion to life. Running the other way, Classicism and Animism are both rooted in tradition, which tradition the revolutionary Formalism and Iconoclasm seek to dismantle. And their cathphrases make binary opposites: beauty opposes truth, and form opposes content. I've pirated a diagram, below, to make this clearer.

Artist who spend time at more than one campfire tend to spend time (says McCloud), at ones adjacent along some axis. That is, there are those who are interested in simply "telling stories" (Animism), but whose painstakingly beautiful art and spread layout bely that claim somewhat (Classicism). There are those who create technically accomplished masterpieces (Classicism) which in some element or another push the boundaries of what we thought we knew about the medium (Formalism). And then there are those who, in challenging what we think about the genre (Formalism), also challenge what we think about life (Iconoclasm). Dabbling along diagonals is rarer, McCloud says, though he does give one example of each 'diagonal' in his book.

In his TED talk (less so in his book), McCloud suggests that these four campfires, perhaps under different names and stripped down to even deeper foundations, are applicable in any realm of human endeavour. I don't know what these four would look like as far as installing ductwork or typing minutes goes, though I suppose that at some deeper, more foundational level there may still be four groups ("art" may be perfectionism while "life" may be "getting the job done", and "tradition" may be tried-and-true methods while "revolution" may be inventiveness). Nonetheless, I think we can easily imagine them in most forms of art. Pick whatever realm you're most interested in, and try to assign artists to the different groups. In literature, Austen is an Animist, Poe (as a novelist) is a Formalist, Alice Munro is an Iconoclast, and Keats is (at least, as he seems to have imagined himself, which might be hugely problematic) a Classicist. In film, Quentin Tarentino is a Formalist, George Lucas is an Animist, Sergio Leone is an Iconoclast, and Ang Less is a Classicist. I won't even pretend to guess at fine art, music, theatre, or dance, though anyone knowledgeable enough in these areas could post examples in the comments. If I ask really nicely, maybe the guys at Penny Arcade would give me examples in computer games, though this might be harder to figure out when you incorporate the interactive element. (If games designers are partially abdicating authorship, an idea people are talking about in interactive art forms, then perhaps player style could just as easily be grouped in these camps... that might be worth another post.) Also, I could be wrong on any of the classifications I just made. They're for the purposes of examples, so feel free to bicker.

McCloud makes an important point: all four of these campfires has something to offer the field of comics (and any field at all). The Classicists refine artistic techniques and drive the field to produce more aesthetically-pleasing works, while the Animists create compelling characters or offer important ideas, drawing in more readers than the other three groups put together and driving the field to produce more emotionally-pleasing works. The Formalists generate new ideas, find new ways of employing old forms, and sometimes even invent new genres or mediums, all of which can later be used by members of te other four campfires. The Iconoclasts puncture the misrepresentations in traditional art and act as a source of honesty, a check against melodrama, sentimentalism, and sensationalism.

At the same time, all four have weaknesses. The Classicists, in their quest for beauty, can create otherwise boring, heartless, uninventive, or ininspiring art. The Animists often create work that doesn't age well without something else to bolster it. What McCloud doesn't mention is that animists also produce a lot of cliche-ridden, uninventive, terribly-written, and stereotyping swill (every charge laid against the Twilight series or Internet fanfic/art). The Formalists' love of experimentation might lead them to create work devoid of beauty or content, something accessible (or at least interesting) only to those also obsessed with form. The Iconoclasts, in their desperation to be authentic and to never "sell-out," can not only fail badly in creating something marketable, but may lose their prized clear-sightedness in their bias against popularity or beauty. We can likely think of examples of art from each category. Thus it is usually best if an artist spends at least a little bit of time at more than one campfire. (Classicism is usually a pretty good one to visit periodically, in my opinion, even if you spend most of your time in Iconoclasm.)

What this means is while you or I might have particular ideas about art (what it is, what it should do, what distinguishes art and Art), we mustn't make the mistake of judging all works by our own standards. At times we must consider other work by the standards of other campfires. Now, if it fails at those standards, too, we can consider it shoddy (Animistic art which is not engaging; Classicist art which isn't very well done; Formalist art which generates nothing new about the form; Iconoclastic art which doesn't portray life very accurately). But barring the clear failures, we must recognize the benefits all of these approaches bring art as a whole.

I have much more to say about this, including my own disagreements with McCloud's given scheme and some resulting adjustments I would make, but these must wait for other posts. In the meantime, I suggest that you consider which camps you feel most attracted to as either a producer or consumer of art, and see if you can come up with examples of each.


Jon Wong said...

I need a clarification of the difference between an Animist and an Iconoclast. I mean, I don't see why truth, honesty, experience are necessarily revolutionary principles and one could easily argue that an artist who strives for truth, honesty, experience is "content-driven." Again, truth, rawness, and honesty don't seem like things that are necessarily absent from tradition.

Christian H said...

Yes, I have some dispute with this, too.

I think the idea is emphasis. If you ask an Iconoclast to critique a work, they will talk about how authentic, raw, or honest it is. There also seems to be an idea among them that the truth is often ugly. If you ask an Animist, they will talk about the story, or perhaps ideas. I will touch on this more later, but I think the catchwords (Beauty, Form, Truth, Content) are misleading.

Or, if this helps you more, Animists will be less honest (ie. overdramatic, sentimental, conventional) if it helps them tell a better story or get across their ideas or both. Iconoclasts will tell a less interesting/enjoyable story in the interests of showing life "as it is" and "warts and all" (Survival in Auschwitz?). The Iconoclasts may also parody the other campfires, especially the Animists, to demonstrate how inaccurate their conventional story elements are. This is where revolution comes in. There's a sense of anti-popular.

Cait said...

That is really interesting.

I do however, need to think about this more before I comment further.

Graham said...

. Journey - Classicist
. Modern Warfare - Animist
. Hotline Miami - Formalist
. Forza - Iconoclast

Blog Widget by LinkWithin