Sunday, November 26, 2006
Grooves, Grafs, and Toons: Transnational Cultural Forms
For the last three years or so I’ve been telling myself - and a few others as well - that anime and manga will do for the visual culture of this century what African-American music did for the musical culture of the last century:
Provide idioms that are adopted everywhere and adapted for local use.
Provide idioms that are adopted everywhere and adapted for local use.
I’ve now added graffiti to the list - not graffiti in general, but the kind of grafs I discussed in Shrine of the Triceratops, the contemporary sort that originated in America in the late 60s and early 70s and was then assimilated to hip-hop culture. The purpose of this post is simply to play around with the notion that grooves, grafs, and toons have been providing and will continue to provide the basic transnational idioms of musical and visual culture in the global age. This is an exercise in throat-clearing, thinking out loud, sizing things up.
African American music - Europe meets Africa in North America - has been around the longest. I’ve seen a reference to minstrelsy in India in the mid-19th century, but have been unable to follow up on it. For the most part it seems to me that this florescence happened mostly in the 20th century; first jazz, then rock and soul (with the blues tagging along), and finally hip-hop. Each time a new set of idioms arose, they went international. By the late 20th century all the major idioms were performed in all continents (Antarctica excepted, though I suppose some of the folks working there might play a little something sometime - surely someone has taken a guitar or a harp there) and local hybrids have given rise to so-called world beat music - a marketing category for fusions of this or that African American idiom with anything else.
Why did this happen? Well, there is good old Western Imperialism organizing a international flows of goods, services, and ideas. But that just gets the music around; that doesn’t make it stick, much less flourish and breed. For that the only reasonable answer is that it is locally attractive, not to everyone (it’s not even that attractive at home), but to enough people to make a home for it. Why is it so attractive? The answer to that is not obvious, so let’s leave it alone for now.
Then we have graffiti. The standard story is that the modern idiom arose in Philadelphia and New York City in the late 60s and early 70s with simple “tags” aerosoled in publicly visible places. Ornate elaboration started in Philadelphia and then spread to New York, which it achieved its first flourishing on the sides of subway cars. As that died in chemical baths, the idiom spread to any and all available surfaces. When hip-hop came along in the late 70s, it picked up graffiti as one aspect of general hip hop culture and hence graffiti made the world trip along with hip hop. (At least I think that’s what happened. I don’t know how far it had spread before hip-hop picked it up.)
Photography and the internet have had a strong influence on graffiti culture. In a 2004 honors thesis at the University of Sydney, Ilse Scheepers notes:
Tags have always functioned as constant reinforcements that writers are still active, but with the development of the Internet and the growth of graffiti magazines, it is enough now to do a panel, take a photo, and walk away. The fact that the panel runs, that it even leaves the yards, is incidental, and in a way, a bonus. It is the photographic evidence that becomes most important in this case, and not the actual spotting of the work by another writer in another part of the city on the train it was done on.
Accordingly, graffiti is all over the internet (cf. Art Crimes) and if you googles “graffiti fonts” you’ll find graffiti-styled fonts that you can download and use on your PC or Mac.
Ubiquitous though it is, my sense is that graffiti is still just below the mainstream radar screen, perhaps a reflection of the ambiguous legal status of what remains its defining activity, writing grafs in public spaces. Just why it has spread is not obvious, though I’m inclined to see it as a contemporary analogue of the cave and cliff art of early humankind and seek an explanation there.
That leaves us with manga and anime. Though manga as we know it originated in 20th century Japan, it’s roots go back a millennium earlier in books where image and text often shared the page without a clear boundary between them. The modern form reflects the influence of Western comics and cartoons - e.g. Mickey Mouse was known in Japan in the 1930s - and began its florescence after World War II. Manga went anime in the 1960s with Astro Boy (a very popular and long-running manga title) and since then manga and anime have been moving along in tandem as two aspects of one larger visual and narrative idiom. Both have spread from Japan to the rest of the world, with America being perhaps the slowest to warm up to these forms.
It is by no means clear what will happen with manga and anime in the future. The issue that most interests me is that of pros and amateurs, for lack of better terms, which plays out differently in these three cultural forms.
The musical forms have always had a more or less professional class and acknowledged stars. At the same time, the idioms have always been within the reach of amateurs, from children though adults. Musical instruments and lessons are relatively cheap and informal performance opportunities and venues are plentiful. Graffiti culture is different. It is mostly a culture of amateurs, though some writers have managed to make a living as designers and a few have managed to paint grafs for hire. But there is no well-established professional class and no real “stars” with a capital “S.” Nor is there a considerable commercial establishment devoted to graffiti, as there is for both the musical idioms and manga and anime.
Manga is much like African-American Music, at least in Japan, with a large contingent of amateurs, some of whom go on to make a living at it. I’m not aware of a substantial amateur manga culture in America - though there is certainly some activity - but it is an idiom that is, at least in principle, accessible to amateurs. Pen and paper are cheap and plentiful, as are PCs and printers.
Anime is different from these other forms. In general, animation may be the most labor intensive expressive idiom humankind has invented - other than architecture and building, which have functional foundations. Amateurs can and do make animations, but it is not easy. The emergence of YouTube has encouraged the creation of AMVs (anime music videos), in which people take a favorite song and set anime clips and stills to the song. Some of them are quite creative, but this is a long way from scratch animation. It is conceivable that computer technology will put high-quality animation within reach of individual and-or small groups of amateurs. In fact, this seems rather more likely than the much-vaunted “Singularity” where computers surpass humans to become the most intelligent beings on the planet.
Regardless of how this falls out, anime is a very attractive idiom and is increasingly popular. Just as we need to account for the popularity of Afican-American musics and graffiti, so we must account for popularity of manga and anime.
Looking back over this, several things strike me:
1. Both African-America music and manga-anime have resulted from the cross-breeding of cultural strains that have had, up to the point of irrevocable contact, considerable distance and independence from one another. Graffiti isn’t like that.
2. Both African-American music and manga-anime have become substantially legitimized and commercialized whereas graffiti has not. It remains at the margin.
3. Because of its marginal status, graffiti still gets some of its energy, its practice, from the mere space in which it exists. It’s existence in those spaces is itself transgressive. This is not true of the music or the manga and anime. They may well have transgressive content, but their means of existence is not transgressive, hence the problem of commercializing them.
Finally, there is the question of the cyber-frontier: What’s the role of digital hi-tech wonderment in all this? At least since Vannevar Bush’s 1945 article, “As We May Think,” in the Atlantic Monthly, there’s been a large literature about the wonders that computing technology has in store for us at some unspecified date, but possibly very (very (very)) soon. Where’s the techno-happiness in grooves, grafs, and toons?
Obviously, digital technology has had, and will continue to have, a major role in the creation and dissemination of these expressive forms. That’s not quite the issue I’m interested in. My sense - and here more than anywhere else I’m making it up on the spur of the moment - is that much of the imaginative force of both techno-utopian and dystopian thought comes from older visions of humankind, society, and the world. Futurism has been a creature of the past, following the mandates of hopes and fears given form and direction in previous centuries.
We need a new sense of possibilities, for good and for ill. That sense is not going to come by continuing to weave a techno-weft into a 19th-century imaginative warp. Perhaps these emerging grooves, grafs, and toons will provide a more suitable basis on which to weave the hopes and dreams of life on the New Savanna.
Goin’ to the New Savanna
I don’t think so, Bill. Sure, rock and hip-hop are everywhere. But graffiti (as graf) is only everywhere insofar as it has become part of hip-hop culture. Anime is still almost universally produced in Japan; manga less so, but with at least a large majority of it Japanese.
I don’t think that anime/manga are going to become an adopted-everywhere idiom. You might say that tropes from comics are becoming adopted everywhere—American superhero comics have had a much wider spread than manga—but I don’t think that there’s enough distinctions in the manga tradition to make it split off from comics in the way that African-American music split off from general popular music. The same kind of thing happens with anime; they were influenced by Disney animation, they certainly are contributing to the world-stream of animation styles, but I don’t think that they are going to become an idiom adopted everywhere in the sense that some African animination series 20 years from now would be considered to be anime rather than having some anime references (as well as some Disney ones).
There’s a hell of a lot of American-style graffiti here in Switzerland. I find it hard to believe that it’s only here “insofar as it has become part of hip-hop culture,” and once the kids stop listening to 50 Cent and start listening to, I don’t know, Lordi or whoever, it’ll stop.
How do you define “idiom” and how does it relate to your argument?
Idioms follow the following criteria (Source: Wikipedia, as much as I am wary of internet sources, I find the definition appropriate in this particular situation): Non-compositionality, non-substitutability, and non-modifiability. In other words, an idiom is an expression that cannot be understood literally, that does not work with any other words or any alternate order; “Against the grain” or “know the ropes” being two such examples (the idiom falls apart by literal translation, and substitutions or alternate words such as “against the wheat” simply don’t work). By definition, an idiom reflects a certain verbal culture (a foreigner would not be able to easily understand an idiom if it was not explained to them). I don’t see how it can be “adopted-everywhere” unless you have a qualification of “everywhere” that is more specific than the word implies.
In light of this definition, it appears that your article lacks criteria and examples to bridge the contention to its subpoints. I see a series of mostly irrelevant points and some interesting facts, but have yet to see any substantial examples of a “visual idiom” or “transcultural” idiom in your writing. I am also confused as to how the pictures support your writing.
What do you mean by “adapted for local use”? An idiom loses meaning by alteration. Adaptation implies alteration to some degree. An idiom is no longer an idiom when adapted. The phrase also implies someone (Who “adapts” it? Why would they need/want to adapt it?) employs an idiom consciously, for a particular purpose; idioms would, more realistically, emerge out of conversational repetition and vernacular convention.
I’m confused as to the relationship between conclusion and main point you’ve laid out in the beginning. That’s a very interesting parallel you draw between hip-hop and anime’s development, but is it appropriate to compare a musical culture to a more textual/visual genre? Is this “New Savanna” a utopian ideal? I do not understand where the graf digression is going.
As far as I know, anime has been a mostly marginal interest in America, and even if it’s experienced a recent gain in popularity, popularity of a genre doesn’t ensure that it “provides” idioms. Would an idiom arise out of a particular constituent in the genre, or a trend in animes? For example, one trend might be that anime characters sneeze to a scene that may foreshadow an event - the resulting idiom may be something to the lines of “sneezing forward”. There’s still no verifiable way of stating that this will become an idiom. I’m looking at my book of commonly used idioms and finding that they seem to be from a wide variety of possible sources, somehow unique to national identity. Anime, as a foreign art, would be much less likely to provide relevant, commonly appealing idioms in the US. An elderly conservative person from a rural town, for example, may know the term “going against the grain” but may not know anything about anime.
Graffiti and hip hop are counterculture movements that, by their relatively marginalized status, are unlikely to generate idiomatic expressions. In fact, graf. symbols and tags are generally hard to read to those who do not understand the language and movement.
I wonder if you are confusing “idiom” with “colloquialism” or “jargon” or simple street lingo.
That being said, there are a huge number of fascinating avenues that your topic might explore:
- The idea of a “visual idiom”. Would Andy Warhol’s work (e.g. Campbell soup, Marilyn Monroe) be considered visual idioms? Perhaps Santa Claus or Snoopy could be internationally recognized idioms… Is it possible for a visual idiom to transcend national boundaries into a transculturally recognized status? Could a verbal/linguistic idiom go as far as a visual idiom?
- How do you suppose graffiti/anime/hip-hop provides a new sense of possibliity?
- Can the status of a counterculture be idiomatic by nature, in that it cannot be understood literally or defined by its constituents, with certain irreplacable elements?
- What do the parallels between anime and hiphop (with relation to technology) say about a particular group or developing social interests?
The potential questions go on and on…
And as a side response to the comment posted above, how did hip-hop “split off” from popular music? Couldn’t it have been a creation of its own, from its particular context?
Merely some questions to consider....
For God’s sake Bill, we’re all adults here, can’t you just say “black music”?
And your problem is what?—BB
I think Manga and Anime are already here among youth and teenagers and it’ll take a bit longer than it takes for them to grow up for it to be reasonably acceptable among adults (I’m imagining essentially the same trajectory that video games have taken.) The manga section at my local borders books far eclipses the western comics section and is bigger than, say, the sections I visit (philosophy and mathematics) put together. I’ve seen similar patterns elsewhere. (Unfortunately, in my opinion. I am not a huge fan of anime or manga, though I am perhaps uninformed about specific examples of non-melodramatic/cliched/sexist/pseudophilosophical storylines.)
Three quick ones for Mia Sori:
1. There’s other senses of “idiom.” From Encarta: “the style of expression of a specific individual or group” and “the characteristic style of an artist or artistic group.” That’s what I’m after. I played with several words: cultural “practice” or “praxis” or “expressive language” or “expressive medium,” etc. Didn’t like any of them. But that’s the general ball park.
2. Andy Warhol is very much to the point. There’s a photo in Subway Art of a subway car with Campbell’s soup cans painted on the side. That graf writer clearly knew something of Warhol. Warhol befriended Jean Michel-Basquiat, a graf writer who made it into the “high art” world, but OD’ed on heroin. The anime series Samurai Champloo has an episode that is about grafs and features a Warhol-like character.
3. On the two pictures, look at the truck, and think of the pair as a metaphor.
But graffiti (as graf) is only everywhere insofar as it has become part of hip-hop culture.
I know that something more or less like that is the common understanding, but I’m not sure why or if it matters. Graf started and was thriving a decade before hip-hop. Hip-hop helped it spread, but I’m not sure that it is in any deep way dependent on hip-hop for its continued existence.
The mere fact that it became an aspect of hip-hop culture is interesting. Earlier forms of African-American music were closely associated with dance (though jazz lost the association with bebop) and so is hip-hop. But none of the earlier forms is associated with a specific form of visual art. Why did hip-hop adopt graf?
It might be that both are oppositional. Avant-garde jazz excepted, none of the earlier forms of African-America music were inherently oppositional. Hip-hop became so very quickly. That would give it a link to graf and a reason for the two to become associated.
You might say that tropes from comics are becoming adopted everywhere-American superhero comics have had a much wider spread than manga-but I don’t think that there’s enough distinctions in the manga tradition to make it split off from comics in the way that African-American music split off from general popular music.
I’d like to see some evidence here. As far as I know manga has always been a distinct tradition of graphic story-telling. One the one hand it is rooted in Japanese traditions that go back a 1000 years. When Perry forced Western contact on the Japanese, they were certainly influenced by Western cartooning, especially the British in the late 19th century and then America in the 20th century. But manga - as a long narrative told in images and words - was distinctly Japanese from the beginning, despite the strong influence of Western cartooning. It has remained so, especially after the innovations spurred by Tezuka after WWII.
Scott McCloud has some interesting observations on manga style in Understanding Comics and Making Comics. You should check Paul Gravett, Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics for the history. And then we have OEL (Original English Language) manga, manga-style graphic novels drawn in anime style with English language dialog.
The same with anime; you seem to be working from a very limited acquaintance. Influenced by Disney? Sure. But it developed in distinctly different ways during from the mid-60s on.
And what do we do with, for example, the Matrix series? That’s live action, of course, but the original film was inspired by a Japanese anime, Ghost in the Shell, and took a great deal from it. The Wachoski brothers commissioned a series of anime shorts to complement their live action movies (The Animatrix). The three Matrix films aren’t anime, but they wouldn’t have existed without it. And then we have the pink Hello Kitty Stratocaster I saw at the local Target store.
Charting cultural influence is tricky.
Why are you linking your amateur /professional divide so much to production and, probably, sale? I would think that you can have expert consumers just as much as producers. Where would we be without Comic Book Guy and the Insufferable Music Snob?
Producers of music, graffiti, and comics and animation don’t grow on trees. They come from the general population. How do they get started? In music, graffiti, and comics/manga the “barriers to entry” are very low, so anyone can get started. In the case of manga, for example, there is a large group of very active amateurs in Japan, and many pros are simply amateurs who’ve gone at it full time. Animation is different.
Also, every craft has its cheap tricks, things that are relatively easy to execute but that get a strong reaction from the audience-viewer. Conversely, there are things that are difficult to do, but don’t seem impressive. Practitioners—even relatively inexperienced ones—are likely to have a better sense of this than otherwise passive consumers.
This is a note from my friend and colleague, Tim Perper. Tim is the one who introduced me to manga and anime. Together with his wife, Martha Cornog, he has done a landmark monograph on gender and sexuality in manga: Timothy Perper, Martha Cornog: Eroticism for the Masses: Japanese Manga Comics and Their Assimilation into the U. S. Sexuality & Culture 6/1 (2002), 3-126. Tim and Martha are Book Review editors for Mechademia: An Academic Journal for Anime, Manga and the Fan Arts. Martha is graphic novels editor for Library Journal.
Out of curiosity, I went to our local comics shop and counted up manga and US comics.
Floor-space. I’d guess that about 80% of display space is devoted to US comics. These are displayed flat on the walls, cover out. Manga—all in graphic novel format, aka perfect bound paperbacks—are shelved like books, spine out next to each other. The visual impression is that US comics vastly outnumber the manga.
Number of titles. Miyuki and I counted up the number of manga graphic novels and US comic books. (She runs the manga section.) It was roughly 1100 titles = individual and distinct volumes for manga (like V1-8 of this title, V1-14 of that title and so on). Our estimate for the US comics was just about the same (1000-1100), using the same criterion. So in number of readable entities (books or pamphlets), it’s about the same, at ca. 1100.
Number of pages. US comics are between 24 and 40 pages; we estimated an average of 32 pages per booklet. That gives about 35,000 pages. Manga are now published entirely in graphic novel format, with between 180 and 220 pages per volume. That gives about 220,000 pages of manga. In this store, manga exceeds US comics by a factor of approximately six.
Costs. US comics cost $4-5 each, for the average of 32 pages, to give about 15 cents per page. A manga TPB graphic novel costs about $10 for 200 pages, for about 5 cents per page.
Before I did these counts, I had guessed that manga would be about 30% of the US comics. I was wrong by a whole order of magnitude. The actual numbers overwhelmingly favor manga.
These results correspond nicely with trade and financial news reporting about manga sales in the US.
New Savanna, huh? Where are the Stompers?
Rode here on a link from Howard R. in BS. Enjoying....
The stompers are over at Berube’s joint (comment 55 & after).
You might also check out this version of “Boogie Stop Shuffle” by the Big Friendly Jazz Orchestra of Tagasago High School:
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Check out the ‘bone section on “Just Friends”:
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And note that most of those young musicians are young ladies. Here’s yours truly with a little “Tunisia”:
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The Constructivist just linked to this blog entry, Strangers in a Strange Land, over at The Naked Gaze. It’s about how avant-garde artist Zhang Dali developed and deployed an aerosol tag while in exile in Italy. He was “determined to have this city remember me.”