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John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
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Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

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Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

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Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

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Sunday, April 05, 2009

Justifying comics as legitimate objects of study, Part I

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 04/05/09 at 09:08 PM

Were I to muster a defense of comics as potentially serious objects of rhetorical analysis in, say, a textbook, I would begin by pointing out that while there may not be a ready-made critical apparatus for comics as a genre, there exists a robust tradition of analyzing visual narrative.  Consider Caravaggio’s “Calling of St. Matthew”:


I present the whole painting here so you can see what occupies the center of the painting.  (Many reproductions of “The Calling” crop the upper third off.  I will too to save bandwidth below.)  If we assume that the eye of the viewer is drawn to the center, it becomes evident that Caravaggio didn’t intend his static painting to be experienced as such.  We light first on the boy’s eyes and follow them:

Caravaggio-the-calling-of-saint-matthew01
 

To a Jesus finger.  The Jesus finger points at the figure to the left of the boy:

Caravaggio-the-calling-of-saint-matthew02
 

This figure looks to Jesus to see whether he is the intended recipient of the Jesus finger and the viewer follows his gaze:

Caravaggio-the-calling-of-saint-matthew03

Now the viewer sees that while the Jesus gaze is less ambiguous than the Jesus finger, and that both are actually trained on Levi (soon to be Matthew):

Caravaggio-the-calling-of-saint-matthew04

Who attends to more mundane matters:

Caravaggio-the-calling-of-saint-matthew05

Compositionally speaking, there’s much more to “The Calling” than this narrative—we could discuss how the shadow of the half-open door is complicit in framing the object of Jesus’s attention, for example—but my point here is simply that by dint of an ambiguously crooked finger, Caravaggio encodes an active narrative into what could have been dead on the canvas. 

That said, consider how much work is done by the title.  Most Western art at the time represented familiar narratives, so outside the title no additional words are required to render the image comprehensible.  But what happens if we secularize it?  Given the 17th Century Italian attire of those around the table, it would not be unreasonable to submit that this painting could bear the title “Giovanni Points at the Man who Murdered His Father” or “Alessio is Stunned into Silence by the News that He Won the Lottery."  Change the words that supplement the image and the meaning of the image changes.  You no doubt see where I’m headed with this:

The interdependence of words and image is a relationship of long-standing.  That the narrative potential of their interaction was not fully explored until the early 20th Century—and that that exploration would largely occur in a genre seemingly dedicated to aggressive juvenalia—seems to me more absurd than the contention that comics may be a respectable object of academic interest.  However, the claim that the comics came into their own in the 20th Century doesn’t mean that the word-picture relationship had not been previously explored . . . so tomorrow I’ll talk about William Blake’s “The Tyger."

(Note: Keep in mind that I know how much I’m leaving out.  I’m trying to find an effective way into the larger argument, not represent the argument itself.)

(x-posted.)


Comments

Change the words that supplement the image and the meaning of the image changes.

Sort of like what happened with Veronese’s The Last Supper The Feast in the House of Levi.

By Karl Steel on 04/05/09 at 10:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Um, not to ruin anything, but I first looked at the old man. And the finger you say points to the old man looks to me likes it’s pointing at the boy (it crooks downward after all). At any rate, there’s always much danger in telling the viewer what he sees—you’re often wrong. Why not just say what you see?

I don’t know why you assume the viewer first looks at the center of the paining. I think (I won’t insist) that viewers tend to look at the intersections created by dividing compositions in three both horizontally and vertically. Certainly when I was taught the basics of composition that was the principle—the rule of thirds.

By on 04/06/09 at 12:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

That patch of sunlight on the wall in the background looks to me roughly like a Greek letter rho.  In fact, there are various places in the image where ρ seems to me to appear.  This complements the various obvious Xs, thus providing for all your interpretational needs.

By Adam Roberts on 04/06/09 at 07:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I think William Hogarth, as well as Victorian narrative painters like W. P. Frith and Augustus Egg, will be even more helpful for your argument.

By Miriam on 04/06/09 at 11:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

There’s a lot of empirical work on how people look at images; the idea is to track eye motion while they’re look at images. Though I don’t have any citations to offer, I’d rather imagine that some such work has been done with art. However, is what people actually do - at the rate, I believe, of 3 or 4 saccades per second - in examining images relevant to this kind of rhetorical analysis?

By Bill Benzon on 04/06/09 at 11:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Saccade! What a cool word and completely new to me!

I hold to the old man—the light beams directly at him, after all. And he’s got that interesting expression. To me it’s clear he’s the focal point of the painting. But Bill is right, I think. In a narrative painting, first impressions give way to narrative framing. When I first encountered Botticelli’s La Primavera, it was in an old Smithsonian magazine and stretched across three pages, one of which you had to unfold. Consequently I viewed it from left to right. After encountering the neo-platonic interpretation of the painting (which I found persuasive), I can’t help but view it right to left.

By on 04/06/09 at 03:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

One thing that eye-tracking studies show is that when looking at pictures of people, we pay a lot of attention to the eyes. No surprise there. If we did an eye-tracking study we could follow saccades as people look around the picture. Does each person scan the picture in his or her own way, or are there strong similarities between scan paths of different people? One thing we would surely discover is whether or not people spontaneously focus on the upper-most pointing finger and, if so, where they look next. I’d be very surprised if they didn’t, but it’s not clear exactly where they’d look next. Nor is it clear whether or not that matters. What would interesting is to track people’s eye motions while they’re talking aloud about what’s going on in the picture. You transcribe what they say and compare that with their eye motions.

I certainly don’t know how this sort of thing would turn out. In the large, I’m sure it’s relevant to your concerns, Scott; but it might take a decade or more of work by a well-funded (by humanities standards, though not by the standards of high-energy physics) research community to get compelling results.

My main point is simply to insert a wedge between what we might call the “real” process by which people perceive images and whatever you are doing in offering a rhetorical “reading” of the picture. I’m guessing Trent had something like that in mind when he observed: “there’s always much danger in telling the viewer what he sees.” The real process, saccade by saccade, is necessary to the rhetorical reading, for it’s how you examine the picture; but the rhetorical reading represents conclusions you’ve arrived at based both on what’s in the picture and on your knowledge of the subject matter and genre conventions, etc.

By Bill Benzon on 04/06/09 at 04:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill’s point is why I dragged out Hogarth and co., because in those instances you’re looking at a series of paintings meant to be perused in a specific order. In the case of Frith, we also have actual records of how people “read” his paintings (working through them left to right, for example).

By Miriam on 04/06/09 at 04:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve done just a bit of googling and discovered lots of eye-tracking stuff on the web. Much of it is devoted to understanding how people look at computer displays, because that information has commercial value. Here’s a site at the University of Mancester that’s about work on looking at art:

http://www.cs.manchester.ac.uk/aboutus/news/archives/2009/03-09-09_hcw/

I’m sure there’s more work like this being done, but . . .

Also, the Wikipedia article seems useful on the basics:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eye_tracking

By Bill Benzon on 04/06/09 at 04:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Is it OK that I don’t care what people, whoever they are, do when they look at a picture, whatever that means?

I mean, I’m interested in what monkeys do.  I’m interested in what my cats do.  And I have the same level of curiosity when it comes to what people do.

But what people do is a question of psychology, sociology, anthropology, and so on.

I’m interested in rhetoric.  Paintings are not made for people to look at.  Is that an odd idea?  I don’t think books are made for people to read either.  Art is made (in part) to show us how to look at it or how to read it or how to hear it.  (I also think a good chicken dish or dress can be art when it achieves this reflective/pedagogical function, showing us how to truly taste foods or truly wear and view clothing.)

So I’m interested in what the artist has done to guide us to how we *should* look at his or her particular work of art.  Sure, some paintings draw many of us to the same “starting point,” but to assume that all paintings want us to start at the same place, or to assume that painters care about what we “normally” or typically do when we look at an image seems all sorts of wrong to me. 

For Caravaggio, I’d first want to know how big the damned thing is.  Some works want us first to experience the whole in its wholeness.  Some works want us to zero in on a particular detail first.  Some want us to see bright areas in general, others spots of darkness or shade, some a figure, some a background. 

Breughel’s fall of Icarus wouldn’t work if you noticed Icarus first, even if a million experiments showed that humans all look at the splash immediately.  That would be a stupid way to experience that work of art.  Luckily, what we do “naturally” or “immediately” is exactly what art tries to punch us out of.  I don’t think we ever see a painting for the first time until, like, the twentieth time we look at.  Then, maybe, if we’re lucky, we see the painting.  Until then, we’ve just been looking at it.  (Every now and then, I actually hear a song rather than listen to it.  Once in a while, I read a poem rather than reading it.)

One other question for Scott: where do advertisements and graphic design fit into this narrative of how we’ve historically experienced the intersection of words and images?  Or, to push things elsewhere, where do maps and map-making?  I find those non-narrative hybrids of image and language at least as “fully explored” as comic narratives.

By on 04/06/09 at 08:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Um, not to ruin anything, but I first looked at the old man.

As I said, there are a number of other ways to read the narrative of the painting—but all of them acknowledge that the looks and pointing constitute a narrative, which is what I wanted to get at.

I don’t know why you assume the viewer first looks at the center of the paining.  I think (I won’t insist) that viewers tend to look at the intersections created by dividing compositions in three both horizontally and vertically. Certainly when I was taught the basics of composition that was the principle—the rule of thirds.

The rule of thirds applies principally to photography, if I’m remembering correctly.  As to the center: first, with Caravaggio, it’s always important, even if he deliberately empties it at times (or uses robes or curtains abstractly to create a null space).  What’s interesting about “The Calling,” though, is that it’s not centrality per se that’s important, but upper centrality, i.e. where God lives (and Jesus ascends to) on triptychs . . . and which Caravaggio filled with a shutter.  Put differently, there are two distinct issues at play here:

1. How the painting was meant to be viewed, i.e. the theories of composition used by the artist and the corresponding expectations of the auidence.

2. How the painting is actually viewed, either by individual viewers or Bill’s eye-trackers.

Given that we’re discussing rhetoric, intent needs to be artificially inflated—after all, to say a rhetorical design was effective entails an audience who recognizes and evaluates the techniques deployed.  (Which is, yes, what Bill said.  I’m still sorting through those links Bill, but I think we’re in agreement both as to what I’m up to and fruitful future research.)

I think William Hogarth, as well as Victorian narrative painters like W. P. Frith and Augustus Egg, will be even more helpful for your argument.

I debated using Giotto/Hogarth instead of Caravaggio/Blake, and my choice of the latter is basically pragmatic: I want the bulk of attention paid to what happens in individual images before I start discussing how whatever’s made meaningful in one image relates to whatever’s made meaningful in the next.  Basically, I wanted to teach the equivalent of close-reading before trying to yoke those individual readings into a larger argument.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 04/06/09 at 08:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m interested in rhetoric.  Paintings are not made for people to look at.  Is that an odd idea?  I don’t think books are made for people to read either.  Art is made (in part) to show us how to look at it or how to read it or how to hear it

[...]

So I’m interested in what the artist has done to guide us to how we *should* look at his or her particular work of art.

Let me make sure I understand you:  You are saying that paintings are not made (by painters) to be (merely) looked at, but rather to be studied.  And because artists want their paintings to be studied, you are interested specifically in studying what the artist did to communicate what it is that he wants for you to study and how he wants you to study it.  (Please correct me if I misunderstand you at any point here.)

I’m sympathetic to this perspective, especially as it relates to the act of criticism, but I think there are some problems with it. 

What if the artist did not make the work of art to be studied?  There are, after all, artists who did not intend for their art to be studied (at least, not using the tools of rhetorical analysis); some of them are even good artists. Many of the great Baroque and early Classical composers, for example, wrote their music with the expectation that it would not be studied at length.  Pieces would be performed a few times and then another one was called for-- and there were obviously no recordings to allow for extended listening. 

If you say that we should study art because the artist would want us to study it, are we then obligated to obey the wishes of the artist if s/he didn’t want us to study it (or didn’t expect that technology would make it possible for us to do so) and instead composed their work with the expectation that we would only be able to “look” at it, or “listen” to it, or “read” it?

Let’s use another example.  Aristophanes didn’t intend for his manuscripts to be saved and studied.  They were only saved and brought down to us because someone somewhere along the line thought that his Greek was a particularly good example of conventional conversational Attic from that period. 

So Aristophanes wrote these outstanding comedic works that are rich and even deep in places and certainly hilarious, but he expected that they would only be performed once. He was ultimately shooting for laughs and the first prize at the festival. He wrote them with the expectation that nobody would see them more than once-- nobody would be able to study them.

Does that mean that I’m not allowed to do a postmortem of his comedy 2500 years after the fact? Am I obligated to accept that he did not intend for me to study the comedies closely? Do I have to read them once and then call it quits, because that’s what he wanted?

It seems to me that I have to keep a few competing impulses in mind when I’m reading Aristophanes if I’m going to read him correctly:

One the one hand, I can’t just sit down and pick apart him apart with a rhetorical analysis-- if I do, I’m going to actually miss out on what it was that he intended.  I have to know when I’m reading him that he was looking to make his audience laugh WITHOUT the benefit of reading his stuff more than once.  To just sit back and let the comedy play out is what it is that he intended me to do-- to really get Aristophanes and his work, I have to experience his art as if I haven’t studied it.

One the other hand, of course, I do have to sit down and pick him apart with a rhetorical analysis-- it’s how I personally achieve a deeper understanding of his craft!  How could I say that he’s great if I’ve only read his plays once? There IS obviously a reward to be had for studying him closely, and I’m after that reward, so, who gives a fuck if he didn’t intend for me to pick his work apart. 

Forgive me for wasting all this space to say this: although rhetorical analysis is something I eventually want to do for a living, it somehow seems a mistake to always resort to an extensive rhetorical analysis of a work of art based on the supposition that all authors intended for their works to be studied at length-- first, if you do this, you can ironically end up experiencing the art against the artist’s intentions, and second, who made the artist the king of the world anyway? 

None of the above should be taken as disagreeing with Scott’s project here.  If your goal is rhetorical analysis, then obviously rhetorical analysis is what’s called for.  I just want to stake out a space for the value of a fast, superficial, even perhaps ‘incorrect’ reading of a work of art (but don’t quote me on that bit), in addition to a slow, in-depth, critically rigorous one (like what Scott is offering here).  Often they’re both important and there’s no reason to arbitrarily choose between the two.

By on 04/07/09 at 09:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Does someone need to justify studying comics?  That’s interesting.  I really thought we were well beyond that - there’s still plenty of stupidity going around in literary studies, but I haven’t had a problem personally, for instance, adding a graphic novel (and, indeed, a blog) to a women’s writing syllabus.

By Laura on 04/10/09 at 01:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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