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There’s Nothing Funny About These Painted Comics

I was a huge fan of the comic Calvin and Hobbes back in the day. As an artist, I especially enjoyed the commentary creator Bill Watterson periodically injected about art world pretensions.

In one example, the boy and his tiger exchange a dialogue describing different assumptions about art. Acting as a mouthpiece for creative class attitudes, Calvin describes a painting on a wall as moving, enriching, and sublime high art. He then looks at a newspaper comic, which he states are juvenile, commercial hack work – low art.

However, in the next frame Calvin contemplates a painting of a comic strip panel; this, he asserts, is sophisticated, ironic, and philosophical high art.

When Hobbes inquires what a cartoon of a painting of a comic strip would be, Calvin defaults back to claiming it is sophomoric, sterile low art.

This is a comic strip as a Mobius strip, a perfect little meta-package. It’s more effective, insightful, and telling than a whole museum-load of what passes for art these days.

Roy Lichtenstein (October 27, 1923-September 29, 1997) is the artist best known for putting the high art frame around the lowly cartoon image. In the early 1960s, Lichtenstein participated in an episode of convergent evolution with other art world figures when they independently all started to incorporate commercial art conventions into the fine art they were making.

Okay Hot-Shot, Okay!, 1963
Roy Lichtenstein “Okay Hot Shot, Okay” 1963 80” x 68” Photograph [Fair Use] Wikiart
Andy Warhol did comics too at first, but became better known for deadpan appropriations of packaging designs.
Andy Warhol “Campbell's Soup Can (Tomato)” Photograph [Public Domain] Wikimedia Commons
Andy Warhol “Campbell's Soup Can (Tomato)” Photograph [Public Domain] Wikimedia Commons

Claes Oldenburg sculpted fast food and mundane household items out of plaster or vinyl, often on an enormous scale.

Claes Oldenburg “Hamburger” Photograph [Public Domain] Wikimedia Commons
Claes Oldenburg “Hamburger” Photograph [Public Domain] Wikimedia Commons
Sign painter James Rosenquist brought his billboard sized and randomized advertising imagery into the galleries.
James Rosenquist “World’s Fair Mural” Photograph [Fair Use] Wikiart
James Rosenquist “World’s Fair Mural” Photograph [Fair Use] Wikiart

Lichtenstein was the one who truly committed to the comics, going so far as to incorporate into his paintings cartoon conventions like outlines, speech balloons, spelled out sound effects, and the Ben-Day dots used in print graphics for shading and coloration. Through the ensuing years of his long career, Lichtenstein branched out and applied his branded technique to depictions of everything from Zen scroll paintings to expressionist brushstrokes.

As Lichtenstein explained it, “I’m interested in what would normally be considered the worst aspects of commercial art. I think it’s the tension between what seems to be so rigid and clichéd and the fact that art really can’t be this way.” He also admitted, “I think my paintings are critically transformed, but it would be difficult to prove it by any rational line of argument.”

It came to be called Pop art, this transformation, or perhaps degeneration, of expectations for artistic subject matter. On the surface, Pop art was easy to like. It was bright and playful; instant gratification art that echoed the fast, disposable consumer culture Americans were used to in their daily lives.

In a way, Pop art was a variation on the conventional art practice of still life. The imagery depicted in this case came not directly from life but was reproduced from the filtered and stylized presentations of industrial mass media: advertising, Hollywood, newspapers, comic books, and television. It was informed by the illusions, distortions, and manipulations these mediums employed.

For the general population, Pop art was the gateway drug to Postmodernism, the corrupt philosophy favored by the elites. Far from being innocent fun, Postmodernism seeks to displace human nature with a nature invented by humans, a very different state indeed.

At its core, Pop art did not aspire to inspire. It retreated from significance into the trendy pose of irony. Art, once considered a higher calling of humanity, was now a leering inside joke. It created a false equivalence. We put this Mickey Mouse knockoff into a museum, like it was a treasured masterpiece. Get it?

In August 2021, there is a tour of the paintings Roy Liechtenstein made between 1948-1960, before he Popped up. The images I’ve seen, while crude, have the distinction of being original. As such they are more engaging than the pulp pictures he merely recycled.

When it comes to the quality and quantity of artistic experience, those painted comics are one-liners.

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