Thursday, May 21, 2015

To what end should we attempt to determine the esthetic viability of comic figure artwork?

Ancient and Contemporary Super Heroes
The ancient Greeks would entertain and spiritually enrich themselves with the oral tradition of Hellenistic lore, which began with Zeus's overthrow of the Titans and continued through the superhuman labors of his half-human offspring, Heracles. Homer, amongst other celebrated poets and playwrights of his day would expand upon these tales as well as the heroic machismo events of the Trojan War.

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Action Heroes on Ancient Drinking
Vessels -
Heracles slaying Nessus

the Centaur, c.500 BCE
Consequently, sculpted marbles statues, bronzes, mosaics and frescos would don temples, libraries, agoras, roadways and ancient parks. At home, parents in ancient times would pass the oral tradition down to their children, often times with accompanied line drawings of their favorite heroes adorned upon any number of vases and drinking vessels.

Due to the chaste influences of modern monotheistic religions and the elimination of the ancient, above-mentioned Hellenistic influences, one must today go to a museum, a private gallery or some nouveau-classical fountain to view the naked form. Gone are the publicly displayed sculptures of Venus, Apollo and naked wrestlers with (goodness me) exposed gentiles, along with the naked open-air Olympics games.

Unlike the ancient Greeks who considered nudity, particularly the developed, athletic male form, as a symbol of celebrated achievement, health and Olympian vitality, today's society tends to embrace the priggish modesty associated with its own brand of religious heritage.

Hard to Keep a Good Action Hero Down
Nevertheless, in today's monotheistic world, where the naked form is held in disdain, even disgust, godlike super heroes persist. However, no longer sacred stories supporting religious, Hellenistic beliefs or the exaggerated lore of long-forgotten wars, today's stories of imaginary heroes and their labors have been reduced to the realm of what some may call "whimsical" or to what is today entitled "Comic Action Heroes".

Comp Sketch by Alex Ross - Complex figurative composition for epic comic entitled "Kingdom Come", Copyright ©2010, DC Comics

Based upon fantasy and pseudo-mythology, today's action hero stories, like those of yesteryears, are generally far from comedic, figuratively or literally. All the same, the term "comic" persists because of the printed medium, which has come to be known as comic books, a multi-billion dollar enterprise which far exceeds the delivery capacities of ancient oral tradition. It seems almost ironic that these tales of epic, fictional ass-kicking are today referred to as "comic".

Moreover, instead of oral tradition spoken over wine or honey-flavored water poured from the action vases of the Ancients, comic book fans today can share their stories over Cokes and milkshakes, which they consume from commercially produced tumblers adorned with their favorite heroes.

Today's Comic Drinking Vessel - Not exactly the ancient Greek vase, but the applied theme and suggested oral tradition over refreshments remains pretty much intact. 

But, is it Art? 
Surely, based upon the discerning scale of today's Fine Art esthetics, most discriminating art lovers would discard comic book art out-of-hand as over-commercialized, trendy, even trite. To some extent, this is true. The subjects of comic books are no longer religious deities, nor are they historic war heroes (even if those ancient war stories were subject to considerable fictionalization). They are, instead, tales from the playground, kid stuff, right? Yet, here we have the irony.

The Ancients had their religious tales of Zeus, Apollo and Heracles, along with their historic exaggerations with the likes of Ajax and Achilles. When Christianity initially failed to catch on as a new Judaic sectarian belief, early Christian missionaries were forced to go out "amongst the Gentiles", or have the faith die out. Those Gentiles just happened to be Hellenistic polytheists. To help sell their monotheistic concept of one God, Christians began to embrace the miraculous super powers of the saints. All the while passive and Christian-like, action tales of the saints included walking through fire, surviving decapitation, confronting and taming incredibly wild, oversized beasts, all the while overcoming adversity to make the world a better and more just place for mankind.

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Christian vs. Hellenistic Tales - Two paintings by the Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens of heroes challenging beasts. To the left is his Daniel and the Lion's Den and to the right Samson Overcoming the Lion. The lion was an ancient symbol for strength. Assyrian kings used to annually hunt lions alone to prove their superior worth. Also, the Judaic hero Samson was a simple retelling of the Greek tale of Heracles and Lion, thus illustrating the ongoing need for heroes in religion. 

Then, during the 18th century's Age of Enlightenment, tales of religious miracles began to subside due to growing skepticism and subsequent challenges to religious dogma. By the turn of the 19th century, industrialization and science were beginning to create miracles of their own with the invention of the telegraph, the camera, fast moving locomotive trains and steam-powered ships. Today, after years of space travel, atom-splitting and genetically modifying DNA, one can even convert tap water to wine.

The point being, Hellenistic and Christian art had their religious roots based upon lore surrounding supernatural feats by each religion's own brand of super heroes. For the ancient Greco-Roman's it was deities and demigods, for the Christians it was, with no disrespect intended, the miracles of Jesus and the action-filled lives of its saints.

The Hero Persists
Today, after a century and a half of modern art movements, manifestos and artistic transitions, the human form is far from dominant as a vehicle for artistic expression. However, talented comic artists like Alex Ross, Todd McFarlane, Lee Bermejo and others with their passion to draw the naked human figure, continue to do so through the miracle of body-painted-costuming, minus the gentiles (of course). They don't pretend for a minute to be esthetically ennobled fine artists, yet they do consider themselves accomplished artists. Using pencil or digital stylus, along with an extensive knowledge of anatomy, design and composition, they are capable of rendering all sorts of multi-figure compositions while seated in a studio or upon a park bench.

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Fine Artist Kent Williams - Blond
Natalia in Studio Arrangement
. This
painting represents an outstanding
example of multi-figurative
composition in Fine Arts today. 
Does this then make their efforts any less worthy than those of fine artists? Only history can be the true judge of any artist's efforts and even history can be fickle. Until recently, the works of illustrators like NC Wyeth and Norman Rockwell were held in disdain by the museums and the purveyors of fine arts for being too "commercial". However, their works as well as other 20th century illustrators now appear regularly in touring museum shows, some works have even been acquired by museums.

This previous alienation by the Fine Art (a 20th century invention) community was an unintentional result of Modern Art's elevation to the status of non-commercial, visual poetry, initiated by the Barbizon and Impressionists schools of art. As valid a notion as visual verse is, and as wonderful and diverse the works spanning from the late 19th to early 21st century, we surely can't discount all artwork originating from customer specifications, previous or since.

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Color Comp by Alex Ross - Striking
use of figurative form in color sketch,
Copyright ©2010, DC Comics
Surely, if modern action hero artwork (i.e. Comic Art) is to be esthetically devalued we'd best not do so based upon its commercialization, for Rembrandt, Rubens, Michelangelo and all artists before them were commercial by function. Their unique skills depended on being able to deliver exactly what their patrons demanded or they would have starved.

As to any conception of Fine Art being on some pedestal, we should refer to Jamie Wyeth's quote when rationalizing the values of fine vs. commercial art. Recalling his dad, Andrew the painter and his granddad NC the illustrator, Jamie Wyeth stated, "There's this thing now that illustrations are sort of secondary to art ...I think that's a bunch of crap".

With any luck, art will always remain within the eye of the beholder and not upon some capricious scale of presumed esthetics. In any event, throughout recorded history, mankind has proven a continued dependence upon heroes more super than natural. Therefore, that genre is not likely to end any time soon.

The Nude Exposed...

A History of Changing Attitudes: 
How the arts lost the human figure and rationalized its reappearance in time again for the Italian Renaissance.

Visit this later update by CLICKING HERE


The Seeds of Modern Art: 
A suppressive government, industrial innovations and growing apathy towards Salon sanctioned artwork all contributed to a world-changing artistic rebellion.

Visit this later update by CLICKING HERE

Romanticism and the Avant-garde 

Art Capitalized: 
Passions and innovations in painting techniques begin to impact the conservative world of neoclassical art as artists begin to question tradition. 

Visit this later update by CLICKING HERE

 Copyright ©2015 Tom Mallon. All rights reserved.