Wednesday, April 02, 2008

All Cartoons are Art - except yours

There is no dispute about whether or not Cartoons are art. There never was. Cartoons are visual art by any definition:

"The most common usage of the word "art," which rose to prominence after 1750, is understood to denote skill used to produce an aesthetic result.[8] Britannica Online defines it as "the use of skill and imagination in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments, or experiences that can be shared with others."

The dispute about cartoons is whether or not they are 'good' art, and given that the cartoon gets over that hurdle, whether or not it is 'low art'. These archaic notions still exist and they matter, in the Art World, if nowhere else.

My position is simple, my cartoons are 'good' art - your cartoons are not. The reason I can say this with confidence is because I am Roderick McKie, BA (hons) Open, Dip HE, BA (Stirl), and I am telling you that in my considered opinion, my cartoons are 'good' art.

Now, before we go any further let me remind you that R.D Laing and Noam Chomsky warned you about letting 'experts' like me tell you things that you might not believe coming from someone else other than an 'expert' like me - don't believe it just because I told you so. Although it happens to be true.

Although all cartoons are art, it would be wrong to argue that all cartoons are 'good' art because they simply are not. Some cartoons are not even good enough to be 'bad' art.

The cartoonist Herge, creator of Tintin produced 'good' art, and this would be the point at which we academics would argue over 'public' and 'private' consumption and the purpose of production and class issues and the high and low debate, but I'm going to spare you that argument and I'm going to get right to the heart of everything that 'ART' is about; money:

An original piece of artwork from the popular comic Tintin has sold at a Paris auction for a record price of €764,200 ($1.23 million Cdn).
Auction house Artcurial announced Sunday that a 1932 oil painting, created for the cover of Tintin in America, was sold on Saturday, smashing the world record for an original comic book work.

Many thanks to Dirk Deppey for highlighting this nugget on Journalista

That cartoon sold for about $1,000,000 (£500,000) then, so somebody clearly thought it was 'good' art, but quite what that means I wouldn't want to guess; it could simply mean they think the drawing is a going to go up in value, but that has really always been what art is about, its worth, its value is what someone is prepared to pay for it.

The original cover art for Robert Crumb's underground comic, Mr Natural #1, sold for $101,575, (around £50,000) making it the first Crumb original to break the $100,000 barrier. And Charles Schultz's baseball-themed Sunday page, dated April 10, 1955, realized $113,525 (about £65,000).

More recent comic book art isn't doing to shabbily either, a page from The Killing Joke by Brian Bolland brought $31,070 (around £15,000) and as Brian recently redrew some pages for the new revised re-coloured version, a wise art investor or collector might think those new pages would prove their worth over time.

Now me, I have always collected cartoon art. I began way back in the 1980s by swapping original drawings with my friends and colleagues, then I started buying the cartoons I liked because I have always preferred having original art on the walls, rather than a copy or a print. It's all about personal taste.

So, let me go over this once again just so we are perfectly clear about it, all cartoons are art, but not all cartoons are 'good' art. Charles Schulz's original comic strips sell for a lot of money, but then he was the only cartoonist to have a retrospective at the Louvre. Because Charles Schulz's originals are good art and sell for a lot of money, it does not follow that the cartoons of Joe Bloggs are good art.

And let me once again make this clear: MY cartoons are art, your cartoons are NOT art, so if I ever contact you to swap cartoons or even offer to buy one of yours don't go thinking you can jack-up the price because I think your cartoons are art - your cartoons are NOT art, so you can let me have the thing pretty cheap, maybe even for the exposure.


Which brings us neatly to the 2008 Shrewsbury International Cartoon Festival, which runs from the 18th - 20th April. The festival has been held there since 2003 and this time this international event, which attracts around 40 full-time, professional cartoonists and caricaturists from the UK and abroad, promises to be a lulu (Matt Buck told me so).

You shouldn't hesitate and you have to go to this event. If you have never seen cartoonists in the wild, in a pack (actually we call them a 'pen') then you are in for a real treat.

You know, these events can be a little special, because they remind us all how important cartoons can be, and that's valuable. Every so often I have a small crisis about being a cartoonist. Actually, that isn't true, what I have a crisis about is being 'just a cartoonist','just a freelance cartoonist', the lowest of the low on the artistic scale.

And no wonder, ten years and more after they have died, the man in the pub still talks fondly about his favourite syndicated comic strip artist, and even wonders if you know them and if they live nearby. Such talk often sets them off on a nostalgic romp through a past peppered with humour, favourite comic books, comic strips and radio shows and comedy series and jokes they have enjoyed, and even, yes, even cartoons that made them laugh so hard they nearly choked, but never, never, do they remember the name of the gag cartoonist who caused them that involuntary ejaculation.

Sometimes, for my sins, in my darkest moments, when I'm sitting drawing into the wee small hours, and that big black dog sneaks into my silence and curls up into a ball at my feet to lick my between my toes, I think that the lowest rung on the ladder of art is just exactly where we cartoonists deserve to be. After all, it is a ridiculous 'profession' is it not? Isn't the cartoonist just a modern day Court Jester? Isn't he or she just a Fool, a harmless idiot, whose sole purpose is to distract the King and the Court from the loftier problems of politics and the ghastly truth of real life? Isn't the lowly cartoonist, this imbecile falling over to amuse the crowd, beating itself about the head with a pig's bladder on a stick, the most absurd figure you can imagine in this status, fame and wealth-obsessed time in which we live?

So what are we to believe - that this strange, lonely creature that labours long hours, often at the expense of its health and eyesight, and often for little money and little or no attention or acclaim, and at times even in complete anonymity - that it does so simply to make us laugh, to amuse us, to lighten our burden?

Well, yes, hard as it may be to believe, all the evidence points to that being the simple truth. The lowly cartoonist doesn't do this job for fame. They moan only amongst ourselves about payments overdue, but still produce more work, and they sit quietly by watching helplessly from a distance when misguided publications drop their cartoon quotas. They quietly seethe and seem to see it all, all of life, as material for more cartoons. They are often so anonymous as to be invisible, a hint, a myth, a ghost that still haunts publications as old as the history of cartooning, practising their arcane art to do with parchment, sharpened quills, and bull's blood.

But something new is beginning to happen. Cartoonists are in the news, either because Herge's painting of a Tintin cover has sold for £500,000, or because Peanuts strip has fetched six figures or because Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Rodrick Rules, is sitting up there at the top of the Best Sellers chart, or because the Education Department of yet another country has introduced graphic novels into its curriculum. The currency of the lowly cartoonist has never been so high, and that is bringing the work of these shy retiring creatures and even the cartoonists themselves, more and more into the public gaze in the form of exhibitions and talks and lectures and blogcasts, et al.

One such event is this one taking place in Shrewsbury from April the 18th -20th, and it presents an opportunity to get an early look at these strange humour-makers before, despite their best efforts to stay behind the scenes, they lose their anonymity and become tomorrows superstars artists.

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