COMICS CRASH COURSE – EPISODE #30: “Scott McCloud’s Big Triangle”

COMICS CRASH COURSE – EPISODE #30: “Scott McCloud’s Big Triangle”


So Scott McCloud’s UNDERSTANDING COMICS
is undeniably one of the most important books in comic studies, and it remains
one of the most widely read books of comics theory in English to this day…25
years after its initial publication. McCloud introduces and reframes a lot of
big, important ideas…many of which we’re going to be talking about in the coming
series. But there’s one double page spread that always fascinated me,
partly was because I like detailed charts and graphs–that’s the kind of
nerd I am–and partly because I didn’t completely get what McCloud was doing
with it. There seemed to be something more going
on than McCloud was talking about. Well, after years of teaching and talking
about the book, I still find the image pretty fascinating and I’ve also come to
find it as a really useful tool for visualizing big ideas in art theory. And
since we’ve been talking about that for the past couple videos, it seems like the
Big Triangle is as good a place as any for us to jump in on Scott McCloud’s
UNDERSTANDING COMICS. I’m Andréa Gilroy and this is Comics Crash course so A few episodes ago, I talked about the way most people associate realism with
quality or skill when it comes to art. Now you can see this attitude reflected
in statements like, “Well, I went to this museum and saw all these pictures and
thought, ‘Oh my six-year-old could do that!'” Now the snob in us might want to laugh
at someone who doesn’t understand say, Picasso’s importance to art history. But
for someone who’s not trained in art history or theory, like why would they
know about cubism? Otherwise pretty much all social cues point towards realism as
the goal of good art. If an artist could draw realistically, why wouldn’t they? And
maybe somebody understands Picasso but Pollock or Rothko or Klein? Well, that
seems a step too far. So here’s where McCloud steps in. So at
this point in UNDERSTANDING COMICS, McCloud has been talking about
cartooning and iconicity, something that we will get to–but he switches gears a
bit. So sometimes artists aren’t interested
in representing anything, he says sometimes they just want to make marks,
to celebrate the form they use paper, paints, canvas, ink. And so we see the
first triangle appear. The full double page spread that I showed you earlier
appears on the next page. So I’m actually going to reconstruct the triangle now
without the faces, because it’s a little easier to talk about what’s going on, and
a little less distracting. What McCloud is arguing is that visual art exists in
tension between three nexuses. One is to represent a real physical object in the
world. Now he calls this the reality point; I’m gonna shift it and call it
mimesis, which is maybe an unnecessarily fancy word. But reality seems a little
misleading to me because, the other points are also grounded in reality. Now
he calls it reality because he’s referring to art that wants to represent
an actual physical object in reality. But that’s what the word mimesis means. So
the meaning point corresponds to art’s tendency to work big ideas for example
liberty and love aren’t necessarily things that exist physically in the
world but they are real, and an artist might want to create work inspired by
them or even that represents those concepts. Now I briefly mentioned the top
point previously, which McCloud calls “the picture plane.” But I will call it “form,”
because I think the word “picture” implies illustration too heavily. But the point
here is that some art is concerned and not with representing anything. The
artist is interested in celebrating form itself: ink, paint, paper, canvas, stone
digital media. Now I’ve use the word “represent” several times at this point,
and you might notice that McCloud has named the edges here. So the mimesis and
meaning points are connected by the “representational” edge because, in
the visual arts anyway, if an artist is going to work with either reality or
ideas they’re gonna try to be representing them in some way. Mimeses and
form are connected by a “retinal” edge. That’s because real, physical objects and
the form in which art objects are created are, well visual. They’re things
we see. On the other hand, form and meaning are both deeply inspired by
ideas and theory. It’s the thinky stuff…So they’re connected by the conceptual edge.
So what use is this graph? Well, one thing it does is it helps us think about what
art is trying to do, and how it is responding to these different tensions.
So let’s return to the quote “art that a six-year-old could do.” Take for example
NEW YORK, NEW YORK by Franz Klein. Made in 1953, an oil painting on canvas. Now
Klein is generally associated with the abstract expressionist movement of the
1950s– the same that Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning are thrown into. Now one of the important parts to remember about these artists so they didn’t want
to be realistic. They’re trying to get at something else. The Cubists, for example,
like Pablo Picasso were trying to figure out how to
explore three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface, how to show
multiple viewpoints at once. And that’s why Picasso’s eyes look weird, not
because he didn’t know how to draw eyes that looked more realistic…but that he
was trying to do something else. So Klein likes these big bold lines, he
likes high contrast–most of his paintings are black lines on white.
They’re messy, sloppy, aggressive, angry. And while I think there’s a hint of
representation here–more than some of his other paintings; this one looks a
little bit like a bridge and it’s called NEW YORK, NEW YORK after all–he seems
mostly interested in emotional reactions. His paintings are big, bold lines–black
on white in high contrast. I put him somewhere around here.
Now Pollock is probably infamous if you think artists are trying to pull one
over on the common museum goer. What do you mean he literally just splattered
the stuff on the canvas? But you see, what he was interested in was something
different: he wanted to see what paint did if it was as free of the artist’s
hand as humanly possible, see how it reacted if it dripped from a brush, if it
dripped from a stick, or a turkey baster. He was all about form. Now this NEW MUTANTS poster by Bill Sinkieweicz is interesting because it’s
really in the middle. It’s pretty representational; I mean, it has to be to
recognize the characters of the New Mutants. But then you can also tell the
joy that Sienkiewicz is having in mark- making, in form. If you ever get the
chance to see this in person, you’ll see that those circuit boards are actually,
literally embedded into the painting. So parts of it are about representing
character, and parts of it are about mark making, and parts of it are about
concepts–emotions attached to the characters. Because the New Mutants was
this angsty, emotional teen book. And if there’s anything that captures the
complicated feelings of being a teenager – and I suppose a teenage superhero –how
about a bunch of competing textures and colors and media and styles? So I put
Sinkiewicz–at least this piece–somewhere around here. I can keep doing this
forever it’s pretty fun but hopefully this gives you some sense of what’s
happening with the Big Triangle, and how it might give us a way any way to think
about art. Now McCloud includes a little line here he says there’s a point at
which concepts become so abstract they can’t be represented by pictures
anymore and need to be addressed by words. He calls this line the “language border.”
And you might have noticed I’ve been putting it off. And that’s because I
don’t agree. I think words are as complex as images; in fact I think you could
almost use a similar map for words and their purposes. it will be slightly
complicated because words don’t necessarily physically represent the
world in the way pictures do… always… but it’s complicated. Anyway, I also think the
line between word and images is way blurrier than he does. But that’s also
another episode. So McCloud mostly builds this triangle to discuss the area in
which most comics arts falls, which he says is somewhere around here. Now to get
into McCloud’s ideas about cartooning, iconicity, and universality, we need to
start the episode over. I’m not going to do that. We’re going to talk about that
later. But I think what we can see from this area, is that the styles here tend
to rely on a certain amount of conceptual abstraction, right? They’re
more toward “meaning.” Characters are simplified to represent ideas and ideals,
but they still lean towards representing objects in the real world. This makes
sense from a practical point of view. Full blown realism is really
time-consuming and often distracting–so many details and ideas. Moving toward the
conceptual edge, using styles that simplify and idealize, makes sense.
Als,o most comics, though not all, are narrative, and that means art that eschews any kind
of representation–moving too far toward form–doesn’t make a ton of sense. The
fact that most comics–again, not all, but most– are reproduced means that playing with
form is a bit difficult as well, because unless artists are specifically playing
with reproduction, those formal details might be lost on a viewer interacting
with the reproduction of the original piece. In any event, I hope that like
me, McCloud’s Big Triangle now provides you with a little more insight
about how and why artists approach their craft, and maybe it makes looking at art
and thinking about art a little bit more fun. More on comics next week. See you
then.

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