As someone who tosses around the words ‚Äúrealistic‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúcartoony‚ÄĚ with relative impunity, I was indebted to R. Fiore‚Äôs thoughtful essay ‚ÄúAdventures in Nomenclature.‚ÄĚ There, for the sake of greater coherence and precision, he proposes to substitute for ‚Äúrealistic‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúcartoony‚ÄĚ the words ‚Äúliteral‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúfreestyle‚ÄĚ respectively (if I were you I wouldn‚Äôt trust my bottom-line pr√©cising but would re-examine the original).
Fiore is a persuasive writer and one smart cookie (and here you can trust my reductive appraisal). His drive for clarity in thinking of and writing about comics is admirable. He certainly nails why I never have been able to see Carl Barks‚Äô ducks as anything other than completely faithful and vital.
Still, on this matter of swapping realistic and cartoony for literal and freestyle I am more than hesitant. At the very least I‚Äôd need to see more of how these deputized terms react in the field before I consider adopting them. Here‚Äôs why:
Actually, their lack of a track record is why.
While I‚Äôd like to think I personally have never chucked around the word ‚Äúcartoony‚ÄĚ quite so cavalierly as Fiore suggests, I absolutely do use it as shorthand, as convention. I do so in order to avoid a lot in the way of description that 1) may not be the most important matter at the moment and/or 2) would be redundant to readers already familiar with the artist or work or, alternatively, 2¬Ĺ) would be instantly upstaged and refined by one of those pictures worth a thousand words (for instance, Fiore‚Äôs included art pretty much does the heavy lifting, for me, in his argument).
I use ‚Äúcartoony‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúrealistic‚ÄĚ thinking those terms have some currency with readers. There are pre-existing if nebulous connotations that I imagine we share in the application of those words, what ‚ÄĒ when applied to art ‚ÄĒ they ‚Äúlook‚ÄĚ like in a general sense. I hate to go all Chief Justice Potter Stewart on you, but I‚Äôm thinking we all know cartoony when we see it.
Of course, this leads to trouble when your notions of cartoony and realistic differ from mine and where exactitude is an advantage. But if more precision is important, it behooves me as a writer to be more detailed (as is Fiore when he includes a pair of panels from Roy Crane). Over the past few weeks I‚Äôve also been chucking the word ‚ÄúDada‚ÄĚ about. I feel free enough to do that because it hasn‚Äôt been critical if I use the word while thinking of Dada‚Äôs Zurich branch office, with Tristan Tzara shooting pistols in the street, or of L‚ÄôEcole Paris, with Andr√© Breton writing his way toward Surrealism, or Hanna Hoch goosing the Nazis in Berlin or the New York City art scene being skewered by Man Ray and his crowd. I write ‚ÄúDada‚ÄĚ and if you think of some combination of anarchy, goofiness, ‚Äúhobbyhorse,‚ÄĚ ‚ÄúMona Lisa with a moustache‚ÄĚ or ‚Äúa urinal as art,‚ÄĚ that gets us into the same ballpark. If I‚Äôd like you to see things from a certain section or seat, I need to usher you in more carefully, dropping names, like say, The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even. Otherwise that larger ballpark will suffice. As long as we‚Äôre not making precedent-setting pronouncements from the highest judicial perch in the land, shared terms, with their verbal wiggle room intact, have the advantage of allowing the conversation to continue comparatively unimpeded, relative understanding presiding.
‚ÄúLiteral‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúfreestyle,‚ÄĚ as of this moment, lack that conversational convenience, that shared if rough understanding. If anything, their wiggle room disadvantages them where visual art is concerned. For all the sense it makes while Fiore is using it, ‚Äúliteral‚ÄĚ has traditionally had greater associative implications with the word, via ‚Äúthe letter,‚ÄĚ than it has had with the picture, via ‚Äúvision.‚ÄĚ ‚ÄúFreestyle‚ÄĚ lacks even that anchor. Across the board it is broader, more open-ended, more indistinct, more subject to individual associations and interpretation. This is just happenstance but it goes to my point: the first and only comment following Fiore‚Äôs post concerning ‚Äúfreestyle‚ÄĚ art had to do with a creative bit of skateboard maneuvering. (This from the guy whose recent minis review attracted a weight-loss ad as ‚Äúcomment.‚ÄĚ)
Having read his original post, you know that Fiore works to advance a shared understanding, a conversational utility, for his replacement terms. Possibly anticipating claims his terms are inelegant or still imperfect, he refines and buttresses their utility by drawing upon other related concepts like conviction, expressiveness, the liberal and the naturalistic. Yet these are notions that have a life of their own, too, have their own latitudes of interpretive subjectivity. The further you get from Fiore‚Äôs argument, the more they lose of their corroborative oomph.
But Fiore‚Äôs choices in demonstrative art are unadulterated aces, suggesting as usual that he‚Äôs on to something. So while I just don‚Äôt believe things are broken enough for this fixing, the proof inevitably will lie in contemporary usage‚Äôs pudding: if the newcomers liberate, they‚Äôre gonna be embraced. It just seems like they have their work cut out for them.