Nomenclature Revisited: The Wet Blanket

Posted by on February 20th, 2010 at 1:00 PM

As someone who tosses around the words “realistic” and “cartoony” with relative impunity, I was indebted to R. Fiore’s thoughtful essay “Adventures in Nomenclature.” There, for the sake of greater coherence and precision, he proposes to substitute for “realistic” and “cartoony” the words “literal” and “freestyle” respectively (if I were you I wouldn’t trust my bottom-line précising 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’ 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’d need to see more of how these deputized terms react in the field before I consider adopting them. Here’s why:

Actually, their lack of a track record is why.

While I’d like to think I personally have never chucked around the word “cartoony” 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, 2½) would be instantly upstaged and refined by one of those pictures worth a thousand words (for instance, Fiore’s included art pretty much does the heavy lifting, for me, in his argument).

I use “cartoony” and “realistic” 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 — when applied to art — they “look” like in a general sense. I hate to go all Chief Justice Potter Stewart on you, but I’m 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’ve also been chucking the word “Dada” about. I feel free enough to do that because it hasn’t been critical if I use the word while thinking of Dada’s Zurich branch office, with Tristan Tzara shooting pistols in the street, or of L’Ecole Paris, with André 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 “Dada” and if you think of some combination of anarchy, goofiness, “hobbyhorse,” “Mona Lisa with a moustache” or “a urinal as art,” that gets us into the same ballpark. If I’d 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’re 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.

“Literal” and “freestyle,” 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, “literal” has traditionally had greater associative implications with the word, via “the letter,” than it has had with the picture, via “vision.” “Freestyle” 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’s post concerning “freestyle” 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 “comment.”)

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’s argument, the more they lose of their corroborative oomph.

But Fiore’s choices in demonstrative art are unadulterated aces, suggesting as usual that he’s on to something. So while I just don’t believe things are broken enough for this fixing, the proof inevitably will lie in contemporary usage’s pudding: if the newcomers liberate, they’re gonna be embraced. It just seems like they have their work cut out for them.

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8 Responses to “Nomenclature Revisited: The Wet Blanket”

  1. Theorah says:

    I wouldn’t be suprised if this kind of lingo catches on in the very near future! I think these words tend to of been established through genre/marketing, through giving something a general label so that you can find it more easily in a bookshop. Since comics are becoming more exposed to the public, and are being marketed a little better (as in being respected, and as such marketed in shops, as an art form with much variety rather then just humour) people are finding it harder to dump the drawing styles into those two categories ‘cartoony’ and ‘realistic’. ‘cartoony’ especially doesnt apply so much anymore, since many comics take on the style of drawing but because of story subject are marketed in a different way.
    Anyway, I think you’re right in saying the newcomers will liberate. The generation below mine dont treat comics or the art styles within them as being of certain genre/labels, because the stuff available to them as kids is more varied and treated differently to how comics were labled and treated when older generations were kids…did that make any sense? :P

  2. Wesley says:

    I recall that essay. Just as a data point, I knew what Fiore meant by “literal” immediately. “Literal” literally (sorry) refers to text but it’s just as often used metaphorically. The downside is that “literal” carries associations like “unadorned” and “lacking in imagination.” It means something slightly different from “realistic.” (But if it didn’t, there would be no point in having both words.)

    I’m less convinced by “freestyle.” “Freestyle cartooning” sounds like drawing while balanced on a tightrope over Niagara Falls. “Expressionist,” maybe?

  3. Caro says:

    My personal wish would be for better formalist terminology for the “seeing things from a particular section or seat.”

    Comics shares with art history a tendency to rely on either technical terms or historical genealogical ones (like the Duchamp ref above), whereas literature has these middlin’ terms like simile and blank verse which describe a particular intersection of formal and affective/semiotic elements.

    A word like trochaic would be similar type of word as say, cross-hatch: those are elements of technique. You can say “Shakespearean” like you can say Dada, those are historical/genealogical. Sometimes you can just crowbar the literary ones into the comics context and talk about things like “visual metaphor”, but I don’t know of a good art term that’s parallel to blank verse. I often feel like I have to choose between sounding like Clement Greenberg or Josef Albers.

    Of course, I may just be uninformed and missing this great book of formalist semiotic terms for describing art. Please tell me and I will come up with sort of prize to give you because that would make me really astoundingly happy.

  4. R. Fiore says:

    To be honest I couldn’t really say myself whether the terms have any use outside of the article itself. While they have advantages over the commonplace terms, they are semantically awkward and nobody knows what you’re talking about. Since Scott McCloud has apparently created a mandala with every cartoonist you could think of (I never read “Understanding Comics” because I figured I already did), I may have just reinvented the wheel except without the round part. I think naturalistic is definitely an improvement over realistic. I wouldn’t use cartoony unless I was absolutely forced to.

  5. R. Fiore says:

    As a P.S., one thing about a lot of Dada art is that you can’t really appreciate it unless you see it in the flesh. You can’t fully appreciate the absolute uselessness of the iron with nails in it or the furry teacup unless you see that someone has actually gone to the trouble of making them. Photos don’t do them justice. By the same token, you really can’t get the full impact of Roy Lichtenstein paintings unless you see the scale of them.

  6. KParille says:

    I had a discussion with my students recently in which some of these terms came up. I talk about it here:

  7. patford says:

    Interesting that R. said his 14 year old self would have loved the art work of Alex Ross. Contrast that with the current mainstream super hero comic books with their photo-shop colour, and backgrounds, the “mature” themes, and the wave of “realistic” super hero movies many fans are so excited about.
    There are people who believe that every artist would strive for the same end, and artists who aren’t Vermeer, Norman Rockwell, or Neal Adams lack the skill, are lazy, or in the case of an evolving style, have “lost it.”
    Cartoony art is a term of derision, and the assumption is it’s the kind of thing which causes the average person to view comics as “funny books.”
    In fine arts a “cartoony” style would be identified as
    A great artist like Picasso mastered “literalism” as a teenager, and moved away from it not because he was pulling a con on the public, but because he continued to develop a personal means of expression. An effective tool to express ideas.

    Jack Kirby: “I’ve been told at times to draw like a photograph. In other words some people feel an artist should draw realistically. I feel that telling a story is no matter what kind of style you have is more important than having a nice drawing to look at. I
    don’t have to be Michelangelo to be effective.”

    Picasso:“It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”

  8. R.C. Harvey says:

    I like “literal.” “Freestyle” not so much. How about “caricatural”? Literal vs. caricatural. They both end in “al,” which is nice for poets if not for philosophers.