“I Like to Sock Myself in the Face”: Reconsidering “Vulgar Modernism” (Part One)

The following essay is a work in progress, produced for an anthology of essays on animation and its relations to live action comedy. I see it as a chance to explore cartoons, long a passion of mine, but so far, not a topic I’ve written about. It also gave me a chance to return to the field of comedy studies, where I began my career. For more of my work on this topic, see What Made Pistachio Nuts?: Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Asesthetic, Classical Hollywood Comedy, and the essay on Lupe Velez in The Wow Climax. It also extends the exploration of the relations between high and popular art which runs as a theme through the essays in The Wow Climax, but especially those dealing with Matthew Barney and with what Gilbert Seldes might have taught us about the aesthetics of video games. This essay is a bit on the academic side compared to much of what I post on this blog but my hope is that readers will bear with it for the insights it offers into postwar animation, comics, and comedy.

Published in Artforum in 1982, J. Hoberman’s “Vulgar Modernism” represents an important benchmark in critical discussions of “popular art.” Hoberman constructs the case for the formal innovation and artistic importance of a range of popular artists who were seemingly locked out of the cannon on the basis of their low cultural status, even as their work continued to influence a broad range of modern and postmodern artists. Hoberman describes ‘vulgar modernism’ as “the vulgar equivalent of modernism itself. By this I mean a popular, ironic, somewhat dehumanized mode reflexively concerned with specific properties of its medium or the conditions of its making.” [p.33] He goes on to suggest that this “sensibility….developed between 1940 and 1960 in such peripheral corners of the ‘culture industry’ as animated cartoons, comic books, early morning TV, and certain Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis comedies.” [p.33] Hoberman devotes the core of his essay to individualized discussions of animator Tex Avery, director Frank Tashlin, cartoonist Will Elder, and television performer Ernie Kovacs, yet his introduction makes clear that the concept extends more broadly, speaking to a particular relationship between popular culture and high art during this post-war period.

Read today, the essay feels more timid than it did a few decades ago – an attempt to negotiate with the sensibilities of a high art readership (and thus preserve entrenched cultural hierarchies) even as it rescues certain key popular artists from the margins of critical consideration. We see this exceptionalism in the speed with which he labels such works “para-art” (by the start of the second paragraph) or the ways in which he sets up his beloved creators through analogies to already acclaimed modern artists, describing Tex Avery, for example, as “the Manet of Vulgar modernism.” [p.33] In short, some artists rise above the “muck” that surrounds them, to reference another analogy in Hoberman’s essay. To this day, his almost oxymoronic coupling of “vulgar” and “modernism” sparks controversy from those celebrating popular art and those defending high culture alike; we still have a long way to go before we resolve the vague discomfort which comes from applying formalist criticism to what we call popular culture more often than we speak of popular art.

Modernism?

Hoberman’s concept of ‘vulgar modernism’ exists primarily as a frame for his close readings of particular texts and artists, so the passage quoted above is as close as he comes to an wholistic explanation of the concept. Modernism operates in his argument as a very broad and loose signifier of 20th century high art (and has become even more elastic as developed by subsequent generations of critics informed by his interpretations.) What links these popular artists to “modernism” for Hoberman is their interest in foregrounding the materiality of their medium and the conditions of its production and reception, their embrace of reflexivity and intertextuality. See, for example, his description of what Will Elder brought to early Mad Magazine: “His best pieces are collagelike arrangements of advertising trademarks, media icons, banal slogans, visual puns, and assorted non-sequiters….As Mad‘s leading formalist, Elder allows internal objects to tamper with the boundaries of a panel, breaks continuous vistas into consecutive frames, offers visually identical panels with wildly fluctuating details, and otherwise emphasizes the essential serial nature of his medium.”[p.37] In short, Hoberman is interested in these popular artist’s refusal to produce a coherent, consistent, or classically constructed world, openly displaying their own interventions as authors into the represented events. Hoberman, in that sense, was inspired by Screen‘s attempt to generate a Brechtian mode of film theory in the 1970s and by the French rediscovery of Frank Tashlin and Jerry Lewis, both of which rested on arguments that self-reflexivity and intertextuality shattered the codes and conventions of classical cinema.

Hoberman’s project has been most vigorously taken up by cartoonist and cultural impresario Art Spiegelman, who has used these artists as a missing link between the gutter art of the Tijuana Bibles of the 1930s and the underground comics of the 1960s and art comics of subsequent decades. Spiegelman has, in the process, broadened the cannon of the vulgar modernists by, for example, reprinting works by Basil Wolverton in his influential Raw anthologies, writing a book focused on the modernist sensibilities of comic book artist Jack Cole (Plastic Man) or for that matter, designing an album cover for a reissue of Spike Jone’s music, bringing this once cornball music to the attention of new hipsters.

Let’s be clear about the terms of this discussion. Hoberman’s vision of “vulgar modernism” is very different from the concept of “cartoon modernism” being promoted in a recent book by Amid Amidi. Amidi is interested in the design aesthetic introduced into American animation in the 1950s by cartoonists such as Ward Kimball, John Hubley, Maurice Noble, and Ernie Pintoff, among others, which was explicitly informed by trends in contemporary art. Here the focus is on simplification, stylization, abstraction, the flattening of depth perception, and the expressive and non-naturalistic use of color, among other properties. If Hoberman is linking the vulgar modernists to Brecht’s concepts of distanciation, Amidi defines his cartoon modernists in relation to Picaso, Matisse, Miro, Klee and bebop. Tex Avery would be an interesting figure for closer consideration because he is the one cross-over between these two very different conceptions of the relationship between American animation and modern art, having embraced aspects of this design aesthetic in his final few years of work (see, for example, Symphony in Slang).

Vulgar?

The term, “vulgar,” receives even less attention in the original essay with a lot resting on what Hoberman might have meant when he described these works as “the vulgar equivalent of modernism itself.” On one level, vulgar might imply untutored or ignorant, suggesting that we might approach such works much as the art world deals with outsider and folk artists. Yet, this argument is less than persuasive when we consider how many of these artists received formal training (and thus were exposed to 20th century art movements), experimented on the side with producing works which more fully met high art criteria, and often directly and explicitly parodied various modern artists and movements throughout their work (witness the recurring theme of “smashing the classics”). Art Spigelman has drawn a compelling representation of Jack Cole’s Plastic Man in a modern art museum, looking at the paintings with a mixture of revulsion, confusion, and recognition. These guys studied side by side in art school with people who would go onto careers within the art world; they had the technical skills to do work which would have met the art world’s criteria of evaluation, but they opted to pursue their careers in other spaces, creating different kinds of works for different kinds of audiences. They enjoyed their own marginality and often made fun of the pretensions and obscurtism of more exalted forms of artistic expression.

We might use the term, “vulgar,” in a descriptive sense to describe the relatively low cultural status granted their work at the time it was being produced; we might deploy the term, “vulgar,” to refer to certain intentionally distasteful aspects of their representation of the body and sexuality, their deployment of everyday materials including advertising as the inspiration for their own artistic production, though in that sense, they prefigure where art has gone in the postmodern period. Can we rescue “vulgar” by redefinining it in terms of transgressions committed both against the institutional practices of mainstream media and the world of high art or are the class politics of “vulgar” so deeply entrenched that it resists re-appropriation on this level?

We might also see them as “vulgar” in much the same way that Marian Hansen has spoken of “vernacular modernism” (here, drawing heavily on slapstick comedy as a primary reference point) and its relationship to classical cinema: “the term vernacular combines the dimension of the quotidian, of everyday usage, with the connotations of discourse, idiom and dialect, with circulation, promiscuity and translatability.” Like Hoberman, Hansen welcomes the productive tension between popular art and high culture. I am holding onto Hoberman’s term, “vulgar modernism,” for much the same reasons: it generates discussion precisely of the relations between the two terms which needs to occur if we are not to simply naturalize old assumptions about the relations between high and low.

I want to move us away from Hoberman’s use of the concept of “para-art” and the implication that these works are not quite art, worthy of aesthetic consideration but not perhaps the ultimate recognition given to “true artists.” I start from the assumption that popular art needs to be evaluated on its own terms, that it needs to be understood in relation to its own aesthetic goals and circumstances, and that no apology need be made for popular artist simply because they work in institutional settings other than the art world.

(To Be Continued)