Thursday, September 04, 2008

On MOMAs and Comics

SF MOMA Whenever I travel and get into "museum mode" I always enjoy visiting modern art museums. So it occurred to me recently that it was sort of silly that I'd never even been to San Francisco's MOMA. It turns out that the first Tuesday of each month is free admission day, so earlier this week I took the train up and had myself a little field trip.

I've written before about how I enjoy modern art in a "panning for gold" sort of way. I typically sift through a lot of stuff that doesn't particularly do much for me, until I find the one or two bits that I really appreciate. This particular trip didn't have anything that got me hugely excited (though there were some amusing bits) but that's okay. There were still some reasonably interesting things and I just consider it all the luck of the draw anyway.

But when it comes right down to it, what am I really looking for? A lot of it, I think, is really just about ideas. I like seeing things I haven't thought of before, sheer creativity in action, especially if they tickle my interest or my funny bone. Things like an alphabetized bible, or musical geography (my favorite from Helsinki's Kiasma museum).

Growth Variant No. VII Another thing I like is art that gives your brain something to work with, while not being too specific about what. Things that may be abstract, but are nonetheless detailed, not just splotches of paint. A lot of Kandinsky's work is a good example of this. His "Small Worlds" series of paintings is given a context by the name, but still leaves a lot of the construction of those worlds to the viewer's mind.

I found an unexpected parallel to this recently when I read Understanding Comics, by Scott McCloud. This is a fantastic book, with some really brilliant observations about comics, art, and storytelling in general. Highly recommended -- you'll never read comics the same way again.

One of the things that really struck me as a concept in this book was his discussion of artistic styles and how they range from realistic to iconic to abstract. Characters have been drawn all over this range, and he has a chart showing over 100 of them positioned according to these three qualities, but different positions in this range have different effects on the reader. A highly realistically drawn person is a very specific person, but the less detailed or more iconic it becomes, the more people it could potentially represent. In particular, the possibility of it being the reader's own self increases. The more blanks there are, the more we fill in from ourselves. The more we fill in, the greater empathy and connection we have with the character.

For an interesting example of this, take a look at any Tintin book. The guy's head is shaped like an onion for goodness' sake, and he's got dots for eyes. The backgrounds, however, are relatively quite detailed, realistic, and believable. The overall style is optimized for making the reader really feel part of the story.

I think what I like in art, beyond just comics, is that same sense of needing to contribute something to the full experience. It doesn't even have to be anything specific, just a sense of mystery, of not knowing exactly what's there and having the freedom to insert something of your own into it. That's what I'm looking for.