Don’t buy this book: Monologues for the coming plague

Post-script to my last, super-“ironic” post: I swiped the original image from another “parody” online. I didn’t actually buy, or read any of, Civil War.

That’s for those of you keeping track of my credibility. It’s important that you keep track, because I’m about to destroy it anyway by suddenly coming over all philistine.

***

Monologues for the coming plague, Anders Nilsen. Fantagraphics, 2006. $18.95, 260 pages.

In general, art can be evaluated along two dimensions: on the one hand, its purely aesthetic qualities, how it looks, feels or sounds; on the other, its conceptual elements, what it is about or represents, the thoughts it is meant to evoke. One of the most sustained developments throughout the twentieth century, across a range of media, was the detachment of these two dimensions from one another. Take visual art, for instance. In one direction, artists began to abandon traditional “realist” modes of representation and present art as pure visual experience, form without object. Flourishing at various historical moments as cubism, abstract expressionism etc., this trend reached its kitschy apogee in the (now badly-dated) op art movement.

In the other direction, we get conceptual art*, art with little to no aesthetic value whose function is instead to be all object and no form, as it were. The point of conceptual art lies not in experiencing it, but in seeing what it “means”. And often it has meant little more than subverting the very notions of “art” or “meaning”. For mine, conceptual art peaked early–once Duchamp has stuck a bicycle wheel upside-down on a stool, anything else  looks lame and unoriginal–but it’s still going strong in contemporary art galleries around the world.

Both kinds of art, the purely conceptual and purely aesthetic, have tended to evoke a philistine response from the person on the street (typified by Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word).** My favourite example of this reaction, and the art world’s reasoned counter-reaction, occurred on an old TV arts show. A viewer had written to the program complaining, of some artwork or other, that she (the viewer) could have done better with one hand tied behind her back. Having read the letter aloud, the host turned to the camera and deadpanned:

“Imagine what this modern Prometheus could do with both hands free.”

In other words: fuck you too, and ha-ha, ain’t it grand to épater les bourgeois?

Visually speaking, Anders Nilsen’s Monologues for the coming plague is a pure one-hander. There’s nothing to recommend it visually, or formally, as comics. The art is (I assume deliberately) crude, with a range so limited it makes Michael Turner or Rob Liefeld look like Winsor McCay. But Nilsen also treats us with an insight into his process, leaving word balloons with words scratched out, and free-floating dialogue which has also been scratched out because he decided to put the word balloon in a different place. At last, an artist so conceptually outré that he doesn’t use white-out, an artist whose very mistakes have such merit that they are worth our studied attention. Not to mention our $18.95.

Or maybe not.

But it’s pointless to complain about the minimal visual talent on display, when aesthetic pleasure is so clearly not Nilsen’s intent here. No, Nilsen obviously wants us to appreciate Monologues on an entirely conceptual level.

Which is a pity, because the actual content of Monologues is similarly devoid of much interest or worth either. Sequences here include the sophomoric Semiotics, in which two figures (one of them with a smudge for a head) jokingly discuss semiotics; a recurring series of pages with a woman feeding a pigeon, with one or the other speaking sub-New Yorker gags, only they’re not incisive enough to count as ironic commentary on gag panel conventions; a handful of non-figurative doodles; and the aptly named Mediocrity Principle. Some of this stuff is slightly amusing (the story with Buddha is good for a wry chuckle), but it’s ultimately no more insightful or interesting than the typical blog of a fine arts or English major.

There’s a joke academics like to tell about philosophers and mathematicians. Mathematicians are the second cheapest academic for a university to hire, because all they need is paper, pencils and a wastepaper basket. Philosophers are the cheapest because they don’t need the basket. Perhaps in the future, Nilsen could prove himself even cheaper by forgoing the paper and pencils as well. He’s already done away with the basket, and with panels, transitions, visual skill and conceptual interest. The only place to go from there is to abandon the physical comic entirely and create a comic of pure being.

The best part? A comic of pure being wouldn’t cost $18.95.

* I’m using “conceptual art” in a broader sense than would some art historians, I suspect.

** Aesthetic reactionaries are often assumed to be political reactionaries as well. But, apart from some famous figures who were both aesthetic and political reactionaries (like Wolfe himself), I don’t see why. In general, there are better ways of helping the comrades than avant-garde art; so one can dislike the latter while valuing the former.

Recommended? Um, no.

IYL: The worst of conceptual art’s pretentious excess; or if you read that one issue of Eightball with the Dan Pussey story about modern artcomix–each issue with coffee stains, random pages torn out, etc.–and wished the comic actually existed.

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6 Responses to “Don’t buy this book: Monologues for the coming plague”

  1. Chris Mautner Says:

    I disagree emphatically, but I don’t have time or space to delve into why. I’ll have to save it for a future column. I can see why you had the reaction you did, however. But I think ultimately the book isn’t as shallow as you suggest.

  2. Aaron Says:

    I’m a little uncertain that I got my $18.95 worth from this, but in Nilsen’s defense

    1. I believe this book was done as an improv thing, and like an improv performance it’s more about watching something develop in “real-time.” I dabble in improv theatre, and a lot of stuff that’s delightful in that format seems awful if you watch it thinking they scripted this and whatnot.

    2. Before you slam the door on Nilsen, check out his Big Questions, in which he actually draws good and tells developed stories. They seem to appeal to a lot of folks who dislike the monologues.

  3. Derik Says:

    I don’t know if I’d be as hard as you on this book, but I found it very problematic and ultimately not worth the price or the effort. On the other hand some of Nilsen’s other works are excellent. “The End” retains a certain level of conceptualism but also has a powerful emotional resonance. A better example of his purely conceptual work is a great comic in an early issue of Mome that is all colored shapes (mostly squares I believe).

  4. Marc Says:

    Don’t back down, Jonesy! Keep fighting the good fight.

    Yours in philistinism,

  5. Alex Says:

    Thank You

  6. Jason Says:

    Wow. You can’t even see how much of a joke you are. Just another self-important academic who over-analyzes to compensate for his inability to feel a genuine artistic impulse, a true moment of connection.

    Look at how many paragraphs of bullshit it takes you to even get to your review.

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-academic. But I can see nonsense regardless of its overwrought diction.

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