Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Treachery of The Senses

While reading Understanding Comics, I often found myself pondering the very nature of art. At one point, McCloud says, “The idea that a picture can evoke an emotional or sensual response in the viewer is vital to the art of comics” (121), and I think this is true not only for comics, but all art. While I do find most popular art aesthetically pleasing, there is no value in just aesthetics for me. Instead, I have always valued art that produced a feeling within me.

I’ve never really been drawn to traditional art forms such as landscape, impressionist or classical. As far as traditional art movements are concerned, I enjoy the Romantic movement the most. Caspar David Friedrich is a favorite, but only because he often portrays fragmented and obscure subjects. I’ve always been much more drawn to modernist movements, such as expressionism and surrealism. When I view art I want to be challenged, forced to consider my own perceptions. Essentially, I seek the evocation of a certain feeling; I want the art I’m viewing to transcend its medium and present something new to me.

One of my favorite paintings is referenced in Understanding Comics— that is Rene Magritte’s The Treachery of Images. I first found the painting while studying surrealism, and ever since it has stuck with me as an example of what I consider perfection in art. I have always appreciated it for its simplicity and frankness, yet its inherent ambiguity. The Treachery of Images forces the viewer to not only reconsider their interpretation of art, but also their perception of the entire world.

While reading Understanding Comics I became aware of another dimension of my appreciation for Magritte’s painting. Through McCloud’s discourse on cartoons I realized that The Treachery of Images is essentially a comic, and an iconic one at that. It features both text and images, juxtaposed yet each one illuminating the other to a higher level of meaning. The portrayal of the pipe is itself an icon, and through this representation it holds a world of meaning for the viewer to interpret. In a sense, its simplicity is paradoxically what makes it so complex—like McCloud’s cartoon face, it is something that we see ourselves in. Bolstered by Magritte’s caption, we realize that we cannot take everything as it is at face value.

All of this artistic suggestion then brings me to the idea of perspective. McCloud writes of the “invisible art” and the reliability of the senses. I’ve often wondered about the reality of the world—whether it actually exists or is just a representation of something and nothing more than this. We rely on our senses to perceive the world, and rely on them with complete faith. In art however, we often make deductions, draw connections to things that aren’t necessarily implied. In the idea of the “gutter,” McCloud covers this topic. Art can take the place of a false reality—something that we perceive and feel genuine emotion from, even though it is not an actual entity. That something visual can have this power on us, with no help from other senses, makes me think of Lévinas’ thoughts about the face.

We live in a state of “profound isolation” according to McCloud (194), yet are so reliant on each other for social contact. However, that social contact is often nothing more than a reflection of our own needs. Often we act social because we are uncomfortable with being alone—not because we genuinely care what other people have to say. While this is not always true, it is sometimes, and in this capacity we search for art in each other. In the visage of another human being, we often look to find something about our own selves.

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