I can’t remember a time before I began to draw. Always drawing and writing, I never felt inadequate when I saw art that I knew I didn’t know how to make or read books that I didn’t know how to write. Somehow, totally unconsciously, I understood that I could probably do both of those things with time and practice. That doesn’t mean the defeats along the way didn’t sting.
Two of my earliest art lessons came in the 4th grade with two drawing challenges between the nerds in class who could draw better than the other kids. There was no prize money and no authority in charge. The judges were the other kids in class. My total defeat in both cases was indisputable. These losses tamped down my 10-year-old ego as well as neatly laid out two of the primary strategies for art-making in the ongoing evolution of Western art.
I can’t remember the names or faces of the two little bastards who beat me, but I can still see their drawings in my mind. The first challenge was traditional, durational and would be judged on the merits of craftsmanship. We agreed to draw Wolverine from the X-Men. We could choose any image of him we wanted and agreed to meet in music class a week later. I had hope that this would boost my artistic confidence because I sure as fuck couldn’t play that stupid flute-recorder thing they were forcing us to blow through.
I was at a disadvantage because I didn’t care about comic books and I had never drawn Wolverine. Why would someone read comic books if they could watch movies? And I didn’t like being locked in to someone else’s version of the visual details I made up when I read my grandma’s Agatha Christie novels. The other kid was probably fiddling his way toward puberty with Storm every night in the bathroom.
My loss was decisive. I couldn’t grasp (at least in a week) all the forms and shapes that comic artists disassemble and reassemble in order to animate their characters. The other kid beat me because he had achieved a 4th-grade mastery of these forms through innate talent, close observation and love of the subject combined with constant practice.
He beat me with the traditional principles of visual art that emerged with Giotto and led from the flat, graphic imagery of the Byzantines to the literal work of 18th-century artists like Sir Joshua Reynolds. Provided an artist can do the thing in the first place—close observation combined with commitment to craft—his effort will lead to images which the eye recognizes as closely referencing the images it makes of the world. Which Wolverine most closely approximates its source material? It’s easy for the viewer to declare a winner in this kind of contest and cruel for the loser because no matter how much you whine there’s no court of appeals. There’s room for a huge variety of styles, nonrepresentational forms and psychological preference, but in the world of mastery there are those who can and those who cannot.
But then all the weaknesses of an art based on mastery alone became clear with my second defeat. In the first contest we had given ourselves a week to make the drawings because making a masterful picture takes time (sometimes it takes no time at all but requires a lot of experience, something 4th graders don’t have). This time a different kid and I went off to our corners and drew for about ten minutes. The subject of this draw-off was ninjas. I had the advantage this time because I had been drawing the ninjas off of the back of my grandfather’s giant laser disc box of Enter the Ninja for months. And this other kid wasn’t as good as I was. All the ingredients were in place for a triumph. After having been exposed as totally unable to fellate a recorder into producing music and sadly unpracticed at comic-book art, I needed something more than my mom telling me that I was going to be the next Van Gogh.
My ninja was badass. He had hidden darts and Chinese stars secreted all over his quickly and expertly shaded, sleeveless tunic. As I was drawing his sword I decided to make the bold decision to give him a giant Medieval sword instead of the typical samurai sword. Historical revisionism, expert shading under deadline, weapons and a flying lunge pose. I was convinced had won. Recess was almost over and we laid our ninjas side by side. Maybe I closed my eyes to savor the victory but then I heard all the kids bust out laughing. I looked down and next to my lithe assassin was a pitiful, shabby drawing of a ninja… with a huge hard dick.
I had lost again, but for none of the same reasons. Later in art school I finally understood this as my late Modernist defeat. All the traditional standards of visual fidelity and masterful craftsmanship that combine to produce a useful social standard were gone, and in their place was perhaps the most socially useful thing of all: irony. Irony is nonconformist and exposes injustice, incites laughter and provides relief from the miserable boredom and violence that ensues when large numbers of people get together to engage in the task of survival. In other words, it reminds us that if we have to be a collective (which we do) we should at least be free to complain about the power that binds us and mock the people who annoy us.
My defeat wasn’t total. My ninja was better made. If the other kid’s ninja had sported a huge, realistically veined cock and been superior in craftsmanship I think I might have been forever broken and never picked up a pencil again. But I knew to take the hit and laugh along because humor is essential to life and humor and irony are inseparable.
But there are those moments in life when dissembling ironic wit is not enough to sustain the will to live, and so inevitably we have to look around for social standards around which we can conform and achieve human solidarity.
Demolishing corrupt and outdated social norms is easier than identifying those that are necessary to keep free and open societies intact. The corrosive acid of irony is absolutely necessary (and incredibly satisfying) in order to dissolve the calcifications of power but people can’t live without the glue of that same power and authority. It’s along this axis of deconstruction and reconstruction that most artists do their work, some as the acid and some as the glue. It’s almost impossible to be both, but the best artists somehow always are.