Monday, 2 February 2009

WE COME TO BURY HIGH CULTURE, NOT TO PRAISE IT



This is the text of a piece I read out at the recent Alternative Press Fair in London. It’s something of an ‘oldie’, I wrote it to celebrate the launch of my first ever small press comic Scrawl!,and it went into the Caption newsletter in November 1992.(This is an edited and slightly amended version. But the first line is still an outright lie.)



For those who do not know, Scrawl! Is the product of two years of solid and relentless effort. Leaflets were handed out at comics, small press and alternative events, with a humourous, graphic and above all inept style encouraging people to participate. (This was usually achieved in the bar while others pursued fruitless dry-throated discussions as to how many angels could balance on the arm of a long-arm stapler.) Much to my own surprise, contributions of wit and brilliance flooded into my HQ.

People who played ranged from semi-pros to people who had never drawn a comic strip before in their life and just fancied the idea. As requested, all were in the form of a monologue or duologue.

The aims of Scrawl! were two-fold: a) to reclaim art from the Artists, eliminate Art as a bourgeois concept and destroy the money-commodity system; and b) to have a good laugh.

Luckily these aims proved to be highly compatible (indeed almost interchangeable). Let’s face it, we live in a lifeless society where creativity is fetishised as static museum-pieces to gape at, and where ‘I can do that!’ becomes a cry not of inspiration but criticism. Capitalism of course transforms everything into a commodity, but Art has the dubious and vacuous honour of being prized for its very uselessness! The moneyed classes need some way to show off their ‘taste’ (ie wealth) by how many ‘aesthetic’ (ie useless and expensive) objects they can adorn their homes with. As George Grosz so wisely said, “there is art so the rich have something to hang in front of their wall safes.”

Of course this has the added effect of manacling something empowering and ultimately uncontrollable – human creativity. Making or doing something yourself is bags more exciting than passively consuming, but the loaded concepts of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture lead people to regard their own efforts as worthless.

Comics are a very good example of this. It’s noticeable how ‘adult comics’ had to lose almost all of comics’ intrinsic good qualities. Instead of the life and vigour of the line drawing, murky painting was in. Instead of easy and accessible language, long captions full of literary references became the rage. Instead of a cheap and affordable product, fancy paper provided a ‘quality’ product.

Scrawl! emerged from a contempt for the mainstream comics world, which has always prized slick and fancy rendering over content – but was now completely vanishing up its own arsehole. With an accessible style and the method of monologue or direct address to the audience, its aim was to cut the crap and defuse comics down to their basic form.

Once you actually reach it, it’s remarkable how – of all the arts – the comics form is so accessible. Unlike music, you don’t need to form chords to make noise into sound, you just draw a stick figure onto paper and everyone recognizes it. Unlike performance, theatre or ranting poetry you don’t have to stand up in front of a crowd worrying about making a tit of yourself. You just sit in your own room drawing, and rejecting anything you don’t like. Unlike literature there are no impeding high culture notions of ‘proper writing’ – you can WHOK!, ERK! and KER-SPLAT! to your heart’s content and be speaking a common tongue. You don’t even have to draw if you don’t want to, just cut panels out of existing comics or magazines and scrawl in your own scathing comments.

It’s also remarkable how easily the form lends itself to laughter, particularly of the pretension-pricking variety. Scratch someone into a box with a word balloon sticking our their mouth and see how long they keep their lofty dignity. For this reason, the scurrilous political cartoon has a long and glorious (and above all effective) history.

In short Scrawl! comes because we want to bury high culture not to praise it, because we want to destroy the comics industry and wrest our form back off it, because it seems a good excuse for a party; - and the marker pen, the nicked photocopy paper, the unfair and insulting caricature, the uneven panel border, and the word balloon stuffed with cheap and nasty humour are our weapons in this war.

Home creativity is killing the comics industry – and it’s fun too!

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