By Jan Baetens
Despite all the talk on the end of modernism, our basic cultural regime is still that of the new: what is new is good, the newer is always better and the best is yet to come. The craving for novelty and innovation is definitely worthwhile (after all, it is not easy to find something really new: an original idea is as difficult to find as a good man). Yet the pressure to come up with something different, that is something not yet known to the public, often clashes with the complexity of culture’s history. In many cases, the so-called new, next to be forgotten tomorrow, has already been seen and forgotten many times before. In short: only the flaws of our cultural memory and the excessive emphasis on the present’s creative destruction prevent us from taking a more critical stance toward so-called innovations or experiments.
All this to say that I was cruelly disappointed by two recent “new” works, which both claim a certain form of novelty, if not avant-garde aura, but which rapidly collapse in light of the longer history of their art: first “Roman”, a parodic collage (mindlessly labeled “graphic poem” by the journal that devotes a special issue to the newest kid on the graphic novel block) by Luc Fierens (a Flemish artist enthusiastically embraced by the in-crowd as a representative of the post-neo-avant-garde); second Carpet Sweeper Tales, an equally parodic photo-cum-captions collage by Julie Doucet (best known for the feminist punk comics she published in the 1990s).
Both works roughly apply the same protocol: they cut-and-paste images from old photonovels (at least what they call “old”, for it is clear that the “original” or “primitive” works are overlooked), while adding captions that do not match the images but manage to foreground the ridiculous character of the genre they are parodying. Parody is of course great, but in the case of the photonovel it is anything but new. The parody of the photonovel is as old as the photonovel itself and to imagine that photonovel readers (allegedly lower-class women) are the dupes of their reading is a form of snootiness that is no less questionable than the laughable content of what is more than “only entertainment” (to quote Richard Dyer’s famous defense of that other despised genre, the Hollywood musical). It is the neglect of previous –and much harder and harsher forms– of parody in the pale and dull remakes by Fierens and Doucet that prove disappointing. No mention here of the Situationnist détournements, those for instance by Marcel Mariën who already in the 60s critically appropriated the aesthetics and ideology of the photonovel. No mention either of Barbara Kruger’s later attacks on consumer society through the combination of photographs and overlaid stereotypical statements. And one could go back to Surrealist Max Ernst (whose collage picture novels are now being reissued) or the political art of John Heartfield –the list is almost endless (in the comics field, why not remember Art Spiegelman’s early collages or the many constrained works produced by the Oubapo group and their many sympathizers).
There is a moral to be drawn from these fake attempts to sell the new. If Fierens’ “Roman” and Doucet’s Carpet Sweeper Tales can be presented as belonging to the avant-garde of today, it is only because cultural criticism is neglecting one of its duties, which is not only to praise or condemn, but to give the context and the larger framework that explains why we do so.
Luc FIERENS, “Roman”, in DWB 2016, n° 3 (special issue on the graphic poem)
Julie Doucet, Carpet Sweeper Tales (Montreal: Drawn and Quarterly, 2016)