Nobody is more obsessed with their high culture cred than the pop culture mavens. Art Spiegelman would seem to have achieved everything a media guy dreams of: a Pulitzer Prize; a show at the Museum of Modern Art; a retrospective that has traveled to the Pompidou Center in Paris and the Museum Ludwig in Cologne; a more-or-less open invitation at The New Yorker. And yet in the catalogue of “Art Spiegelman’s Co-Mix,” the retrospective now at the Jewish Museum in New York, Robert Storr, who used to be a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, is quite cranky about curators who won’t embrace comics with sufficient enthusiasm, and predicts that “someday soon the citadels of culture will be forced to open their gates and let ‘the barbarians’ in.” I am fascinated by this insatiable hunger for institutional legitimization. If pop is so fabulous, why is there this desperate need for the museological seal of approval? Isn’t it enough to be the king of your own realm? The grandiosity of the comic book artists knows no limits. “Spiegel means mirror in German,” Spiegelman once explained, “so my name co-mixes languages to form a sentence: Art mirrors man.” Neither Picasso nor Matisse ever said anything quite that pretentious.
Pretentious is pretty much Art Spiegelman’s M.O. His work is about giving comic books some high culture airs. And at a time when most intellectuals are embarrassed to admit to even a vestige of old-fashioned hardnosed cultural discernment, what Spiegelman wants, Spiegelman gets. When he did a simplistic black-on-black cover for The New Yorker in the wake of 9/11, he was saluted as if this were the second coming of Kazimir Malevich and Ad Reinhardt. And when he turned his father’s memories of the Holocaust into Maus, that two-volume comic book, people imagined Spiegelman had done Primo Levi one better, making tragedy hip. The very first wall text at the Jewish Museum informs you that Spiegelman “has torn down the barriers that until recently separated high culture from low.” What on earth is a legitimate museum doing promoting such a ridiculous claim? Hasn’t anybody at the Jewish Museum noticed that those barriers were shaken if not torn down more or less a century ago, by Picasso, Braque, Léger, Schwitters, Picabia, and Duchamp?
Of course all this dorky revolutionary-aesthete chatter about tearing down barriers and storming citadels is meant to get museum-goers’ pulses racing. After which everybody will be too revved up to notice that Art Spiegelman is constitutionally incapable of making a single mark with any power. You needn’t take my word for this. Even the movie critic J. Hoberman, in his introduction to the catalogue of “Co-Mix,” confesses that Spiegelman is only a “workmanlike draftsman” and that his “drawing may lack Crumb’s virtuoso fluency or the charmingly stilted primitivism of a Kim Deitch.” Spiegelman’s draftsmanship is dead on arrival, an embarrassment when measured against the work of R. Crumb, the founder of the trippy comic, whose drawings, love ’em or hate ‘em, can never be denied their rococo-grunge velocity. So why are we invited to salute the work of a draftsman who even his staunchest supporters regard as not much more than workmanlike? Hoberman’s answer is that Spiegelman is a draftsman who transcends mere draftsmanship. We may not get much to look at, but damned if we won’t be uplifted. “The making of cartoons and comic books,” Hoberman explains, “reaches an unprecedented degree of historical consciousness, formal innovation, and personal self-awareness.”
I will not presume to judge the quality of Spiegelman’s “personal self-awareness”—although I do wonder whether Hoberman means to contrast this with impersonal self-awareness, whatever that might be. As for Hoberman’s claims on behalf of Spiegelman’s formal innovations, those innovations are nonexistent—at least they will be to anybody who actually knows the history of the comic strip and the graphic novel. As a designer of the page—and the design of the page is key to the comic-book aesthetic—Spiegelman is asleep at the wheel. He is incapable of even echoing the brilliant transformations in size, scale, and vantage point that give the comics of Winsor McCay and the woodcut novels of Frans Masereel their shape-shifting dynamism. Even more bewildering are Hoberman’s claims for Spiegelman’s “unprecedented degree of historical consciousness.” I cannot see that Spiegelman has added anything to our historical sense. I find Spiegelman’s troubled relationship with his survivor father, as described in Maus, nothing but boilerplate Jewish-American lit. And the comic-book treatment of the Holocaust in Maus strikes me as making the unthinkable disturbingly cozy. Spiegelman’s division of humanity into the Jews who are mice, the Poles who are pigs, and the Germans who are cats comes uncomfortably close to a joke-book version of the Nazi’s own racial theories. Spiegelman dissolves the indissoluble nature of our humanity, replacing the horror of human being against human being with the cleverness of his cat-and-mouse game.
Art Spiegelman’s work offers a post-1960s version of the old Book of the Month Club middle-brow comfort zone. Whereas the old comfort zone involved a bland obeisance to a smattering of high culture classics, the new comfort zone involves an equally perfunctory obeisance to a clutch of pop culture icons. In the end it all amounts to the dumbing down of culture, the authority of the dizzying high points turned into souvenirs of “personal self-awareness.” The Spiegelman show, which includes lots of scratchy sketches and dime-store souvenirs, is a gathering of scraps from an autobiography, which will do just fine for a museum-going public that has been encouraged to mistake autobiography for art. Real art, whether one of Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo comic strips or one of Braque’s Cubist collages, has a freestanding value, and is by definition not warm and fuzzy. Spiegelman is all warm and fuzzy, and never more so than in Maus. He is the prodigal son who opted for art over commerce but in the end turned out to be a commercial success who did Mom and Dad proud— a nice Jewish boy with a bit of an edge.