The Multiplicity of Cultural Catastrophes

By now it’s old news, but recently Alan Moore made some provocative statements about the cultural effect of the Superhero myth that were picked up by the Guardian newspaper.  The key quotation that caught my attention was this one:

To my mind, this embracing of what were unambiguously children’s characters at their mid-20th century inception seems to indicate a retreat from the admittedly overwhelming complexities of modern existence. It looks to me very much like a significant section of the public, having given up on attempting to understand the reality they are actually living in, have instead reasoned that they might at least be able to comprehend the sprawling, meaningless, but at-least-still-finite ‘universes’ presented by DC or Marvel Comics. I would also observe that it is, potentially, culturally catastrophic to have the ephemera of a previous century squatting possessively on the cultural stage and refusing to allow this surely unprecedented era to develop a culture of its own, relevant and sufficient to its times.

This statement is saturated with associations and implications. A public “retreating” from the “overwhelming complexities” brings my old drinking pal Baudrillard to mind. The “meaningless” grind of the superhero story is something I’ve been thinking about for years – but invokes a more general question of the value and importance of Art ™ too. Moore suggests it is the simplistic “comprehensibility” of the super-hero tale that makes it so appealing. Then too, the idea that the “ephemera of a previous century” should be pushed out of the way for new and more relevant stories puts a very particular spin on cultural accumulation.

I’ve followed the Guardian in quoting just one passage from a very long interview, and Grant Morrison had a point-by-point response that adds colour and context which it would be wise to at least consider, though Philip Sandifier has already gone into their conflict in more detail than anyone could ever need to know so I won’t. In particular, Moore elaborates that

if comics could not address adult matters – by which I meant a great deal more than simply sexual issues – then they could never progress to become a serious and accepted artistic medium, and would never amount to anything much more than a nostalgic hobby for ageing teenagers.

This is a point which might apply equally or better to numerous other artistic and semi-artistic productions. This concern has echoes going back to Aristotle’s Poetics, where we see one of the first explicit statements of purpose for European art. Art needs to aspire to more than simple entertainment. If I have a complaint about Morrison’s rebuttal, it’s that he doesn’t tackle this central philosophical question – but how could any artist do anything other than agree? It’s self-defeating for art to argue for its own irrelevance.

I think that if we were to try and generalize Moore’s sentiment, we’d find plenty of suitable material. In fact, with a careful reorientation of this kind of concept, we would find Raymond Chandler’s “The Simple Art of Murder” outlined in the shadows cast by Moore’s interview. Is Moore’s dismissal of Super Heroes as “unambiguously aimed children” fundamentally from Chandler’s dismissal of detectives as the escapism of choice of little old ladies? When Moore asks for Super Hero comics to “address adult matters”, isn’t that the essence of the hole Chanlder is trying to fill in detective fiction?

In that light, the subtext of Moore’s recent discussions has a lot to do with the state of cultural production in general, making Superheroes a convenient scapegoat for a perceived paucity. At my most cynical, I often feel the same way as Alan Moore – but my target of choice would not be superheroes, but so-called “Reality TV”. I know quite a few people who have university degrees (i.e. are “educated”) and who have good jobs, who enjoy Survivor and its ilk. At times, it makes me wonder about the value of education,on the basis that I can’t quite reconcile enjoying Survivor with enjoying Sophocles or Shakespeare. Critiques like Moore’s help remind me that cultural value is extremely relative, and if even Alan Moore can decry in any way the genre that created him as a cultural icon, then, well, I can see how relativistic cultural value can be.

The solution that Chandler gestured toward at the end of his critique of his own creative area was the questing knight. The universally quoted man who must walk down means streets without himself becoming mean. Chandler sought to imbue meaning into his works via his character. Moore’s approach is different – he wants to expand the scope of artistic vision beyond the narrowly defined limits of genre convention. In the interview he explains at length his reasoning for including sexual violence in that expansion. The connection Moore makes between the presence of sexual violance and “seriousness” could easily be taken to imply that it’s a valid benchmark for “real” drama, validating the basic strategy of putting in some sexual violence to demonstrate seriousness. That view would imply the part we should be worried about in Watchmen is the Comedian’s attempting rape, whereas I think that Moore’s whole interview points to this as merely symptomatic of a far deeper sickness in both the Comedian and the society that produced him. We need to go beyond the personal villainy of the Comedian.

Chandler sought to elevate his genre via the unimpeachable morality of his detective, but others have used increasing violence for the same purpose. James Ellroy is my go-to example here, of a novelist with incredible creative powers, whose work inflinchingly includes every variety of depravity imaginable, in part as a creative strategy to elevate it beyond Chandler’s. Moore’s inclusion of darker crimes such as rape and torture seems in line with the way that crime fiction was evolving at the time. Ellroy’s first novel was published in 1981.

Yet, as Chandler notes, and as is apparent from Moore’s piece, the bulk consumer of all cultural products wants their productions a little less difficult. I think it’s easy to be dismissive of these easy, safe, mass cultural, products – I’m dismissive of them all the time. I think it’s often more useful to think about them as a kind of food pyramid though. I couldn’t solely consume high-impact high-intensity works. Every film I watch can’t be Twelve Years a Slave, there’s got to be space for Django Unchained alongside it. There’s also a certain Darwinian process that just needs a mass churn of cultural product to produce top-tier material. It’s easy at this remove to forget that, say, Hammett was one of hundreds of authors aspiring to invent the great american detective, or that Christie was one of 5 “Queens of Crime” who are now largely forgotten in comparison but who were necessary for her to produce her work. I think we could equally think about the 40-ish years of safe, mass-produced Super Hero chafe that creates a cultural context where a work like Watchmen makes sense.

As I write, in mid-2014, we are about the same remoteness in time from the first zenith of Super heroes in the early 1960s as Chandler was from the explosion of Sherlock Holmes in the late 1890s. Even including the massively accelerated rate of cultural and technological innovation within my lifetime, that isn’t an especially long cultural period. Looking back at previous cultural epochs, we wouldn’t blush at including Handel and J.S. Bach inside the same cultural movement, despite the fact their lives only overlapped by 9 years. Wikipedia lumps them both in the Baroque period, which runs from 1600 to 1750. In most important ways, we could plausibly connect all modern cultural products in the West to the interests and modes of late Victorian thought. Singling out Super-heroes as opposed to, say, Espionage or Detective Fictions which are our other major cultural obsessions for the past century seems a little unfair. Judging by the proliferation of detective TV shows and books, shouldn’t we be more worried that the cultural ephemera of the late Victorian period is still omnipresent than worried about an artistic form whose most acclaimed works were written in my lifetime?

Last year they released The Amazing Spiderman, on approximately the 50th anniversary of the launch of the comic, a connection I failed to make at the time. I’m not sure that I want to make too much of a distinction between that film and the Restoration habit of re-working Shakespeare’s plays to have happy endings. When Samuel Johnson endorsed Nahum Tate’s happy version of King Lear, it was not so much an artistic judgement as a wholesale appropriation of a past culture’s artistic product. Any close reading of last year’s Avengers film is going to find all kinds of substantially different subtexts and meanings than are present in the original comic 50 years ago.

This specific interview with Alan Moore was billed as the “Last Alan Moore Interview?” but I want to construe it a completely different way. This interview is nothing more or less than another salvo in an ongoing and complex debate in our society about the origin, value, and purpose of Art, begun in some ways in the modern world by Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. I think that it’s potentially more instructive to compare this “last” interview with other cultural critiques than to actually engage with it in its own terms of reference – a debate on the artistic value in superhero stories – in much the same way as I think we need to refuse to engage with Chandler in his own terms, of a debate on the artistic value in detective stories. Debating the finer points of whether a super-hero story should touch on this or that topic needs to be reconstructed as a debate on what function Art plays; and in that debate the answer is necessarily complex because it must provide both entertainment and enlightenment. Super-heroes haven’t got either a more or less important role to play than Reality TV, Detective Fiction or the works of J.S. Bach.

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