I struggled for a bit to choose a suitable title for my Art Spiegelman feature for Heeb. It had to be something that both sufficiently summed up the central theme of the piece, and really, Art Spiegelman’s career in general. Ultimately I happened upon—or possibly settled for—“Art 101,” (though, for the record, the print version of the piece ultimately just borrowed its title from that of Spiegelman’s most recent release, Breakdowns).
Toward the end of the first part of our interview, Spiegelman sums up what he considers the most important achievement in his long and storied career as succinctly as one could possibly hope, saying, “I think I was part of this swell taboo-busted gang of artists, but there was this one taboo that I needed to walk to the edge of and over. It made me move outside the terrain that was a wonderful realm of psychedelic wooliness. That was the taboo of a cartoonist calling himself an artist.”
Through the strips that would become Breakdowns, through RAW, through Maus, and through his subsequent output, the dissolution of that artificial wall separating the sequential artist from the world of high art has been one of the driving forces behind Spiegelman’s work.
In this second part, the artist takes a fittingly professorial approach toward defining art, going so far as asking me that dreaded Introduction to Art question, “what is art?” The question itself may be elementary, but as anyone who has been tasked with answering it can attest, the answer is anything but.
Are there cartoons that aren’t art? Where do you draw that line?
Yeah, don’t you think? What’s in the newspaper?
Is it still some kind of art? Is it “low art?”
No, fuck the low, high thing. But what does art mean? What is art to you? Sorry to be so professorial, but when we talk about “high art” and “low art,” we’ve got to start with that stupid college question: “what’s art?”
It’s a fair question. Some sort of creative pursuit, I suppose.
Maybe, but people can be creative about ads that compare Obama to Paris Hilton.
We’ll, I suppose if they’re well-made…
So, art is craft? It’s about whether it’s well-made or not? In college, this sucked. I spent an entire semester where basically all of my grad-student teacher could come up with for us, after trying to Socratically teach for a session was just that “art is anything anyone claims is art,” and that’s almost useless.
But is it untrue?
Yeah. I think. It can be true for one person. Let’s say you’re stuck in a cell, and all you’re left with was a Frito-Lay ad. Maybe you’d imbue it with enough meaning to conjue up the rest of civilization from it.
And maybe someone comes along and co-opts it as “outsider art.”
That’s where it stayed, until I was going to the dentist with my daughter, a few years back. She must have been a freshman or sophomore at Stuyvesant. Just as I’m about to take my turn in the chair, she says, “poppa, what’s art?” “I’ll get back to you, I have to go the dentist’s chair.”
You’ve got some time to think.
But it was better than that, since I won’t even get my teeth cleaned without laughing gas, I spent the next hour with nitrous-oxide clamped to my nose, trying to figure out what art is. On the way out, I said, “what did you ask me, again?” “I asked you what art is.” I said, “art is anything that gives form to one’s thoughts or feelings.” And I think that’s a better definition than the one I got in college.
Is that entirely different than the one you got in college?
The one in college was, “anything you call art is art.” If someone takes a bicycle seat and puts it up on a wall—this is you’re giving something form.
Bringing something into the world?
It could be. Could be as simple, perhaps, as taking a toilet seat at putting it on the wall, as they say in Art 101. But it also, more specifically, is finding a way to communicate the business and horror of being alive to someone else. That’s a heady endevour, and at the time, I believed in it thoroughly. Back in that 1970s work, this was the work of an atheist trying desperately to find something to believe in and deciding, maybe it’s art.
It seems like much, if not most, of your work is driven by some horror or another, be it the holocaust or 9/11.
Yeah, somewhere along the line I said—and I think it’s come back to haunt me—“terror’s my muse.” I think it’s in the No Towers book. It was certainly true for those two pieces of work. Breakdowns is dealing with something else, although it certainly deals with personal horror as well. It’s no catalyzed by terror. On the other hand, I don’t work when I’m happy. I’m usually marshaled at gunpoint to the drawing table and told to not get up until I’ve come up with something. So, that much is true, but on the other hand, there’s very little happy art that I take great stock in [laughs].
How much do you work?
I have no idea. I’m here every day and I work every day, but I’m not sure how much I work.
What do you spend most of your time doing in your studio?
Looking at pornography—no, I don’t know. I’m writing things, I’m taking notes. Sometimes they coalesce, sometimes they don’t and then there’s just a lot of grunt work involved in every project. I did all of the graphic design work on the new book. I looked at what I needed for paper, I wrote copy about the book, to give them something to write it that I approved of. One of the things about comics is that you get to be a control freak and actually make it stick. It’s much harder if you go into the world of movies. I answer e-mail, that takes a long time. I can’t really account for my hours, but I know that I’m working at something most of the time.
Do you have someone, be it an editor or publisher, who’s pushing you to get projects out the door?
Not exactly. Right now there’s a laundry list of stuff I’m supposed to do because I’ve thrown myself at the hands of a public relations arm of Pantheon—“would you write an essay for The Wall Street Journal, would you draw this picture X, Y, or Z?” but that’s not my usual mode, these days. It’s more internally driven at this point. The economic thing wasn’t certainly a big motivating factor when I was younger. “Can you draw this refrigerator?” “I could. How much do you pay for drawings of refrigerators?” But it doesn’t lead to my best work.
It’s easier to create when the gun’s pointing down at you though, right?
Situations end up having their own logic. Once you say you want to do a book, you can put it off for a couple of deadline rounds, but not forever, and when I want to intervene into making a cover or something for The New Yorker, there’s usually a shelf-life to this. “Oh, you want some stuff about the election?” Fine, but I can’t really hand it in in May, you know? There’s logic to the kind of stuff you take on, like right now I was working, in part, on something for McSweeny’s magazine. They just published a sketchbook of mine for their new issue [grabs the new issue].
There are three books and one of them is a facsimilie of a book that I did last year. And then they told me that they’d like to put out a deluxe version of this. I said, “what does that mean?” They said, “you can make it bigger or hardcover, but we’d like to put it out as a McSweeny’s book, rather than just with the magazine.” There wasn’t much I could do with this one. A hard cover would be nice, but what if we did something with two of my other sketchbooks. They’re all different sizes. So now we’re working on something which is really swell: three sketchbooks, each a different size, held together by a strap. To make that happen, there’s a lot of graphic design and production decisions. I made covers for some of these, I have to write something about the sketches, I had to christen the project, and all of that was swell, but they want to have it out in February, because that was just based on their book prodeuction schedule, which means that I’ve got to do it in the next few weeks no matter what, because that’s their schedule. It doesn’t come through the economic door, exactly, but it does have its own logic system.
That series of books is called Be a Nose. There’s a movie called Bucket of Blood that Roger Corman did in 1959. It’s about this guy named Walter Paisley, who sweeps up the coffee shop that the beatniks hang out in. He’s really kind of dimwitted and wishes that he was an artist like the other people in the coffee shop, because then he’d get the beat chicks. He’s trying various things. He’s going home to be a sculptor when the move starts, and he’s sitting in front of this giant lump of clay, after he’s swept up the coffee shop, and he’s going, “be a nose! Be a nose!” He can’t make it be a nose, he throws a knife at the wall, the knife ends up killing a cat, it’s put in plaster, and it becomes his first successful sculptor, called ‘Dead Cat,’ the girl says “groovy” or something, when she sees it, and that thing of him socking this clay, trying to make it have shape, is the best description of my work process that I’ve ever seen on screen. “Be a nose! Be a nose!”
So, which of these books is your dead cat?
[Laughs] I think they’re all corpses of some kind. I think the first drawing in this book [opens up the sketchbook] is about trying to bring these things back to life. The first book will be called Be, the second, A, and the third, Nose. That will be the next thing I’m working on.
[Continued in Part Three]