Cartoonist Matthew Thurber, whose previous books include 1-800-MICE (2011) and INFOMANIACS (2014), takes on the art world in his latest book Art Comic, a series of interrelated stories about the trials and tribulations of would-be artists. The majority of the stories follow art students and recent graduates through their internships, art critiques, and first jobs at galleries and as artists’ assistants. Thurber maintains a satirical tone throughout the stories, both mocking and embracing assumptions about the ostentatious, elitist, out-of-touch nature of art school and the art market. The storylines flow in and out of each other, as they follow a range of characters, including a number of art students: two Matthew Barney-obsessed students, Cupcake and Boris, one of whom commits suicide after a difficult crit (we follow the rest of his storyline in heaven); Tiffany Clydesdale, who is constantly reprimanded for her religious beliefs, her interest in realism and figuration, and her love of Renaissance and Medieval art; and Walter Snegovoi, who takes a job as an assistant on a performance piece.
Walter’s storyline is one of the book’s first and one of its most outrageous and hilarious. Desperately in need of a job, he agrees to assist an artist with an immersive performance project, despite his friends’ warnings against it. He works as a “squire for danger-filled assault on Miami Basel art faire to reclaim inheritance, challenge usurpers to mortal combat” and states, “it does pay unlike every other listing.” The ridiculousness of this scenario mocks both the lack of paying opportunities for artists and the perception of performance art as an extreme and outlandish art practice.
Tiffany’s story also beings in art school, as she prays outside the Saatchi Art Gallery to “infuse my humble brush with POWER.” Unlike Thurber’s other characters, Tiffany’s artistic interests lie in realist art, inspired by her religious beliefs. “You understand how this cartoony, kitschy, narrative approach keeps everything on the surface?” her teacher argues with her in one scene. “Why is skill something to be suspicious of?” Tiffany counters. The answer, according to her professor, is because it is part of a patriarchal system. Thurber makes use of clichés pitting conceptual art against realism and a sense of nostalgia for well-executed realist paintings. “You put down illustration like it’s some lower art form, but all that conceptual art does is ILLUSTRATE TEXT!” shouts exasperated Tiffany. Given that Thurber himself is an illustrator who also shows work in fine art shows, Tiffany’s comments are especially pointed. Though comics and illustration are more welcome now than previously in the fine art world (for example, Robert Crumb is represented by David Zwirner Gallery, which also exhibited Ad Reinhardt’s comics alongside his black paintings in a 2013 show), the stigma against it is still present. One wonders how many times Thurber himself received such criticisms.
In his own graphics, Thurber favors a minimalist cartooning style for most of the book. But certain spreads showcase his artistic skill, particularly those that break the multi-panel form in favor of two-page spreads, like a dramatic interaction between Tiffany and an art collector on a boat, or when Boris meets God in a bar called Caravaggio in heaven. These spreads are rendered with intricate line-work and dramatic colors. The mix of styles also emphasizes shifts between more satirical and more serious content. Even though the scenes illustrated with elaborate details are narratively fantastical, each marks a turning point in the stories as the characters confront the realities of their artistic paths — in heaven and in an alternative reality art installation.
Other aspects of the book are purely humorous and mocking, as when two students stumble into a gallery opening. One exclaims, “OH MY GOD!! THIS IS INSANE!! IS THAT SALMAN RUSHDIE?” Another calls out, “THAT WOMEN LOOKS FAMOUS. WHO IS THAT?” Even art critics Roberta Smith and Jerry Saltz make an appearance at an opening in Red Hook.
In addition to the glitz and glamor of the art market, Thurber takes aim at the institutions that send artists into it. During an art class, students continually ask the teacher to explain the practicalities of selling artwork and making money. “THIS COULD BE YOUR LAST CHANCE TO MAKE SOMETHING FREE OUTSIDE THE MARKET PRESSURES OF LATE CAPITALISM!!” shouts the exasperated teacher. But certainly, this too is a bit naive. Knowing the difficulty of becoming a successful artist, Thurber could be highlighting a troubling flaw in the system that produces artists unprepared to face the challenges ahead.
Thurber doesn’t leave us with a clean moral, or tidy ending to his series of comic jabs. Art Comic closes with the lines, “THE CREATIVE ACT SHALL ALWAYS TRIUMPH OVER THE DEATH CULTURE OF CAPITAL.” The book itself doesn’t seem to substantiate this claim, as character after character struggles to be creative against mitigating forces. The book’s most revealing aspect is its epilogue, in which Thurber breaks the fourth wall of narrative and speaks directly to his characters, in the style of a Platonic dialogue, about this very question. He discusses the message of the book, and if there is hope for young artists, revealing deep sincerity beneath the ridicule.
Art Comic by Matthew Thurber (2018) is now out from Drawn & Quarterly.