But is it art?

Is it, in fact, even a cartoon?

I’m talking about Ryan North‘s webcomic Dinosaur Comics, on the occasion of the appearance of his second collection of strips — Dinosaur Comics: Dudes already know about chickens (TopatoCo Books, 2010) — with all the strips from 2006. [Previous book of strips: The best of Dinosaur Comics 2003-2005 A.D.: Your whole family is made out of meat (Quack!Media, 2006). An explanation for the title of the 2010 book is on North’s Wikipedia page.]

Here’s the thing: North doesn’t actually draw (or paint or engrave or whatever) anything, since, he maintains, he can’t draw. So what he does is caption stuff, in particular clip-art, and even then he uses just one set of clip-art panels, the same six ones (with three dinosaurs in them) in every strip, year after year. (For the most recent of his strips to appear on Language Log, see here.)

From the introduction by Randall Munroe, who draws the webcomic xkcd (another favorite on Language Log) — itself viewed askance by some people because it’s all done with stick figures:

Ryan, perhaps thanks to his background in computational linguistics [he has a master’s degree from the University of Toronto], has proven himself a master of conveying a friendly, happy-go-lucky conversational tone in every part of his writing [some discussion of his vernacular writing here]. His skill shows in his deployment of punctuation, typefaces, caps lock, and odd phrase structures that appear to have been architected by a friendly surfer dude with a magnetic poetry set containing every word in the language. Every choice is made carefully and precisely — not to show off his skill, like some writers might, but to create that perfect congenial vibe that makes readers around the world feel that if they met him, they’d get along fabulously.

I’m working on a separate posting on the creation of a persona through the use of features of spoken and written language. Munroe goes on:

The format of Dinosaur Comics suggests some obvious questions: if the panels never change, does it really count as a comic? If so, is it just a variation on one comic, or many? Is it really art at all?

I think the best thing about these questions is that I hardly ever hear them anymore.

So North has persevered, and people’s enjoyment of his material has trumped the But Is It Art? question.

I’m well acquainted with the question myself, in my capacity as a collagist. In fact, some of my work is nothing but the captioning of found images — for example the XXX-rated images linked to here. Some of it is captioning or recaptioning with modest additions to found images — for example the “postcard collages” here. Many of my collages are more complex than that — for instance the two academic collages here and the five XXX-rated collages described and linked to here. But I don’t draw (or paint or engrave or whatever) anything.

One of the pleasures of doing this stuff is that other artists accept it as art and discuss it seriously with me.

We’ve had about a century of getting used to eccentric approaches to artistic creation, from Marcel Duchamp’s “readymades” (found objects presented as pieces of art) through many kinds of conceptual art, including some that is primarily linguistic in its “content”, like Jenny Holzer’s aphorisms and Ed Ruscha’s “word paintings” (though Ruscha did actually paint those things). Maybe the way to think of Dinosaur Comics is as linguistically based conceptual cartooning.

6 Responses to “But is it art?”

  1. Captioning: more is it art? « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Arnold Zwicky's Blog A blog mostly about language « But is it art? […]

  2. More captioning as art « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] another example of a webcomic by an artist who cannot draw but can caption (and take […]

  3. Conceptual art « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] But is it art? (link): Dinosaur Comics, with references to captioning of found images, Duchamp, Holzer, and […]

  4. X is the real Y « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] in that gray zone between cartooning and Art (see my posting “But is it art?”, here). From the webpage: A Softer World is a comic that was created by Emily Horne and Joey Comeau so […]

  5. Wordless cartoons, words-only cartoons « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] the words-only end of the scale are, for instance, Ryan North’s Dinosaur Comics, considered here, and Dante Shepherd’s Surviving the World, considered here: captioning as […]

  6. Comic machines « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] to the words-only end of the scale are, for instance, Ryan North’s Dinosaur Comics, considered here, and Dante Shepherd’s Surviving the World, considered here: captioning as […]

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