Jesse Hamm (sirspamdalot) wrote,
Jesse Hamm

Good Taste and Bad.

I was perusing the art of several comics fans, and it occurred to me that of all amateur artists, comics fans are the worst. Not that their work is technically inferior to that of other amateurs, but it's in worse taste. It's crass.

They say there's no accounting for taste, but I say there is accounting for bad taste. Bad taste is the suspicion that the reader won't get your point. Bad taste is all the bells, whistles, and flourishes we add to a piece to amplify it for the stupid. It's the extra quart of blood in a death scene, it's that extra ounce of mascara, it's the elbow-nudge after a punchline, it's writing all in caps.

Where bad taste is anxious, good taste is relaxed. Good taste has confidence that the reader is smart enough to understand that a girl looks pretty without extra make-up, that a shooting looks fatal without extra blood, that the punchline is funny all by itself, and that truth doesn't need to be inflected to be evident. Rather than amplifying the relevant details, good taste makes its points by subduing the irrelevant.

Good taste and skillful drawing are not synonymous. Many skilled artists have horrible taste, and can't bear to trust the viewer to discern their points on his own, while many unskilled artists have great taste, and trust the viewer's imagination to compensate for their artistic shortcomings. Young children probably have the best taste of all, trusting Mom and Dad to discern from the barest clues which drawing is the house and which is the dog. Later, they learn to doubt the viewer's imagination, and all those crass bells and whistles creep in: dotted lines map routes between bullets and guns, girls grow giant eyelashes, every chimney smokes, and dogs always "BARK."

Comics, in particular, are susceptible to bad taste. The rapid pace of their creation and consumption invites the use of simple symbols to ensure clarity: "giant muscles = strong" ... "giant boobs = pretty" ... "giant head = insecure." This shorthand includes even the smallest details: there are symbols for "shiny," and "icy," and "hairy," and "wrinkled." Each of these signifiers adds a little exclamation point to the drawing. Add up enough of them, and you have a mountain of bad taste. The problem becomes especially clear in the art of amateur fans, who try to compensate for their shortcomings by relying even more heavily on these noisy signifiers. It's like if a chef learned to cook by studying fast food, and tried to solve every culinary problem with fistfuls of salt and lard.

The remedy, I guess, is to relax and trust the viewer, and to bask in art that makes its points with simple clarity. Classic foreign films are a great source of tasteful imagery. (The motto of mid-Century foreign filmmakers seems to have been: "Don't worry; they'll get it.") Some other suggestions:

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