Having somehow acquired two university degrees in Painting and spending the subsequent 20 years as a professional artist, curator, and critic, I am as sensitive as the next artworld insider to the ways in which art schools, gallery scenes, and the state of contemporary art are depicted in popular narratives. They usually get it embarrassingly wrong.
The medium of comics seem particularly susceptible, riddled as it is with whining fanboys traumatized to learn in their art school foundation year that the drafting chops that kept them from being beat up since the third grade haven’t been considered relevant since 1837. Even brilliant social satirists like Dan Clowes and Chris Ware can miss the mark by aiming at straw men patched together from sitcom stereotypes and Andy Rooney editorials. So it is with some trepidation that I approached The Sculptor, Scott McCloud’s first substantial foray into graphic narrative practice after decades devoted to graphic narrative theory, with his inescapable Understanding Comics and its sequels.
The Sculptor tells the story of a young flash-in-the-pan art star wannabe who had his 15 seconds and blew it, but is still hanging around Manhattan as he sinks into despair and oblivion. So far so good! But instead of crawling back to the sticks and staking out a future as an adjunct Community College instructor, our protagonist David Smith (named, oddly, for the most famous mid-20th-century modernist American sculptor) manages a Faustian bargain that will almost certainly get him the prizes he deserves. Antics ensue.
I don’t want to spoil the plot, which manages to be simultaneously formulaic and bizarre, but David is suddenly able to fabricate an enormous number of highly crafted, idiosyncratically personal cartoonish granite sculptures in a very short time. He fully expects this extravagant bounty to redeem his reputation and career, but the artworld’s (quite accurate) response is dismissive, comparing his cluttered studio to a “Polynesian gift shop” and launching him on a shame spiral that quickly leaves him disoriented, homeless, and suicidal. Enter the bipolar aspiring actress with the heart of gold, and David’s chance to learn the real meaning of Christmas. Or something.
Just shy of 500 pages, The Sculptor is an engaging, entertaining read – a surreal potboiler with the fluid, flexible, cinematic pacing you would expect from perusing the author’s theoretical treatises. McCloud’s images are also distinctly filmic, with lots of crane shots and noir expressionist compositions interspersed with too-occasional passages of contemplative observational detail. The ambitious scale and production values are inordinate to McCloud’s track record in fiction, and the effect is ultimately reminiscent of M. Night Shyamalan, whose movies always beg the question “How did this ever get made?” Which is a good thing.
The art itself is relentlessly competent, with confident linework, anatomy, perspective, panel breakdowns, etc. -- and an attractive but programmatic indigo wash adding a schmear of blue-jean authenticity to the entire proceedings. But, weirdly, it keeps feeling like McCloud learned to write comics by studying his own instruction books, and The Sculptor seems like an exercise or demo -- albeit one that imagines the possibility of a world outside the limits of discursive analytical protocols.
Still, it isn’t so easy to dismiss McCloud’s magnum opus, because at certain points it seems to be completely self-aware. Filled with the same questionable normative authority that made Understanding Comics such a classroom natural, The Sculptor is imbued with a certainty about what’s important and real and how things work, even when the titular artisan is wallowing in puppy-love delusions and post-critique petulance.
The perverse crux of The Sculptor’s success lies with David Smith’s artwork and creative arc. While McCloud nails the “lazy trust fund kid” art that Smith rails against and vandalizes (clusters of DJ Lance Rock-shaped extruded aluminum bars!), his own work kind of… sucks. Smith’s work, that is, though the identification between McCloud and his protagonist is unavoidable. Smith’s early works look like the cartoonist’s ideas of what neat sculpture would look like, and Smith -- like his creator -- diligently subordinates formal visual content to a bitterly populist pictorialist narrative structure and moral agenda.
Ultimately, after all his aspirations, trials, deals with the devil, and philosophical epiphanies, Smith’s go-for-broke coup-de-grace results in a work of monumental kitsch that would have warmed the cockles of Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin – but sent chills down my spine and made several sculptor friends burst out laughing.
Every artist I know knows there’s something very wrong with the artworld; that it has reached a point of seemingly irreparable alienation from everyday life and real human concerns. McCloud’s David Smith sacrifices everything -- based on faith in his “talent” or “genius” – to try and mend that gap. And he fails, spectacularly.
Early on, just before he bottoms out, Smith is sharing a beer with some friends and recounts an overheard snippet from one of his detractors: “Some artists are forever looking for approval, and no matter how hard they try, they’re incapable of creating great work.” By embodying this bleak axiom The Sculptor paradoxically overcomes it, though it doesn’t leave us with much hope for the future of Art – or graphic novels for that matter. Such is the nature of sacrifice.