Thursday, August 28, 2014

An art review sans context

I mentioned my boredom with the then-upcoming Chuck Jones exhibition about six weeks ago. Today the New York Times published a review of that exhibition by Ken Johnson. The review appears under the rubric of the "Art & Design" section of the paper, a point that raises expectations that the review doesn't meet.

Context is important in any discussion about art. Nobody produces art in a vacuum: every artist is at the center of a web of influences. While every artist deserves to be taken on his or her own merits, it's inevitable that a critic is going to judge that artist in part on how he or she measures up against contemporaries and the influences that loom large in the artist's work.

It's context that is lacking in Johnson's review. He knows about 20th century art movements: he references Pop art, Cubism, and Surrealism in the course of explaining Jones' cartoons' visual style. However, he doesn't seem to know much about the history of the animated cartoon in the United States. Beyond a parenthetical mention of Tex Avery, the acknowledged father of Warner Bros. cartoons' unDisneyesque house style (visual and attitudinal), Johnson's review acknowledges no one else who made animated shorts. There's not even the seemingly obligatory mention of Walt Disney. The conclusion to which the casual reader is inevitably drawn is, Jones was a creative genius who came up with his innovations on his own.

That was, of course, not so.

Jones was certainly conscious of high art and probably welcomed its influence on animation more avidly than some of his colleagues. However, Jones, in spite of his flirtation with modernist art in some of his early- to mid-1940s cartoons (such as The Dover Boys of Pimento University from 1942), didn't lead the charge. In fact, what happened was that a new studio, United Productions of America (UPA), experienced great success with its cartoons in the early 1950s. UPA's house visual style was significantly different from the highly labor-intensive, lush imagery produced by existing Hollywood animation studios. Dimensionality was not as important; "realistic" depth of field was not a priority; smooth movements were not always required; and the "classical" character and background design principles that most studios had inherited directly or indirectly from the Disney studio were eschewed in favor of principles that drew on those 20th-century modernist movements Johnson cited.

UPA's success forced existing studios to reckon with its work, almost certainly in part because UPA's budgets were smaller than those at other studios. (You could plausibly claim that the change wasn't an artistic one, but a financial one.) To varying degrees the veteran studios and their creative staffs incorporated some of UPA's design principles into their own work. At Warner Bros., all three unit directors (Jones, Friz Freleng, and Bob McKimson) switched over to flatter backgrounds, not-quite-as-full animation, and modified designs for the studio's flagship characters. Jones unquestionably adapted more effectively than his colleagues: cartoons like One Froggy Evening and What's Opera Doc? would never have occurred to his fellow directors in their wildest dreams. But Jones didn't bring about the change in graphical style. (His handful of 1940s cartoons that flirted with modern art almost certainly inspired the UPA animators and directors, so he did play an important part in the industry's evolution. Johnson, however, omits these details entirely and so leaves an entirely wrong impression that Jones was singlehandedly responsible for the sea change in visual style that swept through Warner Bros. Johnson also, of course, fails entirely to mention that the change affected every other studio as well.)

On the comparatively nit-picky side of things, this statement irritated me a lot:

Like the artists at other animation studios, Chuck Jones and his teams put a lot of effort into ensuring that his characters would remain consistent and stable.
The trouble is the casual mention of "his teams". By the 1950s, cartoon production at Warner Bros. was consolidated into three teams, each centered on its director. Each team included a writer and senior animators. Most of the time there was no cross-pollination between the teams. (There was a practice of presenting each cartoon's story to the whole studio before animation began, however: this allowed for creative input from everyone.) Johnson's vague reference to "his teams" makes it sound as if Jones ran the whole animation staff, which he emphatically did not.

This statement also bugged the bejesus out of me:

Another recurring theme in Jones’s cartoons has one character in unending pursuit of another, endlessly elusive, one.
It's true, but wrongly implies that Jones' cartoons were uniquely fixated on the chase. You hardly need to be a cartoon scholar to know that many hundreds of Hollywood cartoons were highly stylized and adorned chases.

As I pointed out earlier, Jones was one of many at Warner Bros. who were responsible for the tremendous legacy of the animation studio's collective output. His achievements were of course unique, but they weren't more important than anyone else's at the studio, which is the impression Johnson's adulatory but uncontextualized review leaves. Jones' peers at Warner Bros. and in the industry deserve better than they've received at the hands of uninformed reviewers like Johnson.

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