There’s been a lot of discussion in comics this week about what fan culture should or should not be entitled to. This Nick Hanover article kind of summarizes all of the disparate threads.
I don’t think it is very complex though. The viewer is entitled to the feelings that a piece of art invokes in them–whatever those feelings are. But that’s it. They are not entitled to any interaction at all with the artist who made the art. Regardless of what feelings the art has stirred in them. Social media has made viewing art feel like the viewer can be a part of the process and that the role of the critic is the same as the role of editor.
It’s also conflated the role of artist with the role of celebrity. A celebrity gives time to their fans, signs autographs, and largely positions their presence ahead of art as anything meaningful in people’s lives. Which is bullshit. There’s no difference between you and the person on the other side of the table. You’re all just stupid people. Flesh and blood. Flawed in all kinds of stupid ways. The creation of the celebrity out of the human is an absurdly dehumanizing process for both the person made into the celebrity, and the people who contort themselves into fans. These aren’t human interactions.
Never put anyone else above you or below you.
I think there is a temptation to view art as the act of a human being. Like a comic about a fire in a theater, is the same as going into a theater and yelling fire. But I think the benefits of allowing art to explore and express behavior that is outside of what we deem appropriate yields the possibility of the sublime experience of art. Like for example, Picasso’s work about bullfighting–bullfighting is brutal and wrong–but this art can still touch you, and move you to a place that is beyond yourself. Sometimes the crossing of the taboo is actually a part of the building of this experience.
So while it is important to demand that DC appologize for say a systemic history of violence and oppression against women in their editorial offices. It isn’t important to demand that James Robinson issue an apology or even explanation for transmisogny in his comics. Which isn’t to say that you can’t or shouldn’t write about those themes within the comics. Because that falls under your reaction to a piece of art. But where the line gets crossed is when people start harassing an artist on twitter or elsewhere for something they’ve created.
Now what is interesting is when we get to criticism itself. Because criticism is not art. It’s the analysis of art, and a huge part of what criticism is, is a discussion meriting peer review. So there’s more of an element of earnest debate within criticism than there is when you are talking about the relationship between critics and artists. Artists really shouldn’t respond to their critics, and critics shouldn’t expect to be read or listened to by artists they are writing about. But with critics, there is as part of what criticism is, an aspect that is critics responding to critics, and the expectation for fair debate. But where that gets screwed up, is again, you’re entitled to respond to someone’s criticism, debate it vigorously. But you are not entitled to go after that person outside of the bounds of that debate.
What happened this week though was that because the discussion had gotten so meta that people were no longer talking about art or specific criticisms, but behavior–it got personal for people. Dunno how you solve for that one. Beyond just knowing when to fold em, and realize that you’re in that situation, and it’s going to help no one, especially yourself. I think what happened this week, was two groups of people in pain, both refusing to empathize with the pain of the other. Artists were in pain because fan culture treats artists as celebs, and that relationship lacks boundaries–so you get things like death threats, and just people thinking they deserve to be in your space just because you made some art. Critics were in pain, because they felt like they were being told to sit down and shut up, and that they too are the victims of people who overstep the boundaries of critical debate, to harass and send death threats. It’s funny really, because at the end of the day, it’s two groups in pain at the same thing–which is that social media has eroded the sense of boundaries that people have in both of these modes, resulting in these harmful interactions.
For me, I think both ends of it are tied to a poison that sits at the root of fan/nerd culture. This poison that measures worth in obsessive devotion, and operates at this idea that if only you can give enough of yourself over to this obsesssion, that the pain of your existence will be erased. So what happens is that people, rather than dealing head on with very real mental health issues at the core of their being, they attempt to replace and repress that pain with the mania of this fanaticism. So what happens is that your interaction with art or criticism becomes entwined with this pain you are trying to repress and forget. So someone telling you that there are white supremacist elements in a comic that you like, is them telling you that YOU are a white supremacist. And then on the flip side, your expectation is that the artist needs to maintain a kind of art that maintains the values that you hold dear, but have projected through this fandom.
So you need for example, Kelly Sue to always walk this perfect line and manifest your perfect ideal as a feminist, because if she didn’t, it would somehow undermine your own values, because you aren’t living for yourself, you’re living through someone else and the idea that they should live a perfect life to validate the self that you have sacrificed in your devotion based solely upon the affect of their art, not them personally.
So the dynamic that you would give up yourself for devotion to the cult of an obsession of something that is completely outside of your control–this is unhealthy. You should be working to bring your feelings, perspectives, and impulses under your own control. To understand them within the context of your own life and your own pain. Fanaticism is this urge to replace the self with a self which is not the self. So even at it’s greatest ideal, you are asking for an impossiblity. You can never escape yourself, and your devotion will never consume that part of yourself you wish to escape through this obsession. That’s fucking Kierkagaard.
So when you give up that humanity, when you give up that knowledge of self, for the devotion to a “higher” power–you lose boundries, you lose perspective, but you don’t lose the pain of living. It sits behind you growing in its represssion, and allows you to become possessed by these demons that are outside of your experience. Your lack of control, comes from the control of the self that you refuse control of. So when you become a fan, you lose track of boundries. You stop seeing Nick Spencer as someone’s son, as someone’s friend, as a human being–but you also don’t respect him as an artist, and allow his art to breathe out and exist in all of its flaws without the need for repercussions. Because there is no difference between the pain he causes you as a man, and the pain his art causes you. You’ve lost discernment. And in that, is where you start causing real pain to real human beings. And this is the same in criticism. A critique of art that moved you, shouldn’t push you to a place where you need to attack the critic who wrote the piece personally, and harass them off of their life. But when you are a fan, that’s not a boundary you can easily set. Because the pain you have allowed yourself to manifest is so profound, and so personal, that it doesn’t seem to you that it is anything less than the person behind the criticism or behind the art, coming to your door and punching you in the face. But it isn’t the same thing. And this is the poison that fandom brings.
The trade off that fandom offers and why it is so tantalizing is this idea of community and that in your obsessiveness you can elevate yourself above the mundane despair of your own life, and you can find an importance to living. For a lot of people, this is nothing to shrug at. It’s the same offer that organized religion makes incidentally. And depending on the level of what you’re running from, that tends to measure how much of a fanatic you will become. And whether you are ready to blow up a mosque to get away from that pain, or whether you’re willing to go assassinate some cartoonists.
So I dunno. I think it’s worthwhile to make an effort as thinkers in this world, to try and allow people to understand that there are options outside of fanaticism. And that being a fan or being a nerd, is not something to aspire to. Mental health, knowledge of self, expression of self–these are important things. Devoting yourself to a god, to a celeb, to a fictional universe…these are paths that devour the most vulnerable, and swindle the rest.