John Ashbery, Surrealism, and cartoons

John Ashbery, 1975, photograph by Peter Hujar

John Ashbery (b. 1927) is one of America’s best-known living poets, a former art critic, and, apparently, a fan of animated cartoons. His poem “Daffy Duck in Hollywood,” from 1975, has been studied and dissected by many scholars, professional and amateur. Now it’s my turn.

I could have focussed on Ashbery’s 1966 poem, “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape,” which is about Popeye and his colleagues (Wimpy, the Sea Hag, etc.), but as I wanted to disuse surrealism in cartoons and poetry, “Daffy Duck in Hollywood” is a better choice. Where “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape” is superior is in its structure; Popeye and friends are present throughout the poem – better storytelling in a cartoon sense, but arguably worse in a surrealist sense. Both poems are worth reading, even for the cartoon fan who has never bothered with poetry before, or the poetry maven who scorns more proletarian entertainments (that’s a lot of implied snobbery for one sentence).

Before I get too far into this, let me clarify a few things. Cartoon surrealism is different from written surrealism, and both differ from the other iterations of surrealism. It’s not merely comparing oranges and apples, more like oranges and kumquats, tomatoes, prunes, pineapples, and apples – perhaps with a potato thrown in as a ringer. Each type of surrealism shares attributes, however general or vague, with the others, and, in this case, one type is juxtaposed with another. Comparisons of this kind can be fruitless and quixotic, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth doing. Quixote’s motives, however muddled, were of the best; I am quite willing to tilt at windmills. I even enjoy it.

Ashbery reaches toward the benign surrealism of animated cartoons (as Ashbery is writing about Hollywood studio cartoons and print cartoons I am limiting the comparison) and elicits a sense of dreamlike rather than unease. Ashbery’s admission that “Daffy Duck in Hollywood” owes more to Chuck Jones’ cartoon Duck Amuck (1960), rather than Tex Avery’s 1938 cartoon from which it derives its title, is not surprising; Jones was the most intellectual, and, at his worst, over-intellectual, of cartoon directors. Lines such as

“He promised he’d get me out of this one,

That mean old cartoonist, but just look what he’s

Done to me now!”

certainly suggest a monologue from ‘Duck Amuck” or something like it.

Surrealism is one big in-joke; cartoon surrealism lets the audience in on the joke. Free association, leading to the common household objects turned into gags “Drink Friz,” “Uwanna Cracker,” etc. The Fleischer Brothers, whose cartoons come up most often when surrealism is mentioned, draw from cartoon history more than surrealism, though both share common elements. A knife grows a face and a licks its lips (Bimbo’s Initiation, 1931); Ashbery takes these up an intellectual notch, into the realm of intentional surrealism. From the poem:

“I  have

Only my intermittent life in your thoughts to live

Which is like thinking in another language. Everything

Depends on whether somebody reminds you of me.”

Andre Breton, in his Le Manifeste du Surrealisme (1924), defined surrealism two ways:

“SURREALISM, noun, masc., Pure psychic automatism by which it is intended to express, either verbally or in writing, the true function of thought. Thought dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason, and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations.

ENCYCL. Philos. Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of association heretofore neglected, in the omnipotence of the dream, and in the disinterested play of thought. It leads to the permanent destruction of all other psychic mechanisms and to its substitution for them in the solution of the principal problems of life.”

From Wikipedia on Surrealism: “As they developed their philosophy, they [Breton and his colleagues] believed that Surrealism would advocate the idea that ordinary and depictive expressions are vital and important, but that the sense of their arrangement must be open to the full range of imagination according to the Hegelian Dialectic.”

Ashbery himself comes close to defining surrealism in the poem:

“The pattern that may carry the sense, but

Stays hidden in the mysteries of pagination.

Not what we see but how we see it matters; all’s

Alike, the same, and we greet him who announces

The change as we would greet the change itself.

All life is but a figment; conversely, the tiny

Tome that slips from your hand is not perhaps the

Missing link in this invisible picnic whose leverage

Shrouds our sense of it.”

Cartoons have played with surrealism in a very mild way, exploiting cultural references and creative misspellings to comic effect as noted above. Baseball Bugs (1946, d. Friz Freleng) features an advertisement on the outfield wall of the ballpark, reading “Filboid Studge” – recognizable to students of literature as the inedible breakfast cereal from Saki’s story “Filboid Studge, the story of a mouse that helped” (1911). A random nod, and an extra little laugh. Ashbery simply takes the surrealist habit and melds it with the brand-name dropping of an animated cartoon.

For pure, arbitrary humor, the early 1930s are a gold mine in animation. The bizarre quality of the Fleischer cartoons, which is a delight, has a subliminal sense of intention, and pales beside the sometimes baffling, and at times laugh-killing, randomness of Walter Lantz’s cartoons. Seeming scripted via some form of exquisite corpse, “The Bandmaster” (1931), certainly has a surreal quality to it. Lantz’s Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons start out as exercises in free-association humor, then devolve into bland, tame family fare.

The Fleischer’s great Talkartoon “Swing You Sinners” (1930), is a great example of loose-limbed animation paired with an unfettered imagination. The imposition of the Production Code ended the most creative period for several studios, especially those on the east coast, such as the Fleischers. Before that, all bets were off. Similarly the Van Beuren Studio, represented here by “Wot A Night” (1930), often featured nightmarish, semi-surreal adventures dubbed New York Gothic, until personnel changes and a desire to emulate Disney took over the studio. The New York Gothic would survive only in sporadic cartoons from Terrytoons, which changed rarely and with great reluctance. I could supply many more examples, but time constraints prevent me.

By the middle of the poem the cartoon is over. We have moved on, perhaps to a feature (Ashbery refers to plays such as Maurice Maeterlinck’s “Aglavaine and Selysette” (1896) and John Dryden’s “Aureng-Zebe” (1675) without providing context), perhaps just elsewhere, in the surrealist fashion. The end of the poem brings us down to the moment, an observation perhaps of the present, perhaps of the world of the poet’s dream. A little more arty than “That’s All Folks!”, but containing that same valedictory sense. Set your feet on the ground, move on. This strange play is over:

“We don’t mind

Or notice any more that the sky is green, a parrot

One, but have our earnest where it chances on us,

Disingenuous, intrigued, inviting more,

Always invoking the echo, a summer’s day.”


Updates soon

I haven’t had time to write much recently, but an update is on its way. In the meanwhile, you are following my posts on Cartoon Brew, aren’t you?


Back Soon

Sorry I haven’t been posting much new material here the last few weeks. When I’m not researching or writing for other sites (see a bunch of recent postings) I have been mourning my computer, which died after a long life and brief illness. New computer soon! In the meantime, I am also writing some other things – just to give you an idea of what goes through my head:

Already mentioned, posts for Cartoon Brew and elsewhere.

Today the lyrics for a jazz ballad popped into my head, and wouldn’t let me go until I wrote down what I had. Now I will have to finish the thing.

A prose poem involving three real people in Paris during the First World War. Again, no spoilers, but if I can pull this off I think it will be quite interesting.

In the meantime, keep your eyes out for the Spotted or Herbaceous Backson!


Let’s talk about death…

Matthias Grunewald, The Isenheim Altarpiece, 1512-16

…in my latest essay for Big, Red & Shiny.


Ad Reinhardt on Cartoon Brew

Ad Reinhardt, cartoon from his "How to Look at Art" series

Enjoy my latest Cartoon Brew post, won’t you?


New Cartoon Brew post

Scene from John and Faith Hubley's "Moonbird." Animation by Bobe Cannon.

I hope you enjoy my latest post on Cartoon Brew. It’s all about a welcome new addition to animated films on DVD.


Curse of the colon!

Consider these exhibition titles:

Piero della Francesca: Personal Encounters

Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China (both of these are from the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

William Kentridge: the Refusal of Time

Multiple Occupancy: Eleanor Antin’s “Selves” (These from the ICA Boston)

Titling an exhibition can be a tricky thing. A balance must be struck between information and catchiness. A single-work exhibition can be doubly complex, as the title of the work can sometimes be willfully obscure. Something poetic yet unrevealing, as in the Kentridge exhibit, plays to the knowledgeable, who know Kentridge and are curious to see a new work. della Francesca is a much older artist and better known, so the subtitle of the exhibit can shed light on the theme of the show. The Ink Art show also speaks of the theme, in more direct, yet still evocative, terms. Alliteration is a curator’s friend.

Each show has a right way to be titled, and multiple wrong ways. Some, like the Impressionists, are so universally appealing that explication is unnecessary. A simple title – Impressionists in Paris, for example – can sum everything up. For more obscure artists, at least a tease is needed, without jargon. Not that jargon is without its place; something like Primary Structures, Primary Needs: the private lives of Minimalists (I made that one up, and also the Impressionist title) builds off the art lingo of the time and mixes it with language from psychology.

The more I think about it, the more I wish that Minimalists show was real.

As a general rule: if you can do without the colon or semicolon, and have your exhibition title as simple as possible, do so. Obscurity works well with more obscure artists, a hint of something magical lurking underneath. There’s nothing wrong with art for a chosen few, so long as a museum does what it can to provide the opportunity for learning. Populism, pedantry, and poetry – those are the three cardinal points of the museum compass. Navigating the best route between them is what is tricky.


The Art Assignment

The Art Assignment logo as used on their YouTube videos

I’m really pleased with the debut videos from The Art Assignment, a PBS Digital Studios web series hosted by contemporary art curator Sarah Urist Green, formerly of the Indianapolis Art Museum. The idea is simple: artists are approached and asked to create a work, something performative that viewers can then perform themselves. It’s a great way to make understandable the kind of art that does not hang on a wall – though by-products of the work could. So far they have featured artists Douglas Paulson and Christopher Robbins (episode 1), and Deb Sokolow (episode 2). Paulson and Robbins created a work in which two friends set out to meet midway between wherever they happened to be, and have lunch. This looks back to Tom Marioni’s work, Drinking Beer with Friends is the Highest Form of Art, and provides a good introduction to this for of conceptual art. Is the route itself a form of art, the experiences had en route, or the time spent with a friend at the end? The answer to all three is yes.

Green is no stranger to the internet. Her husband John Green, best-selling author (The Fault in our Stars) and seemingly incorrigible (in a good way) video maker (Vlogbrothers with his brother Hank, educational videos of various kinds), serves as Executive Producer and, of course, appears in the videos. They seem comfortable presenting a form of art that is less well known to the general public in a way that is easy to grasp and even fun – populist, if I can say that without any negative connotations. And given that a professional curator is involved ought to help keep it from being too explanatory – that is, willing to address professional artists on their own level, without the oversimplification that can happen in educational programming.

I recommend you go to their YouTube channel and catch up on the videos. I keep thinking of artists I would like to see involved, from those well-known in the art world (Rirkrit Tiravanija) to those who are already household words (Yoko Ono).

If I can quibble very slightly, the logo they have adopted for their videos does bear some resemblance to a logo used in the second season of Space: 1999 (see below), but, as the Greens were busy, oh, being born, when that show was on, I suspect they and their designer didn’t notice. It takes a hardcore geek like me to see things like that, and lends a bit of surrealism.

Now make some art - on the Moon!


Protest at the Guggenheim

On Saturday, February 22, during the Guggenheim Museum’s pay-what-you-wish hours, a protest broke out. Led by the Gulf Ultra Luxury Faction (G.U.L.F.) protestors unveiled banners protesting labor conditions at the site of the next Guggenheim expansion in Abu Dhabi. It was a clever and forceful way of bringing the issue home.

The Guggenheim responded to Hyperallergic’s inquiry about the protest:

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation is engaged in ongoing, serious
discussions with our most senior colleagues in Abu Dhabi regarding the
issues of workers’ rights. As global citizens, we share the concerns
about human rights and fair labor practices and continue to be committed
to making progress on these issues. At the same time, it is important to
clarify that the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is not yet under construction.

Richard Armstrong, Director
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation

This is a classic example of museum-speak – perhaps corporate-speak, but museums are my field. It does not address the question, but dances around the issues in a vaguely relevant way. The clarification at the end is important, as they are suggesting – again, not stating – that there is still time to improve conditions for workers. So the museum does not say that it is doing anything, merely that it shares the protestors concerns and is discussing the issues with senior colleagues. Okay, though weakly stated, it does show that the Guggenheim is aware of the issues and is talking about it.

The key to this is not the Guggenheim’s interest in worker’s rights, or the actions they intend to take regarding these issues. It is rather the wishy-washy fashion in which such responses are written. (I am assuming that Director Armstrong did not write this himself, or at least cowrote it with some of the museum’s PR staff.) When addressing the issue, write about the issue, not the institution. It’s not  bad response, but it ought to have been better in order to resolve the question with direct statements, in detail, rather than a thin paragraph like this.

The protestors were right, and should continue to make their case. The Guggenheim should continue to monitor labor conditions in Abu Dhabi, and take prompt action should conditions be below standard.


Left Front

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