Matthew Thurber’s new graphic novel, Art Comic, is absurdist, surreal and a little bit slapstick. After all, it follows a group of Cooper Union graduates— and their professor, and a group of idealistic pigs, and some aliens, and two procreating sex robots— as they try to master the whole “how to be an artist” thing. At the author’s request, though, please don’t call it satire.
“A satire felt too light to explain how upset I am about a lot of these tendencies in art, about how serious the book is for me,” he told Bedford + Bowery the day after Thursday’s book launch at Desert Island Comics in Williamsburg. “This is beyond poking fun, this is a systematic problem.” While satire is cathartic, there’s no release for Thurber after he’s done explaining himself in the book.
That said, it’s hard not to feel amused by this, ahem, critique’s characters and their antics. Cupcake uncannily looks like Tommy Wiseau, blindly worships Matthew Barney, and lives in a $150-a-month under-someone-else’s-bed nook in order not to move to Brooklyn; his friend Boris, whose art is misunderstood while in school, achieves quasi mythological status after his untimely death and has a direct dialogue with God, a cute, winged small dog; moneyed Ivanhoe, after life-changing incidents brought about by art, becomes vengeful and hellbent on disguising himself as a medieval knight and destroying all works of art; Tiffany, the ultimate outsider because of her gender and race, tries to make a statement by renaming herself Epiphany and becoming a divinely-inspired performance artist. She suffers from a persistent feeling of isolation until she finds a pirate ship full of artists that are actually zombies.
“They represent different aspects of my own conflicts, maybe,” Thurber told us. “Cupcake is based on my ego; Tiffany is based on other people’s feeling of alienation; Ivanhoe is based on self-righteousness; Boris is that idea that, as an artist, you get your reward in heaven.”
Preemptively crushing these artists’ dreams is their Cooper Union professor, who struck a deal with a bat-like demon in order to prevent the new generation of artists from taking over what the old guard holds dear. Thurber, who teaches at Queens College and at Parsons, sees it as an exaggeration of a real issue in creatives who eventually chose “safer” career choices. “Teachers get stuck in teaching because that’s a lifeline, it’s good work but they fall out of the market and they might just teach for years; of course they have different feelings, and one of them will be that the student will surpass them,” he told us. “It’s a systematic problem of teaching: you’re doing something really great, until you’re not.”
For the lolz, the dialogue of Art Comic is peppered with pseudo artspeak. Early in the book, a character presents a pagoda-like sculpture topped with pig-faced Mount-Rushmore-like busts, called South Pigoda. One of the critiques he gets: “I wonder if there are not contained within this piece, unresolved feelings related to the Russo-Japanese war.”
Truth is, there wasn’t really statement behind the art. “I think the problem with critiques and my critique of critiques is that if art is working, there’s not that much to say,” Thurber told us. “And yet you have these classroom structures that are very verbal and reward the more verbally oriented teachers and students,” Thurber elaborated, “There are people ripping each other up for an approval from an authority figure. That’s not to say critiques shouldn’t happen, but they are, to use an art word, problematic.”
Save for a few scenes in the present day, Art Comic is mainly set between 2000 and 2002, following the timeline of the city as it changed during the Giuliani period. Thurber, a Cooper Union graduate himself, remembers what the area around Astor Place used to be like when he studied there, and describes the current landscape around Cooper Union as a stainless steel meat slicer, with Jeff Koons artwork on the ground floor of the buildings. “I used to live in Manhattan; Manhattan used to be cheap, full of artists, and all artists got pushed out. I can only write about what I see,” he said. “I moved to Brooklyn, then further out in Brooklyn, and then I finally moved upstate.”
Yet, he sees New York as a place where making art is still possible, with many, many caveats. He concedes that “there’s a lot of art infrastructure in NYC…but none of those people have very much freedom; every artist I know is super-stressed, has to work for their studio, is independently wealthy, commuting from further and further away to work in this kind of center.”
As for himself, Thurber is experimenting with being out in the woods, in the Catskills “as a way to be able to think clearly and not just being pushed around by gentrification.”
Art Comic is now available from Drawn and Quarterly.