Friday, December 22, 2006

Mannerism, Imitation, and Iconic Bias

Dirk (who kindly keeps linking to my posts) provides some thoughts on my last post about imitation by describing "Mannerism" (about halfway down the post).

He describes the Renaissance Mannerists (what I'll call abstractly as "cohort 2") copied the style of the first wave of Renaissance artists like Leonardo and Michaelangelo that came before them ("cohort 1"). Where cohort 1 actually studied the anatomy of real animals and people, cohort 2 simply copied cohort 1. As a result, cohort 2 is said by Dirk to have...
"the surface tics of the Rennaissance masters down pat, but his work displays none of the anatomical understanding by which they came to be able to create such accomplished illusions of form and light. Mannerism is an artistic game of Whisper, with details lost and distorted as they move further away from their point of origin."

Dirk goes on apply this same process to describe the work of Rob Liefeld and others (who I've oddly defended on this front before).

Now, this quote to me summarizes almost exactly the points I made last time that are inherent to the "Art" perspective. With Mannerism, it's not just about copying — it's that cohort 1 didn't copy at all, they drew from real life. This is what I've called Iconic Bias in past posts (parts one, two, three): The belief that the graphic modality of expression should resemble real life ("iconicity" in the semiotic sense). The "purity" of that first cohort is drawn from iconicity, and the lack of it in cohort 2 leads to their derision.

My response is that this isn't the way the human mind is primed (the "Language" perspective): the mind is primed for imitation, and any drawing "style" is a reflection of mental patterns that have become habituated within a drawer's long-term memory. Those patterns become set in this case through one of two ways: 1) copying other people's patterns, or 2) copying perception and siphoning that iconicity through one's mental structures.

The "Art" perspective says that only choice two should be acceptable, with minimal influence from choice one. Recall for instance, McCloud's Six Steps of learning from Understanding Comics: His first level is imitation, but then all subsequent steps require one to cast aside all other influences.

But, as I've pointed out in the past, rejecting the influence of any cohort before your own works against the establishment of conventional signs — which are what language is made up entirely of. The only reason there is a "graphic dialect" of a superhero style at all is because of imitation. Manga thrive on a style that was founded on imitation (Tezuka being largely considered cohort 1, but Walt Disney and others being cohort -1 for him).

Imitation hasn't hurt manga at all. In fact, I'd argue that it has probably helped them in numerous ways: 1) A consistent cultural style allows more focus to be placed on what that style is used to express story-wise than so much focus on the surface depictions. 2) A consistent style across numerous authors is more readily accessible to young readers, especially those who want imitate them. In America, when children want to "draw comics," they want to draw stories about stuff. But, when kids want to "draw manga" they want to draw stories in the style of manga because that's the visual vocabulary that they are now exposed to.

This is just like language: "Exposure + practice = fluency." With language, successive cohorts are always the manner by which it is transmitted. A great example of this is Nicaraguan Sign Language, where several deaf children who had created their own gesture systems combined their contributions to make cohort 1. Successive cohorts took what they did only to refine and alter it into further grammatical patterns. With the anti-imitation influence of Art, this process of conventionalization is largely lost (outside symbolic signs like word balloons and speed lines at least).

The Art pespective just wants to substitute the cognitive man-made exposure for that of real life, and with that, jettisoning an idea of fluency (proficiency in a system) for skill (accuracy at depicting real life): "Perception + practice = skill at representing perception."

While I won't go into it at length, I find it intriguing that in Dirk's same post, there is a damning attitude for Greg Land, who takes iconicity to the extreme by drawing wholly from photo reference — only that he picks and chooses parts of photos to combine thereby messing up the anatomy. So, here it seems to be the case of messing up iconicity through the most iconic method possible!

Final note, so my intentions aren't misunderstood: I should point out that this is not a post of advocacy; I'm not saying people should or shouldn't copy other people. I'm just trying to analyze the issues involved, and in some case, defend all strategies as being cognitively acceptable.

Update 2/26: Dirk has a short reply to this post (halfway down). I don't have much in response to it except that it still maintains the "Iconic bias" underlying the last couple posts . Beyond that, he makes some interesting points.

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