Mouffe Review Graphic


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Left Art Review: What unique challenges are involved in creating a visual, graphic review of a book, especially one that is written in the academic language of political science?

Noah Fischer: Political essays and books, and criticism of these, gain strength from being clearly argued, so that the evidence mounts and one’s case feels overwhelmingly true. If you try to do that in graphic form though, the work will likely suck. Yes: there’s a powerful tradition of graphic propaganda, but they tend to be one-shot images, not arguments or stories, because long-form propaganda is a bit chilling if you think about it. The strength of the graphic storytelling medium—at least in the way I’m drawn to it, is world-building, role-play, and open endedness. When words and image occupy the same space, they can play off each other in unexpected ways—they can be funny, or they can bring us into the terrain of rich ambiguity. Previously, I drew from my own first-person stories and political musings. I’ve also collaborated with poets where ambiguity is everything, and the trick is simply evocative matches between word and image. But I felt that in the book review format, it would not be so helpful to escape into poetic or personal terrain. It was about respecting Mouffe’s arguments, especially because as a political writer, her arguments are meant to have implications on how people of the left organize. So part of my job as a book reviewer  was inviting people into the arguments she is making. Here I found the visual cartoon format could provide some tools. I would begin with a narrative voice that’s me, as I usually do, but then I could draw a Mouffe character, and have her interject things—argue, correct me, inject a sense of the positionality and earnestness of the ideas. And I can world-build her ideas into landscapes populated with people and things that present the ideas (freud smoking, Elon Musk, etc).  Of course, I am making most of this up. I found a lot of creative freedom in building these landscapes, but it’s not exactly a precise book review in the end. I’m riffing off, or perhaps, projecting onto her arguments, like a movie director reinterpreting a book.  This approach may appeal beyond those likely to read a piece of academic criticism, but there are of course more precise approaches. 

LAR: You have been working with the graphic cartooning art form for some time now Noah, what initially brought you to this approach, and how has it evolved over the years?

NF: I would say political burnout initially drew me to the format. I was trained in fine art, became, between the second Iraq war and Occupy, an activist focusing on organizing and direct actions. After a while, I found myself sort of disillusioned and at a dead end artistically. Part of this had to do with a certain relentlessness—activism of the type I was doing ran at the pace of the news cycle. Another part that to get results (and press) I learned to let go of ambiguities and experimental approaches. Speak truth to power—but make sure your truth is punchy, non-ambiguous and as rhetoric, always escalating!  After a while, that gets old, especially when you realize activists on the opposite side (fascists) are doing the same thing, possibly better, and all of this “content” reaches its target audience via algorithms. I’d been honing my craft writing persuasive political essays along with my activism, but I felt there was a winnowing of what was possible with language. Language was becoming too troubled—arguments siloed by social media, lots of self-censorship, etc. So deep into the Trump years, I turned toward fiction and comics. I wanted to communicate some of the political complexity I was seeing and feeling, and, burned out on direct activism, I thought it would be helpful to make work that operated as a sort of warm embrace of my comrades who were feeling trying to push ahead with left politics while acknowledging the ever deeper contradictions. So I’ve tried to mix confession, nuance, political satire, and a little propaganda. How is it developing?  I’m getting more fluid with my drawing and streamlining the process of putting it all together (creating mood-boards is a big part, and I use some AI in the brainstorming process now).  I also become less of a perfectionist—try to let the limitations of my hand as a human-draftsperson come through. Let the ink fly. 

LAR: Socially critical artists in Left publications such as the Masses and the New Masses made effective use of this approach in the early decades of the 20th century. Did any of these serve as inspiration for you? Are there other precedents you wish to cite?

NF: I love the work of the left artists from the early 20th century. The woodcuts and lithographs communicate a commitment to socialist ideas mixed with humanism and universalism that is missing at present.  The New Masses covers are bold with a handmade warmth to them. But my drawing style is a little more influenced by artists of a few decades earlier—illustrators such as Thomas Nast, who were satirists, and generally had more fun with symbolic  details, and who worked in a style closer to classical European picture-making. I don’t think this style is exactly associated with the left—more like the bourgeoisie center who enjoyed making fun of zealots on the left and right as today, but I’ve always liked the sophistication with which they made pictures. I think the 19th century was the highpoint of the craft of drawing. Publications such as Frank Leslie’s illustrated newspapers were popular and I have been fascinated by the idea that artists were able to conjure up battle scenes from the Civil War, shipwrecks, etc, and that became what people accepted as reality.   

LAR: Your activity as an artist with a strong Left leaning political analysis extends well beyond two-dimensional graphics into sculpture, installation, performance, and collective organizing involving both artists and activists such as Occupy Museums and Gulf Labor Coalition. How would you characterize the relationship and cross-influence between these practices?

NF: Some artists have managed to proceed with their art career and conduct their spirited activism on the side, as a sort of ethical duty—the price of the class position occupied by contemporary artists. I have always tried to mix art and activism together. Maybe this is because I was so disgusted by the moneyed/institutional artwork when I was earlier involved, that art activism seemed the only possible path. My first solo show in New York was called “Rhetoric Machine, a kinetic installation with physical sculptures to animate a history of war speeches made by the US president. I was proud of the work, but saw right away the problem of it existing in the gallery system, measured by how well it sold. So I was relieved when I found my way into activism, and began experimenting with my work in there—street performance with props, avant garde direct actions, etc. I’m the opposite of a minimalist; I like to create things out of contradictions in materials, images, situations, ideas —just the way my mind works. I like the work to be like a garden–alive and somewhat unruly.  I don’t claim that it makes for the best art or the best activism. In fact, I love looking at nonpolitical painters who are have the discipline to thinking every day about making similar sorts of images with paint, and I admire activists who are daily organizing, jumping into the ring with escalating messaging, and getting arrested and winning campaigns and shifting the overton window. But I’ve sought to hold space in the art world for political commitments, and in the activist world for creativity, absurdity, and complexity. It’s been a productive struggle.