"I find a great deal of contemporary art is disingenuous," says Seth, another art school dropout. "It's like academia: a small world where everyone is performing for each other, and where there are certain rules you have to follow. It seems kind of lazy to me."
"And then I started to hang out with cartoonists, and I realized that most of them had been precocious -- but they had also worked harder at it than anybody I knew. They would really draw for six hours a day, every day of their lives. There's really no replacement for that. I grew up in this very conceptual art world where it was all about 'strategies.' "
Says Seth: "Weirdly, I think that's one of the things that's kept comics from being taken seriously since the '60s -- that it's too concerned with conventional drawing and telling a story, two things the fine-arts world sort of looks down on. Getting into the depths of characterization is too earnest; it makes you suspect."
He speculates that the recent interest in comics from the fine-arts world may have to do with the resurgent value of beauty and draftsmanship. "I've found a lot of young artists are interested in drawing again."
Reaching toward the highbrow
THESE days, despite the sniping and condescension, cartoonists and contemporary artists are closer together than they've ever been. Comics have largely ceased to be actual popular culture -- despite growing acclaim, comic books sell a fraction of what they did in the '40s and '50s -- which may be why they seem more at home as the object of contemplation, scholarship and highbrow "influence."
All kinds of contemporary artists, from Americans of the "lowbrow" movement to Japanese Superflat artists such as Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara, are drawing from comics.
"It's funny -- when I do studio visits I'm finding a real interest on the part of artists," says MOCA curator Michael Darling. "I'm finding Krazy Kat catalogs on their shelves, or the influence of Winsor McCay on their work."
So far, most of the controversy over the "Masters" exhibition has not been dismay that a museum is displaying cartoons but the choice of who's included and who's not. In a time when motorcycles, Armani fashion designs and dead sharks are inside museum walls, comics almost seem traditional, quaint.
"This is by no means radical territory," says David Moos, contemporary curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Canadian museum that just closed a solo show of Seth's drawings and sculpture. Moos looks at the cartoonist's works in a context of Canadian landscape painters and for its ability to solve formal problems. "Why wouldn't you expect a museum to be engaged with this material?"
The future of comics in the museum may have to do with something the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art has become familiar with: quarrels over the proportion of superhero cartoons and independent comics, of one era over another.
"We get more internal fighting," says curator Van Lente, "than resistance from the outside."
Just like -- after all -- a regular museum.