The stakes of a pop culture

In Fabian Muhlthaler’s opinion, the German Cultural Center in Cluj, whose young president he is, managed to be consecrated, after two decades of activity, with the prestige of a Goethe Center, based on several reasons, one of them however being decisive: the activity of the Comics Club Cluj. The statement, surprising in relation to a more traditional perspective on cultural diplomacy, is significant for a wider cultural dynamic.
Comics are starting to have their own adult fans in our country too, and the collections of foreign cultural centers (the French Institute among them too) have managed to successfully export a genre that is extremely popular in other countries. A genre that is surprisingly developing even where conditions would not be conducive to that: the lack of a strong cultural industry (in the sense of a Horkheimer and Adorno), the lack of a veritable pop culture tradition, a different cultural legitimacy of the image (apart from global developments).

And yet the interest is real, proof of that being the alternative network of clubs, libraries and festivals spread even in the Balkans, and the “comiXconnection” exhibition in Cluj several months ago, which brought together Serbians, Hungarians, Croatians, Slovenians and Romanians. Let us try and distinguish a bit the premises of this unusual creativity.
Local comics have the advantage of the minor genre, the one lacking its own canon (with its inhibiting hierarchies) and without the competition of mannerism, having on the other hand the potential of receiving relatively easily unusual valences. They can be, for instance, contesting or solely provocative, assuming the language of social satire, however not solely through explicit thematics, but especially through the dosing of the fantastic, through graphic style, through iconographic innovations. A combination of dreaming (which, put into concrete terms, can also suggest the blank of a political program in the wide sense) and caricaturing (the sign of a critical vitality). As the book published now in Cluj on the occasion of the aforementioned anniversary proves (“Tara desenata. Intamplari cu si despre Germania”), the themes can however disappoint through conformism and superficiality, the main stake remaining the graphic one. But in its case too, not so much through originality (which at any rate remains rare in a world oversaturated with advertisement graphics), but especially through the undermining of the borders between genres.
Naïve art, the exploration of infantile raving, the bantering pastiche of folk iconography, the caricature and tradition of the grotesque, the poetics of watercolor, the domesticated horror, the competition of visual codes – they all enter this cultural “melting pot,” having a significant role in the dialectic of mentalities. Comics are an impure genre, because they bring together not solely extremely heterogeneous esthetic stakes (like Umberto Eco once accurately revealed, denouncing the glib and unjust contempt toward “mass culture”), but also because it wonderfully suits post-modernity, through its imitative versatility. And let’s not neglect the type of “artistic” sociability such comics clubs are cultivating. The stimulating framework of a library (comics fall within the far broader culture of books), professional initiations in an art one can discover to be unexpectedly accessible, collaborative creations (among cartoonists, script writers, colorists), emulation and familiarity – here is a successful recipe in Cluj, which moreover is a welcome interface between professionals and amateurs.
But the more popular artistic genres have become a challenge for others too. Prestigious theaters for example are trying to stake on musicals too, a genre popularized especially through film. “Sweeney Todd” was both on Broadway and at Hollywood, and is now on the stage of the Hungarian Theater in Cluj, a theater that has already affirmed itself by assuming the most sophisticated and intellectually prestigious dramaturgy. However, the challenge that a musical represents for a more creative theater director tempted to assume limits (imposed by musicals) that he usually transgresses, is not to be neglected either. An ambiguous temptation, of course, because it is not a purge of the director’s language, as an evolution toward a more discrete role of the one meant to direct the play, who is usually much too visible and invasive.
However, the fact that the actors are not talking, but are singing instead, decisively changes the stage language they are familiar with. Because although the acting potential should have diversified their expressivity, the margin of their artistic suggestion is in fact significantly reduced, undermined not just by the rigors of the vocal exercise but also by the esthetic seduction that it exercises. After all, vocal music (especially in its continuous form throughout a show) dominates gestures, so that solely choreography (of any type) can compete with it. But a theater director rarely thinks choreographically, and if he nevertheless manages to do so he has to strongly confront the primacy of music. Let us not forget that Pina Bausch was choosing the music solely after conceiving the choreographies. The staging of a given musical however is much more restrictive. Formed in the tradition of a modern theater based on moments of silence, syncopes, a fluctuating sound register, non-dramatic plasticity, minimalist expressionism, a redoubtable director can manage to propose an attractive musical but not to dramatically improvise. Just like in the case of comics, the musical is apparently more versatile, but at the same time subjected to more circumscribed cultural codes (which sustains another conformism). Solely the initiative of placing it in unusual and more courageously strident artistic contexts can confer to it a more substantial stake. Why, for example, wouldn’t a musical be dotted with repeated moments of silent gestures? The great challenge of these popular artistic genres is the symbolic force of expression. The stake is even political: if an image is not solely a screen (as Baudrillard put it), but it directs to a symbolic message, perceived as such by the spectator, the latter will be less vulnerable to a political dynamic fed by nihilism.

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