Greatness in Artistic Form

“When we tell a story in cinema, we should resort to dialogue only when it’s impossible to do otherwise. I always try first to tell a story in the cinematic way, through a succession of shots and bits of film in between.”

Alfred Hitchcock “Hitchcock” by François Truffaut

Great art is a combination of form and content. Greatness in form is using the best attributes of a form and not overemphasizing attributes better used in other forms. As the Hitchcock epigraph indicates, dialog is just another sound to be used in a motion picture. In a visual medium such as film, you should “show” as much as possible, keeping the “tell” to a minimum.

Great content is not enough for great art. A great artist uses the unique characteristics of the chosen medium to the greatest extent possible. Hitchcock would never put a literary masterpiece in a film because that would destroy what made it a masterpiece of a particular art form.

Art Spiegelman explores this idea of greatness in his tribute to Charles Schultz.1

Spiegelman uses comics to illustrate using historical examples Charles Schultz's greatness.
Spiegelman uses comics to illustrate using historical examples Charles Schultz’s greatness.

Using comics, Spiegelman illustrates Hitchcock’s principle.

Schultz used the comic form to express his content. Each panel shows more than it tells. Cathy, Dilbert and South Park are mostly just drawings that are placeholders for dialog. They are illustrations. They make no sense without the words. (See my discussion of the difference between an illustration and a picture). Schultz’s panels have meaning, the words only add to it. The dialog would make no sense without the pictures. In Cathy, Dilbert, or South Park, you could often dispense with the picture, or just convert the picture to words. Cathy might have literary value, its visual value is not great. Literature is not comics.

All derive from Schultz their drawing style, their philosophical pondering. None of them have the deep insights of Peanuts, or the economy of expression with maximum result.

This is not to say that Cathy or Dilbert have no value, or are just entertainment. They are not, however, great works of art.


1. Co-Mix: A Retrospective of Comics, Graphics, and Scraps p78. This book was created as part of a retrospective on the work of Art Spiegelman.

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