Thursday, June 11, 2020

John Ruskin, abstraction, anime, & effie (pt 2)

Picking up from where we left off...

(III) Admonishing his audience about "truth" and "shadows," Ruskin advises the artist not to let his passion for his creative endeavors and their results displace his interest and love for the subjects his art depicts—which Ruskin hopes to assume will be mountain scenes, meadows, marine vistas, and so on, or at the very least, real things in the world. If he ever countenanced the idea that the beloved objects an artist mirrors in her work might be images produced by other artists, he would have dismissed it toute de suite. Though he disliked Whistler's work enough to pen a scathing review, Ruskin probably wouldn't even condescend to comment on the CalArts style. (The joke's on him, of course: how many millions more people living right now care more about Adventure Time and Steven Universe than the Pre-Raphaelites or J.M.W. Turner?)

I don't suppose there's any feasible way of sifting through all the content uploaded to DeviantArt (it still exists!), Tumblr (ditto), Twitter, Instagram, etc. to determine how much more activity and enthusiasm surrounds "illustration" than, say, charcoal renders of models, studies of landscapes or urban structures, and other such efforts to represent real entities and places—but it's safe to say that an artist is far more likely to earn recognition and praise for producing and sharing She-Ra and the Princesses of Power fan content than pencil sketches of the objects sitting on her desk.

The artist sharing pictures of his in-universe Avatar: The Last Airbender or Sonic the Hedgehog OC is striving to imitate a style: I don't think we malign him in observing that he draws from art, not from life.¹ With a little introspection, we can easily infer the factors implicated in the young artist's being more inspired to draw what he fondly recognizes from a crisp, glowing screen than what he encounters in his day-to-day existence milling back and forth from rented home to alien workplace (or simply remaining at home) in the impersonal tristesse of our rudely mechanical century.

Much of the digital art I see adheres to one of a small number of predominant styles. From my vantage point, the CalArts look and its offshoots remain ubiquitous throughout webcomics, zines, and indie animation. Lately I've been seeing a lot material in a style that I can't put a name to (though its detractors identify it with "SJWs" and Tumblr); some of the concept art for the New Warriors reboot is a pretty good example. The influence of Invader Zim endures here and there, and the fursona avatars I occasionally encounter still have the "Disney's Robin Hood through beer goggles" vibe I remember from two decades ago.

But no contemporary illustration (or animation) style can compete with the distinctive look of anime and manga in terms of the sheer depth and breadth of its influence.

I hardly watch anime anymore; I don't follow any artists, and I'm not subscribed to any hashtags. But I see a lot of anime art by dint of friends' likes and retweets. Here are a few such images I scrolled past while drafting these posts:

Before you ask: no, this sort of thing doesn't really do it for me. Not anymore.

I've talked about my introduction to anime elsewhere, although I kind of skirted around my pubescent fascination with it. We needn't go into much detail about that, though I'll relate a few facts I'm not proud of. While my mother waited in the car, I'd stand in the Blockbuster Video aisle with the tiny anime section and just stare at the Outlanders box on the shelf for minutes on end. The ratio of minutes I spent watching episodes of Ranma 1/2 on VHS and ogling lewd Ranma 1/2 art in fan-curated picture shrines was something like 1:10. And, uh, the less said about my predilection for Misty from Pokémon, the better.²

Not very long ago, I read about supernormal stimuli for the first time. I can hardly communicate how gratifying it was to have something I'd nebulously and incompletely comprehended given a precise definition and a name.

The divide between "that's a pretty picture" and paraphilia is a wide one, and it doesn't seem as though anyone has made a studied effort to chart the gradient in between. Determining the point at which a sexual/emotional response to an image (or series of images) becomes "unnatural" is made difficult by the fact that Homo sapiens is the only animal on Earth that constructs an environment abounding with artificial semblances of itself. To the best of my knowledge, no anthropologist has ever taken a copy of Final Fantasy VII and a PlayStation Portable on a visit to an isolated Amazon tribe to measure the sexual responses to Tifa's victory pose in adult males with no prior exposure to electronic media. Though I suspect sexual attraction/emotional attachment to stylized media depictions of human[oid] figures requires some degree of enculturation,³ we are at any event animals evolved and conditioned to navigate our environment primarily by sight, and the long and storied history of erotic art across the world suggests that our eyes and hormones aren't especially choosy about whether the photons exciting our optic nerves are arriving from a proximate human being or a still, flat image of one.

Anime and its distinctive aesthetic owe much of their global success over the last forty years to formulating and delivering the ne plus ultra of supernormal stimuli. The alpha-male pluses of Fist of the North Star and Jojo's Bizarre Adventure make the cast of the original Predator look like milk-lapping kittens. A living Pikachu sold in pet stores would put every breeder of lap dogs, ferrets, and potbellied pigs out of business. Yaoi and its visual narratives of romance between "soft" gay adolescents are basically catnip for a fair-sized cross-section of young women (and men). The methodized neotenization through which anime processes its female characters should be eminently familiar to anyone who's looked at a screen in the last two decades: their oversized and preternaturally expressive eyes, labile mouths, perfect skin, perennially (and ambiguously) adolescent bodies, and their almost uncanny simultaneity of voluptuousness and waifishness were all refined in the crucible of the marketplace to manipulate emotional and sexual responses in viewers' reptile brains. We cannot overstate what a triumph of consumer-oriented engineering the aesthetic represents.⁴

We won't pontificate about waifu culture, body pillows, or the transhumanist discourse about normalizing "marriages" between people and fictional characters, but—to return to Ruskin—anime's divorce from verisimilitude and its preoccupations with the "shadows" of visual art in and of themselves have operated in tandem with an array of cultural, economic, and technological currents to yield some curious phenomena indeed. Ruskin would have approved of none of it, and he absolutely would not be capable of understanding it, except maybe in terms of atavistic idol worship.

Obviously—to the point of cliche, really—anime and otaku/geek culture are fertile grounds for conversations about Baudrillardian simulacra: one does not have to do much browsing to find testimonies (often sensationalized, but seldom fallacious) and thinkpieces about adolescent or adult men's substitution of a fantasy of love and understanding from a fictional character for real relationships with real women clicking over into a willful preference for the simulation over the real. In these exceptional cases, the waifu is not a consolation for the single adult male unlucky in love, but the happily adored object of a redirected desire.⁵

"Folly," Ruskin says, to love the "shadow" more than the "truth." He might be right—but in the age of hyperreality, the imaginary and the actual are ever more difficult to differentiate. We might call an adult's affinity for a fictional character or for the image-series idolatrous in the same sense that McLuhan's electronic global village is tribal: neither occurrence represents a regression to an earlier mode of being so much as the recapitulation of one. (Does atavism effectuated by technological progress deserve to be called atavism?)

(IV) If the attentive reader surmises Ruskin makes his pronouncements regarding artistic aims and practice from a position of European chauvinism, she would be correct. With respect to its focus on verisimilitude, the Western tradition of visual art (of which Ruskin was an inheritor and an advocate) is something of a historical anomaly.

"The Egyptians had based their art on knowledge. The Greeks began to use their eyes," EH Gombrich writes of the divergence of Western art from other world traditions.⁶ Ancient Greek sculptors and painters lovingly, arduously studied anatomy to accurately reproduce the human form in their work. Certainly they idealized their subjects, but verisimilitude was of supreme importance: part of the reason they sculpted beefy men was the enhanced definition of such subjects' anatomy. Rome's importation of the Greeks' artistic ethos was of no less historical consequence than its adoption of the Olympian pantheon, and kept the strain alive for several centuries after the decline of Athens and of Macedon. With the collapse of the Roman Empire, Western visual art entered a period during which its practice came once again into resemblance with those of other world traditions. The painters and sculptors of the Italian Renaissance revived the classical praxis, which came to dominate European art until the late nineteenth century. However symbolic, allegorical, or supernatural a painting's subject (or narrative) might be, the artist was expected to "paint life." Stylization was unavoidable, but the approaches and techniques of individual artists and schools might be thought of as being treated as analogous to Instagram filters: the mirror they held to life might be somewhat tinted, but they must in all cases paint a faithful reflection of the world.

Conversely, the immemorial artistic traditions of Egypt, India, and China (and of Europe during the Middle Ages) were committed to upholding a characteristic aesthetic, not to verisimilitude. An artist commissioned to paint a mural on the wall of a Pharaoh's tomb knew that people didn't actually stand with their feet pointing in the same direction and their chests half-twisted around; but his job was to paint people the way he had been trained to paint them, they way they had always been painted.⁷ Medieval Christian art often appears clumsy and bizarre to us for the same reason, but we err in presuming the illustrator of an illuminated codex was an inept bumpkin. Again, his intention wasn't to set down images as they might have actually appeared to the human eye in ancient Palestine, but to paint from and perpetuate tradition. Likewise, when looking at the renowned Ukiyo-e woodblock prints which flourished in eighteenth- and nineteenth century Japan, it's impossible not to observe that the detailed and graceful depictions of natural scenery, domestic interiors, and urban lanes are populated by men and women who all look alike (save for hairstyle and dress), and bear no physiognomical resemblance to any people we've ever seen. These too are the products of a long-standing custom in which a prescribed aesthetic prevailed over "objective" representation.

Detail from Speculum humanae salvationis
manuscript (1330–1340)

Kikukawa Eizan, Cherry Blossoms in a Palace
Garden in the Modern Style

In this respect, the anime/manga style takes after the pre-modern schools of Japanese art. We ought to observe, however, that this strain shows more concern for the particulars of human anatomy—its joints, hinges, hollows, and protrusions, where they're situated, how they function. Seinen martial arts manga and erotic doujinshi require the illustrator to study the body and its ligature more than, say, the Muromachi painter of screen panoramas. But the ends to which these studies serve as means is still the same: aesthetization. The purpose is not to depict the human body as it is, but to know it well enough to artfully suspend disbelief in exaggerating and distorting its features.

In the digital age, it is entirely possible for an amateur illustrator of Pixiv-style ecchi pinups to get away with never doing any in-person studies of nude models.⁸ With terabytes of other illustrators' work, how-to videos, and stock photographs ever only a few keystrokes away, there has never in history been a greater abundance of reference material at the immediate disposal of so many people. This leads me to wonder which the average ecchi artist (amateur or professional) finds more fascinating: the flesh and bone of the human body, or its hyperreal, bedroom-eyed shadow?

(V) "But Shadows!" says Ruskin. "If ever you prefer the skill of them to the simplicity of the truth, or the pleasure of them to the power of the truth, you have fallen into that vice of folly," Ruskin says.

The reader who is already familiar with Ruskin and the salacious rumors surrounding his six-year marriage to Effie Gray may be suppressing a snicker. Please permit me to tell the story anyway.

Thomas Richmond, Euphemia ('Effie') Chalmers (née Gray),
Lady Millais

Before we dredge up the public scandals of a great man, let's talk for a moment about the private shame of a not-so-great man: me. I'll make it quick.

As I said before, I had a thirsty eye for anime-styled art (including ecchi and hentai) during my teenage years. I played a lot of video games, and went through a period of moderate social withdrawal: nothing too alarming in retrospect, but I seldom had more than two "IRL" friends at a time. I often felt the people I could most trust and confide in were internet friends with whom I only communicated via Instant Messenger. Around girls my own age I was awkward and jumpy. I "dated" a little between the ages of thirteen and sixteen, but it never lasted very long and we never got further than second base (as we used to say). Despite being a pubescent horndog, I was uncomfortable with physical and emotional intmacy. Why?

All autobiography is post hoc interpretation; I have to take my own reading of my own memories with a grain of salt. But when I think back to the objects of my fantasies, I find myself remembering a lot of characters from Japanese video games and cartoons. Whatever my concept of an "ideal woman" was, it was deeply informed by mass-media representations of sparkly-eyed girls with perfect complexions and bodies, and whose personalities were either submissively unobstrusive, prickly or quirky in such a way that even their "flaws" were ultimately endearing, or largely undefined (so they could be however it pleased me to imagine them at a given moment). Trying for in-person emotional intimacy for actual girls whose personalities weren't designed to accommodate me left me confused and often disturbed.

When I first began getting physically intimate with the opposite sex (let's say I first passed second base with a girl at age seventeen and leave it at that), it was never fireworks. I wasn't completely comfortable with kissing because it meant getting way up in their faces, where I could see pores, acne scars, and tiny hairs. I had to will myself not to notice that their breasts were always a little asymmetrical. Their mouths and genitals had scents—seldom unpleasant, really, but olfactory stimulation wasn't something I wanted. It was too real.⁹

I was prone to passive-aggressively jabbing at my first few longish-term girlfriends (this was between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one) because, well, my dream girl looked something like, I don't know, this...

In-game art for Street Fighter III: New Generation(Illus. Kinu Nishima)

...or this...

Cover image for Samurai Shodown 64: CD, detail
(Illus. Senri Kita) 

...and I actually resented them for not having the near-impossible bodies I admired in completely pretend video-game people. (To make matters worse, I wasn't exactly a heartthrob myself.) This must sound familiar even to women whose boyfriends weren't gamers and/or geeks: but whereas the average dude with his head up his ass might privately compare his girlfriend to a lingerie model or an actress, I was weighing them against digitized drawings and pixel art. I'm ashamed of all this, but I can't pretend it didn't happen.

Reflections on how I broke out of this mindset will have to wait for another time. Probably psychoactive drugs played a part.

John Ruskin was twenty-nine when he married Effie Gray in 1848. Judging from the spicy letters Ruskin wrote during their courtship, it seems some fire for Gray truly burned in his loins.

Six years later, she had their marriage annulled on the grounds of "incurable impotency."

In 1853, she wrote a letter to her father which hinted at why she and her husband had never once had sex during their half-decade of matrimony. This is the section that still has students of art history chittering like tabloid columnists:

He alleged various reasons, hatred to children, religious motives, a desire to preserve my beauty, and, finally this last year he told me his true reason (and this to me is as villainous as all the rest) that he had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was, and that the reason he did not make me his Wife was because he was disgusted with my person the first evening 10th April.

Three things to keep in mind:

• Ruskin came from a respectable family in Victorian England. His mother was an evangelical Christian who rigorously instructed him in religion. He was educated at home until the age of fifteen. When he attended Oxford, his mother visited him during the weekends. It's very unlikely he sowed any wild oats during his adolescence.

• Unlike their Continental peers, English painters and draughtsmen seldom worked with nude models, even before the Victorian period. Ruskin probably never saw an actual woman naked prior to his wedding night.

• Ruskin spent a lot of time abroad during the 1830s and 1840s (often traveling with his family), and would have become well acquainted with the art galleries of Italy and France. Though Ruskin probably never saw an unclothed woman in person, his eye had certainly explored scores of oil-painted female nudes. Let's look at a few works by Titian that Ruskin is likely to have seen:

Titian, Venus of Urbino (1538)

Titian, Danaë (1544–46)

Titian, Venus Anadyomene (c. 1520)

Titian, Diana and Callisto, detail (1556–1559)

Titian's work is exemplary (Ruskin called him the "greatest painter who ever lived"), but his treatment of the female body is typical of European fine art from the Renaissance through the late nineteenth century. Do you notice anything missing in these paintings?

Is it possible that Ruskin was too horrified to fuck after his newlywed wife removed her undergarments and he discovered the existence of female pubic hair?

That's the prevailing rumor. (Others along similar lines involve body odor and menstrual blood.) Art historians far more invested in Ruskin and his age than gossipers like me have suggested alternative explanations for his refusal to consummate his marriage to Gray, but the prurient interpretation is too deliciously ironic to ever die.

The notion that visual media artifacts have been warping men's expectations of women and their bodies long before airbrushing, electronic pornography, and anime is—well, I'm not sure "funny" is the right word. Selfishly, I'm a little consoled to think that a man like Ruskin, a bona fide genius of his age, was no less susceptible to falling into the same snare as me (and god knows how many other asocial adolescent males). It's vain to hope, but I'd like to imagine that Ruskin had his wedding night in the back of his mind while he was writing about the folly of loving artifice more than truth, and that he may have intended a double meaning: we ought to cautiously measure out the trust we place in shadows to inform us of substance.

1. This is not to say they are mutually exclusive. The numinous Bill Watterson based the style in which he drew the human and anthropomorphic characters in Calvin and Hobbes on Peanuts and Pogo, while his outdoor scenes are clearly the result of hours upon hours upon hours studying the woods and weeds of Northeast Ohio's exurbs. (If anyone was surprised that he quit drawing comic strips to paint watercolor landscapes, they weren't paying attention.)

2. Fine. It was bad enough that I had a "thing" for Misty in high school, but then I bought a volume of the Pikachu's Electric Boogaloo manga because I liked how the artist drew her. (Incidentally, I later found out he was also a hentai illustrator, and that the comic's American edition was edited to make the female characters' clothing less skimpy.) I was nineteen years old, taking a Pokémon comic book to the counter at Barnes & Noble, and telling the guy ringing me up that it was for my little sister. There. Are you happy?

Psychological research has shown that many fetishes appear to be the result of early imprinting and conditioning experiences in childhood or adolescence (for instance, where sexual excitement and/or orgasm is paired with non-sexual objects or body parts) or as a consequence of strong traumatic, emotional and/or physical experience. Fetishes may in part be influenced by rejection of the opposite sex and/or by youthful arousal being channelled elsewhere (deliberately or accidentally).

This is probably relevant to more areas of my fantasy life during middle and high school than I care to discuss. I'll just say I had a persistent daydream about Sakura from Street Fighter Alpha 2 transferring to my eighth-grade class and becoming my friend. Probably it could not have happened if I didn't get such an early start by watching Inspector Gadget and Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers every afternoon and admiring Penny and Gadget, naming the main character in Chrono Trigger after myself and feeling a little titter in my chest when Marle flirted with him, relying on Chun-Li when I was learning the ropes of Street Fighter II, and so on. Meanwhile, I had very few friendships with girls,  and my attachment to video game characters went by undetected (and was therefore never discouraged). Adventitious enculturation is still enculturation. 

4. Some years ago, I worked for Trader Joe's. One of its company mottoes is "kaizen"—a Japanese word referring to an ethos of continuous improvement. The general evolution of the anime aesthetic is an object lesson in this principle in practice: the elements that are emphasized and those that are muted or eliminated over time indicate the industry's attentiveness to feedback and alacrity in acting on it.

As an example, you can compare two characters for yourself. One is from an animated series of the early 1980s; the other is a video game character from the last decade. Both are supposed to be idols. Both have blue hair. Both were/are pop cultural icons.

Lynn Minmay from Super Dimension
Fortress Macross

Hatsune Miku from Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA series

5. Obviously there are men and women out there with schediaphiliac predilections for male cartoon/video game characters, but these do not seem to make up the majority of cases.

In any event, what occurs during such extreme instances may be made more straightforwardly explicable if we switch from a libidinal account to one of elementary behaviorism. If one's "interactions" with the simulacrum are consistently reinforcing, if aversive consequences consistently accompany one's social transactions with or romantic overtures to real women, and if the community supplies no punishing consequences for taking one's enjoyment of electronic media or its images beyond certain bounds or for failing to form relationships with members of the opposite sex (and/or while a separate community provides encouragement for such habits), we can expect a pattern to emerge. All other things being equal (though they most always are not), one set of responses to one manifold of stimuli and their contexts will be strengthened; the other set will undergo extinction. Under this schematic, nothing so arcane as a "transference of desire" has occurred.

6. See EH Gombrich, The Story of Art (1950)

7. Certainly national or regional styles evolved over time—but without the goading pressures and incentives of market competition, the changes took place across increments of generations or dynasties instead of mere decades.

8. It's safe to presume the illustrator of the buxom blonde in the maid's headpiece up above is drawing from drawings. (For a Western example, see Rob Liefeld.)

9. See Jean Baudrillard on the precession of simulacra, wherein the image antecedes the real.


  1. I'd be lying if I said anime such as Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball Z, Gundam, Cowboy Bebop and more did not have a major influence on me, I suppose overall western comics have shaped things across the world for decades, but I guess that's not really up for debate. Either way between Mary Jane and Jean Grey on the western side and Tifa and Cammy on the other side I had plenty of fictional woman I dreamed about, all the way back when I saw the Pink Power Ranger and wanted to marry her lol.

    I don't know if the lack of success in the real world push's people to fantasy more or the expectations from fantasy makes it harder to function in the real world, I suppose its different for everyone.

    Ah, to respond to your previous answers true about artists only really being able to thrive for a short time in history without " sponsors", oh, the 90's made things seem a lot more golden for, just about everything.

    Best of luck with the revisions, I been trying to get a book of my own published at the moment as well, almost looked like things were going to work out with a book agent, then the Corona Virus hit so, not sure if things are just to difficult for him to get back to me or he died...its chaotic times alright.

    1. I am awful at replying to stuff. Hmm. What kind of book did you write?

  2. Nice article. Enjoyable, informative and thought-provoking.

    I believe that smell might have been the fatal factor in Ruskin's case. Any visual ‘imperfection' could be ignored or dealt with -pubic hair could be removed, for example. However, our brains are good at storing and recalling olfactory information. Sometimes, we catch the slightest scent of a perfume and emotions from decades ago come back to haunt us. The memory of an unpleasant odor can ruin an experience forever. And ladies were not quite big on hygiene back then. I am sure you are familiar with Jonathan Swift's poem "The Lady's Dressing Room"

    People did not bathe often. During plague and syphilis-ridden late medieval times, bathhouses were closed across Western Europe. One reason was the humoral theory of disease. Physicians believed that getting soaked in warm water could upset the temperature and ‘moistness' of bodily fluids and hence lead to disease. It took another disease, cholera; and another medical quackery, the miasma theory of disease, to bring bathing back.

    Cholera was a new disease and doctors quickly concluded that it must be caused by some recent change in lifestyle -the growth of European cities was their primary suspect. Miasma (stench) emanating from millions of unwashed bodies was believed to poison the air. In a crowded urban setting the stench was inescapable. So bathing was reintroduced, but caught on only slowly. According to a survey conducted in 1893, 75 percent of residences in major American cities had no bathrooms. There were few public baths -the first bathhouse in London was established in 1847, one year before Ruskin's marriage. Clothing of the period kept odors hidden under layers of cotton. But imagine Ruskin's shock when he first smelled his naked wife from across the room.

    And her breath too: No toothbrushes, no breath mints. No chewing gum -that was used in the Ottoman Empire as a breath refresher but was not patented in the West until late 1860s.

    Ruskin did display Otaku behaviour patterns. But if his wife's smell conditioned him to be repulsed by her sight as well, how could he but behave that way? How could he avoid escapism?

    1. Forgive the belated answer, but...I'm not so sure. Personal hygiene in nineteenth-century Europe wasn't up to twenty-first-century standards, but Effie would have definitely taken measures to smell her best on her wedding day. Even if her family wasn't especially wealthy, I'm sure no expense was spared in covering her with deodorizing powders and perfumes.

      Also: I don't believe it would have ever occurred to Effie to shave her pubic hair, and Ruskin would have been too genteel to ask.

      But who can say? You might be right. I know that the Victorian English weren't in the habit of bathing very often, but I can't seem to find any indication that upper-class brides at least made a point to give themselves a good scrubbing the night before approaching the altar.