R. Crumb and the Power of Bad Press

Does a negative review hamper artistic expression or encourage it?



The 67-year-old cartoonist R. Crumb, as he draws himself, has eyes that try to penetrate everything—be it the mind of a cat named Fritz, the soul of a mystic guru, or, in many cases, a woman's dress. For this, the cartoonist has been called both "the Brueghel of the last half of the 20th century," and "sick and deranged."

In a July interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, Crumb described himself as "a very eccentric, oddball character, weird pervert."

This self-assessment was not well received by one of Rupert Murdoch's Australian newspapers, the Sunday Telegraph, which ran an article the next day under the headline "Smutty Show a Comic Outrage." Anticipating Crumb's arrival for the Graphic festival at the Sydney Opera House, where he was scheduled to be a headliner, the paper reported that he "is renowned for extreme drug-fuelled drawings, depicting incest, rape, paedophilia and bestiality."

Crumb promptly backed out of the festival. He explained why he canceled his trip in The Age:

I was quite alarmed when I read the article in the Sunday Telegraph. I showed it to my wife, Aline, who said, "That's it, you're not going." She got a very bad feeling from the article. She feared I might be attacked physically by some angry, outraged person who simply saw red at the mention of child molesters. She remarked she'd never seen any article about me as nasty as this one. ... Aline and I went round and round about this thing: should I go or not? Ultimately, she could not shake her feeling of ominous dread. I knew that if I went, that she would be in a state of anxiety the whole time I was gone.

This was not the first time Crumb has faced harsh criticism for his work, his eccentricity, or his tendency toward the perverse. (Or perhaps he simply holds a different understanding of perversity, considering he once turned down a handsome job offer from Playboy because the magazine was too commercial.) In 1972, his two-page strip, "The Many Faces of R. Crumb," presented the various caricatures his critics had drawn for him: deriving sexual satisfaction from his own cartoons—"hard at work in [his] studio," Crumb wryly wrote—as well as a slob, a cultural spokesperson, and so forth. In the past, it seems he has effectively managed his public image as it tends to be conflated with his artwork. Now, though, Crumb appears genuinely distressed.

"He wants to control the context or the reception of his work. Which is basically, ultimately impossible," says Elizabeth Mansfield, an associate professor of Art History at New York University.

Artists have tried to hold the reins on their public identities for generations, but "finding an exact parallel is hard," says Mansfield. She couldn't think of any cases in which an artist pulled out of an upcoming exhibition after being pre-emptively eviscerated by the press. More often, a gallery will remove pieces that it deems inappropriate or governments will ban unfavorable works. In Australia, in fact, Crumb's cartoons cannot be shown without state approval.

Gustav Courbet, leader of the French Realist movement during the 19th century, might serve as an unlikely mirror to Crumb. Like the cartoonist, Courbet's personality was heavily mapped onto his art. He was viewed as a "rough country bumpkin," Mansfield explained: "Beer-drinking, a loutish fellow, uncouth." His art reflected that ruggedness, projecting Courbet as "a person who is responding instinctively to his bodily desires, who is applying paint in this almost aggressive, untutored way with his pallet knife rather than a brush."

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Betsy Morais is an editorial assistant at The New Yorker.

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