What Conservative Critics Don't Get About R. Crumb

The 67-year-old cartoonist should not have to feel endangered by right-wing tabloid smears

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Betsy Morais compares Robert Crumb's reputation and cancellation of an Australian visit to the scandals surrounding the art of Gustave Courbet and Edouard Manet in nineteenth-century France. But no matter how much those masters' works and lifestyles offended figures of art and society, they remained in a grand tradition of easel painting. The real comparison is with artists who were shocking in their own time and have retained the ability to shock into the 21st century. Robert Hughes summed up his real lineage ably in the Guardian in 2005:

Rather than fitting him into some notion of an avant-garde, it is better to see Crumb as a dedicated anti-modernist. At the end of The R Crumb Handbook is a list of the artists (fine and cartoon) who have influenced him. The fine artists include, for more or less obvious reasons, Bosch, Pieter Brueghel, Rubens (them Flaimish blondes with fahn big laigs), Hogarth and Goya; among the modern ones are Reginald Marsh, George Grosz and Otto Dix; but there are no living ones at all.

Crumb is the artist of the id, of the nasty primal forces in the self, of the sewer-dwelling Mr. Snoid lurking beneath the "good man" -- and his female counterpart. "Man is an abyss," the 19th-century German playwright Georg Büchner wrote, and the abyss stares back at us in much of Crumb's work.

Much less well known, though, is another side of Crumb's devout, troubled Roman Catholic upbringing, what could only be called a brutal reverence, which appeared in his illustrated edition of the Book of Genesis, the originals of which I saw at the Zwirner Gallery a year ago. Looking closely at the drawings I marveled not only at the draftsmanship but at the insight that went into it, a moving and totally adult restatement of the Bible's majesty, completely without satire, yet also a work of imagination rather than archaeological literalism.

It's sad that Robert Crumb should feel endangered by right-wing tabloid smears, especially because he's so much closer to Christian conservatives than to secular liberals in his recognition of original sin. And it's also stupid for journalists to attack Crumb, as controversy no less than continuing innovation has kept him from becoming another bygone figure of the 1960s and 1970s.

Image: Reuters

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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