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

crumb reuters-body3.jpg

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

Presented by

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.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Entertainment

From This Author

Just In