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."

Courbet embraced this uncivilized persona, played along with his critics, and even cultivated outrage. Anything that causes a stir, after all, brings publicity. In 1855, when the Salon—the official art exhibition in France—accepted several of his paintings except one, "The Artist's Studio," Courbet put up an oppositional show called "The Pavilion of Realism." He repeated the gesture in 1867, when he showed about 140 works in a personal exhibition on the Place de l'Alma. In doing so, Mansfield says, "He created a rejection of his work that didn't really exist."

But Courbet also felt the sting of criticism. When the Salon refused to show his painting, "Venus and Psyche," on account of its "indecency," Courbet was left in the dark, frustrated and anxious. In 1864 he wrote in a letter, "It is impossible for me to continue to exhibit. It is a tricky business. These people want revenge at all cost... With all these troubles, I have internal hemorrhoids that are killing me. I am literally unable to work. I am into leeches, into baths, armed with a syringe, and I am up all night."

Edouard Manet felt similarly despondent after his painting, "Olympia," was shown at the French Salon in 1865. Reviewers said it "recalls the horror of the morgue," and that "the color of the flesh is dirty, the modeling non-existent." Others wrote, "I do not know whether the dictionary of French aesthetics holds expressions to characterize her...her face [is] stupid, her skin cadaverous," and the artist is "a brute who paints green women with dish brushes." Young or pregnant women were warned that they should "flee this spectacle."

But a couple years later, Manet put on his own anti-Salon show. The catalogue stated: "The first stage in an artist's career is a battle, which at least should be fought on equal terms, that is to say that the artist should be able to show the public what he has done." Otherwise, "he would be forced to make a pile of his canvases or roll them up in the attic... Monsieur Manet has never wished to protest. On the contrary, the protest, entirely unexpected on his part, has been directed against himself...By exhibiting, an artist finds friends and allies."

When defying critics in the showroom won't suffice, other artists have gone to court. American artist James Whistler sued John Ruskin, who reviewed his 1875 work "Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket," by condemning the painting, the artist, and the gallery. "The Grosvenor Gallery ought not to have admitted works into the gallery in which the ill-educated conceit of the artist so nearly approached the aspect of willful imposture," Ruskin wrote in the November 1878 Fors Clavigera newsletter. Whistler won his case, although wound up losing money on legal fees after he was awarded only a farthing.

Crumb's debacle is not a copy of what has come before, though he might draw from the past as a guide going forward. Cartoonist Pat Grant sounded pessimistic in a letter in to the Sunday Telegraph: "When will you News Ltd. scumsuckers learn that your dodgy, lazy, sensationalist journalism ruins people's lives?" But Crumb might not be worse for the wear as he remains safe at his home in the south of France, where he can look to the careers of his countrymen who used fiery words to fuel their artistic success.