Customer Review

5.0 out of 5 stars 'Yeah, but is it art?' R. Crumb., 13 Dec. 2012
This review is from: The Coffee Table Art Book (Hardcover)
Robert Crumb is a fascinating artist. Working in a medium he refers to as 'these dumb drawings' and placing himself within 'the whole low brow entertainment aspect of culture', he is actually incredibly perceptive and articulate. He's also notorious for being disturbingly candid in terms of 'confessional' autobiographical content. If you've seen much of either his work itself or any of the various documentaries about him (e.g. Crumb), you'll know he comes from a pretty strange family, one in which he - oddball though he is - is the great success story. Whilst in many respects a very normal lower middle class family, something must've been out of whack: seeing his mother, and brothers Maxon and Charles in the Crumb biopic is, well... pretty sad.

Interestingly, re his 'confessional' style, the family were devout Catholics. Crumb often refers ro ditching religion, as well as the scarifying effects it had on him as a youth. Through his Mr Natural character Crumb shows that, despite his ostensible atheism, he still seems to have a ongoing albeit troubled relationship with God. One thing this book, or at least the edition of it I have, doesn't cover, is his amazing comic book style adaptation of Genesis. Like Woody Allen, who Crumb talks about on his website, who jokes about God creating him with a brain and genitals, but only enough blood to operate either one or the other not both together, Crumb effectively excuses the more shockingly explicit side of his work with what amounts to a theological argument: as nothing is hidden from God's sight, why then should we hide anything?

Also like many other great artists a form of compulsion seems to drive him. Whilst this possibly stems from partially sublimated sexual energies, a dynamo wound up during early years of adolescent awkwardness (his splendid My Troubles With Women strips will surely resonate with the experience of millions of men in many of their fundamentals, if not in every exact or particular detail), it became such a habitual and fundamental part of his persona he remained that way. Also, again like many accomplished artists, he channels and consolidates many diverse sources - 'the convergence of a whole lot of things', is how he puts it (altho' that quote is actually in reference to something else) - and comes out with his own synthesis.

Another major factor, perhaps in part just a 'happy' accident of time and place, is the psychedelic connection: he was already developing into a major talent (art critic Robert Hughes has described him as the Breughel of our times), but psychedelics bust him wide open, unleashing a more free-associative creativity, in what Crumb refers to as an ego-loss episode. Fascinating, and perhaps especially resonant to readers who share some similar experiences, but also disturbing and cautionary: 'I think I'm some sort of an "idiot" because of LSD', he confesses in a strip on p. 32, taken from Zap Comix #13.

This is a great book for dipping into, good for introducing people new to Crumb with, and a nicely put together combination of (auto) biography and portfolio-cum-compendium. From 'shack to chateaux' Crumb quips. Starting with strips drawn as kids with brother Charles, this excellent book goes all the way through to sketches and paintings made in the mid-to-late 1990s, when this book (or at least my 1997 edition) went to press. There's the famous stuff, like Mr Natural, Fritz the Cat, Keep On Truckin', etc., as well as a few reproductions of art by early influences, plenty of otherwise unpublished material, and a cornucopia of delights ranging from his large body of autobiographical material, plus all sorts of other oddments. And sprinkled liberally throughout the book are full-page chunks of hand-written text, written by Crumb himself, telling his life story.

His candour is such, especially when coupled with his mixture of self-doubt/loathing, and his highly libidinous nature, that he covers all kinds of areas guaranteed to give offence to some, be it on religious, socio-political, racial or sexual grounds. He's certainly been accused of racism, sexism, and so on. As with another reviewer here, since this is addressed ad nauseum elsewhere, I'll leave it there, only pausing to note that, personally, I think that's horse-manure. He's just more honest than most ('Yer ALL a**holes!' he says, via his Mr Snoid character, in 'All A**hole Comics').

On the front cover he mocks the very idea of this book, whilst on the back a self-portrait asks 'Yeah, but is it art?'. Well, I think it is. Anyway, whatever it is, I love it. This book is a great way to get a diverse and wide-ranging overview of a very singular talent.
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 6 Sep 2013 11:50:17 BDT
Do satirical reflections on God's non-existence count as a relationship with God? I would prefer to say a relationship with believers. Once they die out (some hope) we atheists will have to engage with other mysteries

In reply to an earlier post on 5 Feb 2014 21:56:34 GMT
Last edited by the author on 5 Feb 2014 21:57:25 GMT
Hi Simon.

When it comes to religions and the supernatural, etc., I'm what many believers would call a non-believer (or even an apostate*, as I was brought up in a fervently religious household) who may share the view of the likes of A.C. Grayling and Sam Harris in thinking that the average fairies at the bottom of the common or garden forms of religion (in my experience that'd be all of 'em) do, as you allude to, tend to obscure any of life's real mysteries.

However, from my limited degree of familiarity with Crumb, and particularly in light of some of the open-ended things he's said in on-screen interviews, through his own comics and art, and even on his website, I'd hesitate to say anything so clear-cut on his behalf. So, without meaning to appear to critical of your position (one I probably largely share anyway), I think to call Crumb's 'religious' stuff (and I include Mr Natural in that) 'satirical reflections on God's non-existence' (whilst it might well be how I relate to his work) is too narrow and constraining an interpretation of it.

And also, I guess I do think it's possible to have a relationship with something that isn't physically real. And going beyond that, any particular god, or other imp or daemon, may have no physical reality whatsoever, but any that have been believed in have enjoyed a certain form of reality (psychical?), even if only in the mind of believers. None of this detracts from your equally valid observation that this (Crumb's 'religious' stuff, that is) may simply be more to do with human's and their beliefs than any supposed supernatural nonsense.

But, to kind of re-iterate something I already said above, amongst the many aspects of Crumb's work that I enjoy, it's non-dogmatic open-ended nature would be one I treasure highly. So I conclude by repeating that, whilst I don't believe in Odin, Vishnu, God or who/whatever, I really don't know exactly where Crumb stands.

Cheers

Seb

* perhaps even an infidel, an heretic, or a mephitic exhalation of Beelzebub's nether parts...

In reply to an earlier post on 12 Feb 2014 11:12:35 GMT
Mr Natural! My hero, along with flawed superhero Wonder Warthog, whose existential dilemmas, if you don't already know them, I suggest you look into. Like Crumb, Gilbert Shelton lives in Paris, I believe
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