As a person who loves me some Jane Austen BBC miniseries, hot mug of tea, cozy sweater action, I am not usually one to put a lot of stock in this whole "generation gap" theory. Obviously, certain age groups have cultural habits and preferences that are often inscrutable and irritating to older ones, especially to those of the rocking chair/shaking cane in angst variety. But I've sometimes felt that, in essence, younger generations just come up with new ways of doing the same old thing, which antagonizes their parents until a new generation comes along to innovate and swing it back around. Ironic. And here we thought Gen X came up with that one. For instance, my love of Jane Austen is up on my MySpace page (alongside the pics of that time my friends and I got, like, HELLA trashed over Spring Break, OMG LOL,) and I listen to Motown on my iPod.
But sometimes when it comes to cultural relevance, I wonder if young and old might truly be at an impasse. This was brought to my attention as I took in R. Crumb's Underground, the Crumb retrospective currently up at Yerba Buena Galleries. I love comics, and I love underground comix -- though nowadays they're known as indie or alternative comics. I love many of the artists that followed in the footsteps of Crumb, and even some who were his contemporaries. But I just can't bring myself to love R. Crumb. Actually, I can't even bring myself to not hate his art. A lot.
On a visceral level, the racism and misogyny in Crumb's work makes me a little nauseous. The ever-topless African temptress Angelfood McSpade cavorts around jungles wearing grass skirts and bones for jewelry. The only time she's not looming through the panels like some sexual demon is when she's horizontal for a sniveling white man, shamed by his desire for her primitive blackness. Black characters speak mostly in broken, poorly-spelled slang (with the notable exception of Crumb's loving biographies of Blues musicians).
Crumb's women are hyper-sexualized menaces who freak him out so much he has to debase and lampoon the very things he covets -- colossal breasts protrude like weapons from skin-tight shirts, and Crumb humps and rides his tree-trunk-legged objects of desire in guilt-ridden glee. Giant penises walk, talk, and fight over diving into gaping wet holes, and a duo of fuzzy bear buddies start pimping out their shared girlfriend for cash as they relax in style.
In one page from the 1970s, Crumb narrates a kind of comics open letter to the numerous "Feminist women" who have taken issue with his work. Of course this opens with the classic cop out of claiming to have no problem with women's rights or strong women. ("Many of my best friends are women/minorities/homosexuals/etc.!") By the end of it, I couldn't believe how his response never actually addressed the issue at hand beyond alarmist free speech fear-mongering. In an endless circle of "this is my right to speak," no one bothers to take responsibility for what is actually being said. Crumb's angry and resentful depiction of women and their sexuality was enough to make me uncomfortably aware of my skirt and heels in a gallery full of middle-aged men.
Crumb's extreme, over the top deviance is obviously cathartic for his inner demons, and in a point he makes himself, depicting an act in art is not the same as condoning it. But these crazed fantasies lack control. There are no wires gleaming in the stage light to reinforce that the venom is on the level of farce or exaggeration, no self-conscious check of instinct that can be found in even the raunchiest work from modern artists. To me, this reads as a lack of artistry and cripples the potential of Crumb's anti-establishment message. His voice remains equivalent to grafitti on a bathroom wall.
I think my 21st-century mind is part of why I can't appreciate Crumb's comics as much beyond a bratty "F you" to authority figures. His work seems to mostly be about funneling as much of his own personal angst into messed up characters and situations as he possibly can. That kind of insolence probably felt pretty liberating to 1970s readers starting out their own counter culture rebellions. But in a world that has moved past those cultural fights, it just falls flat. Crumb stops short of ever offering a nuanced examination of his time's taboos or why they existed. This myopia keeps Crumb from attaining the status that keeps me listening to John Lennon or reading George Orwell. Knee-jerk, impulsive reactions are indulgent fun, but they're too shallow to ever become timeless.
Of course, being underwhelmed in 2007 can be taken as a testament to just how far our culture has advanced since Crumb's day, and certainly his prolific artistry had a lot to do with that. His brazeness did open the doors for artists like Daniel Clowes to use comics to explore, not just raise, all those touchy social no-no's, and bring comics more fully into the realm of literature.
All that said, the curating of R. Crumb's Underground was phenomenal, which is no surprise in the always thought-provoking Yerba Buena galleries. The work displayed was intimate and comprehensive, full of meaning but without steering the viewer into any one direction. Fans of R. Crumb should love this revealing look into the artist's mind, and the show provides a great time capsule into the cage-rattling spirit of 1970s San Francisco.
R. Crumb's Underground runs through July 8, 2007 at Yerba Buena Galleries in San Francisco.