Unreal Nature

November 16, 2015

Some Undefined Apocalyptic Dream

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:48 am

… he believes that his is the one true and authentic hat, and he wears it not with a dandy’s flair but with a Mennonite’s stubborn faith.

Continuing through High & Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture by Kirk Varnedoe and Adam Gopnik (1990):


… There was a moment in the late sixties when Crumb’s imagery was so omnipresent that, for many, it still remains difficult to separate his art from his moment: a generation found its bliss listening to the Grateful Dead’s Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty while reading Crumb “comix.” Crumb’s signature imagery belongs not to the high happy point of San Francisco culture but to a moment just after that, to 1968 and 1969, to the retrenchment of rock music in its country “roots,” and the glum recognition by the counterculture of its future in urban squalor and rural drudgery.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] Crumb anatomized the counterculture at a moment when it had come to recognize itself as fundamentally un-serious, or at least essentially impotent, torn between a nostalgia for American rural and ethnic styles, particularly the Delta and Chicago blues, and some undefined apocalyptic dream of social revolution.


… Like all puritans in art, he is a relentless tastemaker, and many of his comic strips are simply moralizing lists of what is decent and what is fake in American pop culture. He is convinced that all matters of taste are matters of principle. The comedy of his work derives from its monomaniacal dependence on a wistful, secondhand, already defunct comic strip style to express this fervent impulse to truth.

… The element of conscious protest in Crumb’s comics is addressed less to the social system, which is always imagined as unavoidably malignant (its opponents are imagined as insanely naïve), than at the previous style of comics. Crumb’s style is clearly a protest against the florid banalities of the superhero comic book. The same set of clichés that Lichtenstein had celebrated as a whole folk style only a few years before were now seen as just a part of a larger culture of lies.

… What is distinctive in Crumb is that the grotesque style is treated so matter-of-factly. Crumb shows us a world that looks as if it had been made in the imagination of Basil Wolverton, yet presents it as a simple, stubborn, inarguable truth. Crumb identifies not with the urbane and self-consciously stylish caricature tradition but with older traditions of peasant art, in which archaic folk form and close observation are inextricably mixed.


Crumb transformed comic style into a slow, dragging net in which all the navel lint and dust of the world is caught and scrutinized. Insistently banal, his art protests all the enforced cheerfulness of American official style. He despises the cleaned-up, perfect surface that is the beau ideal of all American popular culture. And yet he has a deep and touching faith in the truthfulness of the low, grotesque style that evolved in the margins of that culture.

Crumb, as much as any appropriation artist, uses a style as borrowed and secondhand as an old hat; yet he believes that his is the one true and authentic hat, and he wears it not with a dandy’s flair but with a Mennonite’s stubborn faith. It is the improbable passion and fervor that Crumb brings to his archaic style that gives his work both its intense conviction and (as he knows very well himself) its monomaniacal absurdity.

[line break added] As passionately as Blake convincing himself that the cheap neoclassical prints on which his imagination fed could picture eternal cosmic forces, Crumb regards the carnival of comic-book grotesques that he saw in his moment of vision in 1966 as a permanent legation of the American collective unconscious.

My most recent previous post from this book is here.




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