R. Crumb Speaks

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The Art World
HUGHES: You're one of the few people I've ever met who hates the contemporary art system even more than I do.

CRUMB: It's the kiss of death.

HUGHES: I thought that nobody hated Warhol and what he stood for more than me but you do.

CRUMB: It's just kind of annoying when a Marilyn Monroe silkscreen print goes for $100,000 when a drawing I worked really hard on [inaudible] I saw a small Breughel painting for sale for less than an Andy Warhol silkscreen print.

HUGHES: That doesn't surprise me at all. If you consider the relative merits of a $5000 Goya Capriccio and on the other hand a $500,000 work by the "immortal" Jeffrey Koons, you become aware that there's been some really, serious, mass-hysterical degeneration of taste. But let's go to what really influenced you in "museum culture." You do note a number of museum artists as being primarily influences...

CRUMB: Not primary, no. All the primary influences for me go back to those childhood comicbooks and TV shows and old movies that I saw on television. Everything basically comes from that.

An iconic 60s sequence from Crumb's first issue of "Zap"

The 60s
HUGHES: If there was some side of your imagery in the 1960s that you wished you had stretched more than you did, what would it be?

CRUMB: Good drawing probably. It was sloppy. I was taking too many drugs.

HUGHES: Did you at any time share that view that was so prevalent at Haight Ashbury and other "great centers of world learning" that dropping 250 mics was going to somehow or other induct you into a better world, which if everybody else dropped along with you would then turn out to be kind of utopia?

CRUMB: Yes I did believe that, I'm embarrassed to say. I remember preaching that to people.

HUGHES: It was a kind of self-congratulation in a way.

CRUMB: Well, no because all the hippies that took LSD felt that, in the beginning with some actual validity, that they had perceived a lot of things that were wrong with the direction that industrial civilizations was going. And this was all suddenly revealed very clearly. It got fogged over a bit with all the other crazy stuff that was going on but in the beginning when you took LSD you saw that there was something all wrong with this whole set-up here. "We've got to get back to the land. We gotta get back to nature. We gotta get rid of all this polluting chemical nonsense. We've got to stop this. It's unhealthy for the planet." It all became viscerally clear. It all became suddenly life threatening. All these cars coming at you.

HUGHES: Well it was life threatening

CRUMB: But in a normal state you just kind of adapt to it. But [on LSD] it all just seemed totally insane.

HUGHES: What interests me is the way in which this impacted your art. Because in point of fact, 60's discontent, 60s worries, 60s despair — that left its mark in writing and in music, but it didn't leave much trace in the visual arts. I'm wondering why this should be so. While you're not the only person to have approached this, you are probably the best known. Your work is one of the most powerful testimonies to it.

CRUMB: Well a number of my colleagues turned out similar stuff. I'm not sure why the museums and galleries are fixated on me.

HUGHES: Does it piss you off when people treat you as a representative figure of the 1960s?

CRUMB: Nah, I guess I got used to it. It was just kind of ironic because at the time I felt outside of all that. But in a way I was typical 60s guy. I took LSD. I said, "Oh wow! Groovy! Man!"

HUGHES: But there are certain artists who we don't talk about as 60s artists. We don't say, "Oh, Giorgio Morandi [(1890-1964)], the 60s artist"


HUGHES: He was this Italian who painted still lives, bottles, arranged on a table... One of the really great artists of the 20th century. Anyway, my point is that, let's say you are talking about Francisco Goya. We don't talk about Goya being an artist of [just] the 1780s or an artist of the 90s when he was doing the "Capriccios."

CRUMB: I understand what you're saying. You get stuck with this label. That's annoying as hell. What about everything I've done since then?

HUGHES: One of the great things in my opinion about cultural memory is that, if properly understood, it belies all that bullshit about avant-gardeism. Because everything is simultaneously present.

CRUMB: I agree with you completely. And the thing about comics is that comics are part of a definite, specific lineage and no cartoonist has considered himself a complete, groundbreaking innovator. You're proud of the fact that you picked up from this guy and that guy before...

Artistic Motivations
HUGHES: I wanted to ask about work ethic. You're very, very American in a lot of ways, not least in your commitment to continuous, relentless production.

CRUMB: That's not so true any more as it used to be. It's tapered off a lot more now that I am slightly more well adjusted.

HUGHES: Are you happy?

CRUMB: I'm a little bit happier. Yes. I don't feel as driven. When I was younger I just lived my life on paper. I didn't really live in the real world very much. As a consequence I couldn't cope with the real world and real people very well. That in itself became life threatening so I had to stop drawing so much and learn how to cope with people. Otherwise it would have killed me.

HUGHES: Let's suppose you hadn't had that immense outlet for dreams and resentment...

CRUMB: Oh boy. I'd be drawing those big butts on some prison wall. Or in some lunatic asylum someplace. Or I'd be dead. I could easily have killed myself. I was so depressed. But now I'm better. Fame helped. Getting recognition helped.

HUGHES: Truer words were never spoken.

CRUMB: It can also be hell on earth. But suddenly being an object of fascination for attractive women because of being famous was nice.

HUGHES: It's what the great Dr. Sigmund (I think) said, that great artists are compelled by three principal motives: fame, money and the acquisition of beautiful lovers.

CRUMB: Acquisition of beautiful lovers I would put at the top myself. I could do without the fame and even the money I don't really give a shit about. But I couldn't live without the beautiful lovers.

HUGHES: I've found that the artists who say they could do without the fame and without the money are fairly famous and doing quite well.

CRUMB: I'm sure that's true. But the trick is you can't get the beautiful lovers unless you get the fame if you're a guy like me. I just didn't have what it takes. I was a wimpy, nerdy nothing.

HUGHES: I don't know about this Crumb. Your strips and your pages are full of horrendous looking, nerdy nothings with large overbites whose general apparent unattractiveness is nevertheless compensated for every few frames by the exhibition of this gigantic schlong.

CRUMB: It's all fantasy. And it was really fun to draw.

A page from Crumb's sketchbook, as it appears in "The R. Crumb Handbook"

The R. Crumb Genesis Project
HUGHES: I want to talk about Robert Crumb's Genesis. It's something that every ex-Catholic boy might entertain nightmares about doing.

CRUMB: [jokingly]I've gotta get it off my chest.

HUGHES: What's it doing on your chest?

CRUMB: I was fooling around with Adam and Eve one day. Doodling about Adam and Eve. At first I did this satirical take off on Adam and Eve — lots of jokey asides and Jewish slang because they're Jewish right? God is Jewish.

HUGHES: Now you're going to get it for anti-Semitism.

CRUMB: Finally I got over fooling around and I realized I just had to tell it straight.

HUGHES: Is God going to look like Mr. Natural?

CRUMB: Nah. He has a white beard but he actually ended up looking more like my father. He has a very masculine face like my father. My problem was, how am I going to draw God? Should I just draw him as a light in the sky that has dialogue balloons coming out from it? Then I had this dream. God came to me in this dream, only for a split second, but I saw very clearly what he looked like. And I thought, ok, there it is, I've got God.

HUGHES: And what did she look like?

CRUMB: I went through that whole thing too; maybe I'll draw God as a black woman. But if you actually read the Old Testament he's just an old, cranky Jewish patriarch. It's a lot of fun doing Genesis, actually. It's very visual. It's lurid. Full of all kinds of crazy, weird things that will really surprise people.

When to Quit
AUDIENCE: Do you ever feel like maybe the fame isn't worth it?

CRUMB: All the time. But then my ego starts to push me forward. It just happened recently. I was in London doing this thing and these paparazzi were taking pictures of me and it was so horrible. I was so angry I just wanted to smash their cameras in their faces. Later that night I just thought, "I'm going to quit drawing. It's just not worth it." Life is a trap.

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