An interesting story out of the University of Richmond this week, where some students are protesting the school’s sponsorship of illustrator R. Crumb’s recent appearance. Crumb’s work is currently included in an exhibit in a University museum, and was also required reading (and viewing) as part of one professor’s syllabus for the class “American Misfit: Geek Literature and Culture.”
For those who aren’t familiar with the controversy over Crumb’s work (and I admit, it’s not something I have followed at all) his comics have often used overly sexualized and violent imagery of women and racist depictions of black people (take characters like “Angelfood McSpade” and illustrations like this of sexual fantasies). In terms of the specific complaints of U of Richmond students:
Timothy Patterson, a Richmond College senior, launched a campus-wide debate when he discussed Crumb’s appearance in a posting on The Collegian’s Web site. Although he did not attend the conversation, Patterson felt compelled to speak out, he said.
In his posting, Patterson quoted Crumb’s speech: “Every woman has a rape fantasy. Every man deep down … hates women.”
The issue does not concern the first amendment, Patterson said.
“No one is saying that Crumb doesn’t have a right to draw what he draws,” Patterson said. “The issue is whether it is appropriate for our university to endorse him.”
Patterson started a Facebook group, “Protest Crumb at UR,” which had 86 members as of Nov 4. He also opened a Google account, email@example.com, for students to send their grievances, he said.
This year, Bertram Ashe, an associate professor of English and American studies, assigned “My Troubles with Women,” a documentary, “Crumb,” and Crumb’s appearance at the Carpenter Theatre to his American Misfit: Geek Literature and Culture class.
Patterson’s posting questioned Ashe’s academic freedom to assign this material to his class.
“[“My Troubles with Women”] features a number of appalling depictions, such as the raping of a little girl, forced oral sex with a woman chained to a desk, and a picture of Crumb sitting on top of a pile of drugged, raped women dressed as a king,” Patterson wrote in his posting.
This question of what a university should or shouldn’t endorse comes up again and again, but it gets complicated when you’re talking about coursework that’s supposed to have educational value and not about entertainment—meaning I think it’s easy to argue that a school shouldn’t be paying to have someone like Tucker Max show his film, and harder to argue that they shouldn’t teach works of literature that are, objectively, racist (or sexist, etc). I often think of Chinua Achebe’s famous criticism of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, in which Achebe says: “And the question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is: No, it cannot.”
I struggled with that as a freshman in college when we read both the novel and the critical essay in a first-year seminar. My immediate reaction was negative: as a literature major who primarily studied American and European texts from the 18th and 19th centuries—the vast majority of which were written by folks with views on race and gender that I find offensive at best and abhorrent at worst—how could I determine what was or wasn’t “art” on that basis?
But over time I left the question of what is “art” aside (because dear God I hate that question no matter what context it is being discussed in) and began to think of it more in terms of how do we teach texts that are based in racist and sexist traditions? This is the key question for me, and I think that it’s one my professor answered well by assigning both Conrad’s novel and Achebe’s essay. I absolutely believe that you can discuss a work of “art” based on its artistic merits and historical relevance, while simultaneously discussing its unfortunate contribution to histories of oppression. Honestly—and I’ve taken a good deal of flak for this—I also believe that to be a responsible educator you insist on doing both. By no means do you cut Freud from the syllabus, but yeah you also discuss how his work was pretty damaging to women. Achebe also said of Heart of Darkness: “Those who want to go on enjoying the presentation of some people in this way — they are welcome to go ahead. The book is there. … I simply said, ‘Read it this way,’ and that’s all I have done.”
[Professor] Ashe thought Crumb’s work, the documentary and his appearance in Richmond fit well into the semester-long discussion of geeks and nerds in his class.
It is easy to laugh at, make fun of or feel sorry for the geek, Ashe said, but it’s hard to laugh at a brutal satirist such as Crumb.
It is also easy to discuss things that are bland or inoffensive, he said. But something of the nature of Crumb’s work forces people out of their comfort zone and encourages them to expand their horizons, he said.
Ashe responded to Patterson’s posting Nov. 1 and wrote that if Patterson had made an attempt to contact him, he would have told Patterson that he was also offended by some of Crumb’s work.
“I would have showed him where and how Crumb grapples with feminist critiques of his work right there inside his work,” Ashe wrote.
Ashe’s response mentioned that Miles Davis and Pablo Picasso were abusive to women, but that does not stop them from appearing on syllabi.
First of all, bad comparisons, professor. Miles Davis may have abused women in his personal life, but when his music is presented to a music class, the students aren’t listening to content that describes abuse—it’s rather different from presenting your class images of abused women. Second, so if Ashe had been contacted by the protesting student he would have explained that he was offended by some of Crumb’s work—but did he have that conversation with the actual class studying the work? Did the class only focus on how Crumb’s attitude and violent imagery challenges the predominant views of “geeks” as weak? If so…well if so, that sounds like a really lame class, but more importantly that’s my idea of an irresponsible professor. You want to say, “look this guy is presenting a geek character who is aggressive and who effectively reclaims a place of power in the social hierarchy by shitting on those who happen to fall even below him,” that’s fine. But it should be followed with “is that OK? What is the cost [in this case to women and people of color] and is it worth it? Are its positive contributions overshadowed by the negative ones? If it’s satire, is it successful or just bigoted?” Personally, I would imagine feeling incredibly uncomfortable in that class were those latter questions not asked.
***[As an aside, Crumb has made a number of defenses of his work that I don't find particularlly compelling but I encourage people to look into and decide for themselves. But I don't really want to argue here about what satire is or isn't.]