This month: R. Crumb at the David Zwirner Gallery

R. Crumb’s “A Short History of America” (1979, revised 1992).

On February 21, the David Zwirner Gallery at 519 West 19th Street will open “Drawing for Print: Mind Fucks, Kultur Klashes, Pulp Fiction & Pulp Fact,” a major retrospective of the work of R. Crumb. “The exhibition will feature a wide array of printed matter culled from the artist’s archive: tear sheets of drawings and comics, taken directly from the publications where the works first appeared, as well as related ephemera,” reads the press release for the exhibition. “Further illuminating Crumb’s practice, the show will also feature a selection of rare sketchbooks and original drawings by the artist.” The exhibition will also feature digital touchscreen versions of many of Crumb’s sketchbooks, not to mention:

Also on view will be a group of historical works on paper by English and American satirists and illustrators including William Hogarth, James Gillray, Thomas Nast, and Art Young, offering a unique opportunity to understand Crumb within the great traditions of social critique that extend back to the eighteenth century. In addition, director Terry Zwigoff’s acclaimed 1994 documentary, Crumb, a film that explores the artist’s life, career, and family, will be screened continuously throughout the run of the show.

It’s a long overdue tribute to a graphic artist who came to be one of the great satirists of American culture of the 20th century. More information about the exhibition can be found here; it runs through April 13. Not long ago I managed to grab myself a giclée print of the work at the top of this post; I wrote briefly about it when I did. You’ll find that below.

[“You just want to throw up your hands,” the original title of this post] is an appropriate response, I suppose, to so many things these days. But the quote comes from R. Crumb, as he attempted to explain the reaction to his enthusiasm for early 20th-century popular music:

You play old records for most people, and, if they listen at all, after the record’s over they turn to you and say, “So what is it you like about that old music?” You just want to throw up your hands.

Crumb may be best known as a cartoonist, of course, a prophet without honor in the land of his birth. His “A Short History of America” lithograph above says a great deal in a mere nine panels. A few years ago, Josh Jones wrote in a short essay about the lithograph: “Crumb’s love for simpler times is more than the passion of an aficionado. It is the flip side of his satire, a genre that cannot flourish as a critique of the present without a corresponding vision of a golden age. For Crumb, that age is pre-WWII, pre-industrial, rural — a time … when ‘people could still express themselves.'” And “A Short History of America” also suggests that, like Mark Twain, Crumb is a moralist as well.

Crumb moved to France in 1991. That country has been somewhat more hospitable; in 2012, the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris offered the first full retrospective of Crumb’s 50-year-long career (the catalog for the show will finally be published in the US later this year). He’s also been the subject of a 2015 retrospective at the Museum Ludwig in Germany, as well as the notorious 1994 documentary by Terry Zwigoff, available from the Criterion Collection.

As a teenager I was a great enthusiast of not only Crumb’s comic work but also his excavations of early American popular music with his band the Cheap Suit Serenaders. Crumb continues to play old records for people, most recently for John Heneghan’s “John’s Old Time Radio Show,” a periodic podcast. Recently he’s been featuring early recorded world music from South America, Africa, and other regions. Go there and he’ll play them for you, too. And below, Crumb plays ukelele on “Coney Island Baby” with Eden Brower and John Heneghan’s East River String Band, recorded in France late last year. A new album by the same title is promised soon. [UPDATE: Read about that album here, released early this year.]

200 years of “The World as Will and Representation”

The first copies of Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation (Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung) started rolling off the presses in the winter of 1818/1819, when its author was only 30 years old. The book went largely unsold and unreviewed at the time, and indeed, the bicentenary of its publication has passed with very little comment as well. A quick Internet search on “Schopenhauer 200” turns up only “Arthur Schopenhauer and psychiatry 200 years after the publication of The World as Will and Representation (Idea),” an academic paper by Venezuelan researcher Trino Baptista. Apart from that, there’s been almost no recognition of the anniversary.

This response would most likely not have surprised Schopenhauer, but it remains curious. The book’s influence on philosophy, culture and art over the past few centuries has been phenomenal. As Baptista notes, Schopenhauer’s work inspired the major advances in the field of psychology that led to Freud and his followers (whatever you think of them, their impact on culture has been immeasurable), but more, he has been a major acknowledged influence on artists from Richard Wagner to Samuel Beckett, not to mention Friedrich Nietzsche, Thomas Mann, Thomas Hardy, Marcel Proust, Arnold Schoenberg, Thomas Bernhard, Ludwig Wittgenstein and a host of other figures who shaped the art and the thinking of the recently past twentieth century. (And, perhaps, the science too; Don Howard’s 1997 paper “A Peek Behind the Veil of Maya” considers the extent of Schopenhauer’s influence on the work and worldview of Albert Einstein.)

One clue to the lack of 21st-century attention to Schopenhauer lies in Bryan Magee’s The Tristan Chord: Wagner and Philosophy, published in 2000 and still one of the best introductions not only to Wagner but to Schopenhauer as well. In surveying German philosophy in the years after Kant, Magee pays specific attention to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Schopenhauer’s contemporary and rival and an early influence on Wagner’s operas up to Siegfried. Hegel’s thought has had as much influence on the politics of 19th- and 20th-century Europe as Schopenhauer’s has had on the arts, and it has had just as lasting — if more dire — consequences.

In opposition to Schopenhauer’s pessimistic metaphysics, one of Hegel’s primary contributions to philosophy was a revised conception of dialectics: that given any thesis, an antithesis would emerge, and in the conflict between the two a new synthesis is created, which is itself a new thesis. And so on and so on, human activity making its slow incremental way to a more ideal world. In other times, this may have only resulted in a pitched battle in the academy, safely ignorable. But the increasing industrialization of Europe led to the appearance of a group of Young Hegelians, who following Hegel’s death married his philosophy to materialism and a radical politics, eventually resulting in the Revolutions of 1848. That same year, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels enshrined the Young Hegelian worldview in The Communist Manifesto with the sentence “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” — a sentence which launched a thousand revolutions over the following century and a half.

Like the Revolutions of 1848, most of those revolutions failed as well. But the marriage of philosophical materialism and dialectics stuck as the metaphysics of the Schopenhauerian variety declined in popularity. What’s more, unlike Hegel and the Marxists, Schopenhauer dismissed any kind of political activity as a solution to the genuine issues and problems of human experience. Obviously this kind of perspective does not feed into either envy or optimistic political struggle: resignation in the face of the phenomenal world is not an inspiring slogan, even if Schopenhauer’s philosophy served to explain political conflict, among other things. But it does inspire the philosophic inquirer to turn inward, and to art, rather than outward and to politics and science for ultimate explanations and redemption.

I give here even shorter shrift to complex philosophical arguments than Magee can in his book and so apologize for this Cliff’s-Notes summary. Until I became a father myself ten years ago, I spent many satisfying hours reading and studying Schopenhauer, but “resignation in the face of the phenomenal world” is not a particularly effective parenting technique either and so The World as Will and Representation fell by the wayside. The recent anniversary of its publication, though, is tempting me to go back to it. We’re both ten years older, and that can only suggest that I would read it differently now. What’s more, Schopenhauer may still have relevance to the new century as well.

Richard Wagner, Schopenhauer’s acolyte, continues to attract considerable attention, of course; it may be that Wagner’s achievement grows more astonishing with each passing year. Only recently, the conservative British philosopher Roger Scruton has made a significant addition to the bookshelf devoted to the Ring (following his earlier study of Tristan und Isolde), and even the actor and Orson Welles biographer Simon Callow recently got into the act. But of the several books that point the way to potentially useful 21st-century perspectives on Wagner and Schopenhauer, two are particularly attractive. In Wagner and the Erotic Impulse (2010), Laurence Dreyfus examines the sensual, gendered qualities of both Wagner’s aesthetics and his compositional practice (in which homosexuality, transvestism and transgender issues always played an implicit part) in a potentially liberating new avenue for contemplation (eroticism was central to Schopenhauer’s philosophy as well). Sophia Vasalou’s 2013 Schopenhauer and the Aesthetic Standpoint suggests that the best way to read The World as Will and Representation is not merely as a philosophical treatise but also — and perhaps primarily — as a work of art akin to the Ring cycle and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. ” … [To] understand Schopenhauer’s philosophical standpoint fully, we need to refer it to the terms of his own aesthetic theory, and more specifically to the vertiginous experience of the sublime which formed a staple of Romantic aesthetic sensibility,” she writes. The logical inconsistencies of Schopenhauer’s philosophy are notoriously obvious if we approach it from an analytic point-of-view. But if, instead, we approached The World as Will and Representation as we might approach King Lear or Tristan und Isolde, which themselves lack logical consistency, we may be closer to Schopenhauer’s intent and his value, even for this century.