I keep thinking about this Reason magazine article which argues that Robert Crumb is in danger of being "canceled" by PC culture run amok or whatever the so-called "woke" kids are doing these days.
In the article, Fantagraphics publisher Gary Groth — who prints a lot of Crumb's material — expresses his disapproval of a comics function in which a number of cartoonists booed Crumb. (Crumb was not in attendance at the event.) And then someone else makes a judgment against Crumb by citing some panels of a Crumb strip featuring a caricature of Crumb sexually violating a drunken young woman. Those are pretty much the only examples of cancel culture in the story.
And, okay. I mean. I guess?
Robert Crumb was and is a significant figure in the history of comics. He's one of the most gifted cartoonists in history. He made a lot of interesting work. His stories with Harvey Pekar were some of the best collaborative comics in history. And he also made a lot of dumb, derivative, pseudo-shocking work that hasn't aged well.
It's okay to like Robert Crumb. I own several of his books. You can own all of them. You can wear t-shirts of his drawings. You're allowed to give his books as gifts. You can donate them to libraries. You can put displays of them up at bookstores. You can do whatever you want with them! Nobody is punishing you for any of that.
But it's also okay to not like Crumb's work. You can say that his treatment of race was far too facile, and that the treatment of women in his work is abhorrent. You can choose to not own any Robert Crumb books. You can make speeches about how much you dislike Robert Crumb.
If you're a big Crumb fan and you're talking about Crumb in public, someone might want to talk to you about Crumb's racial or sexual politics. That's their right. But you can tell them to fuck off. That's your right. Nobody is being canceled! Just because you like something doesn't mean someone else has to like it, too!
Honestly, I think the true friction behind this Crumb story is the anxiety of one generation replacing another. The generation that venerated Crumb is horrified that younger generations don't also venerate Crumb. Surely the kids simply don't have the proper context or a deep understanding of his milieu? Groth says as much in the Reason story, claiming that "I'm pretty sure the vast majority of people booing Crumb are not familiar with his work."
Thing is, older generations don't get to dictate which artists enjoy a place of prominence with younger generations, or why. Those of us who are alive right now have very little say as to which artists will survive in the cultural memory for the next hundred years. And very often, the artists who dominate the conversation among their contemporaries are diminished by the passing of the decades.
Whenever I read a piece now about cancel culture, I remind myself to look at the consequences. What rights are being stripped from the artist? What are the motivations of everyone quoted in the piece? What are the real-world ramifications of the actions described in the story?
More often than not, the ramifications involve the artist having to face down criticism, or finding their place in history being contested by younger people. And I find it very hard to care if that's the case. Because honestly — people booing your work? Younger generations arguing that your work isn't as valuable as it was once perceived to be? That's not cancel culture, buddy; it's just art.