At a time when a museum like the Guggenheim is reduced--as of this writing literally--to emptying the paintings from its walls to make "room" for a new exhibit of essentially next to nothing...a couple lying on the floor simulating a kiss and a few actors hired to ask long-suffering museum "viewers" annoyingly trite questions, such as "what is progress?" one begins to wonder what art historians of the future will think of late 20th century/early 21st century "art." What will become emblematic of our times when our times are long over? What will remain? Will nothing remain? I mean, you have to have something to see, right?
"Rebel Visions" makes a strong case without so much as raising the issue that what might very well be considered the most important art of our age was that being produced in the underground comix movement of the late 60s/early 70s, and which still continues in various incarnations today. As fine art moved from distortion to abstraction to minimalism to conceptualism to what some might argue is little more than flim-flam chicanery cloaked in elitist pseudointellectual gobbledygook, the disdained creators of such work as filled the pages of Zap! and Young Lust and Raw, to mention just a few, might in the meantime actually have been producing the "real" fine art of our time.
As the so-called "real" artists turned their back and raised their noses at mere "illustration," as they disdained the world of things in their canvases, and eventually disdained even the canvases themselves, as they "thought" up concepts instead of making images, and as they jockeyed for notoriety and government grants and invitations at all the swell parties, guys like R. Crumb, Robert Williams, S. Clay Wilson, Rick Griffin, and Art Spiegelman were drawing--yes, actually drawing--and the stuff they were drawing directly reflected and directly influenced the culture of late 20th century America.
This shouldn't be all that surprising insofar as comic book elements made their way into the paintings of Warhol, Lichtenstein, and a whole bunch of other established fine art types. And before that you've got George Grosz and Max Beckmann. Take a look at their works and tell me you cant see them as akin to comic book panels. While the Julian Schnabels of the world party, the folks in the underground comix movement were actually doing the grunt work, walking the walk, and usually doing it without much appreciation and even less financial reward.
Ach! Listen to me blabbering on about art history like EH Gombrich! I know nothing about it--what I know about art history couldn't fill an Idiot's Guide. What I do know is that I like blobs of paint thrown all over canvases as much as anyone; I swoon over string, nails, crushed cigarettes, dirt, poop, yesterday's lunch, and whatever else spray-painted over and glued onto billboards of plywood just as much as any art critic at the New York Times. I'll even nod appreciatively and chuckle knowingly along with the rest of the cognescenti when some downtown goofball paints a box of toothpicks white, sticks them in his nipples, and photographs them in the pitch-dark with a pinhole camera.
In other words, I'm no phillistine!
And I like minimalism...I love minimalism...as an anorectic, I am minimalism incarnate!
But when it reaches the point when a museum empties itself out and asks people to pay admission to look at its bare walls I start to think I'm being taken for a fool.
Listen, when "fine art" gets to the point that youre literally looking at nothing then the eye starts looking for stimulation. A superhero, a talking aardvark, one of those jittery Crumb characters...anything! When it's been so long since we saw anyone actually take a pencil and put marks on a page that resemble something we recognize that we begin to suspect that no one remembers how to do it, when art no longer seems to be making any attempt whatsoever to reflect and comment about our lives and the world we live in, when you need a card full of philosophical rigmarole written by some tenured academic to explain the blank space on the museum wall as a work of art and not, as you originally suspected, the spot left behind when a painting was removed for cleaning- then you begin to think that maybe when the fork in the art road was reached between representation and abstraction, we took the wrong road...or maybe just went too far down the right road.
No matter. Just the fact that that the US government tried to shut down the publications featuring these mere schlockmeisters, these adolescent smut peddlers, these underground comic "artists" should tell you something.
Aside from all that, "Rebel Visions" is just a lot of fun to read. And it's inspiring too. It makes one envious of the exciting times, the camarederie, and the commitment to engaged art that these guys had--and that is so lacking in today's art world. It shows you just how much people will do, the lengths they will go to do it, the sacrifices they'll make and for no discernible reward...if they love what they're doing.
These guys were, and in many cases, still are, true artists of the first rank. And I wouldn't be at all surprised if in a hundred years from now they will be regarded among the foremost of our time.