Robert Crumb being interviewed by RAW publisher Francoise Mouly was the heavyweight comic book event of the year. Held last week at with a $40 ticket price at at the Carpenter theatre in Richmond, Virginia, in association with the local University who made it a compulsory lecture for senior theses for studio art majors and it was sponsored by the Modlin Centre for Arts who are running a Crumb exhibition. Ben Towle wrote a great report, and naturally, Bleeding Cool, in its ongoing attempt to fan the fires of enmity, is going to quote just the one paragraph.
Next on the screen was Crumb’s two-pager, “Don’t Touch Me” (from Snatch #3) which depicts an apparent rape, followed by the “punch line” in the last panel: “I never get to come!” In a rare bit of almost-regret (maybe? almost?), Crumb recalled showing this strip to a woman he knew and being genuinely surprised by her horrified reaction. Mouly wondered though if it wasn’t his intention to shock. “I intend to shock–but I don’t want them to run away in horror!” he replied. The discomfort in the room became almost palpable when he glibly remarked about “all women having rape fantasies, right?” and mentioned that “even Freud said all women were masochistic.” Then, after a moment, “Let’s move on…”
Well, that isn’t happening. There have been letters.
Student Timothy Patterson kicked it off, writing to the Collegian, the University of Richmond’s student newspaper;
…After a meeting with Dean Boehman on this issue, I was told that professor Suzanne Jones, the chairwoman of the English department, considered Ashe’s decision to a) include the rape scenes on his syllabus and b) make Crumb’s speech mandatory, to be a legitimate invocation of academic freedom. This, of course, begs the question – what are the bounds of academic freedom? Is it really permissible for any professor to include anything he or she desires in any class? In almost every other instance of intolerance on this campus, the university community has answered with an emphatic no.
As a man of Richmond College, I know that we go to great lengths to prevent violence against women and create a culture where demeaning attitudes and harassment are not acceptable. The Student Conduct Code defines harassment as the “creation of a hostile or intimidating environment … that is likely to affect adversely an individual’s living conditions on campus.” Included in this definition is making “offensive jokes or unwelcome innuendos.” This leads me to believe that if I drew pictures of rape or proclaimed that women have “rape fantasies,” and posted this around campus, I would be in violation of the University’s Conduct Code and (rightly) subject to sanctions. I fail to see how university officials’ decision to invite Crumb, force students to view his drawings of rape and make attendance at his speech mandatory is any different, except that they did it under the guise of academic freedom…
He calls for a public apology and a removal of the display of Crumb artwork from the Modlin Center.
A few days later this letter was backed by another student, Juliette Jeanfreau, who wrote;
One female student came back distraught, repeating that R. Crumb had referred to every woman’s “rape fantasy” to describe the content of one of his comics, and that the presentation in general was extremely offensive….
…Two years ago, attempts to label a black doll found hanging from a noose in Modlin as artistic expression were vehemently rejected by both the Modlin community and the university as a whole, and I feel strongly that we must also reject any justification of flippant depictions of rape as “art.”
Fellow student Mierka Ross agreed in a wider context, writing;
When thinking of providing students controversial topics and ideas, we cannot forget the history from which those ideas originate. Recall the upset that occurred from students at Columbia University only two years ago when the school decided to invite Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a keynote speaker at its world leadership forum. The guests to whom a university extends an honorable invitation reflect upon how people view the university as a whole. For each guest invited, the university needs to carefully consider and balance the negatives. In this scenario, the negatives have caused hurt and disgust among the student body. Certainly we cannot ignore controversial issues as a university, but we can decide who we are paying to raise those issues. There are many ways to address the issues of misogyny, sexism and racism without giving our financial support and ticket sales to someone who has shown himself staunchly in agreement with all three.
Time for a don to weigh in. Dr Bertram D Ashe, Associate Professor of American and English Studies, the man who assigned the Crumb material joined the fray, first stating that he didn’t know the original complainant Timothy Patterson and that the complaint had not been brought up to him. But he states that;
I apologize for nothing. I plan to teach my Geek Lit course again, and when I do I will absolutely again assign Robert Crumb’s “My Troubles with Women.” We will also watch “Crumb,” a documentary on him and his brothers, again. All told, including “My Troubles with Women,” “Crumb” and debriefing Robert Crumb’s Modlin-Center-sponsored appearance at CenterStage downtown, we spent more than four hours of class time discussing Robert Crumb and/or his work. It was well worth it.
Russell sees the Robert Crumb event as the beginning of discussion, not the end and cites candid discussion in his lessons as a result. He writes
If Patterson had come to talk to me I would have shared with him that I, too, was offended by aspects 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. I would have demonstrated for him how well the text fits into our semester-long discussion of geeks and nerds. I also would have shared with him the fact that I routinely assign edgy and provocative texts that have the potential to offend students. For more evidence, just ask students in both sections of the 20th Century American Fiction class I’m teaching this semester. Or ask students in my Blackface seminar last spring (a course I’ll be teaching again next spring). “Edgy and provocative is what I do, Mr. Patterson,” I would have said, and yes, academic freedom protects me. I taught for eight years at a religious institution, the College of the Holy Cross, before the five-plus years I’ve spent here at the University of Richmond, and even though I was assigning and teaching difficult, potentially offensive texts both there and here, this is the first time anyone has needed to reach out to an advocate in order to address any of my selected texts. I hope the next time it happens—and it likely will—that the offended student can represent him- or herself, so that I won’t have to discover someone’s been offended third- and fourth-hand.
Regarding the limits of academic freedom, Russell states;
Questions like these go to the core of why I’m here, and why I execute the classroom and scholarly work I do here. He can employ words such as “the values this university claims to hold dear,” but every time I enter the classroom I’m attempting to live them. For me, the values of this university include intellectual inquiry of the highest order of a variety of challenging and difficult texts, texts that may well force us — myself and my students — out of our comfort zone. I’m confident that we executed just that during the four-plus hours we discussed Robert Crumb and his work. I’m proud of my students for the way they expressed themselves in class, the way they grappled openly and honestly and, yes, candidly, with Crumb’s difficult, exceedingly valuable work, and I’m absolutely and enthusiastically including the women who exercised their academic freedom — right there in class, out loud, during the discussion — to question and interrogate, and, yes, openly condemn Crumb’s work. My conception of the values this university holds is that both of the following need to constantly be in play: I absolutely do, have and will continue to exercise my academic freedom to assign the texts I feel are necessary for a full treatment of the class subject, and yet when provocative texts do their work and do, indeed, provoke, I will continue to give space for whatever varied reactions that might arise. I do that as a matter of course. I wish Patterson could have been there to see it.
We’ll be keeping an eye on the Collegian in days to come I’m sure.
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