In Chapter Three of The Greatest Comic Book we consider an alternative Earth in which comics studies takes its cues primarily from art historians rather than literature scholars. On that Earth it is likely that they pay more attention to art auctions than to bestseller lists, and, we hope, they do that better than we do it on this Earth. Consider: this article on Artnet surveys recent trends in sales prices for the work of cartoonist Robert Crumb. What it gets wrong is telling.
The article evinces a significant myopia that might be all too typical of parts of the artworld. Artnet alleges that "it wasn't until his solo exhibition at London's Whitechapel Gallery in 2005 that the artist gained mainstream recognition". Where to begin?
First, Crumb had sold literally millions of comic books prior to 2005 - he was a far more mainstream figure at the height of his fame in the 1960s and 1970s when he was designing album covers for Janis Joplin and helping to reshape American visual culture. 2005 might mark a point when he was leaving the mainstream. Far more people watched Fritz the Cat than saw the Whitechapel show, and no one even really likes Fritz the Cat! Similarly, the Terry Zwigoff-directed documentary Crumb (1995) made a bigger splash than the Whitechapel show, a decade earlier.
Second, Whitechapel was Crumb's eighth museum show, and even if you want to quibble about major and minor museums to toss out his show at the Art Museum of Peoria in 1966, he was still exhibited at MoMA in 1991 and the Carnegie in 2004 in group shows. The first truly major Crumb retrospective was at the Centre national de la band dessinée in Angoulême in 2000, and the second was at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne in 2003. Both of those shows were much larger than the Whitechapel, for the record.
Okay, so I'm nitpicking. But there is a larger issue here. Artnet ignoring, for instance, the Angoulême show indicates that they are inattentive to what happens in the comics world, and this is a fatal flaw in their entire analysis. The article charts the top ten highest prices realized for Crumb originals but it doesn't actually capture the top of that chart. Why? Because those sales were realized at a comics auction house, not an art auction house.
As we show on page 36 of our book, Robert Crumb was (at the time of our writing) one of only five artists who have multiple works on the list of the twenty-five highest prices for original comics art realized by Heritage Auctions. Specifically, Crumb has four works on that list (as does Todd McFarlane). All of those sold for more than $100,000 USD, significantly outpacing Artnet's top earner through Bonhams and Buttefields ("Abstract Expressionist Ultra Super Modernist Comics" at $72,000 USD). By failing to survey the leading auction house in the field of American comics original art sales, Artnet has completely missed their story, done in by their own blinders.
I think it is telling that both we and Artnet chose to focus on Crumb, who is clearly the example par excellence of cartoonist crossing over into the traditional artworld. I wrote about Crumb in my book Comics Versus Art as well, but in Greatest Comic Book we are much more focussed on the issues raised by literary biases when it comes to understanding comics. The Artnet article is a great reminder that the bias is just as present stemming from the other side of the visual/textual divide as well.
Thanks to Robert Boyd, one of the few critics who writes equally well about contemporary art and comics, for drawing my attention to this article in the first place. Check him out at The Great God Pan is Dead.