Urban contemporary art magazine Juxtapoz’s November issue is the Robert Williams issue, a big-hitter in the underground comics scene and the magazine’s founder. Oh, and he drives feminists up the wall with the way his artwork objectifies women.
Sometimes referred to as the father/grandfather/master/whatever of lowbrow art, Williams was part of the collective involved with Robert Crumb’s Zap Comix, the beginning of the underground comics movement in the late 1960s. His work combines psychedelia, noir, and naked women in compromising positions. One of his most high-profile pieces is the cover of Guns ‘n’ Roses album Appetite for Destruction, which Geffen Records eventually pulled:
At one point, works like Williams were edgy–that’s what made underground comix alternative, they were doing something that hadn’t been done before and it was controversial. However, the social commentary of Zap involved a lot of naked space ladies with giant breasts and spread legs, talking penises, dominatrix dystopias, straight-up violence against women, and lots of other things to make your stomach turn.
Zap: Boobs + violence = edgy
While Zap was revolutionary for the comics industry, they were by no means progressive. Thankfully, women comics artists could recognize where they weren’t welcome and went on to publish their own comics, ones that were actually groundbreaking issues of the time: birth control, abortion, and lesbianism.
I’m not the first feminist to knock Williams’ work, and such criticism has built his reputation as “controversial.” He addressed this in 1992 saying, “I do not believe that my representation of females aids in their oppression. It is my artistic right to render the images of woman as my imagination sees fit. Remember, I will gladly accept the title ‘Bad Person’ to continue my expression. In other words, nothing short of death will stop me from painting nekkid ladies.”
And of course it’s his artistic right (besides, men have been painting naked women for hundreds of years!), and artists like Robert Crumb have said similar things on their depictions of women: that they’re depicting their personal psyche and expressing through art what society tells them is wrong…But that doesn’t make their comics not sexist and harmful to women.
Robert Williams’s influence is undeniable and has no doubt inspired artists that I admire. But I can’t help but cringe when artists hold the cover of icky but iconic “Appetite for Destruction” on a pedestal. Here’s David Choe’s tribute to it:
Ooh….what’s more subversive, that she’s masturbating or that she’s a zombie?
Here’s Nate Van Dyke’s rendering…
“I had a lot of fun digging that piece up and paying tribute to it with my own little twist. In no way do I want my take on it to advocate rape, I’m just advocating penetration.”
I’m picking on Choe and Van Dyke, some of the other artists pay tribute to Williams without showing a single bared breast. But with a few decades passing and all, you’d think there would be more ways to use your artistic energy than painting naked women with space aliens. Apparently not, given the October issue of Juxtapoz featured just that: monsters and big boobs.
Juxtapoz does feature women artists and contributors, and while I don’t have a masthead in front of me, I’m sure, hopefully, they have women on their editorial staff as well. All the same, it’s hard to find an issue that doesn’t feature ads or artists who are objectifying women without offering any commentary. I’m not saying there’s no artistic merit to these works, but in my opinion, the blatant objectification outweighs it, and they’re not doubt continuing to disappoint their feminist readers.
Thanks for the tip, Spooky!