19 Eye-Opening R. Crumb Quotes on Mass Culture, Psychedelics, Art, Being Human, & the 1960s Counterculture

Art, Poetry & Writing Philosophy alan watts

19 Eye-Opening R. Crumb Quotes on Mass Culture, Psychedelics, Art, Being Human, & the 1960s Counterculture

R. Crumb was one of the 20th century’s most notorious and influential countercultural artists.

Robert Dennis Brown, better known as R. Crumb, was born in Philadelphia in 1943 to Catholic parents. His father was a Combat Illustrator for the US Marine Corps, and his mother was a housewife. His parents’ marriage was tumultuous, and his mother reportedly abused diet pills and amphetamines. Robert and his four brothers and sisters frequently witnessed their parents’ disputes.

In school, Robert was an average student, and his teachers strongly discouraged him from cartooning. Ironically, he would go on to become one of those most well-known and celebrated illustrators of the 21st century.

Portrait of R. Crumb by Christian Lessenich (Wiki Commons).
Portrait of R. Crumb by Christian Lessenich (Wiki Commons).

In 1965, Crumb tried LSD for the first time, at the age of 21. His experiences with the drug were transformative for him, and in 1967, he moved to San Francisco on a whim with some friends, where he contributed work to underground newspapers. At that point, his work started gaining popularity, and he began to see comics not purely as a form of entertainment, but as a space for unfettered expression. His work became more experimental and sexually explicit, and he began to gain recognition in the counterculture of the late 60s and early 70s.

Here’s a taste of his work:

twitter cartoon

Hopefully those three images alone have give you an idea of why Crumb became such an icon in the countercultural sphere. He was a pioneer of self-expression and a quintessential example of a human whose life aligned with Terence McKenna’s call to “create [one’s] own roadshow,” one’s own culture.


In 2005, Crumb published The R. Crumb Handbook, a  “collection of original cartoons and never-before-published work” that contains many profound insights into Crumb’s life, art, thought, and the motivations behind his work. Beyond that, the book provides invaluable perspective on the nature and effects of American mass culture — how it arose, what it replaced, what it’s like to to live within such a culture, and more.

The majority of the following quotes are pulled from The R. Crumb Handbook. Absorb them slowly, mull them over. They’re some of the most raw, honest, and potently world-broadening perspectives I’ve come across.

On Consumerism & Mass Culture

“What we kids didn’t understand was that we were living in a commercial, commodity culture. Everything in our environment had been bought and sold. As middle class Americans, we basically grew up on a movie set. The conscious values that are pushed are only part of the picture. The medium itself plays a much bigger part than anyone realizes: the creation of illusion. We are living surrounded by illusion, by professionally created fairy tales. We barely have contact with the real world.”

“As a kid growing up in the 1950s I became acutely aware of the changes taking place in American culture and I must say I didn’t much like it. I witnessed the debasement of architecture, and I could see a decline in the quality of things like comic books and toys, things made for kids. Old things seemed to have more life, more substance, more humanity in them.”

“About the only power you have is the power to discriminate. Living in a culture like this, you have to make choices and search out what has the most authentic content or substance. In the 1960s, while on LSD, I realized that my mind was a garbage receptacle of mass media images and input. I spent my whole childhood absorbing so much crap that my personality and mind are saturated with it. God only knows if that affects you physically! As a kid I became increasingly interested in earlier periods of culture. I turned into a little nostalgia boy, and I became steeped in the Our Gang fantasy from watching them on TV. So much so, that my speech patterns were affected. The style of those Our Gang comedies was so charming that I started acting and talking like Jackie Cooper and Alfalfa. They had these cute kids, artificial mannerisms. It must have been embarrassing for people to hear me talk like that.”

On Psychedelics

“I was taking LSD periodically, every couple of months. I was in a strange state of mind, influenced by these visions. … I was trying to draw it in my sketchbook, and that began to coalesce into these comic strips that were stylistically based on grotesque, vulgar humor comics of the thirties and forties. … All of those characters came out of that crazy visionary period that I couldn’t shut off. It was spontaneous, but I was so crazy, I was really out of my mind, it was like schizophrenia. It was like what produces art by crazy people in a madhouse. Anything could be an influence, anything I heard. I was in Chicago in early ’66 and the radio was on, there was some tune playing, it was a black station, and this announcer said, That was Mr. Natural. I just started drawing Mr. Natural, this bearded guru-type character in my sketchbook, it just came out.”

On the Hippie Counterculture

“I was totally amazed. This little home made underground comix thing was turning into a business before my eyes. It went from us going around Haight Street trying to sell these things we had folded and stapled ourselves to suddenly being a business with distributors, lawyers, contracts, and money talk. … The whole thing began to take on a heaviness that I believe had a negative effect on my work. I was only twenty-five years old when all this happened. It was a case of “too much too soon,” I think. I became acutely self-conscious about what I was doing. Was I now a “spokesman” for the hippies or what? I had no idea how to handle my new position in society! … Take Keep On Truckin’… for example. Keep on Truckin’… is the curse of my life. This stupid little cartoon caught on hugely. … I didn’t want to turn into a greeting card artist for the counter-culture! I didn’t want to do ‘shtick’—the thing Lenny Bruce warned against. That’s when I started to let out all my perverse sex fantasies. It was the only way out of being ‘America’s Best Loved Hippie Cartoonist.'”

“I wasn’t that passionate about it [the radical counterculture]. I agreed with it, but at the political demonstrations I would get very nervous when people started chanting in unison. I didn’t like that. I usually disliked those smash-the-state kind of guys, even though I agreed politically with them. I took LSD, I said ‘groovy’ and ‘far-out,’ but I was kind of a detached observer.”

On Art

“I was lucky to be part of the “underground comix” thing in which cartoonists were completely free to express themselves. To function on those terms means putting everything out in the open—no need to hold anything back—total liberation from censorship, including the inner censor! A lot of my satire is considered by some to be “too hard.” My “negro” characters are not about black people, but are more about pushing these “uncool” stereotypes in readers’ faces, so suddenly they have to deal with a very tacky part of our human nature. … Who did I think I was appealing to? I don’t know. I was just being a punk, putting down on paper all these messy parts of the culture we internalize and keep quiet about. I admit I’m occasionally embarrassed when I look at some of that work now.”

“The fine art world and the commercial art industry are both all about money. It’s hard to say which is more contemptible: the fine art world with its double talk and pretensions to the cultural high ground, or the world of commercial art trying to sell to the largest mass market it can reach. A serious artist really shouldn’t be too deeply involved in either of these worlds. It’s best to be on the fringe of them. In general, if you want to be a success and make the money, you have to play the game. It’s no different in the fine art world, it’s just a slightly different game. Essentially, you’re marketing an illusion. It’s much easier to lie to humans and trick them than to tell them the truth. They’d much rather be bamboozled than be told the truth, because the way to trick them is to flatter them and tell them what they want to hear, to reinforce their existing illusions. They don’t want to know the truth. Truth is a bring-down, a bummer, or it’s just too complicated, too much mental work to grasp.”

On Dealing With Other People

“I never had a strategy in my dealing with other humans! I’ve always been very passive socially. I went along with their agenda. I had none of my own! Left to my own devices I stayed in my room or wandered aimlessly in the streets, fantasizing about bizarre things I yearned to do to big ladies, or filled with self-pity and resentment. I was helpless in the presence of other people! My main concern was to make them like me by being as agreeable as possible, and secondly to impress them with my brilliance, my sharp wit, my originality, and my fundamental saintliness. Over time, and after years—decades—of diligent practice, I became very good at this cute little performance of mine. But this performance was improvised in the moment, catered to suit whoever I happened to be with. There was no strategy. It was always an effort. Only in solitude was I completely relaxed. Funny thing…”

On Heroes

“As a matter of survival I’ve created this anti-hero alter-ego, a guy in an ill-fitting suit—part humunculus and part clown. Yep, that’s me alright … I could never relate to heroes. I have no interest in drawing heroic characters. It’s not my thing, man. I’m more inclined toward the sordid underbelly of life. I find it more interesting to draw grotesque, lurid, or absurd pictures, and I especially enjoy depicting my fevered sexual obsessions.”

On (Half) Suicide

“Killing yourself is a major commitment, it takes a kind of courage. Most people just lead lives of cowardly desperation. It’s kinda half suicide where you just dull yourself with substances.”

On Being an Outsider

“I knew I was weird by the time I was four. I knew I wasn’t like other boys. I knew I was more fearful. I didn’t like the rough and tumble most boys were into. I knew I was a sissy.”

“I’m an outsider. I will always be an outsider.”

On Being Human

“What the hell is this?? Who can tell me?? Does anybody know?? How can I find out more about it?? One thing’s sure: the human mind can’t “know” it…why does one want to “know”?? Is it a quest for “freedom”? One no longer wishes to be a puppet dancing on the strings of…of what? Animal instincts?? Learned reflexes? Programmed behavior?? Ingrained habits of perception?? How limited are we by the experience of our senses, by our physical nature?? To be fully alive is a stupendous struggle! We want the rewards without the struggle— —a fatal error! … No such thing as an easy life! Everybody has a hard time… struggle or die! To find out what’s really going on it’s necessary to get around the ego… an art requiring persistent and determined effort…Me, me, me…myself & I…oh no!!! Trapped in my stupid self!”

“Everything we do has significance. Every action, every thought leaves an imprint – not only on the self, but on the world, on the others, and even on time, on all who come after us!

This implies a responsibility for one’s thoughts and actions that should be taken most seriously!

And yet one feels helpless, a hapless victim of circumstances beyond one’s control, as if one’s behavior and thoughts did not originate in the self, but were a product, an accumulation of imprints from the world, from our ancestors, from the people around us.

It behooves one to take responsibility, to take the power to decide how one will act, and even how one will think! Not only for the betterment of one’s self, but for the betterment of the world, all the others, and all who will come after us!”

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