Ralph Steadman is Dexter Morgan, not Patrick Bateman. Dexter’s appeal is that of the sane serial killer. The psychopathy, as denounced in Johnny Depp’s back-cover quotation for Proud Too Be Weirrd, is a guise used to thwart would-be copycats. The artist/killer’s slashes must be quick to produce the illusion of uninhibited grisliness to his victims/audience, but the required precision belabors any sense of catharsis on his part.
Steadman’s sanity is evident throughout the surprisingly numerous essays accompanying the art here (the book’s heaviness is both figurative and literal.) His modesty cloaks many an enlightened observation as curmudgeonly societal bemoaning. His ability, however, to humorously cut through the deceptions of Western capitalist imperialism as easily as he does domestic owner/pet relationships clearly originates from a well-educated background.
As entertaining as I find these writings*, whose insights I probably could’ve gleaned from the artwork had I given more than thirty seconds of thought to each page before flipping, I wonder if the sanity doesn’t neuter the sensation I had viewing the pieces prior to their contextualization. Dexter, after all, lost its edge by the show’s fourth season in part because the higher stakes made him too relatable and hinged the suspense on his survival instead of his philosophy’s.
Steadman the Maker of Marks will never be outclassed. But Steadman the Killer can’t compete with the lasting fascination his more unhinged contemporaries draw with the labyrinth logic they use justify their canvas massacres. Eventually the demented imagery merely serves up an entertaining detour for Steadman’s vehicles of viewer self-affirmation (at least if one agrees with his worldview, as I do.)
That said, if this book proves anything, Steadman is in no danger of history’s course anchoring his accomplishments to the controversies that surrounded them during his peak exposure in the 60s/70s. Two hundred pages in and every image manages to provoke a reaction, running the gamut from wincing to wonderment. His writing, on a technical level, compares not unfavorably to Bukowski or former partner Hunter S. Thompson, although their works were advantaged by their colorful, less-than-agreeable subjects. Oh, what the hell. This whole post is me criticizing Steadman for making me feel like a liberal circle-jerk participant. Maybe I’m too self-conscious for art. Let me get back to my chai tea and Chomsky.
* minus the double-page text layouts, where sentences are annoying bridged using ellipses and not at all helped by the deep gutters in the binding.