The Golden Age of the Cockroach
Every era in art has a new favored subject. The Etruscans looked to Hercules; painters of the Renaissance reenvisioned the Bible; the American Ashcan School rendered sensitive tableaus of poor urban life; and the later half of the 20th century, dominated by the PoMo-ism of downtown NYC, crowned a new king, the cockroach, which was not only an available resource, but a stand-in for the artist—a heroic outcast, thriving in the ruins of civilization.
The oeuvre of the cockroach is best understood as a series of distinct ages that, in turn, comprise a whole. During the Reformation, the cockroach was reconsidered; the Enlightenment percieved the cockroach as potentially “divine”; the Golden Age saw the pinnacle of the discipline; the Silver Age was consumed by celebrity; the Bronze Age refigured the subject as metaphor and victim; the Age of Decline represented the subject in absentia and/or in parts. As far as I can tell, no one has completed, or even attempted, to survey the cockroach’s place in the art world, so consider this seven-part piece that examines an artistic era that scuttled by so quickly, hardly anyone even noticed it.
Ed Rushca, Cockroaches (1972). Photo courtesy Bukowskis Auktionhouse, Stockholm
The cockroach of antiquity and the Middle Ages lived in a cultural darkness—cockroaches were no better off than peasants, their teeming masses obscure, despised, and considered unworthy as a subject of art. Emerging from this age of katsaridaphobia, the 20th-century cockroach made a halting entry into popular culture. Its first notable foray into modern consciousness came with Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” though it must be remembered that not until the 21st century was the original German word ungeziefer consistently translated as “cockroach,” a term which may well be an anachronistic liberty. Gregor Samsa is not explicitly referred to as a cockroach in the original text, and Vladimir Nabokov, a lepidopterist as well as an author and literary critic, believed that Gregor was, technically, “a big beetle.” Nabokov’s argument focused on the wings that Gregor never realized he had, which brings us back to the roach, who is even less disposed to use his wings than the beetle; if Gregor is indeed a cockroach, it is not so much that he doesn’t know he can fly, it’s that he doesn’t want to.
Bear this in mind as we consider the Reformation era of the cockroach, which begins post–World War II. The quiet, peace-loving bug, wanting nothing more than a warm place and some privacy in a tight crevice, found a new nest within the American domicile: the television cabinet (as it was then known). A boom in electronics provided abundant habitat for the roaches, whose numbers, via human population density, were already on the rise. The cockroach, equated in wartime with fascists and occasionally with communists, became a cohabitant of the ordinary American, and the generation that grew up eye to eye with the cockroach viewed the creature with a revulsion tempered by sympatico fondness.
In the early 1950s, Andy Warhol, then living in an East Village apartment, unzipped his portfolio for a Madison Avenue art director, to have a cockroach leap out. This story—possibly somewhat true—is indicative of the arrival of the downtown scene: The artist (i.e., the cockroach) lived downtown but went uptown to become something celebrated. In 1959 William Burroughs extended the metaphor: The cockroach of Naked Lunchserved as guiding spirit and muse. In 1962 Leonard Baskin softened the harsh popular conception of the cockroach with his Rorschachesque illustrative style in Creatures of Darkness. By 1964 the artist was literally represented as the cockroach—George Kuchar’s 8mm film The Lovers of Eternity features a gigantic roach as a central figure in the bohemian gambol.
Panels from Gilbert Shelton’s Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers
In the Age of Enlightenment—which roughly corresponds with the Age of Aquarius in the human world—the cockroach becomes more than an analog of the artist experience. Jim Carroll, who performed with cockroaches in the late 60s and exhaustively recounted their presence in his memoirs, tortured captive roaches to appeal to the sadism of his audiences while simultaneously seeking to reject arty pretension. Throughout the 60s, the roach was normatively seen as something to fear—as in the cat-tormenting roach armies of Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers—but the roach is also a curiously hapless underdog. One can’t help but root for those comix legions of roaches; they’re disgusting and militaristic, but, after all, no more offensive than the Freak Brothers themselves. Anne Sexton’s “Cockroach,” first published in the literary journal Antaeusand later collected in 45 Mercer Street, views the hated creature in reverence: “These days even the devil is getting overturned / and held up to the light like a glass of water.” This attitude of meditation and primordial wisdom is perfectly illustrated in Ed Ruscha’s 1972 series of silkscreens on wood, Cockroaches, which featured the ancient species in a light both meditative and noble. A more visceral incarnation of Enlightenment-era reverence can be found in Vito Acconci’s 1970 performance-video Rubbings, in which the artist smashes cockroaches into his naked, hairy belly, and rubs them into his gut until they disappear, until the artist and his divine subject are one.