Portfolio — From the January 2016 issue

To Laugh That We May Not Weep

A nearly forgotten cartoonist we need to look at — right now!

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Art Young would have turned 150 years old this month, and the finest gift we could have given him is Bernie Sanders’s campaign to welcome socialism back into America’s parlor after decades of keeping it chained in the basement. Art Young? He was the greatest radical political cartoonist in our history, a one-of-a-kind American original. His ability to boil complex social issues down to memorable symbols, drawn with justifiable anger but permeated with genial warmth, would be an immeasurable asset to Bernie in explaining the realities of today’s class war to its casualties.

Capitalism and the Reformer, by Art Young, from The Best of Art Young © 1936 The Vanguard Press, Inc., New York City. All artwork by Art Young

Capitalism and the Reformer, by Art Young, from The Best of Art Young © 1936 The Vanguard Press, Inc., New York City. All artwork by Art Young

Unfortunately, political cartooning, like socialism, has fallen on hard times, and Art Young’s job description no longer really exists: A Radical! Political!! Cartoonist!!! It’s the oblivion trifecta. 1. Radical: We Americans, poor fish, have a perpetually recurring case of amnesia, trying to wriggle off the hook when it comes to facing our history as a Rapacious Capitalist Empire. We prefer to think of ourselves as wide-eyed innocents with perpetually renewing hymens. 2. Political: The word evokes C-SPAN–scale boredom and clouds of toxic rhetoric. The only concept less inviting is “political radical,” which conjures up images of dangerous bomb-throwing anarchists — what could be worse? Oh, I know: 3. Cartoonist! A creator of trivial diversions, only worth the time more fruitfully spent dozing if the creator is (a) hilarious, (b) salacious, or, preferably, (c) both. In fact, one of the few phrases more snooze-worthy than “political” may be “political cartoonist,” especially in its current, demeaned American form. As circulations dwindle and newspapers disappear, the political cartoonist has become an endangered species. In order to survive, these working stiffs have been reduced to making tepid gag cartoons about current events, avoiding any whiff of controversy, since one canceled subscription or lost advertiser can spell death for yet another paper.

Capitalism, courtesy private collection

Capitalism, courtesy private collection

Of course Art Young’s profession is not always and everywhere dismissed as trivial — just ask the murdered Charlie Hebdo artists. And it’s not all about Mohammed: tin-pot despots in India, Iran, Malaysia, Syria, and Venezuela, to name a few recent offenders, have acknowledged how potent cartoons can be by offering tribute to the cartoonists in the form of police harassment, huge fines, long prison terms, and torture.

In Young’s day — he was born the year after the Civil War ended and died while the Second World War was still raging — the power of the political cartoon to shape thought and mobilize opinion was a given. He grew up in a small town in Wisconsin, and his cracker-barrel manner was picked up around the cracker barrel in his father’s general store, where he also exhibited his first cartoons. Gustave Doré’s woodcut illustrations for Dante’s Inferno made a deep impression on him (he wrote and drew three versions of his own up-to-date Inferno over the years), as did Thomas Nast’s Boss Tweed cartoons for Harper’s Weekly. A high-school dropout, Young sold his first cartoon to Judge at seventeen and then moved to Chicago, where he studied art and began to draw for newspapers.

The In and the Out of Our Penal System, from Puck, October 20, 1909, courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

The In and the Out of Our Penal System, from Puck, October 20, 1909, courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

 

O, Blessed Sleep, from On My Way © 1928 Horace Liveright, New York City

O, Blessed Sleep, from On My Way © 1928 Horace Liveright, New York City

He came to look back with remorse at the antianarchist cartoons he drew after the Chicago Haymarket riot of 1886, as he slowly evolved from a tepid Republican at twenty (which roughly translates into mainstream Democrat in today’s parlance) into a flaming socialist by forty-five. He was an editor and leading contributor to The Masses, the fabled Greenwich Village radical magazine, where he worked alongside John Reed, Max Eastman, Jack London, John Sloan, and Stuart Davis. He even ran unsuccessfully for legislative office in New York several times, on the Socialist ticket. His career as a cartoonist unfolded in newspapers ranging from Hearst’s New York Journal to the Daily Worker and in magazines with sensibilities as different as The Saturday Evening Post and The New Yorker — as well as in his own short-lived, cheerily titled Good Morning, whose masthead declared, “To laugh that we may not weep.” When he died, at age seventy-seven, he was mourned by a spectrum of colleagues, friends, and admirers that included Carl Sandburg, Ernest Hemingway, Langston Hughes, Helen Keller, Charlie Chaplin, and even Walt Disney.

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’s “Drawing Blood” appeared in the June 2006 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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