© Lee Lorenz/Cartoonbank.com
"The New Yorker at its best provides the intelligent and cultured college graduate with the most comfortable and least compromising attitude he can assume toward capitalist society without being forced into actual conflict.... The New Yorker has always dealt with experience not by trying to understand it but by prescribing the attitude to be adopted toward it." That's Robert Warshow, in 1947, getting ready to demolish the essays of E.B. White (a condemnation devoutly to be wished). There's no doubt the magazine has held on to its tone of paternal urbanity, currently exemplified by Anthony Lane, reducing criticism to cocktail chat week after week--"reasonably perceptive, eminently tasteful, fairly well-informed, and wholly unremarkable...criticism for people who have no use for criticism," in the words of critic Kent Jones.
But Warshow doesn't quite tell the whole story. New Yorker naysayers have often been too fast to assume that the magazine's cultured air is all there is to it. And some of those, from Mary McCarthy in a 1946 letter to Dwight Macdonald's journal Politics to Jean-Luc Godard in a 1981 debate with Pauline Kael, have singled out the advertisements for luxury goods as proof of the magazine's insularity. In a recent issue those ads ranged from one for the Park Lane Hotel to one offering a catalog of specialty bow ties. How silly do you have to be to get in a huff over bow ties festooned with valentine hearts? Probably as silly as the people who get morally exercised over product placements in big-budget movies. How else do they expect glossy mainstream magazines to operate? And while it was easier for Warshow to make the argument when the magazine's idea of moral seriousness was epitomized, God help us, by John Hersey's "Hiroshima," it's harder to do now when we can look back on Jonathan Schell's unsigned editorials about the outrages of the Nixon White House; Seymour Hersh's reporting on Abu Ghraib; and a personal favorite, the late Andy Logan's companionable yet murderously witty series of articles on the Koch-Dinkins mayoral race (the real "Bonfire of the Vanities").
The surprise of the new exhibit "On the Money: Cartoons for The New Yorker From the Melvin R. Seiden Collection," on view at Manhattan's Morgan Library through May 24, is that the cartoonists have slipped a mickey into the martini. The one-panel gags have long been the epitome of what many think of as the New Yorker attitude, designed to do away with fears or uncertainties in the time it takes to emit a knowing chuckle. And what's here can provide momentary amusement to the sort of folks who think it's perfectly acceptable to wear a gray tweed blazer with olive corduroy trousers. But there's a bite to these cartoons, a vision of the rich that is not only persistent across the decades but consistent among the artists.
Composed of cartoons that appeared in the magazine from the '20s through today, the show deals with money--those who make it, revere it above all else, and believe that possessing it makes them, if not God's chosen people, then certainly the Republic's chosen people... and what's so hot about the idea of a republic, anyway?
What might stand for the ethos of the entire show is expressed in an elegant and detailed 1936 panel from Carl Rose entitled "A Caravan of California Millionaires, Fleeing Eastward From the State Income Tax, Encamps for the Night in Hostile Wisconsin Territory." It's a brilliant gag: Limos drawn in a circle like covered wagons while chefs prepare elaborate meals for a collection of evening-wear clad nabobs.
The idea in Rose's panel is that, for the rich, America itself is enemy territory. As you proceed through the exhibit, that idea takes hold. The lack of almost anyone in these cartoons beyond the rich is not, as some might have it, evidence of The New Yorker's blinkered inability to see beyond wealth but a blunt reflection of the inability of the rich to acknowledge anyone else.
The exceptions are the work of George Booth, those panels in which the interiors are out of The Honeymooners and the exteriors are pure Dogpatch. Drawn in a simple line that renders his people somewhere between angular and rotund, Booth's cartoons picture men in undershirts and women in curlers and housecoats, all drooping shoulders and sagging guts, huddled beneath bare bulbs in some tenement that time, and the Dow, hath forgot. In one of the show's best pieces, from 1981, we see a Booth backyard littered with all manner of detritus and vehicles becoming part of the weedy lawn. Says one of the Boothians, "Lots of folk say the Reagan program is going to make a clean sweep of all our problems right away."
For me, the show's real emblem of the Reagan years is a William Hamilton bit from 1987 in which a shallow, preppy young woman tells a shallow, preppy young man, "This is incredible. Do you know that I, too, want as much as I can get as fast as I can get it?" These two are every inch the avaricious young things who, as an undergraduate in the '80s, I saw crawling over everything like strangling vines. It's a short line from those preppy greedheads to the newly elected senator, in Dana Fradon's 1987 panel, telling a colleague, "Listen pal! I didn't spend seven million bucks to get here so I could yield the floor to you."
During the exhibition's press preview, Jennifer Tonkovich, the Morgan's curator of drawings and prints, said she found the show reassuring in the way it suggested that economic hard times are cyclical. Actually, that's closer to New Yorker bonhomie than anything on display. What's eerily striking about the show is the prescience of some of the cartoons. A harbinger of Enron and Arthur Andersen hovers in a 1991 panel from Robert Weber with the caption, "It's up to you now, Miller. The only thing that can save us is an accounting breakthrough." The current debacle already exists in Leo Cullum's 2002 panel of a young husband coming home with an urn and asking his wife, "Do we have a place for our portfolio's ashes?"
The panel that resonated most for me was Lee Lorenz's 2002 gag in which an executive type is saying, "Well, we've licked taxes--that just leaves death." Could there be a better summing up of the now-infamous Bush White House aide who boasted to reporter Ron Suskind, "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality." Doesn't it make sense that the radical right, who pay lip service to Christianity, would actually think of themselves as gods? Many of the rich in this country, and those who do their bidding, act as if Jesus' imprecation was to sucker the poor, not succor them. But the consistency of the attitudes on display at the Morgan proves, in one way, that Jesus had it wrong. It's the rich who will always be with us.