© 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.