In its final issue of 1992 the New Yorker published a remarkable piece, “Remembering Mr. Shawn”; thirty-three contributors recalling the late editor of the New Yorker who had passed away earlier in the month (one of them, Edward Koren, provided a drawing). I’ve read and re-read the piece a number of times and always come away with something by one of the contributors I’d missed before. But one recollection stuck from my first reading. Lee Lorenz, who served as Art Editor of the magazine from 1973 through 1997 (his title morphed to Cartoon Editor in the last five years of that span) wrote, in part, of his weekly art meetings with Mr. Shawn:
In a letter he [Shawn] wrote to me after he left the magazine he referred to these meetings as a search for work that was ‘funny, beautiful, and true.’ By “true” he meant not just true in its perception of the human condition but true to each artist’s vision.
I think Mr. Lorenz framed it perfectly. When I think of “the New Yorker cartoon” as a distinct subset of American cartooning, and why it’s recognized as such, it’s due to the magazine’s long history of supporting its cartoonists and their work.
Of course there is and always has been disagreement over what is funny, and what is beautiful (and lately, more than ever, what is true). For the four decades I’ve contributed to the New Yorker I’ve heard it said, at times, all along the way, that the cartoons aren’t as funny, or aren’t as good, as they used to be. I heard it said in the late 1970s, when I began contributing, and I hear it today. Here’s a snippet from an article that popped up in my Google search just the other week:
Is the New Yorker magazine on the skids, or is it my brain that has lost whatever sharpness it may have had? I re-subscribed to the magazine a few months ago, and I seem to have detected a lower quality in its cartoons, which have always been its main attraction for persons of questionable intelligence, such as me.
What quality is, is also, of course, debatable. For every person who finds a particular New Yorker cartoon awful there’s another who finds it a work of genius (want to see for yourself? Go to the comments under any New Yorker cartoon posted on the magazine’s Facebook page).
Overlooked in all this public qualifying of what is funny, beautiful and true is the simple transaction between the artists and their editors: cartoonists do what we do as well as we can do it and send it to the magazine — the editors buy it or they don’t. The beauty of the New Yorker cartoon world is that cartoonists draw what they want. They are not assigned ideas by the editors. This total freedom allows the readership to see the work the cartoonists believe is funny, beautiful and true (i.e., their vision). It’s the not-so-secret formula for the now 93 year old success of the New Yorker cartoon.
Above: The inaugural issue of The New Yorker, cover by Rea Irvin; William Shawn, the magazine’s second editor; Lee Lorenz. Photograph of Mr. Shawn by James Stevenson.