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Music and Art



A
lot of cartoonists seem to be drawn to making music as well as drawn to drawing. Lee Lorenz is a professional cornet-player in New York City, John O’Brien plays the banjo, and I used to see Arnold Roth in the elevator at the New Yorker carrying his sax case.

I got interested in playing also, but much later in life. I actually had a dream a long time ago in which I was playing the tenor sax just like Sonny Rollins, who I had been listening to a lot. I had a sax-player friend at the time to whom I related my dream and he suggested I borrow an old horn he had and try it out. From that day forward, I began playing nearly every day, eventually getting my own horn and taking lessons. It isn’t easy to learn an instrument after you reach a certain age (50, in my case) but I persevered and am still at it, almost 20 years later.

At first, I tried to apply the same rules (Or lack of rules) I’ve learned to use in cartooning to making music. That perseverance I mentioned before is one thing which applies to both occupations, but there are a number of differences between the two, and I had to throw out a few ideas which just don’t apply to learning and playing music. In cartooning, I have no one to answer to except my editors and my own sometimes flawed and always biased judgement. I do what I think is funny at the time I do it and send in the results every week to the magazine, where Bob and David decide whether the work is funny or not, and meets the nominal requirements for publication. It’s just me and my ideas all week long, with maybe a sale at the end of the cycle. No one tells me how to draw or what’s funny and what’s not. I’m almost totally free to create whatever I want without rules or limitations, except for the usually unspoken or unwritten law that one doesn’t copy or steal another artist’s work.

In music, especially classical and jazz, there are rules, and plenty of them. Many of them are based on the mathematics of music-making, hard and fast rules which make the music intellectually coherent. The intricacies of keys, chord-structures, rhythm, and a host of other details must be mastered before one can sucessfully make music. It’s also a collaborative art, unlike the solitary nature of cartooning, and the musicians have to communicate with each other before they can communicate with their audience. Also, when you’re up in front of an audience, you can’t erase what you’ve done, or start over. All those bad notes are out there, for all to hear and wince at. In spite of the rules and restrictions, I was surprised at first to find that musicians have no compunctions about stealing ideas from one-another. In fact, lifting someone else’s musical invention, a lick, a riff, or a phrase, is very common and even encouraged. The idea is that the music itself is the beneficiary of all this traditional lifting and swapping. Of course, there’s still room for individual expression within all the rules. In the case of what’s called “free jazz”, the kind of jazz played by Ornette Coleman and others, the object is to intentionally flaunt or ignore the traditional rules, but it’s implicit, one assumes, that you have to first know the rules well enough to break them.

Somehow, I manage to do both cartooning and music, trading off hours during the day for each, drawing in the mornings and afternoons, practicing the saxophone in between, and on weekend nights, performing in clubs here in Saint Augustine with our quartet.

(I also now find myself drawing a lot more cartoons about music and musicians. The results are documented in The New Yorker from time to time, and also on my band’s Facebook and web pages for anyone interested in looking at them.)

 

The State of Our Art

Hey. I love my iPad. I happily go about Googling, shopping, downloading new apps, listening to new music, and reading new books almost every day. Now, I even read The New Yorker and peruse the cartoons on my iPad. The problem for us artists is how the new technologies are undermining certain aspects of our profession, specifically, payment for our work.

 

The old ideas about intellectual property, copyright, and the ownership of one’s work are now in the process of disappearing. Anyone who wants to and knows how to can Google our published work and use it gratis. Some people, mostly those born in the internet age, are actually unaware the old rules, both spoken and unspoken, about artists’ ownership and control of their own work. The word “plagiarism” appears to be disappearing from people’s vocabularies. Copyrights are becoming meaningless. When a cartoon is referenced in the media, the name of the artist is often no longer mentioned, and sometimes even the name of the publication in which the drawing appeared.

 

Being a magazine cartoonist has always been an iffy job, even for those few of us fortunate enough to be regulars in The New Yorker. When I started out, there were a number of publications left which ran cartoons, but in short order, magazines began to change. Work like that of Milton Glaser and Seymour Chwast at Push Pin Studios, in the 60s and 70s, directly or indirectly influenced art directors and designers, and magazines began to adopt a different look, featuring a lot of color, photos, illustration, and airy type styles (Hello Helvetica!). More and more, art directors and designers began eliminating our funny little boxes. They were interlopers, sometimes badly drawn and almost always in plain old black and white. Each cartoon represented the style of a particular artist, all different in one way or another, and often at odds with the magazine-designer’s concept. Magazine cartoons also took up valuable real estate, which could be used for more lucrative purposes, such as advertising.  There was a brief renaissance during the 90s, when the economic bubble which was to burst a few years later was still inflating. Business magazines started running cartoons, in many cases adding color. When the bubble burst, though, our little boxes began to disappear again, with exception of The New Yorker, where cartoons have always been considered a crucial part of the magazine’s identity.

 

Other forms of cartooning were thriving, though, including animation and comic-books, which eventually made the jump to “serious” literature in the form of graphic novels. With graphic novels, the art itself often plays the major role. How the drawings appear on the page and in what order is as important as, or in some cases more important, than the story-line. Humor sometimes isn’t a factor at all, unlike magazine cartoons, in which humor is the raison d’etre. The drawing itself in a magazine cartoon can be clumsy and inept, as long as it serves the spirit of the joke. (I hasten to point out that inept or clumsy drawing isn’t a prerequisite in our cartoons, but it is permissible. The joke is the thing, whether it comes with great draftsmanship or not.) Another difference between the forms is that magazine cartoons attempt to avoid anything that might impede the delivery of the idea, like overly-long captions or fussy drawing, in order to deliver their humor as quickly as possible. The “surprise” factor is very important. Graphic novels deliver their message more slowly, in multiple panels and pages, and, as in their more literary forebears, “un-graphic”novels, being funny most often isn’t the point.

 

Magazine cartooning is still alive and well within the pages of The New Yorker and a handful of other publications, in print and on our iPads, etc. Maybe magazine cartooning will find a way to flourish with new technology, either the current versions or some other breakthrough technology soon to come.

 

Doing a batch every week has become a strong habit with me and my ilk, and I still get a lot of pleasure from the process, despite the insecurity of not knowing when or if I’ll sell a cartoon in a given week. (In fact, that may be part of the attraction, in a slightly masochistic way.) I don’t think I could stop doing what I do now, no matter what the future may hold for the profession, so I’ll probably keep drawing til I drop, as will many other artists in this slightly oddball profession.