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.




  1. carolita says:

    Yep, we’ll never stop. You’re born a cartoonist, you die a cartoonist. We were born with magic markers in our mouths. 😉 I never even knew it was something you could be paid for. So, I’m not really so surprised at how hard it is to make a living doing it. To make money, you can always “teach” people’s kids how to “become” a cartoonist. Haha. As if.

  2. P.S. Mueller says:

    Hey Mick–

    I’m in perfect agreement with you about the whole business of drawing regularly. I would be lost without my constant deadlines and the world, for me at least, would become a harsh, arrhythmic place.

    And here’s the thing about art directors removing cartoons from magazines–eventually, those magazines go belly up. Readers love cartoons, but art directors don’t, especially those totally reliant on the design software platforms of our time. Cartoons are messy, not modular and easily plugged into pages where the blurring between ad space and editorial is intentional.

    The readers lose. We lose. Art directors move on. Magazines fold. A sad tale.

  3. Hi Mick. Thanks for your thoughts on this subject. I think you’re exactly right about how economic changes led to changes in taste and thus changes in cartooning and the use to which cartoons are put. But I don’t think that’s the whole story.

    As you also say, clumsy drawing has always been part of cartooning, and some of the greats couldn’t/can’t draw well. But the greatness of their work is not, in my opinion, in spite of their drawing ability. It is because their drawing style enhances the gag, intensifies it, makes it funnier, better. They have found a way of drawing that fits their way of thinking. Clumsy or gorgeous, cartoons that succeed always have a kind of elegance to them that comes, not from the skill of the draftsmanship, but from the meshing of all its elements–the drawing, the joke, and whatever caption is required–into a seamless whole. This is mastery.

    In cartooning, as in all the arts I’m familiar with, mastery and artfulness–call it beauty–have been devalued. Whether this is because of impatience or indifference I don’t know. But when you and I started we served a sort of (painful) apprenticeship before we could sell to The New Yorker and other top markets. It was longer for some than others. In my case it took many months to help me begin to clear my style of artifice and pretension and to discover how cartoons actually worked, what belonged in a cartoon and what didn’t. Of course this learning has continued through my career.

    I think the rise in plagiarism, or rather the rise in the acceptability of plagiarism, the willingness to take something that is not yours and make it your own without any pangs of conscience, has come about for many reasons. But the devaluation of mastery, and the consequent devaluation of the work of art–be it a cartoon, a novel, a song–has played a major role,

    The evidence of this devaluation is plain, it seems to me. Exhibit A in the cartoon world is The New Yorker’s caption contest at the end of the magazine. On the one hand, this is a harmless little folly, that brings in revenue for the magazine. On the other, I am certain the NYer would never have a poetry contest (and if they did that no poet would stand for it) which allowed readers to submit the last line of a poem written by one of their poets. Or why not let a reader finish off a short story or an article? The clear implication of the caption contest is that cartoons are not to be taken seriously as art and that cartoonists are not to be cherished as the makers of unique works of art.

    I know readers love the caption contest. It makes them feel like they could be cartoonists if they wanted to. And who knows. Maybe nowadays they could.

  4. Pat Byrnes says:

    I once heard someone at the Pergola suggest (bitterly) having readers complete the last line of a column, but finishing a poem? Now there’s an idea. A “Couplet Contest” where people finished the heroic couplet of a Shakespearean sonnet.

    Someone ought to pitch this for the Cartoon Issue.

  5. MStevens says:

    Here’s a comment from Ed Koren, August 21, 2011 (Submitted via direct email- Thanks, Ed!)

    Dear Mick,
    Bravo—You’ve found the perfect visual metaphor for the sad emptiness facing us. The drawing board , the tools of our fervid minds poised to be used, but no paper….profound and eloquent.


  6. elizabeth wooley says:

    Hi Mick,
    I like your thought provoking article and the response of Peter Steiner. I always thought the contest a great idea and it does indeed engage the readers. I never thought to consider the idea of the work being undervalued. I think people are in awe of the unique talent, wit and whimsy of the NY’r cartoonists but they too want to have a little fun and test their creative impulse. If you pitch the poetry line contest and receive great resistance I guess he will be proven right!

  7. jeffrey8775 says:

    I wish I could compose submissions this good. I have been working hard at this for approximately eight weeks now and I’m improving however I can’t wait until I’m just as good as you.

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