Jews, Cartooning, and The New Yorker

By Dan Schifrin, Director of Public Programs and Writer in Residence

Not every
boy dreams of growing up to write cartoons for The New Yorker, or books for children. But I did. In high school I often brought one-panel cartoons into my English class, hoping that my witty reference to Kafka and Shakespeare would boost my popularity (sadly, I only got extra credit, which at 16 seemed quite the booby prize).
Growing up with a younger sister, for whom I often improvised stories, songs and sometimes entire musicals, I felt it was theoretically possible to invent stories as strangely rich as those written by Hans Christian Andersen, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Shel Silverstein.
It was later in life when I realized that one man, William Steig, had managed to create both canonical cartoons and children’s books, as well as a museum full of drawings evoking the absurdity and pathos of life.
William Steig, "I got my first haircut at Ditchick's Barbershop," final illustration for When Everybody Wore a Hat (2003), pen and ink and watercolor on paper. Original version, in pen and ink and wash, c. 1959. Collection of the William Steig Estate. © 2003 William Steig.

This diverse virtuosity is on tap at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, with its current exhibition From The New Yorker to Shrek: The Art of William Steig. Apart from presenting original drawings, and exploring the genesis of books like Shrek and Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, the exhibition asks essential questions about the intersection of biography, imagination and art.

The presence of this exhibition in a museum with the words “contemporary” and “Jewish” in the title also provokes viewers to ask: What is the focus of contemporary art? What does Jewish culture mean? And how does the work of William Steig, an author and cartoonist who passed away in 2003, bring these pieces together?
For me, the answer is bound up with the development of the visual culture of The New Yorker, long the country’s most influential magazine. When William Steig broke into the rarefied world of The New Yorker cartoonists, the style and substance of the magazine was reflected in the work of Peter Arno, whose wealthy ne’er-do-wells had nothing to do with the poverty and immigrant striving of the Steig family up in the Bronx, battling the Great Depression with every financial and cultural tool at their disposal. Steig, by contrast, brought the dislocation, rugged determination and heightened emotionalism of his milieu into the magazine, giving it a particular Jewish slant, and making the magazine more relevant at the same time.
Another answer has to do with the increasingly visual nature of American, and therefore American Jewish, culture. As the work of literary cartoonists like Ben Katchor makes clear, cartoon strips, with their compression of story and allusiveness of line, speak to our contemporary hunger for maximum meaning, in minimum time.
On July 17, the Museum will host Robert Mankoff, Carton Editor at The New Yorker, who will explore the influence of William Steig on the culture of the magazine. As one of the magazine’s most noted cartoonists, Mankoff will also explain not just the development of cartoons at The New Yorker, but how the cartoon form so quickly draws us in, while simultaneously presenting so many layers of information and feeling.


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