What happened to New Yorker cartoons?

Perhaps, one thought as one flipped through this week’s issue, it was always this way. Perhaps there were always only a few standout cartoons, and not every issue had even one of them.

But that hypothesis seems to be contradicted by the evidence.

In the 1960s, there was a successful TV comedy based on New Yorker cartoons. It later became an equally successful series of movies, which went back to the original cartoons for more inspiration.

In the 1930s and 1940s, James Thurber was drawing cartoons for the New Yorker. James Thurber’s cartoons became standard items in psychology textbooks.

And then there was “I say it’s spinach,” which not only gave us a permanent American catchphrase, but was also set to music by Irving Berlin (and recorded by, among many others, Waring’s Pennsylvanians).

So New Yorker cartoons have objectively declined, and it is not just the subjective crankiness of those of us who think everything was better when we read it by gaslight. Those cartoons were once a powerful cultural force, and now they are not. What accounts for that decline?

Doubtless there are many causes, but the most obvious cause is the fact that the New Yorker used to be a facetious magazine, and it is now a very very serious magazine. The old columns are there with their old facetious titles, like “Onward and Upward with the Arts,” but after the title the rest of the content is drearily serious. In an article about what kinds of cartoons she wants, the current cartoon editor for the magazine wrote this:

Remember: if The New Yorker runs your cartoon, it’ll be framed by blocks of article text, probably about something really depressing, like what’s happening to all the bees. (Spoiler: it’s not good.)

Is there anything that describes better what the New Yorker has become?

Serious readers value the sort of cartoon that makes them say “It’s funny because it’s true,” which is another way of saying “It’s not funny.” The New Yorker has become so serious that it now has a humor column, so that one or two pages of the magazine will still be devoted to something that resembles humor, though it usually tends more toward morose satire. There was a time when the New Yorker’s having a humor column would have been like the Lancet’s having a medical column.

In Dr. Boli’s opinion, the best New Yorker cartoon in the past several months was by George Booth. George Booth is 96 years old. The magazine buys his cartoons because no one alive can remember a time when the magazine did not buy Booth cartoons. The current cartoon editor, who is in her thirties, cannot remember a time when George Booth was not an old man who was still remarkably productive for his age.

Why has the New Yorker become such a serious magazine?

We live in a world where all art is judged by its utility. It used to be that the New Yorker was taken seriously precisely because it was frivolous. It was the most useless magazine in the world. It was devoted to literature as pure art, regardless of its capacity for uplift. And the purity of that art was respected in literary circles.

But now that nothing but uplift gains literary respect—now that the standard by which literature is judged is its ability to express a moral or political idea of which we approve—there is no room for facetiousness. Facetiousness implies that you are not taking your ideas seriously. It implies that the world is not a serious place, or at least that you do not spend all your waking hours shaking your head at the injustice of it.

Therefore, to be taken seriously as the queen of American literary periodicals, the New Yorker must not be facetious any longer. It must repudiate art for art’s sake and embrace art for the sake of the uplift.

Fortunately, one blessing of advanced age is the ability to see that what appears to the current generation as immutable truth is a briefly passing fad, and we can be confident that the New Yorker or some successor will soon embrace pure art again, perhaps as early as a few decades from now.

But if you have not the patience to wait that long, you know where to look for literature as pure art right now. You have found its address.