Caricature and New York

Camera Work, April 1909

No. 26, pp. 17-18

ART being the record of the self-consciousness of man, New York is naturally incapacitated from appreciating the works of the men who in the midst of the city’s mad money-frenzy are doing something for the æsthetic advancement of the American people. New York is not yet self-conscious; the American people is not yet self-conscious. Until the senseless material orgy is at an end and the brain ceases to be the handmaiden of the belly, art must wait.

Especially is this so of the great and revealing art of caricature. The New-Yorker is as temperamentally unfitted for appreciating caricature as he is from experiencing emotion before an engraving of Felicien Rops or a great play like Ibsen’s Rosmersholm. Always this finer, the supersensible, the subtle, the ironic escapes his fat mind. He, being still a child, must have the pretty and the pleasant. In matters artistic he is the Candy Kid. To him the truth about anything is a kind of infamy. In caricature, he scents ugliness, missing entirely the intellectual principle, the ironic twinkle.

The exhibitions of caricature which have been given from time to time in New York have been poorly attended. Very little or almost nothing has been sold at these exhibitions. The exhibition which was held here in 1904—an exhibition which gave us the best work of Sem, Cappiello, Fornaro and Max Beerbohm—resulted in the sale of a few of the Beerbohms, probably because Beerbohm’s “art” comes nearer the comic Valentine stage than any one else’s. And the comic Valentine is still confounded with caricature in this country.

An exhibition of caricature lately held in the Little Gallery of the Photo-Secession on Fifth Avenue was treated jocularly by a few reviewers and comparatively neglected by the public. These caricatures were among the most remarkable ever seen in New York. They were the work of Mr. Marius de Zayas; and, of course, were caviare to the general. Mr. de Zayas, like Sem, Cappiello and Fornaro, insists that his art must be taken seriously. And why not? A caricaturist, like a great novelist, a great painter, a great sculptor, sees the human race in his own way, his unique way, his own terribly sincere way. He, like them, is a divinizing psychologist.

The caricaturist has his message. But here in New York it so happens that this message carries at its core the one great sin, which is a violation of the Anglo-Saxon injunction: Thou shalt not commit irony! To the caricaturist the world exists to be sneered at. And this sneer is a serious matter. Swift, Voltaire and Flaubert—their works are a deadly sneer, a cosmic sneer, a ghastly sneer; a sneer rooted in perception. It is so, too, with the great caricaturist. His sneer is the sneer of all wisdom, the unarithmetical sneer of Aristophanes, the kindly-malicious wink of Cervantes.

For the poet the world exists to be wondered at; for the scientist the world exists to be analyzed; for the religious devotee the world exists to be [18] overcome; for the caricaturist the world exists to be sneered at. And to sneer in New York—well, artistically it means to take up your pack and walk.

Then, the original mind in New York has the moral canker to contend with. A thing must be good or evil, it must be tainted with the New England strain; it must be moral. Caricature is the art that is “beyond good and evil”—to use the pregnant phrase coined by Nietzsche. Sem, the great French caricaturist, says it is impossible to caricature a “good” face because goodness tends to stupidity. Where there is character there is always something of evil; that is, pain, rebellion, struggle, life-and-death. “How can caricature elevate the masses?”—we hear our socialistic East-Side workers asking us. A question that is at once stupid and superfluous. The caricaturist comes to slit your mask of smugness and conformity and create mirth in your brain. To him morals are myths.

Nor is the art of the caricaturist an amiable art—and in New York amiability is a cardinal principle of success. In art amiability is a vice; in caricature it is worse than a vice; it is ridiculous. Sem and de Zayas and Simpson sting and bite. These men are big in so far as they are pitiless. The caricaturist flings your face on paper, and if you shudder at the epiphany of your curtained secrets—as in that wonderful picture of Réjane by Sem—it is because you fear this peering trespasser in your soul. And when he sees the bourgeois shudder—that is the sign by which he knows he has done greatly.

This art is a stringent, peremptory art. It has a logic based on acute insight, a remorseless logic that runs down to its extremest esoteric secret, that hardly perceptible line around the mouth or the wavering look in the eye. And the logic of a face or gesture is seldom flattering. It stings like truth.

It is by this deft distortion—or rather accentuation—of mere fact that the caricaturist shocks. In a single line he will bring each hair to judgment—because each hair, to him, has character. He loves the human race for the mistakes it has made. He is a sneering seer, a prankish Mephisto, with just a touch of Hamlet’s malady. If he is sometimes fantastic and grotesque in his work it is because life seems to him fantastic and grotesque; it will seem so to any one who stands high enough up the mental rungs and looks down. And when the New York mind gets out of the gutter long enough and mounts these rungs of perception it will come to understand and appreciate the caricature.

Benjamin de Casseres.