The Outrage of a Comic Master: Edward Sorel's Subversive Career

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The School of Visual Arts honors Sorel this month with a 'Masters Series' exhibition of his illustrations for many of the major magazines

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Edward Sorel's inspiringly subversive career as a caricaturist and commentator has spanned more presidents than he can throw a crow-quill pen at. Since John F. Kennedy, he's actually skewered all the presidents and vice presidents; many senators, congressmen, and mayors; and all manner of famous and infamous persons, without fear and only a hint of favor. He's created comic bestiaries of boastful buffoons, aviaries of foul fowl, and pounds galore of dirty dogs -- politicians, statesmen, and businessmen all.

For well over fifty years, Sorel has been a crusading caped caricature avenger attacking folly with wit and venality with satire. His elegantly fluid line is not as easy as it looks, though his comic ideas flow like water. Beginning tomorrow, and running through November 5, the School of Visual Arts (SVA) will honor him with "The Masters Series" exhibition, which brings "greater exposure to those whose influence has been felt strongly and by many, yet without widespread recognition," according to the mandate.

Sorel is not without recognition, but it is always a treat to see his work gathered together en masse. I recently spoke to him about the current state of art, politics, and humor.

You've produced satire during some pretty eerie political periods, how does the current social, religious, and political era compare to, say, the Vietnam and Nixon period?

Right-wing forces are still ignoring facts and promoting divisiveness. Liberals are still gutless. Religion is still the greatest threat to peace and self expression. Nothing has changed except that we now have a president who says he's a black man, and now have homosexuals who can marry and be as bored as married straights are. The only big difference is that I am now old. My sense of outrage at the stupidity and cruelty of those in power remains the same, but my desire to do anything about it has atrophied.

I believe your caricatures and cartoons have made a huge difference on certain audiences. Do you think you've made an impact?

I never had any illusions that my cartoons would change anything. Their function was to assure others, who already thought as I did, that they were not alone. In short, I was expressing their feelings when I expressed my own. Political cartoons are hateful unless you agree with them.

Story continues after the gallery.

Years ago, I watched as you suffered over the precise drawing of details. What's most important to you: the craft, the gesture, the idea?

Being self-centered, shallow, and ego-driven, I suspect what is most important to me is fame. If drawing well will get me recognition as an artist, I'm willing to take an enormous amount of time with every drawing. But there is a nobler aspect to it as well. It's a desire for excellence. Ideas have always come easy to me, so I value my good drawings more than I do my concepts.

You used to appear in all of the major magazines. There are fewer outlets for acerbic visual commentary, and the web is not the same as print. Is it harder for you to get your ideas out into the public?

Yes, there are very few outlets now for comment, but that is a concern for younger satirists. I now want to do books or murals. They have longer staying power than anything that appears in magazines.

Does that really matter to you?

It matters to me that The Nation now has an editor who is oblivious to the opportunity that the magazine has to be the repository for daring political art, as the old The Masses was. But personally it is of no consequence.

Where do your children's books fit into your oeuvre? I see them as flights of nostalgia and wish fulfillment for you. Am I right?

After I did The Saturday Kid, which was somewhat autobiographical, I lost all interest in children's books. The children's books that I created were always a way for me to try out new approaches to drawing. Some were successful, some were not, but I learned from all of them.

What does this SVA "Masters Series" exhibit mean to you?

More than I can articulate. It is both an affirmation of my place among the leading comic artists of my time, and an invitation to stand shoulder to shoulder with old friends who are past recipients: Jules Feiffer, Milton Glaser, and Seymour Chwast.

Image: Crush Hour, The New Yorker (January 31, 1994)/Edward Sorel.

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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