When you ask the man on the street to define art, you usually hear, painting, drawing, maybe, sculpture. That's typical but it's no definition of art. It's merely a LIST of arts. Even among the art community, while maybe we agonize over THE "definition of art;" in terms of our thought processes, we too, tend to LIST arts rather than DEFINE art. And as if that weren't bad enough, all too often we have a rather SHORT list. We may go a little beyond painting, drawing, and sculpture, but we don't quickly add things like calligraphy for instance, or quilting, or film-making. Part of this oversight is mere thoughtlessness, but all too often it also reflects something worse, an unconscious prejudice as well. Without realizing it, we tend to think in terms of our own art as KING and everyone else's as some lower life form. Take cartooning, for instance. When's the last time you heard a cartoonist's work compared to that of Pablo Picasso or Marcel Duchamp? Well, listen carefully, that's what they're saying about cartoonist, Saul Steinberg.
Saul Steinberg was born in 1914 in Romania. He studied at the University of Bucharest, then went to Italy for a Ph.D. in architecture in 1940. Even before that, he discovered a talent for cartooning. With the war, Steinberg fled Europe landing in New York. Almost instantly he was a success, not as an architect, but as a cartoonist. The New Yorker magazine published his first cartoon in 1941. It was, if you can picture this, a reverse centaur. During the war, he served in the US Navy doing everything from teaching Chinese guerillas how to blow up bridges to producing counter-propoganda aimed at bolstering anti-Nazi groups in Germany.
After the war, he returned to New York, becoming a died-in-the-wool Manhattanite, sure in his own mind that the island he shared with 2 million others was the center of the whole universe. He even drew cartoons to PROVE it. Never forgetting his architectural roots, many of his cartoons and watercolor cityscapes reflected his fantasies regarding his forsaken career. Yet there was a sharply defined pessimism growing out of his close contact with urban street life, pictures of Mickey Mouse clad as a terrorist, militaristic doormen as soldiers, and tourist-frightening street maps that were really mazes. No less an art critic than Harold Rosenberg described him as, "...a writer of pictures, an architect of speech and sounds, and a draftsman of political reflections." Saul Rosenberg was an artist with cartoons. He died yesterday, May 13, 1999. He was 84.