Difficult to be kind

Tanya Devaeva, November 6, 2012

The New Yorker magazine has such a good professional reputation that it’s already cool for an illustrator when his/her illustration is published there. A better thing is to draw its cover. It’s a weekly magazine and since 1925 the publishers and art-directors have made a fetish of its cover. Its peculiarity is that the cover illustrates not the text of the publication but the atmosphere, trend, fashion and customs. There is no other place to explain what happens and why. That is to say, the picture itself deals with a story of life.

Some of the covers caused a sensation. As a rule, they were provocative or satirical illustrations on the social and political subjects. For example, there was a classical 1976 cover, an illustration titled "View of the World from 9th Avenue". The “New Yorkistan” cover had some cultural resonance in the wake of September 11, and became a popular print and poster. There also were the pictures of an African American woman kissing an orthodox Jew, a cheerful Muslim Obama family and a cover with black twin towers against a black background.

It’s obvious that the magazine has enough intellectual sources to make its every cover ironical or provocative. But the art directors do it in a different way. In the emotional palette they also have sentimentality like watching the beauty of the fist snow or the kids and dogs in an autumn park. All the things you normally can’t help admiring but find it difficult to confess as that’s not what is considered to be an adult thing. It’s too naive and straightforward. No irony, no scepsis, no pessimism, no drama, no screwed-up eyes means that the artist is a fool. It’s considered to be foolish if you’re kind and you don’t try to conceal it. 

Or there is another traditional theme going back to 1925: the graphic works devoid of a message. Beauty for the beauty, rhyme for the rhyme, plastic art for itself. Where is the substance? It’s nowhere. Just relax and enjoy the pictures.

Such kind of covers should sink in your estimation compared to the more meaningful ones. On the other hand, in the list of covers that the issue has had for a year (or 25 years) they look differently. They give us a wonderful opportunity to keep up with the style differences in illustration, the own retro way the editorial staff has been going, watch the changing props in the city life scenes. They’ll inspire you even against your will and then you’ll understand that to make a good picture in response to the latest events is easier than to make a 70th good and kind Christmas one.

Franсoise Mouly, a current art editor of the New Yorker, has a “Blown Covers” project. Its motto is “The New Yorker’s covers you could never see”. In fact it’s a book and a project, a sort of backstage notes about the process of cover making. There are lots of plucks with comments why they’d been rejected and how they’d got to Mouly’s board all covered with great illustrations. It’s a nice introspective reading for both art directors and illustrators about how to do something with no contempt for each other. Appstore has it.

The project is about the same things, but there’s a challenge for illustrators. Once a month Mouly gives a theme for a fake cover, and during the week everybody can draw and download own variants. Then the editorial staff publishes the works and then choose 13 finalists and one winner who get respect, PR and some prospects. The New Yorker simulator is not a bad game and a quite unpredictable one. It makes you think of what you personally think is true and beautiful.

There has been a thematic Halloween cover contest. As soon as Halloween is right before the election day this year, illustrators practice in combining these two subjects. We find it rather vulgar, but they think it’s ok. And they get many pictures with Obama and Romney at the doorsteps collecting votes instead of sweets, some with the disguises of donkeys and elephants as symbols of the Democrats and the Republicans, Frankenstein voting and Obama in a pumpkin house. We expect the editor to pass them all over, but one of the most straightforward pictures becomes a finalist. And there come some pictures with nice black cats, a couple of pretty witches, a dentist filling the pumpkin’s teeth… And the editor doesn’t like the original idea of touching King-Kong looking in the window of the Empire state building with a basket in its paw.

The New Yorker, a famous illustrated magazine doesn’t give a damn for the freshness of the metaphors. No one will condemn you if your idea is so old that it has whiskers on it but the drawing is perfect. And all these clichés appear in the star covers like that one with the view of the world from Manhattan. Which takes the fourth place in the 40 best covers for the last 40 years according to the American publisher’s society. (And number one is the Rolling Stone cover with naked Lennon and dressed Ono on the bed).

That is all to say that maybe one doesn’t have to be shy if he/she is not original? And sharing the ideas of millions people is not the worst thing. That illustration can be different and a clever person can be kind and sentimental.
If you read the comments on the works of the Blown Covers contest, they are all written in the same way like “Well done, John! Great idea, amazing technique! Happy that you’re a finalist this time. The editors have made the right choice again. Thanks for all you’ve done. Looking forward to the next contest!”  Kindness appears to be possible in the world, but how?