Anthony Haden Guest
The year before he died last November at 88, Robert Morris, the Minimalist,
published a brilliant, provocative text, Toward The Cartoon. The cartoon element in Les
Demoiselles d’Avignon gets his early attention, and he goes on to reference “Francis
Bacon, Philip Guston, Claes Oldenburg, Romare Bearden, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy
Warhol, Bruce Nauman, Kara Walker, to name but a few artists in recent memory who
have mined the vein of the cartoon.”
It would be lovely to report that cartoonists have been delighted to see their world
strip-mined by artists. Sadly, not. Cartoonists have been taking potshots at the avant-
garde since back when there actually was an avant-garde. And the pot-shotters have
included cartoon greats. Such as the New Yorker’s Pete Arno, who captioned a drawing
of a gallery-goer saying of an Ab Ex canvas “His splatter is masterful but his dribbles
“Art is dead! There’s nothing left to say. Style is exhausted and content is pointless,”
Calvin says in Bill Watterson’s much missed Calvin and Hobbes. “Art has no purpose. All
that’s left is commodity marketing. Consequently I’m signing this landscape and you can
own it for a million dollars,” says Calvin, the small boy. Yves Klein who actually did sign
the sky in the early 60s is not credited. Hobbes, Calvin’s toy tiger sidekick, stalks off,
saying: “Sorry. It doesn’t match my furniture.” Calvin’s conclusion? “The problem with
being avant-garde is knowing who’s putting on who.”
It’s pretty basic, I think. Fine art and cartoonery are different practices. Not apples &
oranges/ chalk & cheese different, but different. There’s an element of mystery to
painting, often an inherent ambiguity or something concealed. You find Mondrian and
Malevitch austerely painterly? Both were Theosophists. Chance is often a player. Also –
ask almost any artist - stuff may get into a painting that he or she didn’t plan on putting
there. Picasso - yes, that man again - said “If your painting doesn’t go wrong, it will be no
This is absolutely not so for cartooning. A cartoon is a vehicle for the swift
transmission of a comic idea and anything that slows this process down kills the joke.
Too much visual craftiness will kill the joke. As will a confusing narrative and irrelevant
information. Unless, of course – this being the cartoonist’s Get Out Of Jail Free card – a
sense of sinking in an art swamp or being trapped in a baffling story are the joke.
So what am I up to myself? Not being greatly attracted to that very current form, the
Artist’s Statement, I’ll keep it brief. Just that there’s no reason why a cartoon shouldn’t
hold its place on a page or a wall just as strongly as a piece of fine art does. And that
this should enable rather than smother the cartoon idea. Okay? Phew!
I’ll end on an upbeat note. Two (related) forces are moving towards relevance to the art
world, as to the world at large: Artificial Intelligence and robotics. Algorithms can
simulate individual art practices, make plausible abstractions, tamper interestingly with
But robots can’t do humor. Yet.
Anthony Haden-Guest is a writer, reporter and cartoonist.
He was born in Paris and lives in New York and London.
He has published in leading magazines in Britain and America, most recently in Esquire and GQ (UK) and Britain’s Observer Magazine.
In 1979 he was awarded a New York Emmy for writing and narrating a documentary, The Affluent Immigrants (sometimes less politely known as Eurotrash) for PBS.
His most recent books are True Colors: The Real Life of the Art World (Grove Atlantic), The Last Party: Studio 54, Disco and the Culture of the Night (William Morrow & Co,) and a book of cartoons, The Chronicles of Now (The Allworth Press), as well as the latest: In The Mean Time (Frieght Volume). He currently writes for The Daily Beast, Artnet, and is the editor Charles Saatchi’s online magazine.