ART YOUNG'S CARTOON HISTORY (1866-1943)
Born shortly after the end of the Civil War and dying in the midst of the Second World War, Art Young's life and art spans the Age of Monopoly, bringing fire and light to some of the most rebellious passages of US history.
Young was born into a successful family of shopkeepers in the small town of Monroe, Wisconsin in 1866. Young chose graphic or cartoon art from an early age as his “road to recognition” because, he recalled, painting could only have limited influence whereas “a cartoon could be reproduced by simple mechanical process and easily made accessible to hundreds of thousands. I wanted a large audience.” After selling his first cartoon to Judge magazine in 1883, Young enrolled at Chicago’s Academy of Design and took a job in the editorial offices of the Evening Mail. There he became a respectable Republican and made his living primarily as a print editorial cartoonist.
As a younger man, Art learned the trade from a legendary group of editors, publishers and cartoonists. In 1888, Art Young moved to New York where he worked for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. After spending a year studying drawing with renowned academic painter William Bourguereau in Paris, Young took an offer from the Chicago Inter-Ocean in 1892, where he had the opportunity to work under Thomas Nast, the most important American political cartoonist of the 19th century. Though Young grew suspicious of Nast’s personal politics (which ran towards an extreme nativism), Nast’s successful campaign against New York’s corrupt machine politician “Boss Tweed” provided Young with proof that cartoonist had the power to affect real political change. “I have always felt,” wrote Art Young in 1927, “that there is more power in my talent than in the mind of a statesman.”
Young’s conversion to Socialism happened gradually, but it crystallized around the events of the Haymarket bombing of 1886. Amidst a citywide general strike for the eight-hour day, an anarchist rally held in Chicago’s Haymarket Square ended in violence when someone threw a bomb into a line of police who had ordered the peaceful rally to disperse. Within the reactionary maelstrom that followed the bombing, Art Young clung to his paper’s belief that the anarchists were part of a conspiracy against civilization itself. “My social awareness remained undeveloped,” he recalled decades later, “I had no perspective on the human conflict, and had not found out how to connect up an effect with its underlying cause.” Yet, Young did get very close to the case when visited the prison and drew the last living portraits of the eight men mere days before one of the men committed suicide and four others were hanged. Years later, Young expressed deep regret for his political ignorance and at the age of thirty-six he realized that he was part of the problem, and that his life and work needed to change.
American Socialism loved conversion narratives. And of the hundreds of "How I Became a Socialist" stories told in these years the shock of the Haymarket bomb and the radical's martyrdom proved a defining moment for a generation.
For Art Young, the effort to reproduce his own revelation in the mind of his audience – to break through the conventions of capitalist common sense – became the primary subject of his increasingly radical cartooning. Middle class moral platitudes, superficial free market economic doctrines and other capitalist “copy book maxims,” provided Art Young with his captions, while his drawings delved deeply into the reality behind the surface appearance of monopoly capitalism.
Having worked for commercial newspapers for decades, it was not until Art joined the editorial board of The Masses that he found full political expression for his work. It was a pleasure for which he received nearly no pay, but, in his words, The Masses “paid a good deal in that coin of consolation, that comfort to the mind when it is relieved of pent up grievances against social conventions and the tyranny of wealth.” Young found a home within the magazine’s critical philosophy and with no restrictions on content or commentary, he took the opportunity to dive into political abstraction, producing a stream of simplified allegories on the nature of class conflict, war and American capitalism’s corruption of civil society and cultural life.
Never content to simply work in pen and ink, Art Young threw himself into political activism. While studying socialism in various New York radical schools, union halls and salons, he took lessons in rhetoric and public speaking to hone his skills on the soapbox and lectern (the anxiety of which he illustrated above). In the years before World War I, Young ran for several city and municipal offices in New York on the Socialist Party ticket. When the Socialist Party opposed American entry into the War, their leaders became targets for the capitalist newspapers, 100% American patriotic vigilantes, as well as countersubversives within the justice department and newly formed FBI. Below we see Young's published response to a demand for his identification from a New York committee investigating wartime disloyalty.
For their opposition to war, Art Young, Max Eastman, Jack Reed and the editors of The Masses stood accused in two federal sedition and criminal conspiracy trials where they faced possible life sentences in a federal prison. Accused of violating the repressive Espionage and Sedition Acts (1917 & 18), Young and his comrades were acquitted in both trials, a rare victory for Freedom of Speech in the midst of the violence and censorship of the Red Scare.
At the peak of the Red Scare in 1919, while his former colleagues at The Masses - Jack Reed and Max Eastman - helped to form the Communist Part of the USA, Art Young busily founded several new magazines of leftist humor and anti-war art, the most important of which is the brilliant, if short-lived, Good Morning. The mild name, according to Young, was a trick to evade the notice of the censors.
In the 1920s, Art Young drew cartoons for a wide range of newspapers and magazines, including Life magazine, Metropolitan Magazine in Washington DC, and The Nation where he served as the official cartoon correspondent for the 1924 presidential election. What makes Art Young unique in the history of American cartooning, is that he maintained his mass audience and elite social contacts all while drawing radical images for the Daily Worker, the New Masses and Red Cartoons, the CPUSA's annual collection of its best cartoons.
"I was much more interested always in drawing cartoons which would strike at a vulnerable point in the armor of the common enemy," wrote Young, "than in battling over the fine points of tactics."
Nevertheless, Art remained a loyal Socialist, and he worked for the party whenever possible.
“I shot a cartoon into the air;
It fell – I know not where,
But after all there’s no regret,
The idea may be going yet.”
- Art Young
In the 1920s Art had moved to Bethel, CT. There he built a home, a studio to work in, and began selling off his original cartoons in annual shows.
In 1936 Art published his third and final journey through hell, Art Young's Inferno: A Journey Through Hell Six Hundred Years After Dante (New York: Delphic Studios, 1934).
In his later years, Young published two autobiographical works and one collection:
On My Way: Being the Book of Art Young in Text and Pictures (New York: Horace Liveright, 1928).
The Best of Art Young. Introduction by Heywood Broun (New York: Vanguard Press, 1936).
Art Young His Life and Times, edited by John Nicholas Beffel (New York: Seridan House, 1939).
When Art Young died in 1943 more than 500 members of New York's art, publishing and radical community came together to celebrate his life and work.