|December 7, 2000
Volume 31 Number 8
|A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico|
Cartoonist Draws From Dark Places
New Yorker cartoonist Peter Steiner admits to a few bad habits. He likes picking scabs, looking under rugs and, when at other people's houses, opening the medicine cabinets. "Doesn't everybody?" the world-renowned cartoonist asked the crowd in the Performing Arts Center Thursday night, November 19. Cheerily titled "With Malice Towards All, My Life as a Cartoonist," his lecture was a lot like his cartoon art: Robed in unobtrusive, trim disguise. It drew listeners in and then whomped them over the head with humor.
It's a formula that works much like Shakespeare's comedies, which to Steiner were his grimmest plays -- those endings where everyone is laughing, and a character suddenly draws back the curtain for a view from the abyss.
"That's how I see cartoons," he said. "They raise serious, important questions, but not too intrusively, with a laugh as a way out." In this same way, Steiner gave a look inside the unassuming speaker in the brown suit and blue-rimmed specs, to a vision of his work and its true purpose: posing difficult questions.
Brought to campus by the American Studies Program, the Humanities Center, and the Departments of History and Art and Art History, Steiner was introduced by his brother, CSU, Chico history professor Dale Steiner.
The Steiner brothers say they grew up in two families: one, the Austrian immigrant family of Peter, which spoke German and struggled to survive in a new country; and the assimilated, Americanized family of Dale, which spoke English and joined a local church. It might define, they say, a striking difference in their ways of being:
Peter the pessimist and Dale the optimist.
Both brothers, however, lived in a rich cultural environment of music, literature, and highly educated European family friends. Peter Steiner remembered going to the opera and being encouraged and supported in his interests and artistic talents by his mother, who had studied to be a concert pianist.
Dale Steiner offered a touching tribute to the brother who taught him to throw a football, and saved him as a youngster by beating up bullies at the bus stop.
The cartoonist was much harder on himself. "I see the world as generally a bleak and dark place," he said, calling it a spiritually bereft planet, where the enterprises of politics and religion are corrupt.
The connection between Steiner's immigrant roots and cartoon art may be the sense of always being the outsider. It is the basic point of view from which he represents the world he sees. He defines himself through a slogan borrowed from an old Danny Kaye movie, Me and The Colonel, which reads, "The situation is hopeless, but not serious." It's a sentiment he followed in leaving his secure teaching job 20 years ago to follow his love of art. After two and a half years of struggle, he hit the big time, selling his first cartoon to The New Yorker. To date he's sold more than 400 cartoons to this American icon, and many others that appear regularly in The Washington Times and The Standard.
Despite his success, Steiner feels cartooning is a dying art, unsuited to our growing need for flash and speed. "Cartoons are the opposite," he said. "They ask for a moment of calm and reflection." The very traits that have helped elevate his own work to art.
"I'm obsessed with myself," he admitted about the ego exposed in his work. "One of the most exciting things I ever did was to go into therapy, because it was all about me. Good, bad, ugly, it didn't matter."
Not that he always trusts the answers. "I can't seem to believe in something without believing a little in its opposite," he added. "Because to me it feels like believing in something stops you from thinking about it."
His stance leaves him with opinions on everything, "even subjects I haven't the foggiest notion about." Yet the world remains a bizarre place, full of unique and peculiar individuals, and his cartoons are carefully designed to reflect this.
As if he's staging a play, Steiner pours through newspapers, looking not only for the right subject, but for the right character, the exact piece of furniture, and the correct way to button a suit.
Staying loose enough so the ideas come is more perspiration than inspiration, he noted, and he works daily, but limits the duration because he feels his art is drawn from a not-very-deep well -- "one I have to replenish often," he said, "since I can feel my fingers digging into the mud on the bottom."
Yet, like the paradoxes in the man himself, his work has given him a life that he said suits him wonderfully. "I like to confront you for an instant with the bitter truth in disguise," he explained. "It's there, oblique and dangerous to look at. I don't recommend it."
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