Auth’s deft pen still speaks mightily, four decades on

    "Great Society," Tony Auth

    Take a look at this drawing from the retrospective exhibition To Stir, Inform and Inflame: The Art of Tony Auth.  It speaks eloquently without using many words. It shows the sun, labeled “Great Society,” being literally eclipsed by a black sphere, marked “Vietnam.”

    Stunningly simple, yet it sums up a volume or two of Robert Caro’s biography of President Lyndon Johnson. Tony Auth did not have the benefit of hindsight like Caro, but rather drew it in real time while events were happening.

    That’s the power of an editorial cartoon. It can tell us what takes writers columns of text to say, and do it in a way that we remember long after seeing, all while having the ever-present deadline to contend with. Few writers, or for that matter cartoonists, have as high a batting average as Tony Auth in getting it right, making it last, and getting it in on time.

    Tony has been part of our lives for more than 40 years in Philadelphia, and through national syndication, across the country. If you lived in Los Angeles, where he began at UCLA’s Daily Bruin and alternative publications, you can add another six years. For many of us, he was with us at breakfast, the morning commute, or a lazy Sunday, at least five days a week when he was at the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for four decades.

    After awards from the Pulitzer on down, spending a lifetime in an industry that is disappearing, and at an age where retirement is the norm, Tony decided instead to not only re-invent himself but his medium as well.

    An innovative second act

    His successful transition to WHYY and its NewsWorks website last year has created a new venue for cartoonists, whose opportunities were never great and who, with print’s implosion, have seen their numbers further diminish. In the process, he discovered what may be the future of cartooning online.

    At WHYY Tony has expanded his palette, drawing not only “political” work, but also tackling cultural subjects in his animated work, as well as contributing to Faye Flam’s “Lightning Rod” science blog and adding art throughout the NewsWorks site. Tony’s work gives NewsWorks a distinct personality much like David Levine’s art was the look of the New York Review of Books.

    Last year more than 85,000 people visited a retrospective of his work at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Bucks County, which I organized in sections much like a website.  Now, I am so pleased that we’ve been able to bring the same exhibit to Tony’s new home at WHYY. You can see his drawings, winding their way through the WHYY building’s first floor, beginning Tuesday, Sept. 24, and running through Nov. 8.

    As you walk through the exhibit, you’ll see areas for local, national, and international news, as well as sections on the economy, the arms race, civil rights and health care. Throughout are sections on the nine presidential administrations that function as a timeline for the show.

    It is a vivid record of the last half-century, and yet it contains enough timeless material to help tell the stories of the future. Many cartoons with short half-lives expired some time ago, but there are a remarkable number of drawings that seem like they were drawn yesterday or could be drawn tomorrow.

    That’s what is interesting to Tony: the drawing tomorrow. The blank page does not care what awards he won, or how accurate he has been, and neither does his audience.

    We want him to consolidate all that is happening in Syria, with Obamacare, Philadelphia schools, marriage equality, or whatever news is breaking right now, and we want him to transmute all of that into a cartoon that we will take 10 seconds to look at, and remember the rest of the day, week, month, or year. That’s fine, because that’s what Tony wants — to be part of the conversation that is taking place right now and in the future.

    Come in to WHYY and eavesdrop on those conversations about what has happened over the last nearly 50 years, and perhaps start the next one.

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