In New York City in the 1890s
on the corner of Mulberry and Houston Streets, an extraordinary handful of people held forth from their various corners. The means they used to project their feelings and aspirations were all radically different from one another and also a departure from anything the world had ever seen before. They were each also preoccupied with the inequalities and injustices that characterized life for the average person in their time and they were each determined to change the course of their society’s history. What is amazing is, they each did. Each needed to re-define what could be, even should be. What they each realized was, that making such a breakthrough required them to invent a new medium, so fresh that it could convey their fierce determination to their fellow-creatures, where mere words could never work. What a crew they were.
This show, here until September 15th, is intended to bring attention to some of the remarkable individuals who once worked in this neighborhood and had outsized positive influences over our lives.
Weekly PUCK magazine, published in the adjacent PUCK building for 40 years from 1877 to 1917, not only forced politicians to pay more attention to the critical issues of their day but also inspired the rank irreverence that brought my generation MAD magazine and Stephen Colbert. The masthead of PUCK, which proclaimed Shakespeare’s acid judgment “What Fools These Mortals Be”, was mirrored in our age by MAD’s sardonic “What, Me Worry?”. Published 75 years later, founded, interestingly, a mere one block south of PUCK’s headquarters, it also gave aid and comfort to the REALIST, a journal of “social-political-religious criticism and satire” which many regards as the father of the modern “Underground Press” of the 60-s and ’70s. Using humor to foster a better appreciation of some of the toxic forces which have had so much influence over our lives is essential, in both sharpening our understanding of them and as a guide to finding the best ways to counteract them.
As Mark Twain said, “Irreverence is the champion of liberty and its only sure defense”.
Along with Joseph Keppler the founder and lead artist of PUCK, the other members of this Gang, were Jacob Riis, who illuminated our underside using explosive flash photography, Nikola Tesla, the greatest inventor of our time, his friend and frequent visitor, Mark Twain, and Police Commissioner and crusading corruption reformer Theodore Roosevelt. When he became an accidental President, TR took what he had learned from these important social critics and applied much of it to his political philosophy. In sum, we are only able to be as realistic as we are about our current condition, because of the raw honesty which these people brought to the table. Some might be distressed that 125 years later, we still have so far to go in representing our existence with the frankness that it deserves and requires.
There is no end to the irony that the PUCK building is now owned by a person, Jared Kushner, likely to have been one of the magazine’s primary targets in its heyday. Mis-use of power was the most dangerous failing that the magazine abhorred and the current abandonment of truthfulness would have provided them with an infinitude of material. When facts cease to be real, this goes far beyond differences of opinion. Sowing confusion and misunderstanding among the public can fatally undermine the social contract. We have too few institutions dedicated to preserving our values and principles and an unlimited number devoted to increasing consumption and broadcasting the importance of materiality. Many views with horror the disappearance of empathy, as it is replaced by one-dimensional naked self-interest. As more time is spent staring at a little screen than engaging in the honest conversation we look forward to an awakening that will restore our ability to connect fully with all of those around us.
The exhibit will now include the best of the political cartoons being produced today. The more serious our issues become, the more important it will be to find a perspective that takes in the whole picture and allows us to recognize the humor, absurdity, and universality of our condition. The hope is that this may serve to make it easier for us to take action on behalf of our most important needs, together and effectively.
We can hardly imagine the courage it took, over a century ago, on this spot, to take on the worst examples of inhumanity, the biggest bullies and brutes at loose, and beat a bunch of them to a pulp. Nikola Tesla put the great Thomas Edison in his place. PUCK magazine lowered the boom on General Grant and the monopolies. Jacob Riis dared the gangsters whose victims he exposed with his exploding magnesium light to shut him down. Twain became the scourge of the racists and imperialists. Teddy Roosevelt really got under the skin of the mighty Republican Party.
These ambitious and creative individuals forged brand new weapons, to be employed in forcing the broadest social betterment. From the cutting-edge hi-tech color comics of PUCK to the acid ridicule dispensed by Mark Twain’s monologues, TR’s National Park System and Tesla’s radio, AC and water power, and Riis’ shocking images, a drive to benefit everyone, to the maximum degree, is what obsessed this crew. They all had their flaws, but we are all their beneficiaries. Their drive, creativity, and generosity were as rare in their own time as they are today.
It is especially important that the journalism that is represented here, the search for the truth, the realities of our existence, be given its due. We will have a hard time surviving without the wisdom and perspective that it brings. Even though corporate-supported media may not give us the widest range of views, we are now in a time when even the most basic assumptions about our rights are under a fierce attack and the importance of establishing the facts that must be used to determine our condition is crucial. Let us celebrate the gifts that have been provided to us in the past and honor them by supporting the best examples of this degree of honesty and relevance, whether it is political cartooning or revealing documentaries, painfully-honest truth-telling (with a dose of humor), breakthroughs in clean-energy or unconventional office-seekers. We have never needed to acknowledge and celebrate, those willing to recognize and respond to our greatest challenges, more than we do today.