I wish I could fly to New York to see this exhibit more than is possible to describe here. I’ve been a fan of World War 3 Illustrated since I first landed in NYC in the summer of 1988. It wasn’t more than a week before I had seen a striking hand-drawn poster plastered to an abandoned building in Alphabet City showing proletariat fists rising in defiance of police-like figures holding back barking dogs. I remember thinking that I had to meet the person who made this poster. Well, I did. His name was Seth Tobocman and he was an illustrator/artists living in the East Village who was highly involved in social and political movements, something that came through clearly in his art. I was a big fan of Frans Masereel and immediately saw a resemblance in Seth’s work in both style and motivation. I tracked him down after having recognized his bold, graphic style in a local comic/art/zine called World War 3, which I soon found out was published by Seth and his friend and fellow illustrator, Peter Kuper.
Long story short, I managed to get hold of him and met him for an hour or so in his cramped tenement apartment. It was somewhat awkward. I was a student at School of Visual Art in the newly renamed MFA Illustration as Visual Essay program and he was a working illustrator raging against the machine. I think he might have seen me for exactly what I was: an admirer of his work, which I think made him uncomfortable. He seemed to be very cause-driven and didn’t view his work so much as commerce rather than social action. I managed to tape record part of our conversation, though I don’t remember why. The audio is long gone, but I apparently did manage to transcribe it along with some clumsy commentary of my own. This was 22 years ago, so please forgive my prose.
Seth Tobocman on Seth Tobocman (1988)
with a minimal introduction and commentary by Art Thompson
“I almost hate to say this, but if I were in charge of the mass media, I would fire most of the art directors, and most of the artists, and most of the employees, and most of the staff – because they’re not even interested in the things in which they are involved in communicating to the masses. They don’t bother to find out about something until after it becomes an assignment.”
Seth’s imagery has been referred to in many ways by many people with many different opinions, many of which may be valid – at least for the moment. He is fairly young and still learning. And it is to his benefit that he is developing his emerging talents on the printed page.
“The news media is supposed to tell the truth. It’s supposed to inform people. You’re supposed to know what you’re talking about, and then part that information to other people whose jobs and daily routines don’t give them the time to find those things out – which is not their fault. So, they’re relying on you to tell them what’s going on.”
“The press is supposed to come from among the people. It is not supposed to be a separate or alienated institution.”
World War 3 Illustrated is probably the main focus of Seth’s energy. The magazine was started in 1980 by himself and best friend Peter Kuper as an outlet for their own artwork. It has since grown into a thick publication with a large international circulation. The contents vary from wordless stories using strong graphic imagery to more straight- forward comic art with a political or social message. It is a soapbox in which the artists involved take full advantage of their total freedom of expression. To borrow an appropriate quote, The freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.
“I basically put myself over as a professional illustrator. I had to go through periods when I didn’t have work and periods when I did have work. And at this point I’m getting work pretty steadily – and I’m saying what I want to say. I’m not getting mega-bucks, but I am selling work. I’m insisting on it and I think it’s working out.”
“There were times when people wanted me to compromise and I didn’t. And I had to pay dues for several years of very little work. But it was important to do that ’cause I was starting to develop a series of contacts of people who would let me say the things I needed to say. And that’s much more positive in the long run.”
“I think the only way you can live in a commercially oriented capitalist society without being totally weighed down by it is, to some degree, hold on to the bourgeois notion that you can make a living doing something worthwhile. And if you discard that notion, then you should start planting bombs because there really is no place for you in society. Maybe we should all start planting bombs–but that’s not what I’m doing.”
Seth Tobocman considers himself to be not only an artist or an illustrator but also a propagandist. He believes in the free press, in voicing one’s own opinions and challenging the media establishment.
“Most so-called illustrators run from one job to another. They make very little distinction about what that job is or what it means. They know superficial information. One of the reasons why cliché is so popular in illustration is it allows you to act like you know what you’re talking about. I insisted in my life that there was something good about being an artist – something useful about being an artist. Artists tell the truth.”