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A Profession of Courage: Q&A with Risk-Taking Illustrator Steve Brodner

Steve Brodner is an illustrator, caricaturist and veteran Continuing Education faculty with over three decades working as a professional satirist. Having honed his craft since the Nixon era, he is currently experiencing an unprecedented demand for his virtuosic mega-compositions and punchy moment-to-moment political commentary on the Trump administration. In addition to contributing to almost every major North American print publication, including The Nation, The Washinton Post, The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, Brodner maintains a remarkably constant social media feed, and a full schedule of teaching at SVA. He began with SVA Continuing Education in 1993, and currently teaches Illustration: Rules of the Road, a primer on the process and best practices of illustration, and Pow! The Art of Politics: Creating Art That Packs a Punch, an online course aimed specifically at political content. (Be sure to follow him on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and visit his website at stevebrodner.com.)

As an artist and teacher, Brodner’s method is one of courage and clarity. “Write drunk; edit sober,” he often states, quoting Hemingway. For Brodner, a successful illustration depicts “one fine idea” and as he’s discovered through years of experience, “rarely is the first one the best.” His pedagogical refrain is, “Work it out in the sketching!” He will modestly tell you this is all he has to offer, but what Brodner really teaches is disciplined risk-taking: he is a professor of courage.

We had the pleasure of sitting down for an interview with Brodner after his Wednesday evening class. We asked him his thoughts on The Emperor’s New Clothes, changing times, and making work that gets under people’s skin.

SG: You began your career in 1972 during the Nixon era. Can you compare that experience to today, under Trump?

SB: The days of Watergate were completely different, of course. Print was king and what was printed in The New York Times and The Washington Post had much more of an impact than it has today. If a news organization was sleazy or trafficked in incorrect information, it would quickly be marginalized. Today, we have sites that can pander to numbers of consumers of information that will not be held to any journalist standard at all! The Internet, we see, is a perfect medium for molding “information for sale.” And if you are in the business of selling a click product driven by emotion, the truth doesn't have to enter into the equation at all. So Donald Trump, who lies much more than Nixon did, can sell a long list of lies and hardly have to face up to any condemnation by the establishment media. I suspect that the forces of journalism and civil society will yet figure out how to organize against these trends. These are scary times. And very challenging ones.

SG: The fake news issue is absolutely terrifying. This brings to mind an assignment you gave in your course Illustration: Rules of the Road, based on The Emperor’s New Clothes. Do you see the honesty of political satire functioning as the child in the tale who reveals that the Emperor is naked? And do you ever feel uneasy about what you reveal?

SB: That's a pretty interesting metaphor, the little naive truth-teller. I think we all would like to be that brave little person. The difference between advertising and editorial, of course, is that editorial at least gives you the chance to tell the truth. I am invested in editorial work and have never really left the world of cultural and political commentary. I don't feel uneasy about doing the strongest possible work. We have all been threatened, or on the receiving end of an angry reaction. I consider that to be a mark of distinction. I will say to people who complain about a piece that is particularly strong, “I'm glad I got under your skin.”

SG: How many hours a day do you spend reading the news? How many hours processing and sketching?

SB: On days when I am not teaching I am consuming great amounts of news and sketching at the same time. An hour or so per day with newspapers and websites in the morning. Then through the day I hear broadcasts and have periodicals and books read to me by an app that I have. I do get to sleep from time to time!

SG: Do you have any words of advice for cultivating this type of artistic courage?

SB: Courage is a big part of being creative. The world does not want you to be creative. It much prefers that you consume things. It doesn't make any money off of you if you write a poem, or paint a picture. Consuming only leaves one wanting to consume more. I have found it there is nothing as satisfying is being creative. You are in touch with deep resources and with yourself. This leads to greater self-knowledge. And a hard to define feeling of well-being.

It is a brave and lonely life that artists lead. One never knows if one’s work will be accepted. One never knows if one will feel successful in the work. My courses are designed to get you over that first difficult moment. We read an assignment together and then talk about it. And then we sketch expecting ideas of varying levels of interest. But always keep the knowledge that as long as you are sketching you are going to be generating elements that you can use. And you will ultimately, always, be successful.

I do discuss the idea of people who climb rocks with the full expectation that somewhere along the face of the mountain they will find a place that will enable them to advance. This is not something anyone can predict, except in the general sense. And rock climbers bet their lives on this concept. And so have I and all my freelancer friends. But even if you never do the crazy freelance thing, the courage of creating art is something that we can all learn. And, in many ways, it brings riches to your life.

Steve Brodner is participating in SVA Continuing Education’s “Art & Activism” panel on Wednesday, September 6 at 6:30pm at the SVA Theatre, 333 West 23rd Street. For more information and the full list of participants, click here.

A version of this article originally appeared in SVA Continuing Education’s Fall 2017 newsletter.

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