E 5: Amy Kurzweil – New Yorker Cartoonist

1 November 2020

Extract from Amy Kurzweil Interview - No Money for the Arts

Nichola Burton: I have the pleasure of speaking with writer and cartoonist Amy Kurzweil. Now, Amy is also the author of the memoir flying couch, and this received the 2016 New York times editor’s choice award, and her comics appear regularly in the New Yorker. Amy.

Amy Kurzweil: I didn’t want to leave New York. Unlike all the people fleeing the New York pandemic, this was a love inspired move. My partner got a job here, so I followed him. So I’m happy he has a job. I’m sad that I’m not in New York, unlike all the people who are in New York who want to leave, I didn’t want to leave, but

When the lockdown hit, I was in New York on my own and my partner was in California, which is where he had a job. And I guess I just kept feeling like scared that we were going to be a part for, you know, we’d planned to be a part in this kind of way where we were going to be able to see each other here and there for that semester. But I was scared with the pandemic that, you know, we wouldn’t be able to travel. And so I just told him, like, you need to come to New York, you need to, you need to get here somehow. And so he ended up driving across the country with a friend and then we went to stay with my parents in Massachusetts.

And, you know, there was more space there, there was trees. We were able to help my parents with things like groceries and, you know, be together and have our little quarantine group, which, I mean, I couldn’t have predicted that it would be five months of us just kind of in like low population, Massachusetts doing sort of the same thing over and over again, but being safe, you know, at least. And then we just like moved everything online. So I my classes were moved on line. It was sort of a bright spot in my quarantine to be able to do that. And then it was just like just being in one place for months and months.

8 July my cartoon appeared in the New Yorker “ I’m sorry, now that everyone’s home reading, watching movies, educating themselves and reflecting on the meaning of life. There’s just no money for the arts.”


As with everything, whenever there’s an economic upset, the things that feed our soul, like arts and education are the first to go. And I’ve been working in as an artist obviously, but also as a teacher for basically my whole life and as an art, someone in the arts part of teaching. And it’s just like, that’s always the first, you know, I used to work in public schools and like, that was always the first thing to get cut. It was not even a surprise to people like that was just always how it went. And so, you know, that cartoon came out of this like lifelong noticing of that habit and then, you know, fearing that, that was going to happen again and seeing it happen again.

I mean, there’s some reason why we want to start to prioritize science and technology, because we think those are the things that will deliver us from catastrophes. And there’s some truth to that, but I think artists are, you know, especially my friends who do like stand up comedy or any of my friends who do in person teaching, who are having to transition in this way, that they weren’t necessarily prepared for.  

It’s ironic that I just did this constant cross-country move with my partner. I was so sad about leaving these coasts and leaving New York, but actually my work hasn’t changed at all because it’s all in this virtual space.

I think there’s something interesting about technology that like, I mean, there’s a lot of critiques I could make about the way technology has sort of changed the way we appreciate art. The main one, just being how much time we give things. I think that that’s like the kind of drawback of the technologies that we’re inundated with today, you know? So there’s certainly like negatives in terms of us consuming all of our artistic content on screens. But I do think something I’ve noticed about consumption or something I’ve noticed about production of things like writing and comics is that there’s something about the social media world that asks people for like increasing levels of intimacy.

So I’ve noticed, you know, in my newsfeed, like over the years, just this tendency towards autobiography, like people sharing, even, you know, not just my cartoonist friends, but like, or my artist friends, but like everyday people just like are encouraged to share intimate details about their life. There’s something about the platforms that I think, you know, either positively or negatively reward people really like saying how they feel about things and having that reckoning moment of like, here’s the post where I’m going to, you know, like tell all my friends how I really feel or telling my friends that have been going through something difficult. I do think that there’s more development that will come with new technological forms that will facilitate like sort of deepening ways of people sharing their inner lives.

I think with social media where people like are moving away from wanting to show this perfect image of their lives, you know, it was just kind of what, like Instagram and stuff like that was critiqued for encouraging. At first, I do think people are like, no, actually things are terrible. And especially now that it’s the norm that people feel that about what’s happening. There’s been like a kind of a sigh of relief on social media where people can share that. And so, you know, in my classes on, you know, most of my classes, but especially lately, my students have been sharing personal intimate stories of hardship right now, hardship in the past and comics is a really good medium for exploring emotional life.

There’s something cathartic about drawing. So it’s been nice to be able to offer that to people virtually that support to sort of like tell intimate stories.

My grandmother who I call Bubby is 94 years old, she’s still around. I just saw her in Michigan from a safe distance. I was obviously very nervous about coming close to her, as you might expect. She is not, she’s not being irresponsible, but she is not that concerned about the pandemic, given what, you know, what she’s seen in her life. She’s a Holocaust survivor. She actually had typhus when she was 14 years old and recovered from that. She has seen a lot of difficult things. It’s like hard for her to really see the risk to her just because her concept of not fine is people just dropping dead around her. She is doing what she’s supposed to do, but a little bit like rolling her eyes. Which is refreshing, I guess, as long as she’s staying safe. But anyway, to talk more about my book, I started writing that book, I think almost like over 10 years ago now when I was in college, I started the book because I wanted to learn more about what happened to my grandmother, what her survivor’s story was.

I always knew that she was born in the, in Warsaw, that she lived through the worst, the ghetto that everybody in her family died and that she was only one who made it out at age 13. She left her family and survived by disguising herself as a, as a non Jewish person. I’d grown up with that story. And of course you can imagine, like hearing those stories as a, you know, a young person and young adult, it impacts you, especially because I was comparing those stories to store like to my life, which was nothing like that. I was a regular American person who had went to school with my biggest challenge was leaving home to go to college.

In my book I reckon with my relationship to her history to try to understand some things about myself, like why did I have so much anxiety about relatively banal things? I started to sort of answer some of those questions I had about myself by looking into this history, drawing some connections between sort of what she’d experienced and some of the fears that I think I’d internalized. My mother is also a therapist. In my book she’s this character who provides insight into that journey. You know, she’s also my mother, so we have all kinds of tension and love. And so the story that I’m telling about my own family or that I’m telling about my relationship with those women, my mother and my grandmother is interwoven between stories from my grandmother survival story.

And so in terms of how I feel about it now, I still feel really close to the story. It still feels like those themes come up again. And again, for me, you know, especially like, you know, living in close proximity with my parents and you know, that intergenerational stuff that comes up, you know, it feels like I’m still sort of living that story. You know, I just left my home in the East coast and came to California. And so those themes of like leaving home and how you get along with your family and how their history stays with you, I think continue to feel relevant, which is like a sign that I am, you know, I did something, something that I can be proud of in that book.

My Bubby believes that we need to do what we’re supposed to do. But I think from her perspective, it’s okay to stay home because at least you have a home.

It feels like there’s fires everywhere, both literal and metaphorical, but it feels like there’s just like so much terrible stuff happening. And it’s true that there is terrible stuff happening, but when you go outside and you know, you take a walk down the street, people are still okay. People are still going out to eat, sitting outdoors, wearing their masks. There is some semblance of life happening. I think I saw that in New York when I was there, you know, people were in parks, they were taking walks together, being fairly responsible, following social distancing guidelines and being able to like do things like that, you know, here in San Luis Obispo, it’s the same.

In the Music Real E120, Nichola Burton chats with Award winning Author and Cartoonist Amy Kurzweil. Amy is the author of the graphic memoir Flying Couch named a 2016 New York Times Editor’s Choice and a Kirkus Best Memoir of 2016. Her comics appear regularly in the New Yorker. Amy’s cartoon – No Money For The Arts – was published in the New Yorker on 8 July perfectly articulated the very real challenge that now face millions of people around the world who work in the Arts with its headline: “I’m sorry. Now that everyone’s home reading, watching movies, educating themselves, and reflecting on the meaning of life, there’s just no money for the arts.” We talk about her Lockdown experience in the US, the evolution of art as a virtual expression and expression post COVID, possible survival tips from her Grandmother’s story in her book the Flying Couch and review the possibilities for the US in the next few months. 

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