When the call came, Art Spiegelman said, his interior monologue became a dialogue of dueling opinions. The MacDowell Colony arts organization in New Hampshire wanted to bestow upon the cartoonist its 2018 honor, which has previously gone to such creative titans as Stephen Sondheim, Georgia O'Keeffe, Toni Morrison and David Lynch. The award once went to the great Looney Tunes animator Chuck Jones, but Spiegelman would be the first person in the event's nearly six decades to receive the Edward MacDowell Medal for achievement in comic art.
It became a debate "among my lower and higher selves," said Spiegelman, who is best known as the first person to win a Pulitzer Prize for graphic novels, for his Holocaust epic and family memoir "Maus." With a certain mischief in his voice, Spiegelman, 70, said that he thought: "The last thing I need is another lifetime achievement award."
Yes, Spiegelman said wryly, perhaps he didn't need this, even though, he notes, "I have a voraciously puny sense of self — like most cartoonists I know." But then he thought about what it means to finally have a cartoonist represented on such an august roster of artists from genres such as classical music, literature, visual arts, theater arts and jazz. The first award went to Thornton Wilder in 1960, and it has been presented annually at a "medal day" ever since.
Perhaps his acceptance would lead to more cartoonists being recognized, Spiegelman said, noting that he's spent years trying to open gates for other cartoonists. The prize is part of an artist-in-residency program designed to promote creative projects on the MacDowell Colony campus.
"This is a worthy place for artists to do what they do without the wolves at our door," Spiegelman said, because we as a society "need our art and culture. We have no minister of culture in this country, so it falls to the private sector. And art gives you a deeper look at what is going on around you. What's recorded by artists helps us make [sense] of it all."
His "Maus: A Survivor's Tale" won the Pulitzer in 1992, helping alter the wider perception of comics as true art. As a bestselling author, he wrote and drew "Breakdowns" and "In the Shadow of No Towers," and he continues to champion woodblock storytellers and other artists who he says should be appreciated under the rubric "graphic novelists."
The MacDowell Medal selection panel was chaired by the graphic novelist Alison Bechdel ("Fun Home"), who said: "Spiegelman is one of the most inventive, internationally celebrated and influential living cartoonists. Over the past five decades, he has exploded the narrative, visual and structural possibilities of comics, and in the process has shifted the terrain of modern literature."
She curated a selection panel that included comics industry figures Hillary Chute, Julia Jacquette, James Sturm and Gene Luen Yang.
"The increased cultural prominence of comic art and its once wayward practitioners can largely be laid at the feet of a single artist: Art Spiegelman," Pulitzer-winning author and MacDowell Colony chairman Michael Chabon said. He and MacDowell Colony executives presented the medal this month.
Composer Edward MacDowell and his wife, pianist Marian MacDowell, founded the MacDowell Colony in 1907 to nurture the arts, leading to thousands of artist residencies. The MacDowell Medal recognizes artists who have made outstanding contributions to American culture.