Political Cartoon, Comix and the Uncensored Artistic Mind
Warning: Graphic Content
409 pages, e-book, 2014
$8.26 on Amazon
The attack on the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo showed the world once again how powerful cartoons are, and how dangerous. Mainstream media have been wary to publish the controversial cartoons that ran in Charlie Hebdo, out of fear of reprisals.
There is perhaps no better time to write a review of Warning: Graphic Content, an e-book written by US cartoonist Mr. Fish (aka Dwayne Booth). Mr Fish is an artist that is familiar with controversy. Warning deals with the power of (controversial) cartoons. In his book, he describes cartoonists as as '...a pest tasked with the mosquito-like responsibility of disrupting complacency...'.
Some say the profession of political cartoonist is in decline; I am not sure I agree with that statement, but the profession is in a state of transition. Where this transition will take us, we don't know yet. In 2010, US cartoonist Daryl Cagle wrote a piece giving tips to cartoonists how to better sell their work. Sadly, this article is no longer online, but an excerpt is available here. In short, Daryl advises cartoonists that the best way to please timid editors is to avoid controversy. He goes on to say that cartoons with celebrities are more popular than cartoons with politicians, and that obituary cartoons are certain to sell well.
If Daryl's perspective is at one end of the spectrum, Mr. Fish's book is on the other. Although certainly not optimistic about the current state of things, Warning explains why controversy and hard-hitting satire are essential components of the political cartoon.
This isn't the first book that's written about the power of cartoons. In 2013, we reviewed Victor Navasky's The Art of Controversy, a review of controversial cartoons through the centuries. But the approach and scope of Warning are novel. Instead of using a chronological order, the author jumps back and forth through time. This approach is not only refreshing, it also allows the author more freedom to compare cartoons and artworks from different time periods. Mr Fish has also broadened the scope by broadening the definition of what he considers to be a political cartoon. His selection includes paintings, sculptures, poetry and even performance art.
Cartoons have, since their inception, been considered a form of 'low art' (if they were considered art at all), but in my opinion Mr. Fish is quite correct to put them on par with other art that makes a social statement. What the book succeeds in doing is to make us reflect on the nature of art, and the role of art in society. Mr. Fish focuses on the ability of art to upset the status quo, to mobilize people and to inspire change.
In a way, Warning is a guided tour through a museum full of unexpected surprises, its pages filled with art you had not seen before, and familiar art seen in a new light. Structured like a play with different acts, the book is interspersed with conversations with people such as Noam Chomsky and Art Spiegelman.
It's not an easy book. In addition to the complex subject matter, the tendency of the author to use sentences that are a paragraph long can leave you feel exhausted after reading a few pages. The way the book is structured is novel, but it does hinder the construction of a clear argument. Mr. Fish's main point is that good social art should inspire people to take action. He often refers to the underground comix scene of the 1960s and 1970s with a certain nostalgia, but I would like to have seen more on his perspective on where social art is headed and where it should be headed. Because the book lacks a structured argument and a conclusion it indeed feels like the thoughts of the uncensored mind jotted down on paper. But sometimes, a little (self-)censorship might not be such a bad thing.
The critique above notwithstanding, the book is a worthy effort and certainly worthy of reading by anyone with a keen interest in art and society. There are not that many books that focus on political cartoons, and even less that do this as eloquently as Warning. Plus, you'll find out why New Yorker cartoon suck.
(Author's note: I've illustrated this review with some of the art that's featured in Warning. To find out why these are significant, I recommend you buy the book.)
Although the best response to the attack on Charlie Hebdo is in the form of cartoons, here's a recap of last week by Cartoon Movement editor Tjeerd Royaards.
First, there was shock. A brutal and senseless murder of 12 people and a vicious attack on freedom of expression. Then there was indignation and anger. An overwhelming conviction that violence cannot and will not stop satire. This emotion was not just felt by me, but by many, many cartoonists around the globe.
Within hours of the attack, the first cartoons were uploaded to our newsroom. A trickle soon became a flood, and that flood has been going ever since. It is my sincere hope we can keep this momentum going, because that's how satire will not only overcome this tragedy, but will come out stronger on the other side.
If there is to come any good out of this terrible tragedy, it should be a reaffirmation of the importance of social satire. And social satire cannot exist without the freedom to provoke, the freedom to insult. The feeling of unity among cartoonists has been wonderful, as has been the massive support for cartoons throughout Europe and throughout the world. Last Thursday, Cartoon Movement had over 1.5 million visitors, proving to us that we are not alone in our belief that cartoons matter. We even received cartoon submissions from non-cartoonists, stating that, despite not being able to draw, they felt the need to make a cartoon to show their solidarity. Many of our cartoonists shared their view on events in the media, including artists from the Arab World, like Sherif Arafa on CNN and Khalid Albaih on Al Jazeera.
Sherif Arafa on CNN.
Political cartoons are in the spotlight now, but we must work to keep them on the agenda. For it is when we, as a society, do not continue to reaffirm the importance of satire, that the risk of censorship, self-imposed or otherwise, is greatest. A cartoonist will be most courageous if he or she feels supported by the media and by the rest of society.
Although the media certainly seemed to wholeheartedly support cartoonists in the wake of the attack, this support proved to be dubious, and might even be considered a greater threat to political cartooning than any terrorist attack could ever hope to be. US cartoonist Ted Rall was the first to point this out in an excellent piece that appeared on the website of the LA times. In their search for ever more clicks, news websites quickly realized the potential to post Charlie Hebdo tribute cartoons to generate huge traffic streams. Lots of cartoonists posted their work on Twitter, and the majority of media websites simply embedded the cartoons from the Twitter feed, forgoing the courtesy of asking the artists for permission to show their work, let alone pay for it.
Support for cartoons is great, but it does not pay the bills. If media truly care for political cartoons, then the best way to show their support would be to allocate some of their scarce funds to pay cartoonists for the work they do, instead of trying to find every conceivable way of publishing cartoons for free.
For the purpose of full disclosure: we also have allowed some of the cartoons that were posted in our newsroom to be republished elsewhere without compensation, because we felt the need for these images to reach the broadest audience possible outweighed our usual strict policy of never giving away cartoons for free. In the long run, however, supporting cartoonists should mean also supporting them in their livelihood. Because however large the threat of a terrorist attack looms, chances are that the mortgage payment that's due at the end of month looms larger.
The Amsterdam Press Museum is hosting an extensive exhibition on comics journalism, featuring Dutch and international examples. The exhibition is one of the first in the Netherlands to focus exclusively on comics journalism as a distinctive from of journalism, an indication that this branch of reporting is gaining ground in the Netherlands and in Europe.
Cartoon Movement is also represented. On display is Dan Archer's interactive comic on the 2007 Nisoor Square shootings. Published back in 2011, this comic still is a great (if experimental) example of what is possible through graphic storytelling.
The exhibition will be on display until March 1st. The Press Museum is located here and is open daily (except for Mondays).