Water Exhibition
Cartoon Exhibition in Amsterdam

Cartoons: The Art of Dissenters

Ukrainian cartoonist Vladimir Kazanevsky writes about a century of cartoons, especially those cartoons that do not use any words to communicate their idea. How has the visual language they use evolved, and has their place in society changed? Vladimir labels cartoons as ‘the art of dissenters’. This is an abridged version of the essay; the full version is available here.

Crowd_evolution__vladimir_kazanevskyCartoon by Vladimir Kazanevsky.
Modern purely visual cartoons have existed for almost a century. These cartoons first appeared in the 1930s in France and the United States. Their visual language has changed over time.

The lonely man on a small island decorated by a symbolic palm tree is almost gone from cartoons. There were simply too many such men, a whole army, and they did not seem quite so lonely anymore. They filled magazines and newspapers. Viewers no longer believed in the lonely men on their desolate islands. However, this did not end the notion of existential loneliness as a subject for cartoons. Other, modern, symbols have come in place of the islets, which we will discuss later.

In cartoons, the ostrich continues to bury his head in the sand. But he does this ever more infrequently  and reluctantly. Are cartoonists aware that in real life, ostriches never do this? When these birds are scared of something they just run away. And so another cartoon myth gradually disappears.

Some visual symbols have persisted. The most persistent fighter for peace is still the white dove. This image was drawn by Pablo Picasso for the First World Peace Congress in 1949. Almost immediately after the appearance of white bird as the emblem of peace, it playfully migrated to cartoons. So far, the dove with an olive branch in its beak is the most loyal supporter of pacifism, a fighter against militarists of all stripes.

Death, most often depicted with a black cloak and scythe, did not escape the attention of cartoonists. There are a lot of cartoons that are somehow connected with death. They depict executions, suicides, war, murder, and so on. Basically, these cartoons are in the area of black humor. By resorting to black humor, cartoonists try to overcome the great tragic irony that is life. The World Dictionary of Literary Terms (1979) defines black humor as  ‘humor meant to overturn moral values, causing a grim smile.’ It also says that black humor is a cynical way to respond to evil and the absurdity of life. Black humor is a 'way to laugh where every other way of describing the evil will just evoke crying'.

Grim Sisyphus continues to roll his eternal stone to the top of the mountain, a Trojan horse can always be found near the gate, Rodin's thinker continues to pose for artists intent on mocking him. A lot of funny, sad, proud and evil characters of literature, film, animation, painting, sculpture and theaters have settled in cartoons. But many of these 'comfortable' images for cartoonists have become stereotypes, some of them irrevocably obsolete.

Use of the same images, use of common methods to achieve comic effects, in the end, led to cartoonists involuntarily repeating predecessors.  Plenty of cartoon clones began to appear regularly on the pages of newspapers and magazines at the end of the twentieth century. It was not a problem of direct plagiarism or imitation, but  a problem of cartoonists thinking in stereotypes.

The cartoon 'myths' of the past began to gradually dissipate. Naturally, their place was occupied by something new.

The wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, the color revolutions in Africa, Asia, Europe and numerous terror attacks have created new characters in cartoons, for example armed men in camouflage uniforms. One of the most important characters in modern cartoons became the armed terrorist hiding his face under an evil black mask. The forces of peace, embodied either by children or  by the dove of peace fight this terrible character in cartoons. And they often win. But more often they are defeated. Black humor reigns in cartoons. A terrorist cuts an unfortunate pencil with a knife like a victim's throat.

Fig. 2              Cartoon by Ares.

Refugees fleeing from terrorist evil have also become new favorite characters of cartoonists. Cartoonists are sympathetic to the refugees, condemning those who prevent them in their struggle to find a new life.

Supermarket trolleys confidently settled in the minds of cartoonists. This image has become a compelling symbol of the consumer society.

Cartoonists have also turned their critical gaze to the Internet. Cartoon computers and the symbols associated with the Internet have not only filled the Internet, but also the pages of still existing print media. Modern cartoonists became friends with the symbol of the social network Facebook in the form of the letter F. This popular means of communication once again forced artists to recall the existential loneliness of man in the world. Formally a sign of communication between people, Facebook and other similar means of communication deny direct human interaction. Existential anguish that came from the cartoons which depicted a lonely little man on a desert island, are embodied in the modern symbol now. A tiny island, a man sitting on the sand, burying his gaze to the screen of a laptop, tablet or smart phone. And a huge symbol of social network F, which is vaguely reminiscent of a palm tree rises above them.

Fig. 3Cartoon by Pawel Kuczynski.
Albert Camus believed that the absurd is born from the comparison of non-comparable, alternative or conflicting concepts, and 'the wider the gap between the members of the comparisons, the higher the degree of absurdity'. Thus arose the absurd world of cartoons which deny common sense. Absurd cartoons, as well as humor in general, appears when two different concepts are mixed. A cartoon is a reflection of the philosophy of the absurd. No wonder Sysiphus became the brightest hero of many cartoons,  pushing his eternal stone to the top of the mountain. The foot of the mountain, a huge rock, a solitary figure Sisyphus and the top of the mountain create many opportunities for graphic jokes. However, foremost cartoonists are interested in the tragic fate of the hero and his despair. Such absurdity is desirable for critical minds. Sisyphus is the hero of absurd.

Fig. 8                        Cartoon by P. Klucik.

We can notice that much in a cartoon is close to the philosophy of existentialism, which is saturated with the spirit of absurdity. And many of the cartoons can be considered as the illustrations of the statements of philosophers. But what about surrealism, which in fact was born by the absurd? How close is surrealism to the art of cartoons? A precursor of surrealism I. Bosch already used 'oddities and quirks' with paradoxical forms of mixing in his mysterious paintings. The same methods were used by Salvador Dali, Paul Delvaux, Yves  Tanguy, Max Ernst, Rene  Magritte... The competition between surrealism and absurdity in the world of cartoons was won by the last. Probably absurdity has a relationship with the real world; it recognizes the laws of the real world but denies these, thus creating its own laws. Surrealism does not recognize any laws and exists by itself.

The art of cartoons started to win hearts of people in the second half of the 20th century. The cartoons confidently settled in Central and Western Europe in the late 1940s - early 1950s. From there this kind of art migrated to Eastern Europe and began to conquer the Soviet Union in the early 1960s. The 'wave' of cartoons has swept Turkey and later Iran, after the revolution. As a result of the easing of censorship and the actual opening of the borders, a ‘cartoon explosion’ occurred in China. Cartoons appeared in Japan and South Korea, influenced by American artists. A ‘cartoon tsunami’ swept across the globe from the West to the East for half a century, excluding Japan and South Korea, where it arrived across the Pacific Ocean from the East. This striking march of the cartoon art suggests that humanity needs an extraordinary ironic view of the world. And cartoons fully meet these expectations.

Cartoon art originated in New York city and later in Paris in the 1930s. Today, the art is especially popular in places like Turkey, Iran, China, Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico, countries of the former Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe countries. That is, in those countries where there exist acute socio-political and economic problems and there are many people who dissent with the social injustice. Recall that cartoon art originated and developed in the US and in France during the global economic crisis of 1929 - 1939. This means that cartoons thrive in a social environment where the dissatisfaction of the majority creates the need to release the energy of social discontent. From this point of view, the art of cartoon can be called ‘art of dissenters’.

Totalitarian regimes and tyranny are fertile breeding ground for the creation of  cartoons. For example, cartoons penetrated the Soviet Union from across the relatively liberal countries of Eastern Europe, in spite of the Iron Curtain.  It should be recalled that the method of socialist realism dominated in those days in  Soviet art. Official cartoons had to praise the party leaders and had to criticize the external and internal enemies of socialism. Just such official cartoons were published in the communist party press without exception, and the only press was party press. But the shoots of free thought appeared in the Soviet Union in the early sixties of the last century, during the Khrushchev "thaw". 'Informal' cartoons began to be published in the newspaper Literaturnaya Gazeta, magazines Smena, Tourist and other publications in these years. The art of cartoons became very popular among the 'dissent' intelligentsia.  Party functionaries called these "informal" cartoons 'the humor of young'.

In addition to the novelty of the paradoxical nature and philosophical ideas of cartoons, the intellectuals liked the allegory of this kind of art. Published cartoons allegorically criticized the existing socialist system. When in the 1970s the Brezhnev regime tightened censorship, it was too late. According to non-conformist artist Sergei Tunin: “the allegory is universal because it is similar to a mathematical formula, if it is accurate and elegant, it is applicable anywhere, anytime. Any value can be substituted into the 'formula' to enjoy the wit of the artist as your own.'

Cartoon art became firmly entrenched in Soviet society. Cartoonists (non-conformists) began to send their works to international competitions illegally. The artists Valentin Rozantsev, Sergej Tunin, Mikhail Zlatkovsky, Garif Basyrov, Leonid Tishkov and others were honored with awards at many international festivals of cartoons. Cartoonists began to organize underground exhibitions of cartoons, and grouped together in informal amateur clubs [25]. Censorship eased with the coming to power of Mikhail Gorbachev and cartoons migrated to the pages of mass media.

'There are times when satire has to restore that which was destroyed by pathos', so noted Stanisław Jerzy Lec. After the fall of the "pathos" regime of the Communist Party, cartoonists began to worry about new symbols and images in the former Soviet Union. For example, one of the main characters of cartoons became the flag. Obviously, because the flag was "untouchable" for artists in Soviet times. A strong symbol of power turned into a dirty doormat in the cartoons. Ruthless cartoonists allowed their heroes to cut off the pieces of flag cloth to sew to sew on pants and other clothing, or allowed them to clean their shoes with this fabric... A headless man carries a flag that resembles an ax, that was apparently used to cut off his head. This is one of the most famous cartoon with the hero-flag construction, made by artist Mikhail Zlatkovsky. For cartoonists the flag has become a convenient tool for the expression of their social ideas.

Fig.12                    Cartoon by Mikhail Zlatkovsky.

Another object of ridicule  used by cartoonists in the countries of the former Soviet Union was the ballot box, the ephemeral symbol of totalitarian power. The political elections in Soviet times were formal acts where results were a foregone conclusion. The people of the former Soviet Union began to think about the elections quite differently . Political elections became real, although often accompanied by fraud. The ballot box has taken a worthy place in cartoons. Restless cartoonists began to draw keyholes on ballot boxes, made them as into hats of magicians, etc.

Continuing the conversation about the role of cartoons in today's society, we must also address religion. How do believers relate to the art of cartoons and, conversely, what do the ironic artists think about religion?  There were times in history when church leaders have hated satirical drawings, but sometimes they asked artists to help in the fight against religious opponents (for example, the struggle between Catholics and Huguenots in France became a kind of "duel" between satirical artists in the time of the Reformation). It has happened that the secular authorities officially called for the satirical artists to criticize religion (for example, in an atheistic state of the USSR). The opposite has also happened: authorities forbade artists to create cartoons of religious subjects in some cases.

In the 1930s the first religious cartoons emerged. These were not anticlerical drawings. In these cartoons Bible stories helped the artists to convey a 'secular' message. Cartoons that use this method are still made today. For example, in many cartoons Noah's Ark  has served as an allegory of the protection of the environment from pollution . Or cartoonists adorn a scene of the execution of Jesus Christ with consumer advertising. They do not criticize religion, but the dominance of inappropriate advertising. Cartoonists  liked to depict the Last Supper on the eve of Jesus' execution as well, often parodying the famous fresco by Leonardo da Vinci.

0151-091201 Climate change (Gouders)Cartoon by Jean Gouders.

 What can we say about a century of cartoon? Some popular cartoon characters and plots became obsolete with time, and new ones appeared. However, cartoons still gravitate toward the spirit of the absurd; they have become increasingly filled with sarcasm and satire. The art of cartoons is still ironic, a witty manifestation of a rebellious spirit.


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