The power of the caricature

Caricature and political satire go back at least as far as the printing press. Hogarth (1697-1764) introduced sequential art, that is story telling, as well as a wonderful lot of satire. Goya (1746–1828 made some of the most vicious political and social cartoons of any time. Daumier (1808-1879) is remembered mostly as an artist, but he was a deft cartoonist who ably aimed sharp barbs at the cultural and political foibles of his era. He later became a major influence on the work of American cartoonist, Patrick Oliphant. We’ll get back to Oliphant in just a few paragraphs. 

In this very popular cartoon, Daumier takes a shot at the artistic pretensions of practicioners of the new "photographie."

It’s difficult to know how much real power Goya, Hogarth or Daumier wielded in their societies —whether people were persuaded to an opinon by their drawings, or not. 

But in the United States, in the latter half of the 19th century, when newspapers and magazines were at the zenith of their power, political cartoonists like Thomas Nast became famously influential. Nast was responsible for a list of singular achievements: he created our rotund Santa Claus, who’d been a skinny fellow before; he made the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey, and our current day Uncle Sam. His battlefield drawings during the Civil War led Lincoln to call him “our best recruiting sergeant.” 

In the early ’70s Nast’s cartoons helped bring down  Tammany Hall and its corrupt regime in New York City. Boss Tweed, the head of Tammany, was so frightened of him he offered Nast $500,000 to desist. 

The Tammany tiger.

 Nast also played an important role in the election of Ulysses Grant to the presidency in 1868 and again in 1872 , and was given credit for winning the job for Cleveland in 1886. 

Nast recognized that one of the reasons his drawings could be more powerful than all the elegant editorials of the day, was that many of his fellow citizens couldn’t read. Often they were immigrants and didn’t know English. But literacy wasn’t that common either. In the lively cartoons of Nast and his fellow artists, the picture told a persuasive story, and moved its viewers to laughter, tears and anger — all in one sitting. 

Many cartoonists of the day blamed big business and its political friends for the nation's problems.

A 1900 cartoon showing "Willie McKinley as the trusts' little boy, with Teddy Roosevelt as his new playmate.

By the 20th century, the political cartoon, though still commonplace and influential, seemed to have lost much of its punch. But not entirely. Take the British cartoonist, David Low, whose cartoons have been called “visual counterparts” to the speeches of Winston Churchill. He ridiculed Hitler and Mussolini and reduced the monstrous to the absurd. At the same time, he summoned up the patriotism and spirit of his countrymen. At his death in 1963, Low was described in the press as “the dominant cartoonist of the western world.” 

But then during World War II there were also Bill Mauldin and Ernie Pyle…. And after? We could make a list. But  the most politically relevant of all was Patrick Oliphant, who immigrated to the United States from Australia in 1964 to become editorial cartoonist for the Denver Post, and later the Washington Star, before finally, in 1981, becoming independent.

Oliphant is still working today. In a recent interview, he explains his choice to come to the United States. The country was plagued by turmoil, pompous politicians, and villainy of all kinds; it was a perfect foil for the cartoonist. 

“Cartooning is an inherently negative art form,” he says. “If only good people populated the political scene, I would have nothing to do. Good people make poor targets. I like villains.” 

For Oliphant the strength of a political cartoon is in its immediacy. “With editorials you have to plow through acres of thought just to find out what they’re going for. 

“But with a cartoon you can easily get to the guts of it pretty quickly, and I think it can hit harder too, because of the visual thing. But I’m afraid these days it’s almost all the same, and I don’t see any really hard hitting stuff in the manner I like to do it.”

 He blames the dependence of the press on revenue from advertising for that. 

Oliphant’s favorite target for many years, and probably the one that helped catapult him to fame, was Richard Nixon, when “there was a new cartoon every day.” In recent years, he’s offended more and more people: e.g. American Jews when he used Nazi imagery to portray Israel “as a jack-booted, goose-stepping headless apparition” and the Catholic Church when—in a picture based on the Pamplona, Spain running of the bulls—he drew a “running of the Altar Boys” showing priests running out of St. Paedophilia Church chasing all the altar boys. 

Patrick Oliphant is now 75. He still produces three cartoons a week, and since the late1980s, and into his old age, has been creating sculpture that has much the same impact as his drawings. His pieces are intense, funny, and a little sad. 

Patrick Oliphant is also an old artist with some interesting things to say about his art. He keeps going, he explains, because “I just get mad. I get pissed off at certain things, and certain things need to be said. 

“So I just go ahead and do it. You can’t be timorous about these things. What is existence for anyway, except to leave something of beauty behind you?” 

My conclusion: the art of the political cartoonist can make a huge difference for truth.

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