'Tis the season, the silly season. The days are crisp; fall leaves are bursting with color, and the airwaves are jammed with junk. During the silly season, political advertising saturates radio and TV stations as politicians and wannabes try to persuade us to elect them instead of their opponents.
“He’s dirty. She’s negative. I’m experienced. He’s bought and paid for.”
“The Committee for Sustainable Mediocrity, Clay Foote, chairman.”
If we keep watching, sooner or later we witness the media perform a righteous fact check on the candidate’s advertising. Fudging will be exposed. White lies will be uncovered, and an outright exaggeration or two will be reported. Then we’ll see several stories on the effects of negative advertising on the American electorate. Congress is held in low esteem! Imagine that.
Lately, when the campaign season approaches, I find myself fantasizing about ways to end this madness, this noise pollution created by political advertising. One solution comes to mind.
Force office seekers to submit a headshot – selfies acceptable - resume, and the answers to five questions concerning the issues, not the state of their opponent’s laundry. The candidate’s materials will be submitted to a panel of editorial cartoonists. Each member of this panel will be an artist capable of extracting the essence of an individual or an issue using one of the most enduring forms of artistic expression – the caricature.
In my fantasy world, one caricature will be created from each candidate’s material. Voters will be allowed to study the results, even request copies. After all many caricatures or political cartoons, the terms are often interchangeable, are ripped out of the newspaper or printed off the internet, and saved. Secure behind a magnet on the refrigerator door, these cartoons remind voters that politicians and baloney have much in common.
According to Victor S. Navasky, the former editor and publisher of The Nation, and the author of The Art of Controversy, Political Cartoons and Their Enduring Power, caricature has different meanings for different artists.
“But for Leonardo da Vinci, whom many consider to have invented the form, caricature is an extrapolation of realism taken to its logical extreme…Moving beyond Universal Beauty, Realism searches in the particular for an image of secular truth.’”
Secular truth, huh? Would that make today’s fact checkers happy?
Navasky goes on to say that the word caricature, derived from the Italian caricare, means to load as in vessel or a weapon.
“Artists capable of brilliant caricatures force us to focus on what we might otherwise miss,” Navasky adds. This is accomplished by taking a distinctive feature and exaggerating it, literally overloading it.
Sixteenth century Italian Baroque painter Annibale Carracci (1560 – 1609), who also produced caricatures, clarified the differences between the classical artist and the caricaturist. In referring to da Vinci’s caricatures, Carracci says: “Both see the lasting truth beneath the surface of mere outward appearance. Both try to help nature accomplish its plan. The one may strive to visualize the perfect form and to realize it in his work, the other to grasp deformity, and thus reveal the very essence of a personality. A good caricature, like every work of art, is more true to life than reality itself.”
As Navasky puts it: a caricature seeks that perfect deformity. Finding it is high ambition.
As caricature developed throughout Europe caricaturists added visual metaphors, personification, and allegory. The content of the art expanded from behavior to social situations to politics. At least one scholar credits Martin Luther, who took aim at the Catholic Church, with creating the first political cartoons.
The first cartoon in America was published by Benjamin Franklin. But it wasn’t until the 1870’s that caricature became popular. Thomas Nast’s caricatures brought down Boss Tweed, head of Tammany Hall, the corrupt Democratic machine in New York. Nast, by the way, is credited with creating the donkey and elephant symbols still used by the Democratic and Republican parties.
Out of all of the editorial cartoonists working today, I’d select Pat Oliphant, considered by many to be the dean of American editorial cartoonists, to chair my panel of political cartoonists. Punk, Oliphant’s wise cracking penguin, whose witticisms are found at the corner of Oliphant’s cartoon panels, would be on the panel as well. Look at Oliphant’s Billy the Kid, in the permanent collection of the New Mexico Museum of Art, and you’ll see why I selected Oliphant.
Billy the Kid, 1999
Billy the Kid, 1999
Museum purchase with funds from Phyllis Sloane, 2008
Museum purchase with funds from Phyllis Sloane, 2008
Whether you’re a fan or critic of the former President, the viewer immediately recognizes the cartoon’s symbols. In other words, we see what Oliphant sees. A man who plainly done himself in, an aw shucks outlaw who failed to outrun Sherriff Ken Starr’s posse, because he shot himself in the foot. Yes, there was a right wing conspiracy, or so they say, and an intern, she’s back by the way, and a cigar, but Clinton held the smoking gun. In Oliphant’s rendition, Clinton’s gun is conveniently located where Adam attached the first known fig leaf. That brilliant detail gives the caricature the power of a bullet fired at point blank range.
“Bulls eye,” Punk might say.
Oliphant lives in Santa Fe, but I reached him by phone back East. When a new president takes office, Oliphant tells me, the cartoonist and his audience engage in a conspiracy. “We’ll be watching this man. It takes three or four months to get an idea of what a person is like,” he says. “It evolves as you get exposure to the person.”
We’re co-dependent. The artist depends on the viewer to make the correct connection, Navasky says. Once that happens drawing expresses what words cannot say. A brilliant cartoon can be read in a second, something Martin Luther realized when he circulated his caricatures among the illiterate in Europe, who had not yet learned to read. Many of Boss Tweed’s constituents couldn’t read either, but they could see.
“Stop them damn pictures,” Tweed cried, referring to Nast’s cartoons.
“When the caricature has artistic depth, the outrage is more keenly felt,” Navasky writes. “The more powerful the caricature, the more outraged the protest.”
Indeed, the French King Louis Philippe, the same monarch who ordered caricaturist Honore Daumier jailed, described caricature as an act of violence. All Daumier did was liken a body to a pear. Pears are normally thought of as fruit not weapons. Someone could have been beaned by a pear, so I fact checked. Google has no record of “pearacide” in the search engine, and I was feeling lucky.
Pat Oliphant doesn’t appear violent either. I recall attending an opening at the Gerald Peters Gallery in May of 2013. Oliphant’s show featured selections from a sabbatical in Rome. Sculptures, paintings, drawings, prints and monotypes were included in this accomplished artist’s exhibit. Despite the crowd, it didn’t long before I located the impish, white-haired man, glee evident in his eyes, drawing on a huge piece of paper hung on the gallery wall. No sign of Punk, though.
Oliphant brought Punk with him when he moved from Australia, where he was born, to the United States in 1964. He took a job with the Denver Post. By 1967, Oliphant had won a Pulitzer Prize for an editorial cartoon concerning peace efforts during the Vietnam War. Since then he’s won numerous awards. His work is in the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian, the LBJ Library, many museums, including ours, and he’s had numerous exhibits.
When I asked him about his cartoons depicting war, many of which are chilling, Oliphant says: “War is never a pleasant subject. The cartoon is not a joke. The humor is a vehicle to carry that observation.”
In an earlier interview with The Atlantic, Oliphant says that humor induces people to look at things they wouldn’t want to think about without humor.
That humor is also what makes Oliphant’s political caricatures so powerful, but there are other elements as well. Wendy Wick Reaves, Senior Curator of Prints and Drawings at the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian, recommends keeping three elements in mind when you glance through any collection of Oliphant’s work. “Consider his draftsmanship, imagination, and verbal wit and how forcefully they can work together,” she writes in the afterword to Oliphant’s book, Leadership: Oliphant Cartoons & Sculpture from the Bush Years. Wick Reaves also describes Oliphant’s work as magical, more to the point for me.
As I wandered through Gerald Peter’s Gallery observing Oliphant’s caricatures and sculpture, I was amazed at what he was able to do to Dick Cheney with a few deft strokes. In Oliphant’s hand, a pen is a weapon of precise destruction.
With a shotgun in one hand, the same one used to accidentally shoot his hunting partner; Cheney leads a horse wearing blinders. America? Absolutely. On top of the stead is a tiny rider, the size of a jockey, wearing a jester’s cap. George W. Bush clings to the horse’s mane, while Cheney, his other hand gripping the horse’s halter, rolls his eyes. That telling detail, tiny considering all of the other components in the piece, says it all. Contemptuous, arrogant, and in charge.
How did you do that? I ask Oliphant when we talked on the phone. Get Cheney exactly right? Find the perfect deformity?
“Dick Cheney was a gift really,” Oliphant says. “I never liked him.”
In my mind’s eye I see Punk. I hear him too. “A non-returnable gift,” the penguin says. “So forget the receipt.”
In your sixty year career, have you changed the electorate I ask, recalling that Thomas Nast’s cartoons were instrumental in bringing down Tammany Hall?
“I’ve never drawn a cartoon to change people’s prejudices in one way or the other,” Oliphant says. Besides, nothing much changes, really. “All we do is change the faces every four or eight years.”
There is no such thing as a balanced or fair caricature, but balance is not what we’re seeking. We’re looking for essence, truth according to Leonardo da Vinci, and we’re getting a laugh along the way, more often than not a good laugh from gifted artists such as Pat Oliphant.
We’re electing human beings, and they’re flawed. Perhaps all we can do is laugh. That’s a message I can approve.
Pat Oliphant’s Billy the Kid is included in the Museum of Art’s exhibition Hunting + Gathering which opens November 7th.