The real deal on cartooning

I hate to see anycartoonist arguing for more “taste” rather than less expressive control.

I felt I must respond to Daily cartoonist Adam Elrashidi’s Wednesday column “Setting the record straight on cartoons.” I am a former Daily cartoonist myself – the one who first persuaded its editors to create the position 32 years ago and held the spot from 1974 to 1976 and in the late 1990s.

Elrashidi’s assumptions about the nature of cartooning reflect some of the reasons the art form has suffered a sharp decline in the United States since I began 35 years ago and offer clues as to why the number of newspapers with their own editorial cartoonists has been in free fall during that time, shrinking from more than 250 to fewer than 70.

Elrashidi speaks about cartoons in terms of “taste,” going “out of bounds of journalistic conduct,” and “malicious intent.” As someone who took every journalism course required for a major, attended graduate school in journalism, won a half-dozen awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and was a member of SPJ, I feel I’ve done more than enough homework and legwork on journalistic professionalism to state with confidence that it is a fallacy to attempt to apply all of or exactly the same guidelines developed for writers and editors to cartoonists.

To speak in terms of “accurate content” about the art form the late Minneapolis Tribune cartoonist Scott Long referred to as “professional lying” is either disingenuous or disoriented. By its nature, cartooning is not an “accurate” medium. It is based on oversimplification, exaggeration and ridicule.

The most minimally sophisticated audience normally understands this. At present in this country, the audience has been so dumbed down and Disneyfied by commercial media, very few do. And now, apparently, even young would-be cartoonists lack knowledge of it, as well. I recommend Arthur Koestler’s “The Act of Creation” for a better understanding of the inevitably “aggressive” character of all humor. Pulling punches results not in “sensitive” cartooning, but in lame cartooning. This has contributed to the devaluation of this art form over the past 30 years, beginning with the popularity of Jeff MacNelly’s “delicate” humor and the end of a general acceptance among newspaper editors that “a good political cartoonist should get out of bed mad and stay mad all day,” as Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Conrad put it.

As for “taste,” I hate to see any cartoonist arguing for more, rather than less, control on expressiveness, even if it is self-control. Self-censorship is the wrong direction to go for a profession already so overcautious that it is completely out of touch with a public that made “South Park” and cockroach-kissing reality shows cultural hits.

To say that the Danish cartoons “do not serve a purpose” or “do not foster thought or discussion” is belied by the controversy surrounding them. There hasn’t been a set of cartoons that has provoked so much thought and discourse since Thomas Nast drew his attacks on the Tweed Ring in the 1860s. The artistic risk-taking and journalistic courage of the 12 cartoonists whose lives are now threatened by fatwas that has produced this very healthy and productive discussion about topics such as “willingness to be offended” as a core value of living in a pluralistic, liberal democracy, as one Arab-American commentator on PBS “Newshour” recommended.

Elrashidi’s use of the phrase, “making light of” is another dead giveaway as to why political cartoons have become trivialized. Although David Horsey of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists laments the “Leno-ization” of cartooning, American cartoonists cower in fear of losing their jobs and fall all over one another scrambling to satisfy the demands of Media Suits for pusillanimous “product.” Great political cartoons do not merely “make light of,” but rather shed light on important political and social issues – a blinding bright light unapologetically directed straight into the eyes of those guilty of hypocrisy, injustice and the abuse of power. They also do not avoid criticizing the violent members of a religion (in this case, tens of thousands) using the excuse that doing so somehow implicates the whole religion itself. Such an argument, particularly when coupled with an understanding of the inherent polysemia of images that makes it impossible to assign any single meaning to a cartoon, is lacking in logic.

Any neutral analysis of these 12 cartoons would have to concede that the syndicated cartoonist Sandy Huffaker was correct in characterizing them as “quite tame.” Olle Johansson, a cartoonist with Norra Vasterbotten in Sweden, says that “the upside to the incident with the Danish Muhammad cartoons is that I believe many editors will open their eyes to the immense power that is within the political cartoon.” I would love to believe it, but if even the youngest aspiring cartoonists cave so easily to religious influence, political correctness, editorial control, audience stupidity or whatever, I cannot. In this country, at least, political cartoons and the cartoonists themselves have no foreseeable future.

Pete Wagner is a University student. Please send comment to [email protected]