In this episode, we have a look at the editorial cartoons, a powerful genre of protest art made even more relevant by the recent Charlie Hebdo massacre in France.
Fort Lewis College is the Southwest's crossroads of education and adventure. Our blend of small classes, dynamic academic programs, and a liberal arts perspective leads to transformative learning experiences that foster entrepreneurship, leadership, creative problem solving, and life-long learning. And our unique & beautiful mountain campus, on a mesa above historic Durango, Colorado, inspires an active and friendly community with a spirit of engagement, exploration, and intellectual curiosity.
Fort Lewis College
1000 Rim Drive
Durango, CO 81301
Following a horrific terror attack at the French weekly satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in early 2015, the art of political cartooning entered into common discussion at a level not previously seen. Often dismissed as trite, silly or crude, political cartoons are actually an extremely powerful form of protest art, which more than once have shaped the flow of history.
We’ll have a look at the the evolution of editorial cartooning in the western world in this episode of Fortifact: A Razor Sharp Pen: The History of Political Cartooning.
Political cartoons as a genre of art can be separated into some component parts: a caricature or surreal juxtaposition, a comment on a topical issue or person, and a witty concept that ties the previous two things together. Throw in some iconic symbols and you have a powerful statement.
Caricature, or the art of depicting a person in an exaggerated manner, has ancient roots. Some of the earliest examples we have date from the Roman city of Pompeii in 79 BCE. This ancient caricature of a politician could have been drawn yesterday. The Italian polymath Leonardo DaVinci delighted in the grotesque, and it was from the Italian, caricare, (kari Kari) which means “exaggeration,” that we derive the word. For most of its early life, caricature as an art form was intended for private audiences, often commissioned by the rich for their own amusement.
The tradition of satirically commenting on topical issues got started in the early 18th century with the English polymath William Hogarth. Mainly a painter by trade, Hogarth popularized the idea of using illustration to moralize against the sins of the day. By the late 1700’s editorial cartoons were becoming increasingly understood as a new and influential political tool. In fact, American Founding Father Benjamin Franklin was an early adopter, creating a cartoon extolling colonial unity that is still used today.
Following the French Revolution in 1789, editorial cartooning really began to take off, again in England, with its great exponents James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson. In the 1843, a satirical British magazine called Punch debuted. The publication was scathing in its mockery of the rich and powerful, and brought the term “cartoon” into it’s modern usage as a non-realistic drawing.
By the end of the 19th century, newspapers in many countries featured political cartoons. Throughout the 20th century, editorial cartooning continued evolving into simpler forms that relied more on witty, biting punchlines than realistically drawn images. Interestingly, famed children’s book author Dr. Suess freelanced as a political cartoonist during WWII.
With the invention of the internet at the end of the 20th century, journalism changed radically, as much of the profit margin collapsed under the preferences of a digital generation whose expectation for online content is that it is free. In 1995, there were over 200 professional staff cartoonists earning a living in american newspapers. In 2015, there are about 50. And yet, those few are reaching, and affecting, larger audiences than ever, alining with an increasing cohort of freelance artists that are not tied to a specific organization. What the future holds for political cartooning is as yet uncertain, but this powerful art form is unlikely to disappear anytime soon.