Monday, February 23, 2009

“Those Damned Pictures”

"Stop them damned pictures. I don't care so much what the papers say about me. My constituents don't know how to read, but they can't help seeing them damned pictures!" – Boss Tweed

It’s long been my opinion that the single most powerful medium in the visual arts is the editorial panel, and by that I mean in terms of it’s potential for communicating a nuanced, creative expression that is easily understood (not requiring an art degree to get) by large numbers of people (the reach of this artform with media afar exceeds any other, as per my fine art/commercial art post of Art/Work) and connection with current events (ie political or social relevancy).
Besides being a uniquely American creation, it’s also what makes me closest to feeling like a goddamned patriot, as we in the United States enjoy a privilege denied many artists around the world; to be able to publicly mock cultural icons and leaders without fear of imprisonment or worse. I go out of my way in both basic drawing classes (via caricature) and cartooning courses and all my public speaking gigs to emphasize the editorial panel as an invaluable way to stimulate, enlighten and provoke discussion and debate.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say that most of the infamous and hotly debated drawings done in the art world were done by cartoonists. And I rarely see any other medium engaging the public to such an extent: case in point being the 2005 (and again in 2006) Danish cartoon crisis precipitated by the publication of panels depicting the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Across the Muslim world violent protests erupted, with rioting, storming and setting fires to embassies and other buildings associated with European interests, death threats against editors, publishers, bounties set over the creators themselves, and over one hundred deaths.
Even the most controversial images in the realm of Fine Art never came remotely close to creating such an uproar: Ofili’s “Holy Virgin Mary” (painting w/elephant shit), Harvey’s “Myra,” Serrano’s “Piss Christ,” Dread Scott’s “What Is The Way To Display A U.S. Flag” and other notorious works may have shocked and cause scandals, but nobody died as a result of them being shown. And I’d hazard a guess that the constitutional liberties afforded freedom of such creative expressions found their genesis and subsequent protections in no small part due to lawsuits against editorial cartoons.

So along these ends I stapled up along the hallway of the art department copies of several cartoons that have come out over the past couple weeks that stirred up the hornet’s nest, along with pages of selected excerpts from the ensuing comment threads at The Daily Cartoonist blog site (see link on sidebar). Cohen’s “cap” cartoon (Asheville Citizen-Times), Duffy’s Fusco Brothers “squaw” strip, and Delonas’ “chimpanzee” panel (NY Post) -have all kicked up a lot of righteous indignation along with exposing some latent bigotry amongst the commenters in each respective thread. The latter panel in particular was responsible for quite the media firestorm, with over a thousand news stories devoted to it the next day after it appeared in print.
Issues of intent and context both play a vital role in judging, along with informed opinion, and I’m hoping this display will maybe be a prompt for some classes and students to examine the role and responsibility of artists, or even if there is one. More likely than not, these cartoons along with my little side-show will sink without a ripple, as most folks just don’t seem to give a shit one way or the other – this is a fact of artistic life one must become inured to, unfortunately, especially when it comes to creating works that you think will uplift humanity or speak to the masses or mean anything at all to anyone other than a handful of observers. Needless to say, this presidential term ought to present many opportunities to examine racial stereotypes...

Rant aside, this topic is timely for me personally, as I am scheduled to be giving a lecture this week where I will be addressing this exact controversy: the depiction of Native Alaskans in my own weekly cartoon panel has been the cause of some interesting introspection and humbling realizations, which I will be writing about more after the engagement.

But ostensibly as a member of both the media and the local community, along with being a teacher, I am at least peripherally aware of the potential impact these and my own images can have, and my tendency to wade right in to some sensitive issues has earned me occasional and relatively minor notoriety. That hasn’t ever been my motivation, nor to just piss people off, but I am a staunch advocate of using what talents you have to address topics that have meaning and personal importance. If that means costing me an audience, as per the whole Dixie Chicks fiasco, so be it – that said I try and maintain some distinction between the bread & butter material of the Nuggets feature and the decidedly pointed opinions I’ve vented through my editorial work. And then there’s the neutral content of figurative or illustrative drawings done for pleasure, profit and pure academic exercises in craft or technique. A full-balanced palette of expression is essential to any healthy art diet, and having as many irons in the fire as possible has always meant the most satisfaction for me.
I’m not exactly militant about it, but I do maintain a special criteria of appreciation for works that speak to or of a greater connection with current events – another example being the observation that many if not most artists never engaged the glaring and overriding effect of the fact we are actively engaged in blowing the shit out of countries and a lot of the families right here in town are being directly affected by this war. Editorial cartoonists again being the notable exception, but I can’t help but feel bitter sometimes when life just goes on for those of us who keep on painting pretty pictures. This isn’t to say I don’t recognize the value or role such endeavors can play (as again, I do it myself, playing both sides of the fence), but come on people, what the hell good does your talent do if you can’t use it to reach out, outside yourself, and connect with what’s really going on all around you? Sure, it can offer not only yourself but your audience a chance to indulge in some abstracted escapist world of simple aesthetic entertainment, but there always seems to be this nagging sense of duty to say something, anything, about the world, the people and the things that I care about.

And now it’s off to an art opening, where I’ll keep my mouth shut and look instead at some cool stuff up on the walls.

“Art teaches nothing except the significance of life.” - Henry Miller

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