Thursday, June 11, 2009
This week I had a featured guest artist for the editorial panel portion of the class: Dan Darrow has been penning comics for eleven years in Alaska and is one of my personal, local inspirations for this genre. He brought in a stack of his original works - the past few years he's started adding watercolors to his pen & inks, which were passed around while he gave some background on the pieces. Usually I've also had another local cartoonist, Eric Troyer appear in conjunction with Darrow to balance out the presentation; not only do they have rather divergent philosophies on content but also style and technique (Troyer would do demos of his Wacom tablet + laptop). Unfortunately, as with many if not most practitioners of the art and not being a realistic economic choice for folks with families to feed, Troyer recently officially hung up his pens. One of the troubles with having cartooning become relegated to the status of essentially a glorified hobby (same as with all the Fine Arts) is when something else comes along, say another job, children, bowling etc. it just makes it that much easier to drop. And the farther one gets from the field, falling more and more out of practice, the more of a self-fulfilling prophesy it eventually becomes, when priorities and discipline collide something has to give. A grim but good meta-lesson for the aspiring talents in this class nevertheless.
Not anywhere near as good a lesson as seeing firsthand someone still in the trenches though, and Darrow's attitude and approach to the medium is a no-bullshit one which is refreshing and is reflected in his sometimes-edited panels. Having had no professional training per say, he uses his cartoons to vent on local/statewide politicians, who can at least be counted on for material and are always good for a laugh.
A discussion was instigated by the panel shown here, as far as what is appropriate, what makes something in bad taste, who has the right to make fun of what or whom. In this case, considering the source is a legitimate factor: the student here wasn't making fun of abortion but using it to graphically make a point in reference to the back-alley history by juxtaposing it against the innocence of Lucy's stand - that parody probably would have worked without the plunger prop, which most felt was over the line and pushed the panel into bad taste territory. Such potential land-mines tend to pop up with this particular assignment, but I don't shy away from controversy or worry overmuch about offending anyone, as it is important and appropriate to debate and discuss these topics in such a class. Even if it's inevitable to have strong opinions and passions will run high, I'm no so much concerned with what or why folks feel about any given topic but instead try and focus on the execution of the idea in the drawing, and what works or how it could work better. Humor and individual taste is so subjective anyways, as we learned from the preceding gag panel portion of the class, that we concern ourselves more with aesthetics and techniques of the craft: visually communicating an idea and getting the message across simply and effectively.
Many cartoonists, and most artists in general, don't want to run the risk of alienating viewers or restricting an audience by interjecting politics into their work. The psychological nature of many people is to avoid conflict or confrontational content, and won't take a stand on an issue or even develop an informed opinion, which leads to an appalling lack of engagement and awareness on the part of the unfortunate majority of ignorant and apathetic individuals. While there is an argument for a return to the traditional American polite society ("none of your business"), I think the barn doors have been left open too long on that one. As an extension of the gag cartoon, sometimes the essence of humor is always at the expense of someone, and this runs counter to many people's upbringing that we shouldn't make fun of other people. In fact, one of Troyer's standards has long tempered my own work: never draw anything depicting someone in a way that you wouldn't feel comfortable handing to them personally. That said, there's been many instances where I've made a complete ass out of myself and regretted certain pieces, but again, looking like an idiot hasn't stopped me from speaking out.
At the other extreme there is an activist instinct coupled with a responsibility to use whatever talent, skill and opportunity one has to speak up, speak out, do something, anything. Regardless of anyone's stance on any given topic, I think, and therefore teach, the importance of a citizen's civic duty to know what the hell is going on and why. This is my patriotic soapbox moment, and some students roll their eyes and groan "politics"... but damn it this is one of the reasons to be proud we live in America. There are an awful lot of other places in the world where the cartoonists are rounded right up along with the editors and reporters and either disappear or are taken out and shot when daring to slight or offend.
The unparalleled power of an editorial cartoon to distill issues into a single image is so uniquely effective, and this potent medium has been the instigating factor behind many a controversy, historically and also in recent events. Can't recall the last time folks got uppity about a painting, sculpture or a pot to the point people got killed or an entire nation suffered consequences from the creation of some art.
Here's a few of the other examples that were shown in class in part to prompt discussion:
Most recently the cartoonist Chip Bok depicted Obama's Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor strung up as a pinata. The racial implications of lynching were immediately assigned to the image which obfuscated any hope of understanding the point of the panel, and consequently there has been tremendous outrage, to which Bok, to his credit, hasn't run away from. After all, that is one of the criteria by which to judge the effectiveness of any particular editorial cartoon; how much controversy it creates. Which opens up the field to those who would do it just for the sake of causing trouble without having any point or redeeming artistic value.
Recently the New York Post ran an editorial panel by artist Sean Delonas, that also kicked up quite the storm of indignation. As contrasted with the earlier student panel, the creator of this piece has a well-established pattern of similar content that would influence a viewer's interpretation of bias. Context can be important, but then again should a work be judged on its own merit without the connotations of the creator? What, if any, are the motivations behind the work? Does it matter? What's the point or is it just an opinion?
And who can forget this classic from the campaign by Barry Blitt. The ensuing storm of indignation over this piece dispelled any notions I ever entertained that liberals are at all any different than right-wingers (aside from the tendency to shoot people) insofar as kneejerk reactionary dogma over controversy: the inability to comprehend satire has absolutely no political restrictions whatsoever. One of the reasons why editorial cartoonists don't have many friends I suppose - soon as the shoe is on the other foot all bets are off. And anyone with any experience knows no party has sole claim to corruption and scandal; people being people it's only a matter of time.