So here we have a panel fraught with potential baggage, and it was useful to have some other perspectives on possible interpretations - objective criticism is a good opportunity to reflect on the issues that this, or any subject matter touched upon in art. In fact, every so often it’s worth it to bounce work-in-progress off folks, something that at times can valuable to do before publishing it. So I’ll occasionally do random “test-markets” of material and bounce ideas off random folks over coffee (or beer) to get some feedback. This piece in particular yielded some insightful results... more below the fold.
Especially as a member of the privileged class (white, male, hetero) - and also ostensibly a member of the media which bears much responsibility and culpability in perpetuating stereotypes – I think it’s incumbent to acknowledge, and be aware of the possible interpretations and ramifications of one's work. This especially when the subject matter deals with topics or subjects of which you are not a member of a respective group that you are literally drawing from. Sticking with self-caricatures, or androgynous animals as metaphoric stand-ins sometimes dodges the point or pulls the punch. Another problem is that there’s also a personal bias with my close friends who know me well enough to overlook a lot of stuff, ie “oh it’s just so-and-so, he doesn’t mean any harm” – that might be true to an extent it doesn’t necessary absolve you of inadvertent idiocy. Or from sounding like the usual lame nonpologists: "But I have many _______ as friends and THEY think it’s funny.”
As I’ve been quite vocal about here and in other cartooning threads, there are simply some no-fly zones for cartoonists, especially when considering how the dynamics of power relationships is a factor, especially when it comes to what’s funny. Comforting the afflicted/afflicting the comfortable is a role of many artists, and many works are deliberately designed to inflame and provoke passionate reactions. That said, original intent and even the context of the creator is (lamentably in my opinion) largely irrelevant when it comes to defending against charges of bigotry and sexism etc. Again, as the creator, do I have any say in how it’s taken, as in can I say no you’re wrong, that THIS is the (my) point? Arguably once the work enters the public sphere, all bets are off and it’s open season on interpretation: but then does the creator, effectively lose the right to invalidate any claims from the perspective of an observer, especially when it is an uninformed opinion. Or is it you, the artist that is ignorant of context? That’s a debate well worth having – even if it’s at least internal.
Above and beyond any issues with free speech, the very existence of cartooning is predicated on make fun of everything and everybody ("sacred cows make the best hamburger"): it's a stylistic call as to where your work falls along the continuum of taste: for many it's an artists job to provoke and be controversial, to cross boundaries and there is nothing that is off-limits. For many artists it's against their grain to deconstruct any creative content, moreso within the genre of cartooning (“But it’s just a damn cartoon – you’re taking it way too serious” etc.), which in many instances hinges upon irreverence, pushing boundaries, pushing buttons, offending or insulting to some degree or another. Bias and projection is another classic factor to take into account – one both ends, the creator and the observer. It’s a delicate balance that needs frequent checking, and there are no easy answers.
It’s also a given that somebody will find offense at something, and so it can be tricky when one’s business is basically making fun of stuff, as original intent and even the context of the creator is (lamentably in my opinion) largely irrelevant when it comes to defending against charges of bigotry and sexism etc. Then again, more often than not, myself (and a fair number of other folks) really need to just stop mansplaining, shut the hell up (see here for another analogous example) and listen for a change. Literally for change to occur I personally need to validate other experiences, and more often than not it makes for better work, if not being a better person. This isn’t so much to sound preachy or judgmental, it's just sound advice since there’s more of a heightened responsibility in the classroom as an instructor of being aware of such things than there is in the studio. And again, once the work enters the public square it becomes open season for discussion.
Not an insignificant number, perhaps the majority, of readers will simply ignore the panel, chalk it up to being a(nother) panel they just don’t get. Following an informal review, the couple of gay male friends of mine that I showed it to ironically didn’t get the dual reference at all, simply on account of not knowing the term “bear.” And without exception all of the heterosexual guys that looked at it either smiled and/or laughed aloud, but again, without any knowledge of the key term that the pun hinged upon. This was meta-musement because it showed how the panel worked on a superficial level as just basically being a funny picture, with three hairy dudes as simply “bears.” I did get some excellent input from a friend who just so happened to be well versed in queer theory, and that was definitely encouraging and supportive. In the end, undermining a cherished icon of a children’s nursery tale - my personal motivation - with a gay culture gag flew right under the radar. But at least my sympathetic and awesome editor got it right away: he thought it was hilarious and didn’t see any problem at all with running it, in fact making the point to extend an open invitation to push the proverbial envelope more and more in the future.
Another note of interest is to compare & contrast the print version with the original doodle that is posted above: a shift in gender has entirely different connotations, now hinged instead upon misconceptions and negative stereotypes, and it’s also drawn in a way that the inner/outer room dynamic is shifted as far as depicting private space and perspective of an observer (reader), accentuated with gaze-direction + expressions. This is why it’s crucial to always start the self-editing by sketching ideas out first before it ever sees print. That is, if one has the patience to indulge in some serious introspection, otherwise known as pole-vaulting over a moose turd. I think in retrospect that a good work of art is one that is a rewarding experience, which can be as simple as a laugh, stimulate discussion and debate, or even enriches the creator during the creative process.