Monday, September 7, 2015

The Ungentlemanly Art: A History of American Political Cartoons

by Drew Martin
I just finished reading The Ungentlemanly Art: A History of American Political Cartoons, which is a fascinating look at American history through the eyes and minds of political cartoonists, and the influence on the artwork due to various reproduction methods and schedules of more timely publications. While I am not particularly interested in American history, this book was a great approach because of the details covered in the illustrations and the opposing points of view that the artists offered.

Benjamin Franklin's Join, or Die snake is a topic of discussion concerning its first appearance in 1754 and then multiple uses thereafter. I did not actually know this was by Franklin's hand, and I was clueless to the meaning behind the severed creature: a superstition at that time that if you cut up a snake and were to stick its parts back together before sunset, it would be whole again.

Thomas Nast, a German-born illustrator, had such influence with his cartoons that once he set his sights on William M. Tweed, a corrupt mid-1800's New York politician and the "Boss" of Tammany Hall the political machine that controlled New York State, he was offered $100,000 to go "study art" in Europe. Nast bid up Tweed's offer to half a million dollars but then declined it so that he could stick around and put Tweed and his cohorts behind bars. 
Tweed demanded...

"Stop them damn pictures. I don't care so much what the papers write about me. My constituents can't read. But, damn it, they can see pictures." 

In this The Tammany Tiger Loose cartoon which ran in Harper's Weekly in 1871, Nast depicts Tweed as emperor who watches his mascot tiger maul Columbia, the symbol of the American republic at that time.

The Ungentlemanly Art also traces this switch from Columbia to Uncle Sam as the symbol of America by way of Brother Jonathan, a character who was a bit of a country bumpkin.

The caption of the Jim Crow themed illustration here by the Pulitzer Prize winning Bill Mauldin is "I've decide I want my seat back." Mauldin ridiculed the southern redneck in many of his cartoons and championed Civil Rights in the 1960s.

While The Ungentlemanly Art is a refreshing and very visually attentive approach to American history it of course also casts a wider net. Many of the cartoonists in the United States were actually European immigrants - some of them excelled, while others never adjusted to the cultural climate - and many of cartoons were about world events. One of the interesting notes was that while the political cartoonists were typically the avant-garde of political commentary and were insightful about their subjects, most of them got Adolf Hitler wrong, seeing him at first as a bit of a clown, and not the dangerous dictator that he was.

One of my favorite aspects of The Ungentlemanly Art is beyond its pages and references. I loved thinking about these artists; pre-computer, and often pre-electricity. While there are great technical skills needed for etching and engraving, the mind of the artist was perhaps more independently critical to the product as it was less about being an operator of program needed to obtain the result. But this is true of political cartoonists and editorial illustrators today too and is what separates them from graphic artists. I often think about the ratio of idea to execution in art so I was pleased to read a passage in the beginning of the book that addressed this:

One of the finest American newspaper cartoonists during the years between the World Wars, Rollin Kirby, may have solved this paradox when he said in 1918 that a good cartoon consists of 75 per cent idea and 25 per cent drawing.

Another appreciation I have of this book is that it was published in 1968, the year before I was born. Unfortunately that means the history of American political cartoons ends a bit prematurely and misses out on nearly a half a century of work but the flip of this is that is a more patiently developed book and is better written than it would probably be if it were assembled today.