Spring 2005

Truth and distortion [extract]

Can caricature ever regain its power to savage and mock the blunderers in high office?

During the nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, political caricature in Europe and the United States was the first line of offence for graphic commentators who fought recurring battles in the press against political corruption and religious folly. Ambushing nobles, politicians, and clerics through physiognomic distortion was a more lethal weapon for outing powerful foes than most written character assassinations. Master caricaturists revelled in ripping down their adversaries’ façades, and the art of Honoré Daumier, Théophile Alexandre Steinlen, André Gill, Thomas Nast, Olaf Gulbransson, and George Grosz, among them, brought joy to citizens who were otherwise helpless to oppose their rulers. Caricature never actually overturned governments, but it branded demigods with scars of insult. And a price was often paid, since some artists (and editors, too) went to prison for their effrontery. Yet despite this legacy, these days many Western caricaturists have been brought to their knees, not always by their enemies but by their supposed allies in the fourth estate.

Political correctness and journalistic balance have effectively squelched much of the vitriol endemic to acerbic caricature today. Editorial reluctance to offend those in power has made the ‘charged portrait’ into whimsical entertainment. With fangs removed, only style remains. Without licence to use every available tool of distortion and stereotype – and to push the limits of good taste (because that is the only way to know truly where that line is drawn) – the result is often akin to big-head-little-body cartoons sketched by carnival artists as tourist souvenirs. Some caricaturists still ‘get away’ with refreshingly rude transgressions, but the freedom that was once so common in the press to skewer a subject is parsimoniously meted out for fear of loosing readers or advertisers. As the us caricaturist Rick Meyerowitz mourns, ‘Once [Ronald] Reagan left office I forgot I was a caricaturist and so did everyone else in the f-c-k-k-i-n-g magazine world.’

During the early 1970s Meyerowitz, whose caricatures ridiculed Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew, contributed to the National Lampoon and other magazines that regularly published images that were guaranteed to offend someone (especially on the right). There was little restraint because editors were expected to challenge authority and artists were hired as their rabid watchdogs: ‘I once hoped my work would reach all the way into the halls of power and force those targeted to take note, to know that someone was out here “gunning” for them (with a pen of course),’ Meyerowitz recalls. ‘Now I am still compelled, but I work without illusion.’ [...]