The Social Responsibility of an Artist
Now, more than ever, artists must be aware of their social surroundings, especially as cyberspace is becoming an even more dominating presence in everyday life. As social media platforms of all shapes and sizes take off, it’s become easier and easier to misrepresent one’s self – not to mention their art (which has always been a platform wildly open to interpretation) – in the world at large. Because of this, social responsibility has taken on new meanings as artists, and people in general, struggle to maintain their basic truth.
No art form may come up against the struggles of social responsibility quite like political cartoonists. So follow along with Lauren Mosko’s interviews with three famous artists who give you their take on the pitfalls of maintaining your artistic voice with social responsibility. The complete article is below.
Keep creating and good luck!
Throwback Thursday’s With Great Power by Lauren Mosko
The Social Responsibility of Political Cartoonists
The phrase “with great power comes great responsibility” has been a maxim of American pop-culture since Stan Lee penned a version of it in Amazing Fantasy #15, the first Spider-Man story, in 1962. So we expect to hear those words come from his mouth and the mouths of his characters—like Uncle Ben Parker in the 2002 Spider-Man movie—in super-heroic fictional contexts. It may have seemed a little strange, however, to hear them uttered by Shashi Tharoor, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information for the United Nations, during a (very nonfictional) daylong seminar called “Cartooning for Peace: The Responsibility of Political Cartoonists,” held in the UN’s New York headquarters in October of 2006 (cartooningforpeace.org).
The seminar, originally the brainchild of French cartoonist Plantu (Jean Plantureux), was organized in response to the firestorm surrounding the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad and the resulting Iranian Holocaust cartoons, a clear indication that politically charged artwork is still viable, relevant—and potentially dangerous. During the seminar’s opening address, Secretary-General Kofi Annan talked about cartoons’ capacity to shape public opinion because of the powerful impact that images have on the brain. “Short of physical pain, few things can hurt you more directly than a caricature of yourself, of a group you belong to, or—perhaps worst—of a person you deeply respect,” he said. With this in mind, he encouraged artists to “use their influence, not to reinforce stereotypes or inflame passions but to promote peace and understanding.” A superheroic responsibility, indeed.
It might, upon first thought, seem easy to boil an editorial cartoonist’s code of ethics down to that of the one most associated with the medical profession: First, do no harm. In a world of corrupt government and business; economic, social, racial and gender inequality; and constant religious and political conflict, harm is always being done—and the job of the editorial cartoonist is to call attention to that harm. But how does one do that without inflaming someone else’s passions? And how do you inflame the right passions, the good passions that move people to positive action, without contributing to the harm? The palette of the world is hardly black and white, and it’s within the gray area that these artists work.
To discuss the social responsibility of today’s political cartoonists and the climate in which they work are three artists who participated in the UN’s “Cartooning for Peace” seminar. Cintia Bolio (purasevas.blogspot.com) is a self-taught cartoonist who lives and works in Mexico City and has been publishing cartoons since 1996. Much of her work focuses on feminist issues, class issues, and government corruption. Her cartoons have appeared in newspapers such as La Jornada, Milenio Diario, Milenio Diario de Monterrey and Uno Más Uno, and magazine such as El Chamuco, Conozca Más, Milenio Semanal, Expansión and Vértigo. She is now a regular contributor to El Chamuco magazine and El Centro newspaper.
Michel Kichka (cartooningforpeace.org/en/dessinateurs/kichka/), a native Belgian who now resides in Israel, has lent his pen to editorial and political cartoons, as well as comic strips, children’s books and advertising work, and he serves as a senior lecturer of illustration and comic art at the Bezalel Academy’s Visual Communications Department in Jerusalem. His cartoons often focus on Middle East concerns.
New Yorker Jeff Danziger (danzigercartoons.com) has been an independent cartoonist for 25 years, with cartoons appearing in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, The Toronto Globe and Mail, Le Monde, The China Daily, Newsweek, Forbes, and The New Yorker. His work has covered election fraud, political figures and international affairs, and he was awarded the Herblock Prize for editorial cartooning in 2006 and the Overseas Press Award in 1993.
What inspired you to become a political cartoonist?
Jeff Danziger: I loved the work of Herblock, Oliphant, Maudlin, and even Nast. My parents were both artists, so there were always pens and paper around the house.
Cintia Bolio: I decided to draw and make it my form of political and social participation, because I ain’t no good doing anything else. (This is an old joke among colleagues here in Mexico, but it’s very close to the truth: We used to be the little ones always making drawings of the teachers and other authority figures at school, and maybe it’s like our common training road to become political cartoonists.) Drawing has always been part of my life; I’ve drawn since I was a child. I also make author comics and illustration, but the political humor has been my greatest pleasure, being born in this country where the government is so corrupt. So, I see my work as a kind of value to let the social pressure come out through humor. I am inspired by the worst society has to offer: the political elite, the social inequality, the sexist culture. I do portray these people as corrupt, mean and ugly as they are. I see myself as a feminist, left-wing cartoonist. That is why I fight the creepy right-wing, ultra-conservative circles.
Michel Kichka: When I was a little boy, my daddy, a survivor from Auschwitz, used to take me on his knees and draw me grotesque and ridiculous Nazis, with boxers and hairy legs, with pots on their heads, and with sticks instead of guns. It made me laugh to tears. Somewhere it made me understand that self-derision through cartoons is a wonderful way of self-healing and of self-expression. That is why I always looked at cartoons, trying sometimes to copy them to teach myself some basic know-how.
Is there an unspoken “cartooning code of ethics” within the field? If so, what do you think its tenets are? If not, what do you think its tenets should be?
Danziger: Not that I know of. It’s an ungentlemanly art.
Bolio: Our job’s nature is to be politically incorrect, but certainly, I make my drawings having in mind that I am doing a job of social commitment. These are some of the rules that I follow: Not to laugh at the victims (I laugh at the aggressors and the oppressors); Not to feed any kind of hate or prejudices in our readers.
I have a didactic kind of style, so I try to promote free and tolerant thought. I draw about anything that can make our culture less sexist, and of course, sometimes I use my work as my own therapy to drive out my own demons.
Kichka: In our own democratic societies, the unspoken and unwritten code of ethics is based on an unlimited freedom of expression dictated by self-consciousness, by personal limits of “good-taste,” levels of morality and of sensitivity to human beings. Everyone has his own taboos that draw his red lines. It’s all between you and yourself, long before it comes to the editor’s table. That freedom guarantees a healthy exercise of the cartooning profession. Cartooning is a combat for ideals and for ideas. As a cartoonist, you are totally exposed and you should be ready for controversy.
What do you, personally, think your responsibility to your audience is?
Kichka: My audience expects me to stay faithful to myself; to go on fighting for what I believe in; to make them react, smile, think, re-think, or even to piss them off sometimes.
Danziger: First to entertain, and at the same time to make people think about the politics they might ignore if they had to read a lot of dry political prose.
Bolio: As I mentioned before, knowing that this is, by nature, a job of commitment to freedom, equality and justice. We draw for the people; what we do comes from and belongs to the people, and I try to be the voice of it. Now, being a woman making political cartoons, I have a special commitment to my female readers, bringing to the discussion all the problems of being a woman in a sexist culture.
How much self-censorship do you have to do when you work?
Bolio: Long ago, they said, “Don’t draw the Virgin of Guadalupe, because she is sacred. Don’t draw the Army because it’s dangerous, and do not draw the President, because it is sacred, and dangerous.” Our profession has taken giant steeps. Time changes, like we say here. You can see the President every single day in our cartoons, and the army as well, since Calderón wrongly decided to send the army to the streets of many states to fight crime. And I am sure that we would draw the Virgin too, if she was a congresswoman or part of Calderón’s crew.
But, speaking of self-censorship, I prefer not to practice it, just because there is censorship in the newspapers; so I prefer to put my cartoons in the hands of my publisher, and he will decide, anyway, if the cartoon will see the light in the next edition or not. Now, I like to add that we cartoonists now have the Internet alternative: When one of my cartoons is censored, I can always post it on my blog. Thanks, Internet.
Kichka: Self-censorship is a natural reflex for a cartoonist, a sort of built-in software. The proof is that you know exactly when you go too far, a tool you can use when you want to be more provocative for any reason.
Danziger: None, I work independently. Whether or not editors print them is their own decision.
Has your work ever been challenged by a particular group or individual? Whom? How did you handle it?
Kichka: First of all, a cartoonist must always be challenged by himself, which is not easy! I’m challenged by the cartoons of some of my colleagues and by the reactions of my audience who reply to me by mail as soon as they receive my work. Sometimes I try to have a look at my colleague’s cartoons on delicate subjects, to understand how they themselves handle it. The comparison opens wide horizons in the cartoon field for me. The works I prefer are from Pat Oliphant, Jeff Danziger, Ann Telnaes, Patrick Chappatte, Plantu, and others.
Danziger: Yes, the right wing and religious conservatives have mounted several campaigns. Didn’t have much effect.
Bolio: I am not the most popular cartoonist among the sexist minds of my country, but I have received only two pieces of hate mail since my work began appearing in newspapers more than 10 years ago.
Government used to repress cartoonists in those days, put them in jail, etc. Here I thank our greatest political cartoonists—Rius, Naranjo, and Helioflores—for their braveness in the hard times of the 1960s and ‘70s. They fought for the freedom of expression now we all are having, and to our fortune they are working (and giving us the good example) still.
Now it is really rare to see a politician calling on the phone to protest some drawing in Mexico City. They do not complain these days just because they are so cynical that they take cartoons as a kind of tribute, and I do believe that this situation makes our work less powerful. But in the rest of the country, our colleagues still have to be careful with their drawings, because the local power is more primitive about it.
Danziger: Internationally cartoons bridge the language barrier, and people all like to laugh at their leaders. I don’t know whether peace is going to break out as a result, but, as a veteran of the Vietnam War, I can say that every little bit helps.
Bolio: I was so greatly honored to be invited to be part of this event representing my country. I still have a smile on my face. As I mentioned before, I do believe this is a work of commitment to the best causes, and one of them—the most important, internationally speaking—is the effort to draw for peace. It was important to see that the language of images can be used as a powerful tool, to make it a voice in the middle of every political conflict around the world, as well as how useful this language can be to bring the people and the cultures together to work for a better understanding. It was great, too, to see how deeply committed my colleagues are—humor is a serious thing.
I believe that when it comes to drawing about peace, we are all trying to be didactic and agitators (Plantu dixit) for a cause that needs the effort of everyone—drawing, writing or speaking. I enjoyed discovering the work of all of them, whom I admired so much.
I am following through the Internet the events of “Cartooning for Peace” [the traveling exhibition] in Europe. I hope that this reunion can encourage others to think about what everyone can do to make a world, maybe not better—I am not that optimistic—but a world more conscious of the nonsense of what we call here the savage capitalism and other kinds of fundamentalist thought.
I congratulate Jean Plantu for being the creator and soul of this great and important idea-event and everyone at the UN for their support and efforts, and of course, for the kindness they all showed to me. It is one of the greatest experiences I have lived as a cartoonist and as a woman, and this feeling will always be with me.
Kichka: “Cartooning for Peace” has been a unique experience. The highly symbolic states of the UN and of New York gave this gathering a deep and serious dimension that obliged me to make an introspection of my way of working and to put that in words in a structured and logical speech, which I’m not used to doing in my day-to-day life as a cartoonist. I had to focus on ethical and moral aspects of cartooning. It gave me an exceptional opportunity to listen to other cartoonists who came from other cultures and other religions. It made me understand better that there’s a wide common ground that unifies us in our search for self-expression and in our struggle for a better understanding of the world. It gave me the feeling that we, the cartoonists, belong to a sort of global brotherhood.
What advice would you give to a young artist with aspirations of political cartooning?
Bolio: To be idealistic, even when it is more realistic to be a pessimist. To have a commitment to truth, to freedom, to equality, to justice, to tolerance . . . You must have the capacity to feel the pain of others to translate it to a drawing.
Our work is based in the language of humor, although I believe that our first duty is to be critical of everything that is not fair, so, if you cannot be humorous enough, or you decide that political incorrectness is your style, that’s okay.
And last but not least, I think that the idea is more important than the beauty of the line; and it is much better when you can express it without words—but it’s harder!
Kichka: My advice is: Check the news; search for better information; surf the Web; watch cables from other countries; learn languages; read papers; open yourself to cultures and civilizations, to history and to art; travel and meet people. In other words, become a sort of New Renaissance Man. Your cartoons will be deeper and richer, and you will be happier!
Danziger: Get a paying job, teaching or bartending. It will be a long time before any real money shows up.
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