Mr. Fish will be at the Robert Berman Gallery in Santa Monica on Saturday, February 19, for the opening of his new art show, “A FISTFUL OF HITS!” In addition to a ton of original pieces for purchase, there will be Fish books, Fish prints and Fish DVDs for sale, plus an open bar and live jazz.
RECEPTION FOR MR. FISH
Saturday, February 19
ROBERT BERMAN GALLERY
2525 Michigan Ave., Suite A5
Santa Monica, CA 90404
By Mr. Fish / Original to ScheerPost
Most people are under the misconception that the best political cartoons are about politics, just as most people think that a picture paints a thousand words and that it is beauty and not truth that is in the eye of the beholder. These are people who only know the least effective political cartoonists and the most mediocre art and cannot see beyond their own egocentric world view. Good art never shuts up, just as the best political cartooning is about people, not politics, and both truth and beauty are circumstantial and never absolute.
In 2015, I published a book called WARNING! Graphic Content: Political Cartoons, Comix and the Uncensored Artistic Mind, which addressed how and why I believed artists and satirists were uniquely qualified to comment on political and cultural constructs and whether or not they were sound or justifiable. I spoke with Henry Jenkins, the Provost Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts and Education at the University of Southern California, about the past, present and future possibilities of political cartooning and satire. Excerpts from our conversation are interspersed in this essay to help elucidate my points. The book was initially conceived as a scholarly examination, but very early in the process, when I was forced to define what an editorial cartoon was prior to making any assertions about its history or purpose, I realized that the definition of the word “editorial” was the exposition of a personal opinion and that “cartooning” was merely the rendering of that opinion in a pictorial form, or at least in a form that wasn’t entirely lingual or literary, a definition that encapsulated other forms of artistic expression such as photography, sculpture, performance art, etc.
Art is an actual living language that I would argue is the most precise and authentic form of communication yet devised by human beings. Similarly, in WARNING! Graphic Content, it was important for me to be able to present the material in such a way that reflected the diversity and expansiveness of art’s voluminous vocabulary, which meant that I needed it to move beyond the fixed confines of being just text and still images. (Reading sheet music is quite a different thing from listening to the sound of instruments being played.)
I also wanted the narrative of the book to reflect the unrestrained and scattered trajectory of every conversation I’ve ever had or overheard on the subject of both art and the meaning of life. To enter into a debate about Bauhaus design, for example, one should also be ready to talk about fascism, the Industrial Revolution, the Labor Movement, Expressionism, Haiku, the 1913 Armory Show, Phenomenology, Existentialism, Minimalism, IKEA, Marx, Upper Paleolithic stone carvings, 2001: A Space Odyssey and the very real difference between factualism and truth. Both Marshall McLuhan and Berger’s Ways of Seeing were most definitely on my mind, as was Wolfe’s The Painted Word, Mailer’s later collection, The Spooky Art and Donald Hall’s Life Work – so, too, was the work of Nietzsche, Fromm, Stephen Davies, Danto and others. In fact, I probably drew more on social philosophers and cultural critics than cartoonists and visual artists when trying to determine the function and significance of art.
It should be understood that both art and political cartooning, when rendered to its greatest potential, reflects the infinitely garrulous real-world objects and the eternally mercurial emotional layers depicted by existence, itself. Both need to be boundless and allowed to improvise, without changing their form, to fit our mood and to ground us in the moment that we’re in, which is different from the last moment and will never exactly resemble the next moment we land upon. In fact, any attempt to regiment our relationship to the world is to ignore how the universe functions, therefore, any attempt to present too confining a definition of political cartooning (including that it must involve caricature, be rendered with a pen and include a caption), much less anything else that derives from an infinity representative of a limitless number of possible manifestations, would neither hone our understanding of the artform nor increase our ability to judge its worth for all people, for all time.
The more exacting we get in our explanation of something boundless, such as artistic expression, the further we get from elucidating on the multiplicity of its meaning and the dumber we get. The purpose of a cartoon, both as a preparatory drawing and as a finished piece of commentary published by a newspaper or a magazine, is never to embody perfection but rather to use imperfection to communicate possibility. Specifically, a cartoon (both iterations of the word) is the beginning of a conversation on any given subject, not the final word, because it more reflects the deliberation over an emotion or an idea than it signifies a proselytizing conviction. To understand precisely what I’m describing, simply compare a propaganda poster that is designed to vilify an enemy or oversimplify a threat to humanity with a cartoon or a piece of fine art that is designed to challenge over-simplification and add complication to an issue so that it more accurately reflects the messiness and multiplicity of real life.
Satire as a form of social activism, whether crafted as literature, performance or cartooning for the purpose of agitating for prodemocratic ideals, has always been with us and will always have relevance in a society struggling to either gain freedom or to remain free. In fact, well beyond the craft aspect of the artform, the instinct to question, condemn and push back against the behavioral constraints placed upon our human nature by either unyielding physics or humorless magistrates and incurious thugs of power and privilege is much more a part of who we are than what we decide cognitively to do. Dissent is in our nature.
Democracy itself is a form of dissent against the notion that a population does not possess sufficient intelligence to exercise self-determination and creative inquiry, itself, and must rely on limited access to free will as a way to avoid pandemonium. I posit that when satire appears to be dying it is more likely a reflection of a dying democracy than an obvious demonstration of creeping mediocrity into the artform. Furthermore, one way to determine the health and wellbeing of a democracy is to gauge the level of political and artistic contrarianism that exists as a relentlessly creative disruption to the frictionless expression of mainstream groupthink. (Such a proclamation, if at all true, should induce a measure of genuine worry in us all, given the anemic state of both political cartooning and satire in the country today.)
Look at it this way.
Humor, like jazz, can only be misconstrued and rendered completely incomprehensible by majority opinion. Same with abstract art. And patriotism. And, by direct correlation, dissent. Ask the common American what jazz is and they will likely assume it’s anything played frenetically on a piano or searchingly on a trumpet. In fact, the average person would be no more able to tell the difference between Kenny G and Gerry Mulligan trickling through the ceiling of an elevator than if you’d asked them to identify a Cy Twombly amid a stack of scribblings done by a fistful of crayons tossed into an active dryer with a blank square of canvas. Similarly, if you asked someone what funny was you would be guaranteed a wholly subjective response no more grounded in fact than if you’d asked them to demonstrate what objectivity is by naming their favorite color.
When multiple viewpoints converge onto any single subject, the muddiest of approximations will be the result and this muddy approximation is called, with great self-congratulatory aplomb, a consensus. That said, consensus is compromise and compromise is a willful concession to civility in contempt, quite often, of blatant honesty; a blatant honesty, that is, which contains within it the greatest potential we have to demonstrate exactly what we are capable of as fully free and wholly communicative human beings well beyond the scripted and choreographed model citizens we’ve been conditioned to aspire to. Indeed, compromise at times is necessary for it allows us to exercise empathy and to maintain a respectful peace when engaging with alternative points of view, but other times it can be the enemy of the sort of intellectual bravery that not only has the potential to make us smarter but could also make us better – or at least more true and actual and less a mollified and conscripted hoard of automatons – because our hearts and minds would no longer be tethered to the arbitrary confines of some ersatz decorum that’s been coded into our behavior patterns by bureaucratic or doctrinal fiat.
Of course, and unfortunately, it is this form of compromise that largely governs our relationship to politics, both personally and communally, leaving those of us who don’t deliberate on such issues outside the parameters maintained and reinforced by the domineering authoritative entities, with which we’ve been raised to surrender our individuality, ignorant of the fact that the keenest vantage point from which to question the folly of a game is off the board and not on it.
What, then, is the significance and practical usability of political cartooning and satire in the broader culture, particularly when the overwhelming majority of the population has been encouraged to surrender its comprehension of politics to consensus viewpoints and both political cartooning and satire have traditionally been the artforms most associated with thinking and criticizing the stupefying aspects of consensus from outside the box and off the gameboard?
There is an argument to be made that neither political cartooning nor satire have any real significance anymore because the audience for such material has been starved out of existence by an increase in the innutritious nature of all public discourse having to do with how society functions and dysfunctions and that this is proof of a society in decline. In other words, just as the popular concept of American democracy has been modified (some might say vulgarized) to include capitalism as a leading example of its primary function, so too has the practice of satire and political cartooning been amended to require amusement as its foremost intention, a sure sign that it can no longer operate as an instigator of deeper thought or a catalyst for meaningful societal change if only because mirth cripples rage and rage is necessary for any campaign against cruelty and injustice. Gone are the days, for example, when popular protest against private ownership, wage slavery and the commodification of information, itself, could feasibly be seen as pro-democratic, just as there can no longer exist a form of popular political cartooning tasked with the job of removing the pacifying distraction of laughter from its very serious attacks on political thuggery, institutionalized prejudices against marginalized populations and blatant criminality.
There are certainly examples of cartoonists who dumb down political discourse, just as there are examples of writers who commit the same violation, just as there are examples of other kinds of artists and public intellectuals who dumb down the entirety of our cultural acumen with the ideas that they advocate. Rather than look to the whole profession of any of those examples, it would be more instructive to look to the individual artist or thinker and the circumstances that produced the commentary being offered to access whether participation in a dialogue is additive or subtractive. That said, it should not be overlooked that a great deal – some might argue all – of political discourse is the very deliberate “dumbing down” of humanitarian discourse. (Recognizing the need to reverse our negative impact on the environment, for example, is made perverse by the political notion that nothing can be done to save the ecosystem until a solution can be devised that doesn’t impact the business sector.) And while I might agree that the majority of cartoonists could legitimately be accused of simplifying political conversation, I’d argue that they are not doing it for the purpose of dumbing down discourse, but rather for the purpose of introducing clarity, common sense and sympathy into the national political dialogue. A cartoonist, when he or she succeeds, makes politics accessible and understandable and, quite frankly, usable to a large portion of the public who, because of race, education level, income inequality, or any number of schlock justifications for marginalization from elite society, would have no easy way to decode and decipher how and why the world functions and dysfunctions as it does.
Here is an excerpt from the aforementioned interview that appeared in Warning!:
HENRY JENKINS: As we think about the political effects of cartoons, you show us many examples where cartoonists have ridiculed those in power, but also many where those without power, those on the margins, have been depicted in stereotypical and demeaning ways. Do these two functions get achieved through the same kinds of artistic mechanisms? Is there a way to meaningfully distinguish between these two different kinds of political use of comics as a medium?
MR. FISH: Indeed, the use of stereotyping in cartooning will always seek to ignore the humanity of both those in power and those dismissed or abused by power for the sake of either making a joke or exaggerating a virtue or a prejudice in service of expressing an opinion of criticism or contempt. Is the artistic mechanism of ridicule the same for slandering a king as it is for slandering a peasant? Sure, it is, particularly when we recognize art as a language, and one that is made up of an alphabet that is just as indifferent to the ideas that it conveys as a pen would be to the words it is writing. Thus, there can be no consistent or meaningful way to distinguish between good or bad stereotypes any more than there is a consistent or meaningful way to distinguish between good or bad willful misrepresentations of an intrinsic fact that is open to an infinite number of interpretations. Put simply, it is the intention of the cartoonist that must be judged, not the megaphone – the medium! – through which he or she broadcasts his or her message.
I generally share your celebration of the uncensored imagination, but this raises some questions at the same time. Are there images that are so problematic, so hurtful, that they should not be reproduced and circulated? Does a refusal of censorship necessarily imply a lack of criticism? What should be the society’s response be to images that can be very difficult to embrace?
One of my favorite quotes from Lenny Bruce is, “Knowledge of syphilis is not instruction to get it.” So, no, I don’t believe there are images that are so problematic and so hurtful that they should be censored, for the same reasons why I don’t believe in the censoring of the written word. In fact, I have never found the parameters drawn by the dominant culture to indicate acceptable behavior or appropriate rules of artistic conduct reliable measures of anything but our most finicky and unimaginative natures.
Still, if the images that we’re talking about are truly toxic and corrupting of our better judgment, better to have them scrutinized in the light than allow them to metastasize in the dark. Knowledge of atrocious and pernicious ideas, whether expressed through text or image, tests the integrity of one’s moral center by providing something contrary with which to compare, resist and rail against. Exposure to idiocy also serves to unmask the deranged logic of those who advertise the questionable ideas as sound so that the mathematics of the argument can be tested in an open forum and fact can be meted out from conjecture. Additionally, when straight society misinterprets an unfamiliar wisdom and labels it as deranged logic, it is important to have mandates for free expression in place so that the positive effects of innovative thinking can flourish and not be suppressed by priggish bureaucrats, blind to pioneering intellectual advancement.
You begin [your] book with a note describing the dramatic decline of the number of editorial cartoonists working in American journalism today, compared to the way this function thrived at the start of the 20th century. What factors do you think have contributed to this decline and what do you see as its consequences, especially given the many examples you offer across the book who distributed their art through channels other than established publication?
Broadly speaking, I think there are two major factors that have contributed to the demise of the editorial cartoonist as a viable and sought-after journalistic contributor to the national debate regarding news, politics and culture over the last hundred years. The first and most obvious is the concentration of media ownership and the elimination of independent voices by the formation of publishing and broadcast oligopolies whose power and influence derive from their disdain for creative competition and dissent. Through corporate mergers and outright acquisition of media outlets by companies motivated by the procurement of profit above all else, the very mission of the free press to inform, enlighten, agitate and educate has, over time, become less about serving the public good and more about catering to the demands and expectations of multinational corporations who have an active contempt for a diversity of viewpoints, in particular those that undermine the revenue-centric values of advertisers, shareholders and, by proxy, the consumers who revere and respect the absolute power of the marketplace. As a result, the propagation of any idea deemed inappropriate by the business and political elite for which the publishing industry serves and advocates for is prohibited, hence, the power and purpose of the editorial cartoonist as an agitator and outspoken critic of partisanship and complacency is recognized as a liability rather than an asset when it comes to servicing the ways and means of the revised version of the Fourth Estate.
The second reason why cartoonists can no longer earn a living wage is, of course, due to the total collapse of the print media industry and the inability of online publishers to pay contributors for content, having not yet figured out a financial model that is self-sustaining. And while the aforementioned consequences to the profession of editorial cartooning are certainly devastating, they have no effect whatsoever on the drive and instinct of the visual artist for whom graphic radicalism and pictorial civil disobedience are his or her best weapon against systemic injustice and institutionalized dogmatism made harmless by the status quo. That said, as it’s always been, the best and most insightful visual art has never appeared in newspapers, nor has it been produced by cartoonists for mainstream publication if only because the very definition of the mainstream insists on pulled punches and language that has been compromised for taste and easy digestion.
Of course, when considered as active methodologies for human behavior as opposed to fixed externalities upon which we lean for confirmation of our civic and social identities, it is true that neither democracy nor satire can remain static forever and both must adapt to changing times. Still, it is profoundly important to first name those adaptations and then determine if they are being made to facilitate change or, conversely, to stall our evolution towards more humanitarian social structures. Explicitly, one must ask what is the role of cartooning and satire in a free society and how can it contribute to the protection and promotion of an equitable social philosophy made normative by its steady application? Ergo, how can American democracy thrive when it is subsidized by unaccountable private tyrannies operated by profoundly undemocratic multinational corporations that exist as part of a coordinated effort to replace a population’s natural instincts for creative and dynamic self-determination with a highly curated and pacifying consumerism?
Some have seen web comics as an important new space where young artists are expressing their visions without needing to go through traditional gatekeepers. Do you see the web as offering opportunities for the kinds of subversive visions you are seeking across the book?
I tend to see the internet as being roughly equivalent to the old party lines offered by the telephone company through the middle of the last century, where multiple parties had equal access to the same phone line and could speak communally or eavesdrop on conversations without reveling themselves. Of course, where there were merely dozens of voices involved with telephone party lines, there are billions involved with the Internet, although I’d argue that there is likely an identical breakdown of meaningful vs. meaningless conversation associated with both.
That said, I do believe that while there are no more subversive visionaries eager to share their genius with the online world than there were deep thinkers to blow the minds of party line listeners, I do believe that the illusion of privacy inherent with online interactions might be inspiring more contemplative listeners and viewers, which is significant. Previous to the invention of the Internet, radical art drew very few spectators as it was necessary for the viewer to either travel to the location of the actual painting or drawing, or to be seen purchasing a facsimile of it from a store or checking it out from a library, all of which was as a very public proclamation of interest in the controversial subject matter with which the work was associated, something that was ferociously discouraged by the dominant culture and decent society. Does having access to a larger audience than ever before allow an artist to influence either members of a society or the architects of power any more than previous artists who were known to fewer people in the past? I’ve seen no real evidence of that.
If anything, in fact, I’d say that the internet has neutered political protest and dissent by isolating and individualizing the experience of “revolution” and making the likeminded community of fist-raising comrades virtual and not publicly demonstrated. The same is true for television: there are likely more well-informed critics of the federal government nowadays than there were 20 years ago, given the work of Jon Stewart, John Oliver and Stephen Colbert, yet the likelihood of genuine political revolt or organized protest is no greater than it ever was because the experience of outrage aimed at buffoonish and corrupt leaders is isolated and practiced in private as mere entertainment consumption.
As stated earlier, there does appear to be a correlation between the demise of a commentative artform such as political cartooning and satire and the declining personal freedoms within a republic that continues to enact restrictive legislation and encourage crippling limitations to its civil liberties in the name of protecting its national security and maintaining the economic stability of its elite sector. The question, thusly, presents itself as this: Can political cartooning and satire be relied upon to activate the participatory curiosities of a disenfranchised population and, in the process, reinvigorate its own purpose thereby upgrading the functional legitimacy of a waning democracy?
This cannot be answered, of course. It can only be demonstrated over time, although there may be ways to perpetuate the survival of the question for the purpose of encouraging numerous attempts at answering it in a way that just might save us all.
Mr. Fish: Cartooning from the Deep End is now available for purchase and rent today
Editor’s note: A version of this essay originally appeared in Comics Journal