Wednesday, January 06, 2021


As Donald Trump gracefully exits the presidency, the blizzard of words over the 2020 election continues unabated.  Rival versions of reality bark, blabber and chirp uselessly at each other from competing cable news sources.  Facts gain no traction with people who believe whatever they need to believe in order to get by.  

The famous linguist S.I. Hayakawa wrote, "Long before we developed language as we know it, we probably made, like the lower animals, all sorts of animal cries, expressive of such internal conditions as hunger, fear and triumph."  Hayakawa explained that our ancient ancestors used sounds for tribal communion rather than to communicate objective information.  Today, people daunted by the burdens of civilization have abandoned the meaningful use of objective words and retreated to pre-symbolic utterances.    

Ah, but even before our ancestors developed language they had images.  Now as words lie exhausted by the side of the road, pictures still retain their ancient magic.  People have figured out that words lie-- a good vocabulary and grammar can be misdirected by any con man, pimp or president-- but good drawing doesn't lie; its integrity can't be separated from its line. 

Which brings me to this drawing by the talented political cartoonist Ann Telnaes:

By understanding line, color and composition Telnaes has designed a strong, effective picture with unity and integrity.  Note the elements that she brings together here:  the composition has the energy and force of an arrow.  She uses the high contrast / dark color at the tip of the arrow, penetrated by that bright red zig zag tie, to start our eye exactly where she wants it.  Once we're there, the artist establishes her initial joke with father time.  (She also shows that she knows know how to draw deranged eyes.)

Both the design and the content are enhanced by her ability to abstract the human form into a rubbery trapezoid (perhaps a legacy from her years at Disney?)

From that starting point she leads our eye into a widening trail of disaster.

Telnaes knows enough perspective to foreshorten the trail leading up to the trapezoid, but a purely realistic, mechanical perspective would've been boring.  By distorting the objects with a flair, she gives them an additional snap which keeps us interested from one object to the next.

She also integrates the objects with pattern and design, something too often neglected in modern cartooning:

Rather than join in the fruitless battle of words, Telnaes uses the power of an artist's symbols.  She doesn't write an op-ed with psychological explanations for the president's immaturity, she plants a pacifier at his feet and lets the concept unfold from there.


Hundreds of thousands of pages of legal prose have been carefully drafted for more than 60 failed lawsuits around the country, yet those lawsuits are so detached from reality they might as well have said, ceci n'est pas un legal brief.  The fact that the lawsuits were universally rejected by judges didn't affect the beliefs of those with no regard for the meaning of words.  Telnaes doesn't try to join in the debate of words, she plants a pitcher of Kool-Aid and lets the visual symbol do its work.  Viewers are drawn into understanding the significance of the pitcher, and once they've done that they've been tainted by the concept.

In today's debased political vocabulary, calling someone a "liar" has lost its sting.  But oboy, those drawings still have a bite, at least judging from the brutes who become so enraged by Telnaes' pictures that they threaten her with violence.

My point isn't that a particular politician is good or bad, my point is that even when language begins to disintegrate as a means of communicating what is real and what is not, drawing has a truth and integrity all its own.  We see its power in the way it communicates concepts and the reactions it evokes.  



Anonymous said...

How could anyone support that crazy fucker?

Anonymous said...

That fucker should be in prison.

MORAN said...

Telnaes won a pulitzer and the Ruben award. This drawing is a good example of why.

Richard said...

Even a picture like this requires implicitly that you react to its symbols the way the artist expects. If you like Putin, for example, having a picture of him with a heart on it doesn’t exactly create the same gut reaction. The Orange face requires you to have a knee jerk disdain for fake tans.

And then you still have the question of a shared reality — if you don’t think the 2020 election is the end of Trump/Trumpism, but instead, merely prologue to his becoming the soul of the Republican Party, then him being carried away doesn’t really carry the same weight.

Anyway, I agree that images are more striking and immediate than words, but I’m not convinced they don’t carry the same communication hurdles, especially when they’re highly symbolic cartoons.

chris bennett said...

I agree.

Information, through text, shapes our understanding which can then be badged with a symbol or cartoon. Without this prior knowledge we wouldn't know what the badge stands for. I would say that this is an example of why cartoons are not 'images' in the sense we were discussing a few posts back.

David Apatoff,
Talking of older posts, I've been trying to reply to Kev back on the Steadman comments section, but there is a moderation notice in place that keeps telling me my post is awaiting your approval. All to say, you probably have about five identical postings from me requiring your consideration... :)

David Apatoff said...

chris bennett-- I'm so sorry, I didn't think I was "moderating" any of the comments on this blog, people are free to write whatever they want. Thanks to you, I've discovered that after a post reaches a certain age, comments automatically go into a holding file for moderation, to confirm that they aren't spam. I never received a notice about this practice, but in that file I found hundreds of comments going back many years. Yikes. This morning I went through and released yours and all the others (except for the ones about "Mumbai call girls" and "Ukranian brides.") Again, my heartfelt apologies.

David Apatoff said...

MORAN-- Yes, I think she's one of the best working today. The economics of today's newspaper industry, combined with the dumbing down of the reading audience, has hit the editorial cartooning profession hard. Images are smaller, syndication is less lucrative, editors are more risk-averse since the days of Oliphant, MacNelly, David Low and other greats. With her relatively "clean" style and her creative use of gifs on line, I think Telnaes has overcome many of those obstacles better than most.

Richard-- I agree that the picture "requires implicitly that you react to its symbols the way the artist expects" but that's very different from being part of the tribe or agreeing with the artist. It's not as if she uses words like "patriotism" or "election fraud" which have completely different meanings to different factions. She uses widely understood symbols, such as a dead bird with its feet in the air. Whether you believe in environmental protection or not, the concept is clear and because it is delivered in the form of a visual symbol it unpacks and expands only after it has been ingested.

A Trump fan may turn a deaf ear to the word "immature," or may hear the word and instinctively respond "no he's not," but once a Trump fan participates in recognizing the drawing of the pacifier and understanding why it's there, they have already swallowed the bait (or inhaled the coronavirus). I believe that's inherent in how we process visual concepts. At that stage, the response of a Trump fan seems to be to threaten the artist with death or sexual assault.

A few of the symbols, such as Trump steaks, do require a knowledge of current events but most of the audience for such cartoons are people who frequent editorial pages.

chris bennett-- I (along with the entire field of paleoanthropology) disagree that "information, through text" must first shape our understanding before it is "badged" with a symbol or cartoon. There is no text necessary to understand a man being dragged away by some force so implacable that it doesn't bother to turn around in response to his whines and cries. There is no text necessary to understand the power relationship between the person dragging and the person being dragged. We need no "information," other than being alive in the world, to understand expression on Trump's face. There is no misunderstanding the trail that conveys movement and direction, and there is no misunderstanding the wreckage and disarray in his wake, even if you can't read the text on the symbols. Neanderthals wouldn't understand the label "climate change" but they did understood that setting something on fire is bad. Something tipped over and spilled on the ground has never been a good symbol.

Boss Tweed apparently didn't feel a textual predicate was necessary when he railed against the political cartoonist Thomas Nast, "Stop them damned pictures. I don't care so much what the papers say about me. My constituents don't know how to read, but they can't help seeing them damned pictures!"

It is my personal experience that many Trump supporters are low information types, less educated with less of an appetite for reading anything longer than a Qanon tweet, but Telnaes' pictures seem to agitate them in ways that long articles do not.

Anonymous said...

Congressman Gaetz said that yesterday's mob at the Capitol carrying Trump signs was really antifa in disguise. What's the point of arguing with such people? Why even bother to use words? I hope pictures are more effective. You recently talked about nihilistic art on this blog. Art can't be nihilistic enough for today.


chris bennett said...


Firstly, thank you for sorting out my reply to Kev on the Steadman post. There is no need to apologize at all, I can see how this happened, but your concern is much appreciated.

There is no text necessary to understand a man being dragged away by some force so implacable that it doesn't bother to turn around in response to his whines and cries. There is no text necessary to understand the power relationship between the person dragging and the person being dragged. We need no "information," other than being alive in the world, to understand expression on Trump's face.

This is absolutely true. And it is why I was very careful to use the word 'information' rather than 'understanding'. But I should have made myself a little more specific and added that there are two species of understanding going on when experiencing the cartoon. One being of the sensual kind you have just laid out, and the other being of an intellectual, frontal cortex nature. The latter involves recognizing such things as the symbol 'Grim Reaper', that the man involved is the most recent ex-president of the United States, knowing that the balloon thing in front of his mouth is a speech bubble and the symbols within it are code for speech announcing 'I won!' and that this refers to his reluctance to accept the legitimacy of the ballot...etc etc. All this causes us, depending on our politics, to react to the cartoon in a different way to seeing it for what the plastic elements of the drawing intrinsically communicate to our sensual awareness and processing.

chris bennett said...

The last sentence should read:
All this causes us, depending on our politics, to interpret, and thereby react to the cartoon differently than if innocently registering the plastic elements directly communicating to our sensual awareness and processing.

al mcluckie said...

What would you think if Telnaes and Jon McNaughton have on occasion plein air sketched/painted together ? Also , what about those Mumbai call girl posts ?

Happy better year David .

Al McLuckie

kev ferrara said...

Well Chris,

Now I'm in Blogger Limbo too. Hope you're happy!

chris bennett said...

As happy as I can be Kev. People keep telling me to 'stay safe'. I reply 'stay sane' - I'm more afraid of the insanity virus...

On the status of Blogger Limbo; the Steadman count has notched up to 136 so I have just read your reply. Very illuminating, and thank you! By bringing 'mannerism' into the mix you have provided a missing piece in my understanding which I have hitherto been trying to fill with the three other pieces. But I don't want to gum up this thread...

...So David,
Are you OK with us continuing to post on the Steadman thread if it means you having to keep an eye on it in order to release our comments for public perusal?

khurram said...

I adore your websites way of raising the awareness on your a photography

kev ferrara said...

Chris, let's not force david to babysit the conversation. PM me through facebook or email me.

Tom said...

Chris and Kev

Why don't you guys "gum up this thread"? It is always fun to read what you have to say.

David Apatoff said...

Al McLuckie-- I can't predict whether Telnaes or McNaughton would emerge alive from the woods if they went plein air painting together, but there's no question who is the superior artist. Telnaes knows how to construct an image. She knows how to draw. She knows how to use judgment and prioritize. McNaughton strikes me as a fetishist laboring over details with no overarching judgment, taste or discernment. His wacko political theories motivate every brush stroke, so painting a painting is like taking out his frustrations punching a punching bag. That's a guaranteed formula for bad art.

chris bennett-- I take your point, but I question whether the lobes and functions of the brain divide into intellectual and sensual "species of understanding" as neatly as you suggest. The brain seems to have all kinds of overlapping functions and back channels, and I would suggest that many of those play overlapping roles as we process an editorial cartoon.

Yes, a child who cannot read words would lack the information to recognize Donald Trump or Father Time; a child could not read the words "I won" or recognize the significance of the Trump steak. However, he wouldn't require more information to appreciate the function and the dynamics in the drawing. He could tell from the drawing of Trump's body that a person was being dragged and could tell from the facial expression that he was very upset. He wouldn't know the name "father time" or "grim reaper" but this picture gives him enough information to recognize which character is in control (and does not care about pleas for a stay of execution, which is the most important thing about father time.) A child would intuitively understand both the movement and the direction of the events from the visual cues in the picture. Any child who had been reprimanded for spilling would surely recognize the mess being left behind was naughty. That's a whole lot of information, and even though it wouldn't inform a 3 year year old how to vote, I think it goes beyond the sensual and into the realm of the intellectual. I think that's a large part of the special power of pictures, and how they invade our intellect, going over, under and around our walls.

This may make editorial cartoons especially relevant in an era when many citizens have a childish level of information and no comprehension of empiricism. Many in the mob who attacked the US capitol this week sincerely believed they were protecting the country from satanic cults of child molesting democrats who had stolen the election from President Trump. Such people can listen to words and numbers ad nauseum and still end up with the information level of a three year old.

David Apatoff said...

kev ferrara, Tim and Tom-- Feel free to post wherever you like, of course. I've begun keeping an eye on the "old comments" file and will empty it regularly. I'd try to deactivate it altogether, but in just the last 24 hours it intercepted 6 new spam comments that I would never have known about (some even worse than the Ukranian brides). I think that the Steadman filter may have been activated prematurely because it had over 125 comments, and I will try to turn off the "high volume" function.

chris bennett said...


I'm not sure that the cartoon would change anybody's mind or even add a little more nuance to a simplistic polarized attitude. I mean, how would such drawings get across the fact that regardless of the crap Trump has just pulled over the election result (and the lies throughout his reign) there was some good things his foreign policy people achieved during his office, and that the Democrats tried to pull a similar stunt over presidential legitimacy with the Russian vote-rigging thing?

Maybe a drawing that showed two opposing Frankenstein monsters that were neither all good, or all bad? So I do accept the thrust of your point. :)

chris bennett said...

PS: I've emailed Kev so you've been relieved of your babysitting duties.

Anonymous said...

Its insane to compare the Russian vote rigging thing and the Trump election fraud. Every agency agrees Russia tried to change the vote in favor of Trump. Every court agrees Trump's election fraud is a lie. Even Bill Barr. How do you compare them?

chris bennett said...

I agree that Trump's tactics before and after the election are many orders of magnitude more threatening to democracy than allegations of complicity with foreign interference. I live in England, yet held my breath as the events of the last few weeks played out and the American constitution was strain-tested to its absolute limit.

My point was that political cartoons, being symbols, pander to the polarizing tendency of the human mind, not its intellectual ability to sift through nuance and complexity. They turn the reality of any situation into a coin; we shake our heads or nod in agreement depending on what side it shows. A badge, by definition, is anti-debate.

David Apatoff said...

chris bennett-- I like to think there's an art that transcends the politics in these cartoons. I tend toward the liberal side of the middle, yet I love the work of arch conservative political cartoonist Michael Ramirez, just as I loved the work of conservative Jeff MacNelly, and I adore the brilliantly savage political drawings of conservative Tom Fluharty, whose brutal pictures of Hilary Clinton never fail to provoke a laugh. Fluharty has commented on this blog that he loves the work of John Cuneo, who creates vicious cartoons about Trump, just as Cuneo has written that he loves the drawings of Fluharty.

I'm not suggesting that any of these people will experience a political conversion as a result of viewing these cartoons, but I think all of them seem to appreciate an artistic "truth" about the art, in the way it's constructed and the sense it makes to our eyes and emotions, that is an important bridge when other channels of communication seem to have shut down.

Unknown said...

The political bullshit posts get old

chris bennett said...

...I think all of them seem to appreciate an artistic "truth" about the art, in the way it's constructed and the sense it makes to our eyes and emotions, that is an important bridge when other channels of communication seem to have shut down.

I have no disagreement with you about the ineffable nature of plastic expression per se. Although it is a language that evolved in us to be a manifestation of the sharing principle, as did speech, it does not communicate the same mode of understanding. Thus the more aesthetically impoverished an image is the more it tilts from a self-contained 'argument of the senses' to that of a sign.

As a little thought experiment imagine the Trump cartoon with these small changes:

Replace the Grim Reaper with a caricature of Biden and instead of a scythe over his shoulder, a sack of surgical masks. Then add some people sitting passively at the table wearing surgical masks and replace the items on the table with smart phones and twittering birds. Finally, replace the words in the speech bubble with "FREE SPEECH! FREE SPEECH! FREE SPEECH"

The core plastic expression of the cartoon has not been altered one jot, but the meaning has been entirely changed. So what 'truth' is being expressed by this drawing's intrinsic plastic properties with regard to politics?

Now, a situation where people shouting "fire!" in a crowded theatre when there is no fire are silenced in the interests of public safety shades into a situation where the same people are silenced all the time is a complex constitutional and moral issue. And I believe that cartooning considerations such as this distorts them into caricatures, which encode and therefore encourage simplistic polarizations inimical to enlightening debate.

David Apatoff said...

chris bennett wrote: "I believe that cartooning considerations such as this distorts them into caricatures, which encode and therefore encourage simplistic polarizations inimical to enlightening debate."

On the other hand, I'm guessing you'd agree that "simplistic" ain't always so simple. A simple Rembrandt sketch may be superior to a complex Durer etching. We applaud artists for eliminating unnecessary detail, distilling unifying themes, etc.. Simplicity is even at the heart of certain types of art; a Franz Kline action painting must be pared down to its essentials because complexity would distract from the thrust. Zen art or a Rothko painting may appear visually simple but is intended to provide a focal point for deep meditation.

Cartoons simplify to streamline but that doesn't mean they "encourage simplistic polarizations inimical to enlightening debate." To the contrary, in the US recently the most polarized factions take refuge in complexity. Qanon and similar lunatics are invested in highly complicated theories about international cabals of pedophilia rings headquartered in the basements of local pizza restaurants, conspiring with US politicians and foreign dictators to steal elections. The complexity of these theories make them impossible to debate because believers can always find additional layers of meaning to show that things aren't what they seem and words don't mean what we think. By contrast, an incisive cartoon can help de-polarize some audiences.

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Thomas Fluharty said...

I wish I could draw like Ann! Can't believe when you introduced me to her at dinner in 2017 that I didnt know who she was. I had no idea I was in the presence of greatness. Thanks D!