Sunday, December 05, 2021


Art Young's 1911 cartoon about capitalist greed needs no words to say what it took Karl Marx 106,444 words to say in Das Kapital.

What makes Young's cartoon so powerful?  

Well, for one thing, he grabs our attention with a man teetering on the edge of a cliff, rather than using Marx's approach of 356 pages of dense explanatory text.  

For another thing, Young makes his message seem almost irrefutable by embedding it in the laws of physics.  Regardless of our political persuasion, everyone understands that to get the last of what's in that bowl the man must tip it even further.  Everyone further recognizes that if that chair tilts back any further it will tumble over the cliff.  No one doubts what gravity will do to him then.  Suddenly the demise of capitalism seems like a law of nature, even if you're a big fan of capitalism. 

That's the wonderful alchemy of political cartoons.  Words have to line up in straight rows like little soldiers, forming sentences and paragraphs under the watchful eye of punctuation.  Because they're a linear mode of expression, you can anticipate their destination and begin to think of questions and objections. Political cartoons, on the other hand, arrive in your head at a glance, fully formed, and blossom from there.  

And now, the (perhaps obvious) lesson:  Young had to be an excellent draftsman to pull that off.  He had to be able to draw that figure from just the right awkward angle, capturing the important details and excluding the unimportant ones.  He had to draw the figure large enough so that we could understand what was happening but small enough so that there was room to imply a high cliff.  He suggested that the man was high in the air with those light clouds in the background.  This was not easy.

As the great Milton Glaser said:

A designer who cannot achieve the specific image or idea he wants by drawing is in trouble.

Here are some more gems from Art Young, a great political cartoonist whether you share his politics or not.

In 1916 Louis Brandeis famously wrote about the importance of exposing corruption, “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” Shortly afterward, Art Young drew this imaginative cartoon of a plutocrat trying to cover up the sun.

Art Young-- a century later, in a different political climate, we can still admire his artistry. 


xopxe said...

In Edward Bellamy's "Looking Backward: 2000–1887", in chapter I there's a curious resource for explaining capitalism. The author from 1888 is describing it for the people of the utopian 2000. It begins like this:

"By way of attempting to give the reader some general impression of the way people lived together in those days, and especially of the relations of the rich and poor to one another, perhaps I cannot do better than to compare society as it then was to a prodigious coach which the masses of humanity were harnessed to and dragged toilsomely along a very hilly and sandy road."

In 5 paragraphs, he basically lays out and explains a graphical cartoon. A XIX century one.

Anonymous said...

Good drawing but with an evil message.


Tom said...

He conceives the world as space which gives drawing its richness.

kev ferrara said...

You wrote in the last post about the dumbing down of politics, the disinterest in subtlety. What are political cartoons but the apotheosis of that very thing?

That political cartoons use the effective techniques of art to tell people what to think about politics and policy is ethically groteseque. There is no argument put forth, there are no facts, no complexity; simply the grafting of a simple emotion or scenario on the situation to mock or demonize this person, group, or idea or valorize or defend that person, group, or idea.

The drawing may be grand, but this is still politics at the intellectual level of Punch and Judy or The Heckler’s Veto. (Which, apparently can be enough in the endlessly pandering, mentally deranged, and ignorant/arrogant milieu of politics. Those editors know their audience.)

xopxe said...

If you can do cartoons about family life, science, death or history, you certainly can do them about politics. It's just another part of human life.

kev ferrara said...

That's a rather blithe take on the ethics of propaganda.

The socio-psychological findings regarding those who seek to control speech and thought shows that they tend to lack reading comprehension skills. They also tend to have anxiety and attention deficit issues.

One would think this profile leaves aside those motivated to control information simply because they have something to hide, as with so many in positions of political or commercial power today (and always). But actually, there's strong alignment. A public liar or a fake elite is rightly nervous about their fragility, incompetence and corruption; especially as actually intelligent, ethical, and competent people start to catch on.

(Not coincidentally, surveys also showed that those in the news business had far above average anxiety and neurosis levels compared to the rest of the population.)

Those that readily or easily obey (or defend) speech/thought authoritarians were shown to be those with high trait agreeableness, often coupled with neuroticism, generally speaking; those who just want everything to be nice, at any cost.

Which includes the the Good Student personality type; the endlessly obedient absorber of the daily media homily or hoax du jour. (Who end up being the bitter enders/true believers when all the real evidence finally comes in showing they had fervent blind trust in paid advocates for The Corrupt.)

When totalitarianism comes the Good Students are useless; they'll believe whatever the teacher at the front of the class says.

The common denominator among all the findings above is that those without philosophy - those who function by thuggish tactics or succumb to it easily, the nervous and easily catastrophized, threatened, or otherwise propagandized - also tend to be those without ethics.

Such people may not even understand ethics.

xopxe said...

What are you even talking about.

Freaking Goya did political cartoons.

kev ferrara said...

Goya's illustrations of war and violence or his cartoon comments on the social morés of his time are works of Art that express truth through an aesthetic/fictional veneer. They are hardly 'political' in any prescriptive, 'intellectual', or ideological way.

Politics is fundamentally a medium of distortion. The very opposite of truth.

xopxe said...

Wow, just wow.

Perhaps wherever you live you call "politics" some sort of fake sport where professionals make-believe fight, but in most places it's a real thing. It guides how humans organize their societies. You know, it's actually a greek word.

Goya was worried by concrete political processes. Real stuff that changed peoples life. He was a enlightened liberal, ardent supporter of the Bourbons Reforms, and agonized over the fate of the French Revolution. You can not seriously believe that his denouncement of the church's role in brutalizing the population and speech control *in Spain* was not political.

He saw a political project he cherished crumble under the weight of political reaction, and he was angry and bitter. He cared.

kev ferrara said...

Yes, I understand the history.

It is true that human groups must come to agreements as to how to conduct society.

This is best done without regard to politicking (lying, manipulation, propaganda, elision of pertinent fact, slander, lawfare, etc.) - a point so obvious it hardly seems worth saying.

Which is not to say that Rhetoric, in the original sense (of artful oratory that attempts to persuade by vivifying the facts of the matter so they are more aesthetically understood) would not be an important part of the discussion.

And of course representative negotiation would also come into it.

Goya told the truth. He didn't 'denounce' anybody. Except insofar as the truth itself reveals the evils of totalitarians. (Or the foolishness of status pretension.)

Movieac said...

I wonder what you think of the work of Michael Patrick Ramirez an American cartoonist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Though I do not share his politics I admire his draftsmanship.