DURING THE CIVIL WAR, Abraham Lincoln called political cartoonist Thomas Nast "our best recruiting sergeant." According to Lincoln, Nast's cartoons "have never failed to arouse enthusiasm and patriotism, and have always seemed to come just when those articles were getting scarce." But when pundits examine the Fourth Estate's impact upon American politics, they routinely ignore the importance of the cartoon.
Penetrating political cartoons are not merely news reporting or even news analysis. They are lamps that illuminate the complexity of issues, spears that jab relentlessly for chinks in a politician's armor, magnifying glasses that invite public inspection of government corruption or incompetence. Cartoonists thrive on controversy, hoping to add reason to the irrational and scope to the sensational.
A cartoon, unlike an editorial, cannot explore a topic in detail. Limited by space, a cartoonist must grab the reader's attention, hook the reader's imagination, impress a message immediately. In a cartoon, "the message being conveyed usually is not essentially different from those expounded in newspaper opinion columns," says William Thomas, editor and executive vice president of the Los Angeles Times. But as Thomas recognizes, "the manner of conveyance is different--profoundly different."
This difference is directness, the one-to-one correspondence between simultaneously seeing an image, processing that visual information and grasping a complex message. This is the cartoonist's privilege alone.
A CARTOONIST, like a child, understands an issue by simplifying it. To provide meaning from a baffling chaos, he or she must distill a subject to its most basic elements. The cartoon must aim to present a simple truth otherwise left unknown, overlooked, or misunderstood.
William "Boss" Tweed was horrified by Nast's acrid portrayals of him: "I don't care a straw for your newspaper articles. My constituents don't know how to read. But they can't help seeing them damned pictures." Nast followed the commandment that a cartoon should be a mirror in which readers can recognize salient ideas with relevance to their own lives.
There is a premium on inventiveness: like all other facets of reporting and fact-gathering in a newspaper, a cartoon must be brand new--new not only in subject matter, but also in visual presentation. Ideas fall flat unless they are carried by dynamic figures, vibrant strokes and striking satire. Much like a photographer, a cartoonist selectively crops the action. The frame should include only what is absolutely necessary.
In this vein, I "compose" instead of "draw," since I combine words and images to make a unified work. But to make an emotional connection with readers, I try to hit their heads as well as their hearts.
"Is not the caricaturist's task exactly the same as the classical artist's?" asked Annibale Carraci, widely considered the first caricaturist. "Both see the lasting truth beneath the surface of outward appearance...A good caricature, like every work of art, is more true to life than reality itself."
IT TAKES FACTS to make news. It takes opinions about facts to make political cartoons. But despite their insights, political cartoons do not instantaneously create converts. More likely, they bolster the convictions of those who already support particular ideologies, groups, or persons.
In this endeavor, I integrate images, text and ideas to provoke reactions that stories or photos alone never could. My intent is not to convert readers, but to agitate their intellects--to convey a stimulating perspective in a powerful manner that compels them to stop, stare and even question. The cartoon's potential to alter viewpoints and influence action is what I aspire to unlock. Special cartoons transcend the limitations of their topic and medium when they touch the chords of human feeling and morality. To accomplish this, they must originate from the gut of their maker.
When I stare at a blank 7.5" X 8.25" piece of paper and press my pen upon it, I enlist my personal politics. As a liberal independent and Democratic sympathizer, I am not shy to evince those sentiments in my art. My cartoon is really an expression of my activism. Although I may not participate in sit-ins and demonstrations, I do enjoy the opportunity to air my thoughts in a public forum.
My academic focus on mass media in America has made me more sensitive to the media's trememdous influence upon public opinion and involvement in civic life. Aware of my role in how the media communicates to and affects the public, I have tried not to abuse my position by consciously tackling a broad spectrum of topics, challenging social stereotypes, depicting a fair representation of races, sexes and ages.
For the past four years, I have drawn for many student publications, but I value my work at The Crimson the most. My goal to make my opinion count has found its fullest realization here. Striving to engage in a constructive public dialogue and to contribute to a more profound comprehension of the issues, I have learned, through trial and error, how to better encourage self-reflection, critique the status quo and offer solutions to communal problems. In a nation that takes pride in not fearing self-criticism, I feel it is my responsibility to criticize, especially in the stifling midst of silent complacency and blind patriotism.
My goals in cartooning are threefold: to express a personal passion, to convey an insightful message and finally to present a meaningful contribution to society. Since childhood, art has been a channel into which has flowed uninhibited creativity, thought and zeal. A constant presence in my college experience, cartooning has been the key to my artistic growth. Through the acknowledgement of peers, I know my work can brighten people's days and inform their lives. Outside these ivy-covered walls, I will continue to draw...and to try to make a difference.
Oliver C. Chin '91 was Graphics Editor of The Crimson last year.
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