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October 4, 2021

PONTIN | When Cartoons Aren’t Funny

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When studying history in middle and high school, I would always wait patiently for the arrival of the Gilded Age. I would sit through the slow formation of the thirteen colonies and their rebellion against a mercantilist monarch, waiting restlessly through long discussions of Jacksonian democracy and the Mexican-American War and Bleeding Kansas. I would eagerly anticipate the epoch of urbanization and industrialization, biding the rapid growth of cities I’d visited on family road trips and imagining how different they must have looked before the naissance of underground transit systems and billboards awash in neon. 

Reflecting on this now, it seems rather peculiar for my younger self to have been so intrigued by a time of such intense heartache — the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, public health catastrophes and little to no protections for working class laborers. What I relished most about this period, however, was the vehement tide that pushed against this repression. Namely, I was fascinated by the muckrakers, and what I upheld as one of their most powerful tools: the political cartoon. 

I adored the way these creations were at once so explicit and so full of hidden messages, sometimes boldly labelling gluttonous oil tycoons and at other times scratching down names or phrases in the tiniest of corners. I loved the way they condemned political machines before I even entirely understood what political machines were, the way they so unapologetically flipped the standing power dynamic on its head. 

Political cartoons were perhaps the most openly accessible form of sociopolitical commentary in their time, largely abandoning the requirements for highbrow education — or even mere literacy — that newspaper columns and longer form publications demanded of their readers. Sure, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is an integral narrative for the project of cognizing industrialization’s true horrors, but was it within reach of the poverty-stricken, uneducated immigrant peoples whose stories it was meant to chronicle? Not quite, at least in its untranslated form. In this way, political cartoons pried open the political dialogue that elites were working so hard to nail shut, posing their critiques in a way that was inclusive and mainstream. 

Take this piece from April 1901, likely penned by Eugene Zimmerman for Judge magazine. The artist takes a scathing stand against a groundless policy (unless you consider the Monroe Doctrine valid ground) of interventionism in Latin America. Full-page, full-color cartoons frequently adorned the covers of magazines like Judge and Puck, tackling the most complex, multi-layered domestic and global entanglements in a method both eye-catching and hair-raising.

Even beyond their value on the planes of humor and inclusivity, it is important to remember that political cartoons are, at their core, an incredible form of art. They task the artist with a manifold mission, challenging them to at once make biting political critique, formulate this critique so that it is understandable and attainable for the masses, and — of course — do so in a way that is visually alluring and appealing. 

The best art is not passive. It does not hang idly on gallery walls and let strangers’ eyes run across it, stationary in its physical presence and in the imagination it incites in the viewer. The most striking masterpieces call upon us to question the status quo, to contemplate and dismantle the record as it is most conveniently or most commonly publicized. Political cartoons achieve this objective to a tee.

It’s also hard to overstate the indelible impact political cartoons have borne unto the American political discourse. They concretized the mudslinging so common in the vibrant debate over contested candidacies and foreign policy decisions, making this derision tangible and visible in an entirely new way through art. Some of the most powerful symbolism in the two-party system comes from the Harper’s Weekly cornerstone Thomas Nast, who is credited with establishing the donkey-elephant dichotomy that has since become central to contemporary political imaging.

While born in the past, the art of political cartooning is not an artifact of the past. This art form continues to structure the way we think about power — about who is the bulldog and who is the British man hurriedly crossing the Atlantic. It gives breath to the frustration that can be hard to express in words and forces us to reframe our dilemmas in the simplest of terms.

Perhaps most poignantly, this genre of artistry also begs an unsettling question: Have we entered a new Gilded Age? It doesn’t take much imagination to think of who might belong to a new class of tycoons, this time fabricating fortune not with oil and steel, but with data and software. Likewise, the nature of labor exploitation has changed, but it remains an unignorable undercurrent of the burgeoning global network. Yet just as these forces continue to encircle each of us, simultaneously restricting and freeing us, a fearless wave of artists forges ahead, waging their own colorful form of battle. 

Megan Pontin is a junior in the School of Industrial Labor Relations. She can be reached at [email protected]. Rewind runs alternate Tuesdays.