Not everyone thinks art is Serious Business. Artenol illustration

Power, parody and pay

Serious Art? No, but cartoons are serious business

By Martin Rowson


On my birthday this year, our daughter, a graduate of the Slade School of Fine Art in London, took me to the Serpentine Gallery’s café for a performance by her friend and collaborator, Matt. And very good it was too: clever, thoughtful, provocative, strangely beautiful, disturbing and, in places, very, very funny. Though, oddly – and here we get to the point – during the funny bits, so far as I could tell, I was the only person in the place laughing out loud.

There could be all sorts of reasons for this. Maybe no one else in the audience had a sense of humor. Maybe, more likely, I laughed in all the wrong places, both gauchely and with glaring inappropriateness. The audiences I always seem to sit among every time I see a play in the West End are audiences that appear to think the very act of engaging expensively with the dramatic arts empowers and entitles them to laugh at bloody everything. Either way, when I congratulated Matt afterwards, we both commented on my lonely, isolated laughter, I with puzzlement and Matt with a certain amount of resentful resignation, because he’d wanted everyone to laugh. But, as we both reflected, Art is a Serious Business.

John Leech’s “Substance and Shadow,” an early cartoon satirizing the inequities of 19th-century British society — and the pomposity — of the fine art of the day. photoWhat I do, as a political cartoonist, obviously isn’t. That’s why I call myself, rather pretentiously without pretension, a “visual journalist” instead of some kind of “artist.” I first started doing this about 20 years ago, deliberately to demarcate myself and my craft from the smart boys and girls kicking up a storm on art magnate Charles Saatchi’s tab, with the money he earned deep in the heart of advertising, the “Industry of Lies.”

I draw and paint on an almost daily basis, and the kind of visual satire I create is, in practice, as rigidly codified in form and content as Japanese Noh theater. Although I exaggerate the features of real people and place them in ridiculous narratives of pure fantasy, the kind of allegorical painting contained in a political (or editorial) cartoon is the last bastion of artistic realism. For instance, there are no truly great abstract expressionist political cartoonists because the victims – the politicians – could say with unquestionable truth, “That looks nothing like me.” Likewise, the satirical intentions of artists like, say, the Chapman Brothers, are different in both form and purpose from those of newspaper cartoonists.

And, of course, my standoffishness from the official art world is reciprocated in spades. A few years ago, the Tate Britain held a Francis Bacon retrospective and, for reasons I still don’t quite understand, BBC Radio 4’s flagship arts program, “Front Row,” thought it would be a good idea for me and the artist Maggie Hambling to walk together around the show, saying what we thought of it. Hambling wasn’t in a good mood that day (she’d recently quit smoking), and our broadcasting chemistry became positively toxic when we looked at an early Bacon painting of a baboon, one that I’d never previously seen. It’s an extraordinary piece, created with a dazzling sparsity of paint that wholly captures the baboon-ness of the baboon in ways that, I said into the microphone, were “caricaturally great.” Hambling narrowed her eyes and hissed, “How dare you! How dare you call Francis Bacon a caricaturist! Take it back at once!”

Read the rest of this story in the Summer 2016 issue of Artenol. Order yours today

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