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Political Cartoons are no Laughing Matter

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King Louis Philippe's face as a pear came to symbolize frustrations with Philippe's oppressive rule in 19th-century France. Charles Philipon (France, 1806–1862)
Photo Credit: 
La Caricature (Volume 3, Issues 53–78)

From pear shaped French Kings to iconic fists and a brightly colored ski mask, Stanford scholars discuss the power of caricature as political dissent.

BY CAMILLE BROWN

In 1999 a cartoon-like drawing of a clenched fist quickly transcended its paper and pen origins to become a global icon of solidarity. Chosen by a Serbian resistance group to protest the policies of Slobodan Milosevic’s authoritarian regime, the image spread around the globe within weeks of its first publication.

The Serbian resistance group Optor is just one in a long historical line of social movements to harness the viral power of the image.  From the printing press to the Internet, political cartoons and imagery have proven to be invaluable tools of resistance while also posing serious threats to the governments they target. French artist and caricaturist Honoré Daumier honed the razor edge of the political cartoon in the 1830s. Through a series of scathing cartoons published in the magazine La Caricature, he managed to undermine King Louis Philippe’s conservative and monarchical government. Stanford holds the entire run of La Caricature, including the prints inserted in each issue, and scholars from a range of disciplines came together recently at the Cantor Arts Center to discuss the censorship-defying power of the image from Daumier to today.

During Cantor’s recent panel discussion entitled “When Artists Attack the King: Art and Censorship,” Stanford Art History professor Richard Meyer noted that the artistic techniques used by Daumier to reveal the aggressive censorship of Louis Philippe’s reign are frequently used today to subvert censorship in modern states. “One of the ways in which the way Daumier and La Caricature made the government’s censorship prominent was to make it visible,” Meyer said, either through the absence of content on a page or by a visual dehumanization of the censor.

An example of this occurred in the early 1830s when Daumier and his fellow artist Charles Philipon used symbolic imagery to retaliate directly to Louis Philippe for the increased government censorship La Caricature. They decided to take the monarch’s face and dehumanize it into a symbol of their frustration – a pear. Flash forward 170 years. “The power of the image as political dissent is still very much alive,” said Stanford French and history professor Dan Edelstein.

For instance, the modern Serbian resistance movement took Daumier’s protest precedent to heart by adopting the cartoon fist and other politically charged images as the primary symbols of resistance in their demonstration tactics. “Otpor,” as Edelstein describes, “painted a caricature of Milosevic on this tin drum - which they rolled to the center of Belgrade – and they had sticks which they handed out to passersby and … allowed them to bash Milosevic’s portrait.” It was pranks like these, Edelstein asserted, that successfully revealed the unstable ground upon which the power of a state authority lies. Meyer pointed to a parallel use of symbolism in Russia surrounding the backlash to Putin’s attempted censorship of the punk band Pussy Riot. Similar to Philipon’s pear, Pussy Riot’s distinctive ski mask has become a viral symbol of the group’s protest against Putin’s policies.

Yet, throughout these three images - the pear, the fist, and the ski mask - Meyer found it particularly interesting that  state “suppression efforts only fueled image popularity.” Edelstein took this connection one step further by examining the cultural roots that allow symbolism to become strong enough to warrant such drastic actions as censorship. Citing works by political theorist Gene Sharp, Edelstein pointed out that “to overthrow a government, a movement first has to chip away at its popular support…to try and remove the authority of the regime.” Edelstein went on to point out that highly effective ways of decreasing a regime’s authority throughout history have been “caricature, satire, street theater – symbolic challenges to political authority.” As he demonstrated, this method of symbolic political challenge can successfully be seen in past and contemporary revolutions.

In the previous movements, Daumier’s use of caricature was incredibly effective as a tool for chipping away at the French monarchy’s authority in anticipation of the French Revolution. Interesting questions that arose from the discussion included a conversation exploring the role of aesthetics in creating effective protest art and a debate on the role financial independence plays in facilitating or deflecting censorship – both on a global level and right here at Stanford.

“These issues [of art and censorship] are important,” Cantor Director Connie Wolf stated at the conclusion of the discussion, “…and I think that the test of time is also important in determining where this art of the moment will lie within a museum context in the future.”

The Daumier print collection is available for students, classes, and researchers at the Tanenbaum Seminar Room at Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center. For an appointment to visit the seminar room, please contact Dolores Kincaid at dfk@stanford.edu.