The Future of American Political Cartoons: A Symposium in Honor of Pat Oliphant
At the height of this fall’s election drama, Curator at the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library Molly Schwartzburg was thinking about a different way of engaging in political life: cartoons.
After UVA Library acquired Australian-American political cartoonist and Pulitzer Prize-winner Pat Oliphant’s archive in 2018, she and other librarians had many conversations about caricature in a turbulent political moment. “Pat talked often about the urgent need to gather those invested in the genre to discuss its future,” she said. “So, we decided to mount a symposium in conjunction with the exhibition that we organized to introduce his collection to the public, opening in the fall of 2019.”
COVID-19 complicated things, however, and Schwartzburg and her colleagues had to scramble to find a way to make their plans a reality in a different format. With help from the UVA Arts Endowment Grant, which provides sustainable funding for high-impact arts projects, they were able to honor Oliphant’s work with a large-scale, multi-day, virtual event. “The Arts Endowment Grant made the entire symposium possible, from start to finish. It enabled us to host some of the most prominent political cartoonists in the country and put them in conversation with one another in front of a large audience. The grant enabled us to think big and to invite a fantastic slate of speakers.”
The result was The Future of American Political Cartoons: A Symposium in Honor of Pat Oliphant. It included not only a conversation between Oliphant himself and other cartoonists, but a keynote address (watch below) by Keith Knight, creator of “the Knight Life,” “(th)ink,” and the “K Chronicles,” and an artist for the Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle, among other publications. Pulitzer Prize winners and finalists like Matt Bors, Kevin Kallaugher, Jen Sorenson, Ann Telnaes, and many others were recruited as panelists, and sessions on creating political cartoons amid challenges to freedom of expression, the increasingly polarized political landscape, and America’s racial illiteracy allowed for deep discussion and collaboration among panelists and participants alike.
UVA’s own Warren Craghead, also a political cartoonist and panelist at the symposium, noted that the most rewarding session was the roundtable he moderated with UVA students: “It was a great mix of artists coming at these issues in different ways,” he said. “Images convey ideas and tell stories differently than text alone, and the best political cartoons take advantage of that to highlight ideas or wage partisan battles. Humor, ridicule, and sometimes just stating bald facts can be very effective in changing minds or charging up one’s own side.”
Sometimes that humor can be too effective. “One topic that came up repeatedly during the symposium was the fact that more than one major newspaper fired cartoonists after they created particularly trenchant cartoons about President Trump,” Schwartzburg said. The fact that political cartoons might no longer be worth the risk to owners of these publications was concerning to many panelists. “The imperative of freedom of expression--and as my exhibition co-curator Elizabeth Hutton Turner likes to put it, ‘speaking truth to power’ - was addressed with passion by the symposium’s speakers.”
Craghead is adamant that the self-awareness that political cartoons force us to cultivate is imperative, especially in an increasingly charged political climate. “The past year seemed to heighten and sharpen tensions and divides in our politics, and that is reflected in political cartoons,” he said. “Some of the best work was more pointed, even angry. One role of this work is to make it harder for us to look away and miss seeing ourselves as part of the problems--and solutions--in the world.”
Continuing to find those solutions is what makes political cartoons important going forward, though Schwartzburg notes that “the symposium made clear that this was a genre in turmoil, if not crisis. Political caricature is thriving, but the political cartoon as we used to know it--a single pen and ink image, usually captioned, on a newspaper editorial page--is currently unmoored and in competition with new modes of visual caricature that thrive in the digital space.”
Craghead agreed that the digital landscape has changed not just the editorial process but the way that cartoonists structure their art, noting the rise of multi-panel narratives and techniques drawn from comics. Panelists seemed to agree, however, that the internet presents just as many opportunities to political cartoonists as it does challenges. “The internet gives political cartoonists a broad platform to broadcast from, which lends itself to bigger issues. One panelist, Matt Bors, runs the website The Nib, which delivers excellent political comics and cartoons to everywhere, far beyond the reach of a single newspaper or magazine,” said Craghead.
While the reach of cartoons might be expanding, it could be a long time before we see the future of political cartoons clearly. “I anticipate it will be a long time before we are able to look back and say what happened to the political cartoon in the first decades of Internet news and commentary,” said Schwartzburg.
Despite this uncertain vision, Craghead believes that there is still no better way to participate in political discourse. He and other panelists will continue to boldly create, despite the stakes, in a genre that “like photographs, can hit harder.”
~ by Caroline Whitcomb, PhD Candidate