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Interview: Alex Robins Circled the Globe to Document Influence of Political Cartoons

March 5, 2007 | by Stephen Anzaldi

Political cartoons, with their weird little images, often belie complex visual metaphors that address social and political issues that might otherwise be ignored, says Alex Robins. A senior majoring in philosophy and art theory in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, Robins recently traveled around the world to document how cartoons shape public discourse.

Robins was awarded a fellowship in 2006 by the Chicago chapter of the Circumnavigators Club to conduct a comparative study of political cartoons and add to the limited scholarship on what he calls a powerful yet poorly understood art form. With additional financial support from the Provost's Office, Robins embarked on a tour last summer that took him to 12 countries on four continents in 100 days.

Here he discusses his extensive travel and what he learned about cartooning along the way.

How did you get interested in cartooning?

When I was young, my grandfather unearthed my uncle's box of old Mad magazines. He didn't know what to do with it except to pass it on to me. I quickly became obsessed with the cartoon image. I would take tracing paper and very dutifully go over Mort Drucker's drawings. I did Alfred E. Newman's head over and over. I was first attracted to the cartoon as a form or representation. But I eventually came to understand that there were jokes behind these images.

What made you decide to pursue this as a research topic?

I was an editorial cartoonist for The Daily Northwestern. The more I drew, the more interesting the art became. But I had a lot of questions and couldn't seem to find the answers through existing scholarship.

Can you explain the nature of the research project?

In each country I visited, I collected print media and talked with artists to create a context for cartoons. I wanted to produce a unique account of political discourse and visual culture while also amassing a collection of currently undocumented art.

What were some of the highlights of your travels?

Every stop was fascinating in so many ways. In Poland I looked at a lot of anti-Semitic cartoons published before World War II. In Hungary I interviewed dissident cartoonists before the fall of Berlin Wall. Serbia is so diverse and polarized. There I met cartoonists who were for and against Milosevic. I met members of the new generation of black cartoonists in South Africa, as well as the poorest and richest cartoonists of Tanzania.

Do these various artists share anything in common?

Political cartoonists are all rebels in a way. They're sympathetic to their readers but always at odds with their publishers and local politicians. There seems to be a changing of the guard coming but, having said that, it's generally a population of older men.

Why do you think it's difficult to understand political cartoons?

First of all, I think they gain a benefit from being poorly understood. They occupy a strange place in society where they're understood as almost juvenile or inconsequential while taking on some of the most important and volatile topics. They're given a critical distance that works to their benefit because people tend not to scrutinize them in the way they do other forms of commentary. The cartoonist is able to wield a mightier pen in a sense because people don't pay such close attention to their work.

How does this change from place to place?

In Turkey, a cartoonist drew the prime minister as a cat. That was grounds for a criminal case against the artist. But here in the United State a similar caricature of a public official would not elicit the same reaction. In the west the cartoon is this curiosity, a pleasurable, humorous and entertaining thing. In other countries it takes on a subversive or political action element that makes it very powerful.

How else would you contrast cartoons from different countries?

In American and British cartoons there's a convention in the way text is written and images are distorted. Artists exaggerate faults or flaws in the face, highlighting every crag, crevice and smile line in a public figure's caricature. There's a propensity to the grotesque. People I met in foreign countries criticized that technique. They told me they wanted no part of it.

A part of my research project became a genealogy of newspapers. And that plays a huge role in how the cartoon works. Many American publications are cutting their cartoons or taking them from syndicate services. This country has a very distinct role for the cartoon. It no longer sells a paper, which is important to note. In a place like Tanzania where you don't have as much television or electronic press, the paper is still the primary news medium. There are half a dozen different newspapers on the street there. Many carry political cartoons on the front page as an advertising technique.

The publication of caricatures of the prophet Muhammad led to much controversy and protest last year in several countries. What reactions did you see in response to this issue?

The violence broke out after I was awarded the grant. In fact, the cartoon wasn't even on the radar at the time I presented my proposal. But it certainly validated my assertion that cartoons can be at the center of very important cultural issues. As I traveled it became a talking point with everyone I met. Some people talked about the freedom of the press issue. I met people in Serbia who made a point of publishing it there. There were also people completely against it who refused to even see the cartoon.

What are the trends in cartooning?

A great number of cartoonists I met all over -- from Africa to Europe to Asia -- have found a new market on the web. There are a number of international cartoonists working in English for a global audience, which I find interesting because a cartoon generally gains its force and vivacity by establishing some consensus. As an artist, you're telling an inside joke to the reader. The question becomes, when someone in Thailand draws a cartoon to be read across the world, how do we conceptualize a global audience?

What is the greatest challenge in cartooning for such a broad audience?

Language, definitely. When talking to people, I found that the gold standard was, "Can you make a good cartoon without text?" The profound haiku of cartooning is making a powerful image absent of text. That's not generally how it works with the typical American cartoon, laden with labels and captions. The combination of text and image can indeed communicate an idea faster and easier.

What about subject matter? It must be difficult to make a cartoon understandable when you're lampooning a figure unknown throughout most of the world.

That's true, but it gets even subtler than that. I met a Bulgarian artist who showed me a cartoon of a bird flying off of a man's shoulder. And he looked at me and said, "Do you get it?" I had no idea what it meant. It was in reference to a particular Bulgarian euphemism about birds off of a shoulder. Even after he explained it to me, I found it almost meaningless. When we're reading cartoons from far-flung places it's evident that although much can be communicated, there are still fundamental divides to cross.