Friday, 10 September 2010

RUDE BRITANNIA: BRITISH COMIC ART (2)

For Part One click here


Sticking It To The Man – A How-to Guide

But enough of history, which is perhaps just one big how-to guide anyway. Having established that satire has to have a target, let’s look at what weapons it has to throw.

Satire has a weird and often abusive relationship with realism. Satire must always mirror in some way what is, but must equally function as a distorting mirror. This is pretty much a definition of the caricature. George Grosz (excluded from this show by nationality) spoke of “interior reality”, in which art is liberated to show things the way they really should look. The cartoonist Kaz (excluded from here for a very similar reason) commented “basically, I’m dissatisfied with the way the world looks... why don’t corporations look more evil? Instead of water fountains in front of their building, why not flames?” (‘Comics Journal’, 186)

Another medium equally inextricably caught up with satire is collage, which by definition shoves clashing worlds together. Thomas Patch’s painting‘A Gathering of the Dilettanti in a Sculpture Hall’ (1760/1) could be seen as a proto-collage, straining to invent the form. It shows the boorish British, the original lager louts on tour, let loose in a continental sculpture hall. They are caricatured against the more classically depicted background. (You could see this as the return of the cartoons, in the word’s original sense of ‘under-drawing’, and with it the reduction of high art to its baser source.) Yet portraying them through the same medium as the stately backgrounds diminishes this juxtaposition, fits them too neatly into their surroundings. In more recent years this would be done as a photomontage, cartoon figures imposed upon a photographic background.

Of course it is not that paint is tied to realism. (Or else Francis Bacon would have had a rather short career.) It’s true that the drawn line better captured the life, the plasticity of the image. But there’s something else. Its plasticity also conveys the all-important sense of fluidity, of flux. We need to be aware of the mutation. The caricature, whether of Pitt or Blair, relies on our remembering their actual look and comparing it to the artist’s distortion. It’s like comparing a jazz reworking back to the original standard.



More widely, satirical art is illustrational in the verb sense of the word – it is there to show something. The artist’s skill and imagination is pressed into service of a central idea; what Cruikshank called “the mapping out of certain vices for an especial purpose”. A sense of speed and dynamism, even a slightly unfinished quality, keep the audience’s eye on the through-line and not the flourishes. (Ironically, Cruikshank’s own afore-mentioned ’Worship of Bacchus’, the source of this phrase, epitomises when this is not followed.)

But is caricature actually any more than exaggeration with an agenda? Could Hogarth have been right to warn against it? In the giant ’Viz’ strip Gillray and Rowlandson compete in ever-more-outrageous ways to depict the Prince Regent, a kind of arms race of excess which collapses in on itself until it is replaced by conceptual art. (They’re both upped when a dog turd is taken for an image of him.) (Analysing the dog turd in a ’Viz’ strip... I should be getting paid for this!)

In addition there’s the constant concern that satire will not prick but inflame the power of its targets. As Will Self comments "no matter how venal, corrupt and disgusting you make them look, they still call up wanting to buy the thing so they can hang it in their toilet.” For that reason Ralph Steadman has vowed only to portray the legs, not the likeness, of politicians – effectively abandoning caricature.


One sidestep from this is to represent figures with an emblem, what David Low called “a tab of identity.” Just as the Bat sign stands for Batman, Harry Furness’ series ‘Getting Gladstone’s Collar Up’ turns Gladstone’s starchy collar into a shorthand image of the politician. Steve Bell reduced John Major to his underpants to the degree where he mock-lamented the end of Major’s tenure by showing just the underpants (‘Burning Pants’ ,1997).

Photomontage is by definition pulled closer to its targets, and to escape their orbit needs to enhance its own unreality. Pete Kennard and Cat Phillip’s well-known ’Photo Op’ (2005) draws power from using a real image of Tony Blair. Yet the ‘fakery’ is also foregrounded and unmissable, we know this is no actual photo-op but a collage - an editorialism written with scissors and glue.


Conversely, Alison Jackson takes lookalikes in unlikely but naturalised settings, and her work becomes a misconceived failure. It’s not the moralist point that the artist is trying to palm off a fake as real, it’s the sense that the all-important presence of the artist – the manipulating figure trying to make a point – becomes diminished. We are just left with the celebrity.

Disorder in the Gallery

Given this interest in form and emphasis upon continuity of tradition, you could see why they decided upon a thematic not chronological arrangement of the works. But they never quite had the courage of this conviction and the result reveals an evident tension between the two. The first room, given the label ‘British Comic Art’ as though the rest of the show is about haberdashery or something, is essentially chronological – about historical roots. But a smattering of more modern works are added, just in case we don’t get the point. This is followed by ‘Social Satire and the Grotesque’ and ‘Politics’ but (as these labels might suggest) these are pretty much interchangeable.

The two other rooms, ‘The Bawdy’ and ‘The Absurd’, were by contrast too standalone. I had pretty much expected this from the bawdy, but had held high hopes for the absurd! My heart beats for the points where the absurd gets married to the political, perhaps as a means of resolving the afore-mentioned paradox of satire - the one stops the other becoming too schematic or moralistic, the other roots the one and stops it trailing off into whimsy.


Take Shaun Dolye and Mally Malass’s large-scale sculptural piece ‘Death to the Fascist Fruit Boys’ (2010). A bag of chips (in the traditional blue-and-white cone), dispatches a gang of ‘healthy’ fruit. It’s a brilliant and well-executed work, spilling into a thousand subsidiary gags. But, despite the nods to ‘healthy eating’ campaigns it is purely absurdist and not political. It works for the very reason ’Worship of Bacchus’ doesn’t, the large 3D rendering of what is essentially a slight gag cartoon is so out-of-proportion that it creates a bizarre and arresting juxtaposition. It’s like if someone made a plastic dog turd the size of a pyramid. Had it just been a gag cartoon, it would have been amusing but forgettable.

Worse, for a show with such self-proclaimed wildness there did feel something safe and predictable in the choice of works. Hogarth and Gillray may be fantastic talents, but many will have seen them adorn Tate walls before. Perhaps we should take their presence as a given, and exult in the more modern artists getting into the galleries. But there’s a rub to that...

Not In Rude Health After All

By chance I took in this show en route to the Caption comics convention. Despite (or perhaps because of) being the arts’ poor relation, comics are often ahead of the curve of trends. Comics publishing was once constrained into a very small number of genres, each ruled by strong censorship. But with the effective collapse of the UK comic industry, comics went into post-Fordist micro-production. Caption, essentially a meet-up for self-publishers, is now the UK’s longest-running convention. Perhaps not un-coincidentally, self-expression and autobiography are now in.

A hit of the show was Darryl Cunningham’s ’Psychiatric Tales’, an account of his experiences as a psychiatric nurse. There is no denying that in itself that in itself this book is great! But it seems to epitomise the direction comics have gone in. Even the few political cartoonists, such as Edd Baldry or Isy Morgenmuffel tend to write autobio comics of their experiences in political activism – there’s little satire going on. Something like Sean Duffield’s ’Crap Factory’, which lambasts David Cameron, Alan Sugar and Barack Obama (below), is a rarity. I can’t help but feel that when we boldly marched in one new area we lost the land we once had. Personal expression has been gained but the social has been lost, the embracing of popular culture, and with it the revelling in the rudery of satire. ‘Common’ once meant both base and widely shared. Now it’s not even an active word.



Tom Lehrer claimed “satire died” in 1973 when Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize. But, decades later, is he finally proven right? Is that how this exhibition can be here, in such salubrious surroundings? After all, what’s the point in knocking down politicians in an era where nobody looks up to them anyway? In a world ruled by celebrity, aren’t we better off ignoring them? And yet I for one miss the stroke of the vitriolic nib...

...in short, this show was something I’d hoped to love and feared to disdain. But, while there was much to commend, ultimately ’Rude Britannia’ did not break past the level of polite applause.


A tour of the exhibition by curator Martin Myrone, recorded by Alex Fitch for Panel Borders...

2 comments:

  1. The way I heard the story, Tom Lehrer heard of Kissinger's award and said "I am retiring from satire due to unfair competition."

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  2. My pals at Google suggest three variants...

    “I am retiring from satire due to unfair competition” has 2,310 hits, I couldn’t really find a ‘credible’ source.

    “It was at that moment that satire died” has 7,590 hits and a BBC4 source here.

    “Political satire became obsolete” has 42,600 hits and a Guardian source here.

    Lehrer himself said to The Onion:

    The Onion: “I'd long heard that you stopped performing as a form of protest, because Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize.”

    Tom Lehrer: “I don't know how that got started. I've said that political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Prize. For one thing, I quit long before that happened, so historically it doesn't make any sense. I've heard that quoted back to me, but I've also heard it quoted that I was dead. You can't believe anything you read. “

    ...in which he’s complaining about people taking the “retiring” gag rather literally, but also suggests at the “obsolete” version. So, most likely scenario is that we both heard wrong!

    Checking this out I also stumbled across a nice quote from Lehrer which I really wish I’d included in my piece:

    "The real issues I don't think most people touch. The Clinton jokes are all about Monica Lewinsky and all that stuff and not about the important things, like the fact that he wouldn't ban landmines."

    Politicians today are just treated like more celebrities. Which is like getting Boba Fett confused with Jar Jar Binks...

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