Satirical cartoons and the power of visual art

Cartoonists have long been ‘The Artists’ irreverent younger siblings. They’re the sisters who refuse to hold their tongues at a family gathering, piss off an aunt or two, and then call granny up on her casual racism. They’re the little brothers who arrive home late, stoned, and accompanied by a police officer. Despite being visual artists, cartoonists dwell outside of galleries and stuffy academies; their work resides rather on kitchen tables and empty bus seats. It’s a challenge to name a single cartoonist who has been given a major exhibition in the past few years.

Even within newspapers, the cartoons are a bit of an after-thought. Renowned for light quips, jibes, and humorous digs, they are the asides to ‘serious journal- ism’ reserved for the written word. Cartoonists have long had a marginal vantage, offering a sideways look at news and current affairs.

Yet the events of the past fortnight have pushed cartoonists to the front pages of our newspapers. The story dominates articles in news and comment and was violently debated on this week’s Question Time. This is satire’s moment in the spotlight.

However, if we’ve learnt anything from the Paris attacks, surely it’s the power of cartoons. Drawings have been shown to be a matter of upheaval, protest and anger, of life and death. The most potent responses to the attacks come not from written articles speculating on the subject, but from the satirical, drawn responses from cartoonists. No one is immune from Steve Bell’s pen, and his drawings for The Guardian this week have responded to the events with humour rather than reverence. He satirises the French and he mocks religion, subjects that written journalism might have shied away from when the wounds in Paris are still so raw. At the Telegraph, Adam’s blank cartoon depicting the caption ‘extremist approved cartoon’ is a similar response. Rather than broaching the subject cautiously, the cartoon hits precisely where the situation is its most delicate. Even in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, cartoonists are still wielding the power of satire and are still laughing. So has the cartoonist’s marginal position changed? Copies of the first edition of Charlie Hebdo since the Paris attacks are selling on Ebay for over £500, and the demand has driven the magazine to print five million copies, rather than the usual sixty thousand. No longer something to read with tea in the morning, copies of this magazine are more likely to be framed and displayed in an art gallery.

Finally, cartoons are almost becoming high art. Indeed, there is really very little difference between the drawings that conventionally appear on the back pages of papers and the work of Turner Prize nominee David Shrigley. Satirical in message, and cartoon in style, it appears the only notable difference between Shrigley and newspaper cartoonists is the frame surrounding the work, the number of copies printed and its price tag. An unlikely side effect of the events in Paris a fortnight ago may well be the blurring of lines between the traditionally distinct genres of satirical cartoons and gallery art. Perhaps now is the moment to remove the stigma attached to satirical cartoons, place a frame around the drawings, and celebrate the work with the same reverence granted to art on display in galleries.

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