Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Caricature is doomed to the same death as political cartoons

Political cartooning died as a result of the incursion of "artists" into the profession who were there not because they had any special gift for doing great political cartoons, but because they had impressive technical skills. Unusually good "hand-to-eye coordination." They were what was called in the advertising world "wrists." (A disparaging term, not a compliment. It implies empty mechanical ability with no real heart or soul.)

They were totally right-brained as opposed to the whole-brained or at least both-brained practitioners who tended to dominate the art form before the 1980s. In the '80s, newspapers became more corporatized and commercialized than ever before. They began weeding out staff editorial cartoonists with too much bite and replaced them with mindless automatons who had good drawing skills and an ability to plug news events into corny, predictable, pat gag formulas. It was no longer incisive analytical commentary, no longer moralistic expressions of outrage. It was all about eye candy, decoration for the editorial page, merely a design element to break up the grey copy. At most, they became something to illustrate news events without challenging the reader.

The national stable (think sheep or cows, not racehorses) of political cartoonists who were bred into position by corporate newspapers delighted editors and publishers. They thought the removal of controversy or risk-taking from cartoons was a vast improvement over the trouble-makers who had sat behind the drawing boards of newspapers prior to that. They were happy to sterilize and standardize and Disneyfy editorial cartoons. It made the lawyers and the bean-counters happy, too.

Within a decade, readership of newspaper editorial cartoons plummetted. They had become so boring and predictable and dull and "safe" that nobody had any reason to look at them anymore. Papers began firing them off in droves, to the point where the number of full-time editorial cartoonists in the U.S. went from over 300 in the late 1970s to under 75 by 2002.

The same kind of thing has been happening with caricature.

In the "old days" 15-25 years ago, caricatures were a rarity. Very, very few artists drew caricatures of any kind. You could count the number of caricature artists who drew at events in any large city on one hand. Here in Minneapolis, there was me, Bill Luse, the two Fasen brothers, Judy Lieber and one other older woman whose name escapes me at the moment.

There were very few caricature artists nationally, either. Mort Drucker and Al Hirschfeld of MAD magazine and the New York Times, respectively. were undoubtedly the best known. David Levine, also of the NYT, was another. Other than these three, if you look back at directories of illustrators or artists from the time periods preceding 1980, you will find almost none who specialized in caricature.

Just as with political cartooning, the first step in the decline and death of caricature has been a population explosion of wannabees and opportunists who possess varying levels of drawing and drafting skill who would not ordinarily have been interested enough in these art forms to enter them, but who did so because they saw money to be made in these areas.

In both political cartooning and caricature, this happened because the early practitioners were sincerely committed to making the art forms something special, and because they put a tremendous amount of energy into winning over a huge audience and creating demand for what we did. And it happened because there were so few of us.

What followed was something I have heard economists refer to as "Gresham's Law." The proper, actual meaning of this term has something to do with money supply. But there is a connotation that applies to the common degradation of art and anything else of any kind of significant value. It refers to the phenomenon of something becoming "hot" and desirable and then quickly degenerating when enough people want it to attract all kinds of bottom-feeding opportunists into exploiting it. They compete to offer it at cheaper and cheaper prices, and cheapen the thing itself as they cut corners and find ways to undercut each other with lowball pricing.

In the case of political cartoons, it was syndicates that got into the act. Prior to 1980, there were a few syndicates that worked as go-betweens of cartoonists and newspapers, making it possible for cartoonists to extend their work to multiple newspapers. The syndicates took 50% of the proceeds. Up until this time, there were very few artists available to newspapers to work as cartoonists. As more and more young artists began deluging newspapers with portfolios seeking jobs as cartoonists, syndicates began adding to the pressure on the art form by squeezing the cartoonists' percentages. Cartoonists' pay rates also took a dive. Syndicates, which had previously done one-year contracts with cartoonists, now began demanding mulit-year contracts and made no promises to syndicate all of the cartoonists' cartoons. The Creators Syndicate was a reaction to this--cartoonists banded together to form their own syndicate to keep a decent share of the money and to avoid this kind of corporatized censorship.

In caricature, there has been a two-pronged attack on the artists. First, concession owners at malls and theme parks and state fairs began hammering caricature artists by taking a huge percentage of the proceeds at caricature stands--typically 77 percent. Then, party-planning agencies, caterers and other middlemen who booked caricaturists for events began having price wars and offering artists less and less than they had gotten in the past. Today, some artists get as little as $25 an hour, which is a ridiculously low amount when you consider all the REAL costs involved in performing at a gig. The REAL cost of just driving to an event that is more than 10 miles from you, which almost all of them are, is on the order of $35-60. I'm not talking about just the gas. If that is all you consider, you are a fool! Gas is only one part of the cost of operating a vehicle. Check the AAA Auto Club for estimates of the actual costs of driving. They are at least $1.60 per mile for even the smaller automobiles.

This unholy alliance between concessionaires and agencies has fed on itself and reduced the real pay of caricature artists for at least a decade. They have made it SEEM easy to make money drawing caricatures, which in this economy has attracted scads of third and fourth-rate wannabees, whom the concessionaires and agents are delighted to exploit. They entice artists with promises of lots of easy money, comparing $25-30 an hour with burger-flipping jobs. The problem is, if you have to spend two hours getting ready for and driving to a job (you are expected to show up a half hour early) and then you have to set up and break down and so on before you leave, and then you drive home... there is no comparison to a job where you work eight hours a day, every day, or even four hours. Your real rate of pay is more on the order of $10 an hour after all of this.

"So what?" say some artists. They enjoy drawing. It's fun. Well, okay. I often have thought, I love to draw caricatures of people and for people so much, I would do it even if I weren't paid for it. Fine. But most of the artists doing caricatures now are NOT in love with the art form. It's purely a sideline that they do THINKING they are making some "cash on the side." They just never do the math. They are happy enough to delude themselves, for awhile, into THINKING they are making money. By the time they realize that they are netting nothing, and perhaps even losing money, they have already contributed to the degeneration of the art form.

To be continued...

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

See http://www.facebook.com/mark.newgarden?v=wall&story_fbid=133625516666150 for a discussion of some Soviet propaganda and stereotypes from the mid-20th Century. The animations can be found at YouTube here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=taA1cr85-L8&feature=related

The comment above mine congratulates ourselves (early 21st Century folks) for being SO much more enlightened and advanced than our predecessors.

Not so fast!

My view as a satirist is that we have not progressed. In fact we have regressed. We've just substituted one form of dumbed-down intolerance for another. Or should I say several forms for several others. Here was the writer's comment, to which I responded below:

To a modern audience these anti-Nazi and anti-"Jap" cartoons seem like remnants from another civilization--racist and oversimplified to the intellectual level of a little child.

But the emergency wrought by Hitler (and Japan) was so very clear-cut and the danger to civilization itself so pressing that the American administration hadn't the luxury of complex and subtle reasoning. We had to win. Whatever it took. And that was that.

My reply:

I really enjoyed looking at the Soviet animations, and this is a great discussion! As a longtime satirist who started doing political cartoons in the 1960s (as a high school kid), I want to point out that our "modern" audience is equally guilty of an oversimplified and childish intellectual level. Today it's a PC version, but it's just as stupid as... See More what existed in the 20th Midcentury, and equally based in cheap political power-mongering by various groups within society.

In the 1940s-50s-early 60s, demonization in anti-Nazi and anti-"Jap" cartoons was the norm. Today, demonization of anyone who thought that way is ALSO highly oversimplified. There is little or no effort to understand these images in their own context. People today are guilty of contextualizing everything in purely present-day terms. They are just as kneejerk and unsophisticated as ever. Today they have been trained to see racism and sexism and homophobia as bad, but they do not generalize from these that ALL forms of bigotry are bad. So they indulge in ageism and ableism and other horrendous forms of demonization.

And yes, one of these is demonizing ALL white males, even though it is a relatively small % of them who wreaks all the havoc on society and most are not members of the power elite at all and many of us are exactly the people who helped lead and effect the cultural revolution of the 60s-70s that has had many successes in fighting racism and sexism and homophobia--but GASP, I can't say that out loud, can I? Because it doesn't fit into the regimented, oversimplified, dumbed down PC mythology of the moment.

The late 60s-early 70s was really the only time in my life that there seemed to be a true chance of mass enlightenment when satire was possible in all directions, and therefore effective as a way of counteracting all forms of bigotry.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Caricaturing to "make a little extra cash on the side..."

A few weeks ago, we watched the end of a movie on Showtime that was so bad it was funny enough to watch when nothing else was on.

It was called "Exit Speed." Here's the summation:

On Christmas Eve, ten strangers board a bus traveling across Texas. Far out in the wilds they collide with a meth-addicted biker. Forced off the road by other members of the gang, the passengers take refuge in the hell hole of an abandoned scrap yard. They use improvised weapons and sheer guts to mount a defense against the murderous bikers but, as their numbers dwindle, they realize that their survival depends on doing the unthinkable. They must go on the offensive. Written by Sabbatical Pictures

At one point, the victims of the mad biker gang are holed up in a shack preparing for the next attack from the bikers. One of them, a young (attractive, sensitive type) woman, sketches a little on a scrap of paper. It's a drawing of another victim, an attractive young man. A little romance is implied between these two characters.

"What are you doing?" he asks her.

"Oh, nothing... I just, sometimes, draw... I, uh, I do caricature sketches, make a little extra cash on the side. I draw graphic novels."

Here is what has taken down the art of caricature from something unique and special to something everyday and mundane. The invasion of bottomfeeders and opportunists who regard caricature as basically just some sort of fourth-rate non-art that anyone who can hold a pencil can do.

There are art students, hobbyists and amateurs all over the place who are now calling themselves "caricaturists." They have no knowledge of the history of the art form nor familiarity with contemporary caricature artists who take the art seriously. Rather, their work ethic and drawing style are informed exclusively by other fellow bottomfeeders and opportunists, with a little help from the party planning agencies and retail caricature booth operators who exploit them for profit.

The notion that caricature is something one just does "on the side" for a "little bit of extra cash" is disgusting and has torn down something that was once great and diminished it to the point of such unimportance that it has become difficult to continue practicing it without having to spend an inordinate amount of time educating individuals inquiring about my services, one at a time, to disabuse them of the assumptions they have formed about caricature as an art form based on their limited exposure to these mostly horrible "artists."

I hope to get a chance to post arguments suggesting to young artists the reasons why it is against their own best interests to "make a little cash on the side" from caricaturing (or attempted caricaturing) if that is not the particular artistic talent that they happen to be genuinely best at. I also hope to address the character of those who are happy to exploit these wannabees, and expose some of the psychic tactics they deploy to entice good-natured people, both artists and buyers (clients who hire caricaturists for events and customers at theme parks, festivals, fairs and malls), and how badly these people are ripped off by them.

Check back...

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Books on "how to" draw caricatures

I hate this trend of thousands of artists or aspiring artists trying to become caricaturists. I purchased a few of them this year, and just wrote a review for one on Amazon.com. It doesn't go up immediately after writing it, so I don't have the URL yet, but the book can be found at http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1848372744/ref=cm_cr_mts_prod_img, and here is the text of my review:

Misnomer: this is not a CARICATURING book but a PORTRAIT
book, June 5, 2010

P. Wagner (Minneapolis, MN United States)

Artist's Workbook - Drawing Caricatures (Artist's Workbooks)(Paperback)

Caricatures are NOT portraits! This book does what almost all the new books supposedly/purportedly calling themselves "Caricature" books do: it gives the basic rules for how to draw a realistic PORTRAIT, and then says, "Okay, now just exaggerate the nose or some other feature a little, and VOILA! You have a caricature!"

Not so fast. That is NOT a true caricature at all. Yes, I am guilty of doing some portraits along these lines, and I sometimes refer to them as caricatures for the sake of a shorthand description of them. (See http://wag-caricatures.blogspot.com/) But to write a whole book (well, this is very skinny, maybe I shouldn't call it a whole book) with the basics of portraiture and then call it a book on caricature, is misleading. I appreciate the effort and work it takes to put together a book, but...

If you can't draw funny in a perfectly natural way, without having to resort to a formula, you are not a caricature artist and you are never going to become one. Period. Your brain just isn't wired the right way. Sure, go ahead and try to see if you have some fun, but then do it in a spirit of total humor, not trying to craft some stuffy portrait and then distort it in random ways to hope to arrive at a caricature. To that end, books like this may do you more harm than good. People with basic drawing skills who try to force a caricature are like people with basic public speaking skills who try to suddenly get up on stage and force standup comedy.

You aren't a naturally funny person, you are not going to "learn" to become one, and the "comedy" or caricatures you do will be BAD. You shouldn't be there, you're only making us uncomfortable and ruining the art form for the few who really have an actual gift for it.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Caricatures or Portraits?

What is the standard dictionary definition of a "caricature?"

I disagree with the definition offered by The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th edition, when it says "A representation, especially pictorial or literary, in which the subject's distinctive features or peculiarities are deliberately exaggerated to produce a comic or grotesque effect."

I do not think the best caricatures are arrived at by a deliberate exaggeration. I think true caricature is achieved only by the artist whose point of view and way of expressing it are naturally funny.

I also question whether a merely grotesque effect is enough to qualify a drawing as a caricature. I think a caricature should be funny in order to be a real caricature. At least, I would like to see more people actively paying attention to whether a particular caricature they are viewing is merely grotesque, and not really funny, and appreciating the difference between funny and grotesque.

Many artists who are drawing what they call caricatures are actually doing portraits that are neither funny nor grotesque. Their work is often done in a highly stylized manner, either manga-like or in a look that resembles other comic book styles. It's simplified (reduces the degree of detail) and employs line qualities and other familiar visual devices that closely resemble what would be seen in comics or comic books. Sometimes they are painterly rather than comic-like, and rely on detailed use of color and shading.

One of the most recent pieces I drew was more in this category than it was in the category of a true caricature. I drew seven women on horseback in a parody of "The Magnificent Seven" movie poster. The treatment of the faces had some elements of a comic book drawing style and some elements of painting. About the only thing about it that was caricature-like was the disproportionate scale of the head sizes in relation to the body (and horse) sizes. Caricature typically exaggerates the size of the head (although when caricaturing someone like Arnold Schwarzenegger it makes more sense for the head size to come out very small in relation to the body).

I have struggled with describing this kind of drawing. Is it a cartoon? Is it okay to call it a caricature even though the only thing exaggerated is the head size? I have often found myself incapable of doing a realistic portrait--every time I draw a face and think it looks just like the person, everyone who looks at it laughs and tells me I made the subject look "funny." The above are about as close as I can get to a non-funny style. So is it actually more of a caricature than I think, even though I drew a likeness that was as close to the photo as I could? Does it water down the meaning of caricature when we blur the lines between caricature and non-exaggerated portraiture?

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Welcome to my Art of Caricature blog

I've always been amazed by artists and illustrators who can find the time to start and maintain a blog. I'm usually too busy drawing. But there are many things I would like to comment about that I hope may prove helpful to supporting the art forms I love and care about. Caricaturing, political cartooning and political theater are the art forms that rank as the top three that matter to me and that I feel I can contribute the most to, not only as a practitioner, but as a commentator, as well.
Unlike many blogs by artists, I do not intend to simply use this as an advertising vehicle or an online portfolio or diary in which I show what I worked on that week or that day. In fact, while I hope to find a chance to put up a few examples of my work, I will more likely use most of these to raise issues and to show what I mean than to simply show work.
Entries here may be rather scarce or sporadic. If you are interested in caricature as an art form, please check in from time to time and contribute.