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...


  1. This is really interesting. It is a shame, but one thing I wanna say. It does seem like an enviornment where artists are encouraged to draw soft and portraity makes it possible for real genuine funny to take place. Its like, if everybody is drawing funny doesnt that sort of make a caricature funny than theres no straight man. What about that?

  2. Oh. The end of what I just said sounds like nonsense. I think I made some typos. All Im saying is: If everybody draws funny and everyone expects funny, isnt a funny drawing less funny? Doesnt there need to be a straight man or something?


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