The Ungentlemanly Art

June 29, 1995

If a picture is worth a thousand words, surely a clever political cartoon is worth at least that many high-minded editorials.

Ever since the first great American political satirist, Thomas Nast, helped topple "Boss" Tweed and his Tammany Hall machine with pungent caricatures in the 1880s, editorial cartoonists have taken a wicked delight in skewering the high and mighty.

That long tradition will be recalled today when the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists opens its annual convention here, bringing together cartoonists to swap ideas, size up the competition and celebrate the ungentle arts of lambasting, roasting, ridiculing and reviling -- the political satirist's stock in trade. In acknowledgment of the cartoonists' irrepressible presence, the Walters Art Gallery has mounted a fascinating exhibit (now till Jan. 21) of works by newspaper satirists tracing the evolution of the political cartoon from Nast's day to our own.

The relationship between politics and what "Boss" Tweed called "them damn pictures" probably goes back to some Stone-Age Herblock scratching an irreverent representation of his tribal chief on a cave wall. The earliest known cartoon is a drawing of Ikhnaton, the unpopular father-in-law of Egypt's King Tut, circa 1360 B.C. "Ikhnaton's features," one writer wryly noted, "were so abnormally ugly that it is difficult to tell a caricature of him from an authentic portrait."

Thus it has been ever since. The New Yorker's Syd Hoff once said everybody can love a comic strip artist, but no one who wants to be loved should be a political cartoonist -- "there are always some readers who will be offended by the point of view of an editorial cartoon and will demand the job and maybe the hide of the artist."

Yet a cartoonist with the courage of his convictions can exhort, enlighten and entertain with exquisite precision. When Nast wasn't lambasting Tammany Hall, he was inventing irreverent images of a Republican elephant and Democratic donkey. As an editor replied to complaints his cartoonist had made an official look foolish: "A cartoonist who holds up a politician to ridicule? That's not a criticism, madame; that's a job description!"

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