Launching Behind the Lines exhibition 2015
I’m a bit in awe of cartoonists and how their brains work.
Not only do they need to have the analytical acumen of the best political journalists, they have to be able to distil complex issues, ideas and situations into a simple image. And then they have to draw it – to a deadline.
Talking to freelance cartoonist Fiona Katauskas, Fairfax’s Cathy Wilcox and Guardian Australia’s First Dog On The Moon, also known as Andrew Marlton, about how they do what they do, only served to reinforce that.
As the curtain-raiser to the 2015 Behind the Lines exhibition at the Museum of Australian Democracy, Old Parliament House, these three accomplished practitioners explained a bit about how they decide who and what to draw and what to avoid.
Launching the exhibition, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop summed up the skill of cartoonists and the impact of the images they produce.
“They have the ability to cut through in a way that the written word rarely does,” Ms Bishop said. “Cartoons are a weapon of free people across the world to hold the powerful to account. They are also a weapon used by the disenfranchised, the voiceless to exert their universal human rights and freedoms.”
They’re also funny, sad, biting and sometimes shocking.
Some of the terrible events of the year, not least the murderous attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and its cartoonists, have given these three pause and made them even more aware of the impact of what they draw.
“If you’re going to draw Mohammed, it’s got to be really funny,” First Dog said. “I haven’t seen any particularly funny cartoons about Mohammed.”
He noted that in tackling big subjects with a pen or pencil on paper, there are always consequences.
That’s especially true, they agreed, if a cartoonist deliberately uses an image that’s known to be inflammatory.
“Unless you’ve got a point to make that is a valid point, why just purposefully upset people to make a point about freedom of speech?” Fiona Katauskas asked.
Cathy Wilcox said the “ugly bubbles up and shows itself very quickly” these days, courtesy of social media. “And I think that gives you cause to think twice… Even if I’m making the most powerful point about repressive religion or who knows what, or extremism, the symbol would overcome whatever other message that I had to make. And that would actually be a bad bit of communication.”
It was fascinating to hear how these artists break down a subject’s face – literally – to work out which features to exaggerate to make them instantly recognisable. Fiona confessed it wasn’t until she saw Cathy’s drawings of now Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull highlighting his ears that she worked out how she should draw him. Cathy said the hardest politicians to draw were the “smooth, good-looking ones” because there’s nothing to pick up on.
First Dog said former Treasurer Joe Hockey was among the hardest to draw because of an unusual combination of features. He confessed cartoonists steal each other’s ideas. “The worst cartoon is the one you’re looking at, thinking: ‘oh, why didn’t I think of that?’ “
With a hint of speaking from experience, Julie Bishop acknowledged the discomfort cartoonists can deliver to politicians opening a morning newspaper. Nevertheless, they were vital. “Political cartoonists are an integral part of Australian society,” she said. “Our democracy is so much the better, so much the greater because of their participation.”
She compared today’s offerings with those of the early 20th century, considered the heyday of political cartooning in Australia. “I just want to assure Australia’s cartoonists that the political class is doing its best to resurrect that golden age. You cannot complain that we’re not giving you enough material.”
And, indeed, not a word of complaint was heard.