Were he still with us, there would be tears in the eyes of James Gillray as he contemplated the slaughter in the offices of Charlie Hebdo.
Gillray was the father of political cartooning. His torching talent irrupted in late 18th century London. He appeared at a time of roiling social and political unrest and change. America had just been lost. The court of George III was typified by promiscuity, gluttony and a perplexity caused by what was perceived as treachery by the leaders of what had been its most promising colony. Social stresses were growing as a new banking and mercantile system enriched a few and exploited the many. Across the channel in France a revolution removed the monarchy and a new military genius, Napoleon, threatened British interests in the Mediterranean and Egypt.
The London of Gillray was licentious, corrupt yet amazingly open to dissent and freedom of expression. Modern journalism, pioneered by Daniel Defoe in his Journal of The Plague Year, 1722, had evolved into an age of brilliant political satires and graphic commentary by artists like William Hogarth and Thomas Rowlandson. The high manners and fashions of the court and the aristocracy were pitilessly mocked in journalism, the theater and by art. Humor was crude and coarse. Until Gillray though the commentary lacked an artist who combined a superb technique with vulgar satirical force.
The use of art as satire can be traced to 16th century Italy and the invention of what was called caricatura – defined as the ability “to grasp the perfect deformity, and thus reveal the very essence of a personality.” Two centuries later in London, Gillray was an apprentice engraver, etching on copper, and one of his teachers was an Italian, Francesco Bartolozzi, under whom he began to produce what a contemporary called “his daring species of graphic design.”
Daring hardly does it. Gillray went after the monarchy as though they were an irresistible family of grotesques.
George III himself appeared frequently as a bloated glutton or somnolent, inattentive monarch. His eldest son, the Prince of Wales, was a particularly tempting target with his very public enjoyment of his mistress, a twice-widowed Catholic named Mrs. Fitzherbert. One cartoon had the prince cavorting in a Paris hotel bedroom with Mrs. Fitzherbert after arranging an illegal marriage. Another – famous for its deadly economy – shows the king’s second son, the Duke of York, atop his new bride, a Prussian princess. Or, rather, it shows the Duke’s boots, tips down on a bed and, lying alongside them, the Duchess of York’s “dainty little shoes” as her loins invite the embrace. In this cartoon, called Fashionable Contrasts, Gillray’s target was not merely the royal coupling but the surge of drivel written to describe the union and the Duchess’s stylishly small feet and jewel-encrusted shoes – the kind of gush familiar to us today.
Though the caricatures are extreme, the etchings display extraordinary draughtsmanship. In a scene that would today still cause much offense the great campaigner for ending slavery, William Wilberforce, is shown with a supporter, the Bishop of Rochester, wining and dining with two buxom black ladies, one generously bare breasted, after their abolition bill was defeated in Parliament in 1796 – titled Philanthropic Consolations.
No race or creed is spared. The Chinese Emperor, receiving a British delegation, is so obese in his silks that he looks incapable of walking. A Scotsman visiting London is so unfamiliar with modern toilet arrangements that he sits on the bench in the “Bog House” with each of his legs in a hole while defecating on the bench itself. And with British opinion turning hostile to France A French Gentleman of the Court of Egalite, 1799 is shown with bare buttocks thrusting from his tunic as he invites citizens to “baiser mon cu” (bums and breasts were often socially active in Gillray’s work and farting was a subject graphically explored).
Although Gillray anticipated the language of newspaper cartooning he made his money, and for a while quite a lot of money, selling prints with limited runs that kept prices high. The market for his new wave of satire was on fire. A European customer reported what happened when new Gillray cartoons were displayed in his dealer’s window: “It is a veritable madness. You have to make your way in through the crowd with fists.”
Gillray kept his own humors to himself.
“He doesn’t explain himself about anything” complained a visitor. He did admit to being “a careless sort of cynic who neither loved nor hated society.” In appearance he was slender and bookish with spectacles that did little to alleviate the strain to his vision caused by detailed etching. He died in 1815 at the age of 58 and was buried in the yard of St. James’s Church in Piccadilly where the grave can still be visited. The gravestone reads “In Memory of Mr. James Gillray, the caricaturist.”
After his death, the snarl and bite went out of cartooning, gradually smothered by the bourgeois gentility of Victorian urban living, and the new middle class’s growing distaste for openly libertine artists – reinforced by the censorious tendencies of the monarchy. Instead, Gillray’s spirit seems to have crossed the Atlantic.
As the robber barons of the Gilded Age made their fortunes and built their Fifth Avenue mansions, the “yellow journalism” of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst introduced political cartoons and caricature to their front pages. Investigative journalists reported on the rot of city governments and shadowy corporate trusts like Standard Oil. Tammany Hall bosses were portrayed as corpulent thugs and John D. Rockefeller as an all-devouring octopus ranging from the oil fields to the railroads and beyond.
However, as in Victorian England, the crusading anger of the newspapers seemed to dissipate as the newspaper owners went from being crusaders to being barons themselves; Pulitzer was remade as the patron of high journalism and Hearst emerged as the egomaniacal model for Citizen Kane. The craft devoted to caricature morphed into the narrative panels of the comics, which built huge circulations, and was defanged.
But in Britain the inspiration of Gillray resurfaced. The rise of fascism in Europe and the rise of socialism at home re-radicalized newspaper commentary. After World War II political cartooning had a new golden agethat endures. Contemporary cartoonists sometimes pay homage by drawing in Gillray’s style. Steve Bell, the Guardian’s veteran op-ed cartoonist, has nailed a succession of Prime Ministers with an identifying feature that they can never shake off – the Tory leader John Major with Y-Fronts (“tighty whities,” as Americans call them) worn on the outside of his pants; Tony Blair with increasingly pop-eyed dementia and David Cameron’s head as a pink party balloon on the verge of exploding.
Gillray’s grotesquerie was also faithfully honored in a weekly British political satire on television called Spitting Image during the long reign of Margaret Thatcher, using a whole gallery of puppets including one of the Iron Lady herself in which her nose appeared like the sharp prow of a warship, her teeth had shark-like aggression, and her handbag was deployed as a cudgel against the callow and fawning men around her. Combined with pitch-perfect mimicry, this show was for a while like watching Gillray reborn by people who had, as he had, gone to the House of Commons gallery and sketched their victims looking for the telling deformities and tics of gesture. At its peak the show had an audience of more than 12 million.
The pioneering satirical television show in Britain was That Was The Week That Was on the BBC, hosted by a very young David Frost, who went on to become a legendary political interviewer. TW3 as it was called lasted only two seasons; it was shut down by the BBC in 1963 having met one of the prime goals of satire – there was hardly a political, religious or social faction in the country that it had not offended. Officially it was pulled because of an impending general election and the BBC, as a public broadcaster, was obliged to be impartial. TW3 was impartial: it savaged each political party equally, but it did it too well to be tolerated by the political elite.
The fate of TW3 exposed a persistent tension between journalism and satire. As Frost delivered a series of landmark interviews with politicians in the U.K. and U.S. the old established corps of television journalists disparaged him as a satirist who had trespassed onto their turf without the required gravitas.
In the U.S. this problem was apparent when Saturday Night Live appeared. It was a direct descendant of TW3, but the cultural difference in the two shows was immediately clear. SNL never employed journalists, as had TW3. It was built on talent recruited from stand-up comedy, both in monologue and in sketch form.
The cast of TW3 were amateurs when it came to comedy – they were satirists by instinct and had political knowledge and shrewdness. They loved to attack power with parody. SNL has never had that kind of bite. To be sure, there are moments when mimicry can rise to high satire: Tina Fey’s assimilation of Sarah Palin so beautifully caught that chirpy ignoramus that it virtually finished her off as a serious politician. Palin was, however, an easy target, almost inevitable. When it comes to high political crimes and misdemeanors SNL just isn’t there. It’s a network show with a corporate owner heavily invested in keeping Washington happy.
Jon Stewart’s innovation was to lift American television comedy with a journalistic agenda and reflexes. The Daily Show fuses satire, stand-up and parody with a gusto that Gillray would have applauded. But it also leaves an awkward uncertainty about exactly what rules of craft should apply. If it’s satire, is it “responsible” journalism? If it’s comedy, should it be taken seriously?
And then there is Stephen Colbert, whose singular genius was to invent a character whose beliefs were totally antithetic to his own, and by that means joyfully explore the absurdities of the character he appeared to be. Somebody once said to me that Americans don’t get irony. Colbert proves him wrong.
But the last few days have seen how confusing the vocational nomenclature still is. Bill Maher launched into another of his onslaughts against religion – all religions. At the same time he claimed ++kinship as a satirist with the slaughtered staff of Charlie Hebdo++ [http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/01/09/bill-maher-doubles-down-on-islam-terrorists-and-the-mainstream-share-a-lot-of-these-bad-ideas.html]. Yet most of those reporting his tirade called him a comedian. He’s really all of the above – a comedian, a satirist and a journalist, if you think strongly partial commentary is journalism, which by the long tradition from 18th century coffee houses it has been.
However, such blurring of the boundaries isn’t acceptable in the foremost cathedrals of serious journalism like the New York Times. While the op-ed page provides chartered territory for dissent and contrariness, it allows no oxygen for the kind of coarse and purposely inflammatory caricatures of Charlie Hebdo.
Satire has levels of temperature. The more heated it becomes, the fewer the platforms there are like Charlie with courage enough to air it; there’s been a lot of comment that until the massacre Charlie was little read and mostly disregarded as a serious force in French journalism. Certainly the craftsmanship of its cartoonists fell far short of Gillray’s. But once martyred its editorial staff have been totally embraced by the most illustrious journalists. This is where the timidity of the Times toward satire begins to look a tad hypocritical.
In the journey from 18th century London to where we are now, society has somehow become too refined. The London of Gillray’s time would seem unspeakably insanitary to us. Even “people of fashion” did not bathe too frequently. Men of that time in Europe who gave us great works of art often loved really filthy jokes: Mozart wrote letters rejoicing in the pleasures of the rectum and its gases. Nobody saw any contradiction in his being able to produce music of exquisite beauty while being base in his personal tastes. There’s a wonderful cartoon, circa 1740, not by Gillray, showing George II’s splayed buttocks inviting a kiss from England’s first Prime Minister, Robert Walpole, providing documentary proof that this form of sycophancy was well established by then.
Vulgarity has a naked honesty to it that is a crucial part of art’s energy. Whatever our social pretensions, we all recognize this even if we may not like to admit it. Charlie Hebdo preserved that particularly defiant spirit of irreverence that so-called refinement (a code word for conformity) will always attempt to stifle.
Satire conducted in the style of Charlie Hebdo makes no exception for a particular sensitivity. Why? Because once satire begins to consider allowing exceptions it admits to an inequality of targeting – those who are the most deeply offended, for whatever reason, will demand a special dispensation that others cannot expect. Admitting the exception becomes that most insidious of all actions in a society pledged to full freedom of expression, self-censorship.
After all, self-censorship was, in part, responsible for launching us into wars that became error-multipliers – the more we pursued them the more calamitous the consequences. Some very influential newspaper editors and politicians felt they should hold their tongues because they would be branded as unpatriotic. They should have remembered the words of another 18th century inhabitant of London, Dr. Samuel Johnson: “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.”