Martin Rowson, Guardian editorial cartoonist, is a very angry man. He is angry at the injustice he sees everyday in the world, and at the powerlessness of the ordinary person. That’s why he does what he does. He calls himself not an artist or a cartoonists, but a journalist. He just happens to draw his column rather than write it.
People have been using artistic licence to subvert meaning and inject humour to disarm the powerful for thousands of years, says Rowson, showing us pictures of French cave paintings of charging rhinos with impossibly exaggerated horns.
He goes on to treat us to a quick history of political comment, from William Hogarth and James Gillray, through Punch to modern cartoonists like Ronald Searle and David Low. These men led the way and influenced subsequent editorial cartoonists, and they still have the power to shock. Rowson, like many others, has borrowed heavily from these lampooners, re-making their famous images with modern day issues, sometimes re-visiting them again and again, paying homage to who he considers are the Greats.
He talks about his satire, and says that he doesn’t really target people, only the crass ideas of those who are more powerful than he is. As a middle-aged, middle class, white English man living in the West, he knows he is in a privileged position and quite powerful himself in the scheme of things, but there is a rich seam of targets available without having to resort to beating up the little guy. That’s where the anger comes in. He is furious about the imbeciles who are in charge of us, who treat people like dirt, who have no cares nor conscience, who serve only themselves. All we have to counter this, he argues, is satire. Mockery and ridicule. And he knows he is again in a privileged position; he has the luxury of being able to craft his work without worrying about being imprisoned or killed for it; David Lowe was on the Gestapo’s wanted list, and many others have paid for their drawing with their lives.
Talking a bit about the actual craft, Rowson describes how he struggled ‘getting’ Nick Clegg at first until he realised how much like Pinocchio he was, and turned him into a little wooden boy, desperate to be a real politician, but who just became Cameron’s toy.
He talks about the time when he would draw prominent people from life, how they hated it, how they felt he had stolen their soul. These celebrities and politicians would try to ridicule the art right back, saying it was all a bit of fun. But they often felt a strong need to buy the originals, to contain the ‘voodoo’ as he calls it, reclaim their souls.
Rowson is often criticised for being offensive, too grotesque and vile in his depictions. Part of that is his style, part is the necessity to convey the monstrousness of what he is mocking. People are quick to take offence he says, or perhaps these days technology just makes it easier to say they are offended, requires little effort. Having been offended is fast becoming a reason shut people up, or even to kill people, in the case of Charlie Hebdo, or take people to court, harangue them. What is actually offensive, says Rowson, is killing another person, or trying to quell dissent. What people should be offended by are the workings of despots, tyrants and oppressors, in whatever guise they come, not at the drawings of them.
He closes with a shocking cartoon, and the revelation that one day after the 2010 Haiti earthquake killed hundreds of thousands of people, the BBC bumped the story in favour of Wall Street Bankers being upset that they might not get their bonuses. Now that’s offensive.
Part of Hebden Bridge Arts Festival 2015 Tuesday 30th June