Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Political Cartoons and their Influence on Global Politics

by Alexandra Lively

“A cartoon must be direct and hard-hitting with no quarter asked and none given. It should embody humor, good draftsmanship and fact. If one word exists that is worth a thousand pictures, then that word must be ‘truth’.” -- Charles G. Werner


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs hosted Vladimir Rukavishnikov, an independent expert and consultant, to discuss “The Bear and the World: Russia in the 21st Century.”  As Rukavishnikov described Russia’s relationship with the US, EU, NATO, and the UN, he primarily included political cartoons in his presentation to further his arguments. The influence of political cartoons has been well documented. The first political cartoon is attributed to Benjamin Franklin in 1754 and they continue to have a global presence and impact. 

The commonality within all political cartoons is the delicate concoction of serious issues coupled with humor. In the cartoon featured above, it references Russia the “Bear” as feeling as though enemies like the EU, NATO, and China surround them in a fortress. In a 2007 speech by Peter Mandelson, the EU Trade Commissioner, Mandelson stated that in terms of the EU and Russia, the “level of misunderstanding or even mistrust [has not been] seen since the end of the Cold War." This tense relationship had been relayed in political cartoons over the years in images such as:




Different artistic techniques are used to make people contemplate current events and issues surrounding politics and government such as: symbolism, caricature, captions and labels, exaggeration, satire, and irony. Ferdinand de Saussure, a linguist, stated that one must study signs, the whole picture, and the grouping of signs. When looking at the “Fortress” cartoon, not only is Russia surrounded by their perceived enemies, but the Arctic seems to be in the background. Rukavishnikov made it clear that Russia would fight for a stake of the oil in the Arctic. Most often, political cartoons are speaking about much more than one specific issue. Generally, they are ongoing, interrelated issues. Due to these factors, cartoons are often much better equipped to convey complex messages than written or spoken arguments.

While it seems political cartoons are here to stay, some argue that they are losing their influence. Patrick Oliphant, a Pulitzer Prize winner for editorial cartooning, argues that since newspapers are losing their influence and cartoons most effectively belong in newspapers, they are continuing to lose influence as well:

“That once-potent galvanizer of opinion, the kick-starter of conversation and discussion, has been allowed to atrophy from disuse, and is, after several centuries of successful use as a castigator and common scold of the body politic, in great jeopardy of fading away altogether.”

Political cartoons have a unique place in past, present, and future analysis of polity. They have the capability to convey a multitude of different issues in a way that traditional journalism cannot achieve. For more information on the power of visual rhetoric, Cara Finnegan, a Professor of Communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, edited a very interesting book called “Visual Rhetoric” that examines how visual images, artifacts, and performances shape culture. 

Alexandra Lively is a first year MA student in Eu Studies. She received her Bachelor’s degree in Advertising, with a double minor in Business and Communication from the University of Illinois in 2011. She graduated with High Honors and as an Edmund J. James Scholar. Alexandra has been honored as a Rockford Register Star Young American and was the recipient of the General Assembly Scholarship from the State of Illinois in 2009. She was awarded a Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) fellowship for 2011-2012 and will begin studying Portuguese in the fall. Her research interests include telecommunications, consumerism, and trade within the European Union.

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