Can Satire be a Means to Visual Literacy? A Studio Thesis with Group Discussion.
Posted by on Oct 18, 2013 in Art Essays, Paintings, Satyrical artwork
Satire: the art which
“afflicts the comfortable
and comforts the afflicted.”
H. L. Mencken (1880-1956)
(Roukes, 1997, p. 85)
The principal objective of my thesis is to explore the value of satirical art and
caricature through a studio-based research project. Another purpose is to confirm the
notion that satirical art and caricature can foster visual literacy through the imagery of
creative metaphor. I am also looking forward to confirming the importance of introducing
satirical creativity into Art Education curricula as an essential element of artistic and
I did six satirical paintings specifically for the purpose of this thesis. The completed
artworks were shown to a group of sixteen voluntary participants. The participants were
asked to answer a set of questions regarding the content of the artworks. These questions
explored the educational possibilities of satirical art and caricature. The series of images
was created to investigate how effectively satirical art contributes to knowledge and
The satirical imagery presented uses information embedded in metaphoric
symbolism. I hoped that this would provoke the viewer to active, deductive reflections in
deciphering my paintings. The language of humorous imagery evokes various states of
mind and, as such, shape one’s critical and aesthetic sensibility.
The recorded audience responses to the questions about the metaphoric satirical
narrative conveyed in my paintings formed the data for my study. Through my research I
confirm the educational importance of satirical art and caricature.
I believe that the art of caricature and satirical expression have a significant
advantage over other artistic forms of visualization because these forms generate
knowledge as a kind of social pedagogy. This is the main reason why satirical imagery
should be studied in art classes.
Defining the Subject
The theme for this thesis originated from my professional experience as an artist
and educator. It appeared to me that the satirical image is rarely understood the way an
artist intends it to be. The main reason for this is due to the fact that “…we can only
recognize what we know” (Gombrich, 1982, p. 151).
The question I pose, and to which I intend to respond, is based on my many years
of experience as a practicing artist and caricaturist. My satirical artworks have been
published in many different newspapers, journals, magazines, books, catalogues and
advertising publications in different countries. I have participated in many life-drawing
events in Canada and various festivals around the world for caricature. The experiences I
have collected over the years I would like to share with my students by teaching
caricature and the skills of satirical expression. This would benefit students who are
interested in the art of satirical drawing and caricature as an educational tool.
Since my early childhood in Poland I have been surrounded by satirical art,
caricatures, and all kinds of visual libraries due in part to a massive collection of various
magazines, albums, catalogues, and books, which were stored in my uncle’s studio and
served him as references for his paintings. I was lucky enough to have easy access to
such a great “encyclopedia” of satirical art. The satirical imagery from my uncle’s
collection stimulated my desire to learn more about the world I was experiencing. This
constant exposure to visual material created in my mind a desire to become an artist able,
as my uncle was, to express his feelings and observations through the visual language of
satire and humor. Furthermore, through my professional activities such as caricature
animations, participation in international festivals of caricature and press drawing, I have
witnessed the happiness and enjoyment expressed by the many people who participated
in these events with great excitement. It is why I think that satirical art can play an
important role in education curricula by teaching students to create an intellectually
resourceful and challenging art that explores critical thinking and humoristic opinions on
important issues in our contemporary society. My professional experience taught me that
on many occasions satirical art is misunderstood because the viewer lacks knowledge
about the represented subject. In spite of these experiences, I believe that the art of
caricature can teach visual literacy like no other form of art.
It needs to be explained here that I am discussing satirical art and caricature
according to high artistic standards, that narrative is formed through metaphorical
imagery and without the presence of captions, which could play the role of a leading
(meta) narrative. In my opinion, the artworks of Mark Tansey could serve here as a
perfect example of such elaborate artistic quality. As a consequence, my concept of
caricature and satirical art excludes any form of drawing and painting where the editorial
role is to serve as an illustration of the published text rather than standing on its own.
“Rockwell’s son Peter says that his father ‘believed that the picture and the observer
should encounter each other directly without interference from words or interpretation’”
(Barrett, 2003, p. 70). The combination of text and drawing significantly degrades the
artist’s visual story, exposes the limits of his creativity and attaches a label of
commerciality to his work. An image, whose only purpose is to illustrate the text, belongs
to a different category of humoristic expression, namely illustrated comics and cartooning
gags, where all is explained and the analytical faculty of the viewer is in consequence
limited or non-existent. In such cases the narrative of the image is imposed on the viewer
rather than proposed to him/her for cognitive deduction and visual contemplation. It is
why most of the important international competitions of caricature and satirical art do not
accept drawings with captions from participants. It is an unfortunate fact that, in general,
the understanding of the art of caricature and satirical drawings and all these important
nuances are ignored, and that all forms of satirical creativity are collected under one
umbrella of caricature and cartooning. So far, to my knowledge, no-one has tried to
distinguish between these various forms of satirical art in order to bring about respect for
and recognition of this form of artistic creativity and eradicate the generalized stigma of
commerciality and lowbrow art that is attached to this form of art by the “fine art” world.
This distinction is important for different categories to be established.
The word ‘caricature’ has a generalized meaning and presents a kind of distortion
of reality, not only portraiture, but also other realities represented metaphorically in a
satirical way. From the academic point of view, we can say that caricature is a diagram of
the satirical thought represented in visual figurative data. The caricaturist creates his/her
artwork by the same process of cognitive reflection and aesthetic sensation as any other
artist does. The only difference is that he/she possesses a deeper deductive voice and
sense of elaborate observation enabling the viewer to see how much of the surrounding
reality is changed.
The criteria for the art of caricature and satire, which I have already described in
the text above, belong to the category of fine arts as a form of artistic expression; “Pablo
Picasso elevated caricature to the status of fine art” (Roukes, 1997, p.59). Through the
history of Western Art, many artists “…used caricature as a style of painting and drawing
ranged from post-Impressionists to German Expressionists, to Modernists. Toulouse-
Lautrec, Max Beckmann, Edward Munch, James Ensor, Otto Dix, Paul Klee, and Pablo
Picasso are notables” (Roukes, 1997, p. 90).
Roukes (1997) states the following:
Examples of satirical humor can be found in all major movements in
American art–Pop Art, conceptual art, political art of the 1960s and 1970s,
earth art, graffito, performance art, video art, installations, and so forth. Satire
has invaded domains of both classical and contemporary art and has
unabashedly mixed the sacred with the profane. (p.92)
The contemporary artists who correspond more closely to my perception and
aesthetics of satirical art are Erró, Mark Tansey, John Curin and Neo Rauch. These
artists, among many others, reflect satirically on various aspects of contemporary reality
in their own way and time. When looking further into the history of satirical painting and
caricature, artists like Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Giusseppe
Arcimboldo and Annibale Carraci were the earliest precursors of this form of artistic
expression in drawing and painting. The list of artists who have followed the satirical
path is very long, and each century has had at least a few.
In regard to the subject of my research, it is necessary to describe in a few words
what it means to be satirical, and what visual literacy is. The description of satire
according to various sources and publications differs slightly, but the one I find most
useful is given by Cuddon (1999) in his dictionary.
Cuddon (1999) states the following:
The satirist is thus a kind of self-appointed guardian of standards, ideals and
truth; of moral as well as aesthetic values. He is a man …who takes it upon
himself to correct, censure and ridicule the follies and vices of society and
thus to bring contempt and derision upon aberrations from a desirable and
civilized norm Thus satire is a kind of protest, a sublimation and refinement
of anger and indignation. As Ian Jack has put it very adroitly: ‘Satire is born
of the instinct to protest; it is protest become art.’ (p. 780)
The Encyclopedia Britannica on line describes satire as “artistic form… in which
human or individual vices, follies, abuses, or shortcomings are held up to censure by
means of ridicule, derision, burlesque, irony, parody, caricature, or other methods,
sometimes with an intent to inspire social reform.” “The satire is a verbal caricature
which distorts characteristic futures of an individual or society by exaggeration and
simplification” (Koestler, 1964, p. 72).
Koestler (1964) also states the following:
The comic effect of the satire is derived from the simultaneous presence, in
the reader’s mind, of the social reality with which he is familiar, and of its
reflection in the distorting mirror of the satirist. It focuses attention on abuses
and deformities in society of which, blunted by habit, we are no longer aware;
it makes us suddenly discover the absurdity of the familiar and the familiarity
of the absurd. (p. 72-73)
It is essential to acknowledge here that the meanings of the word ‘satire’ are vast
and can be understood in many ways.
By visual literacy, I mean the viewer’s ability to work with the various elements
that combined create a visual narrative in the composition of an artwork, and the ability
to connect the meaning of the work with its appearance. It is about the cognitive
perception of symbolic and metaphoric signs and forms encapsulated in the painting’s
composition, photographic imagery, sculpture and other acts of artistic expression. The
above description corresponds to the general definition of visual literacy, which one can
find in dictionaries and other published sources.
For example, Eisner (2002) states the following:
By promoting visual culture I refer to efforts to help students learn how to
decode the values and ideas that are embedded in what might be called
popular culture as well as what is called the fine arts […] any art form can be
regarded as a kind of text, and texts need to be both read and interpreted, for
the messages they send are often ‘below the surface’ or ‘between the lines’
Visual literacy is “understanding how people perceive objects, interpret what they
see, and what they learn from them” (Elkins, 2009, p. 2). Christopher Crouch describes
visual literacy as “…knowing how to use and access information to understanding
information’s social, cultural, and philosophical contexts” and it is “…an active
process…” which “…involves a critically analytical reading of visual text” (Elkins, 2009,
p. 195). In addition “…visual literacy is not a solitary, individual act, but part of a wider
set of social practices.” So, “To find meaning is to negotiate with the visual text, to
engage with it on any number of levels, and to be involved in discovering how that act of
negotiation itself is constructed” (Elkins, 2009, p. 196).
[Show picture list]
Ian Svenonius is a strange man. Anyone who's followed his career over the past 25 years knows he has a knack for incendiary sloganeering that often borders on the surreal, first as the singer in the legendary Washington, D.C. punk band The Nation of Ulysses (he currently leads the "crime rock" group Chain and the Gang) then as the author of the nonfiction books The Psychic Soviet and Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock 'n' Roll Group. In his stylish, suit-and-tie persona as a pop-culture gadfly and revolutionary rhetorician — which may or may not be a self-caricature; part of his appeal is his Andy Kaufman-like commitment to character — he's put forth ideas as bizarre as comparing Fidel Castro to The Velvet Underground. Favorably, of course.
Svenonius' new book is Censorship Now!!, and the title alone shows just how provocative the author can be. A collection of essays previously published by Vice, Jacobin, and others, it sets up numerous enemies — both real and straw — for Svenonius to knock down. "The Historic Role of Sugar in Empire Building" comes across as a mini-parody of Mark Kurlansky's Salt: A World History; "The Documentary Crisis," which decries the truthiness of today's documentarians, is an uneven mix of undergrad opinion paper and Old-Man-Yells-At-Cloud rant. It's all couched in a style that's part anarchist tirade, part postmodern critique, and part punk-rock snottiness — yet it's addictively ridiculous.
Svenonius has many targets, but he saves most of his wit, grace, and savagery for mass media and pop culture. In "The Artist and Immortality," he sends up the entire pseudo-intellectual discourse surrounding rock culture (cutely citing his own former band The Nation of Ulysses as if he were a detached observer); in "The Rise and Fall of College Rock," he rails against the media outlets he feels have helped gentrify the radio dial (including, ahem NPR).
It's as though the front and back covers of 'Censorship Now!!' are two mirrors placed on either side of Svenonius, infinitely reflecting his prankish screeds and paradoxical theories.
He slips earnestness inside the cartooniness, even when Censorship Now!!'s title essay lays out his most modest proposal — a universal censorship that will free humanity from all oppression. Swiftian and Stalinist in equal measure, it's a piece of logic-twisting polemic that serves what may be Svenonius' ultimate purpose: To jar us, like some Zen riddler, from our accepted ways of thinking.
The crazy talk just keeps on coming — except when it isn't. Here's his conspiracy theory behind the hard-to-read instruction manuals that come with cheap furniture, which he says sow discord between otherwise happy romantic partners: "Ikea wants couples to break up. Each breakup results in more bachelors and bachelorettes, which results in more Ikea products sold." And his reasons why people shouldn't tip service industry workers: Gratuity is "an exploitative business model," "an act of dominance," and "a guilt fee." The Ikea idea is gleefully ridiculous; the anti-tipping sentiment, on the other hand, is one that's actually gaining ground in places like New York City, where there's a trend of restaurateurs abolishing gratuity in favor of raising the hourly wages of their employees.
This is why it's difficult to tag Censorship Now!! as a wholesale work of satire — and why the book, for all its entertaining lunacy, sometimes muddles its own voice. For every burst of inspired argumentum ad absurdum such as "Music and the Struggle Against Sanity," there are maddeningly reflexive statements such as "For many poor souls, there is no alternative to the alternative."
It's as though the front and back covers of Censorship Now!! are two mirrors placed on either side of Svenonius, infinitely reflecting his prankish screeds and paradoxical theories. The greatest paradox of all, of course, is that Censorship Now!! itself would be banned under the outlandish plan proposed in its title, a clear shot at the arbitrary way we view and apply the ideals we hold most dear. It's Svenonius' strangest punch line — and his most playfully profound message.
Jason Heller is a senior writer atThe A.V. Club, a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the novel Taft 2012.