Drawing conclusions: Political cartoonists undeterred

“We haven’t changed in 100 years,” said Aurora Deshauteurs, curator of prints at the Free Library of Philadelphia. “These issues, these problems, we’ve been having them.”


Deshauteurs has been poring through the library’s uncatalogued boxes of political cartoons dating back to 1787. In the library’s current exhibition of historic political cartoons, “Drawn into Politics,” many of the old drawings have a familiar ring to them as they weigh in on inflammatory issues such as financial policy, immigration, foreign affairs, and the size of government.

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But this week one cartoon became a global threat.

On Wednesday, the French government condemned the satirical magazine “Charlie Hebdo” for publishing a cartoon mocking the Prophet Muhammad, just days after violent protests over an American anti-Muslim film resulted in about 30 deaths. The New York Times reports French embassies in 20 Muslim countries are being closed until Monday for fear of violent retaliation.

Social issues prompt strongest response

“If you do a cartoon on one of three issues, you’re always going to get a strong reaction — guns, abortion, religion,” said Signe Wilkinson, editorial cartoonist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

“It doesn’t matter what your position is. That’s where people care. It’s not so much the political stuff; it’s the places where people feel emotionally attached to social issues that really rouse people’s anger,” Wilkinson said. “So I’m not surprised that Muslims also feel sensitive.”

Wilkinson points out that, with her long history of critical cartoons about guns, abortion, and religion, she has never been physically attacked, nor provoked a wave of violence.

“Everybody is looking at this in horror,” said Wilkinson. “A bad movie and an little bitty cartoon — just ink on paper — incites that kind of violence.”

Wilkinson’s work is on display at the Free Library and at the Hicks Center for Art in Newtown, Pa., on the campus of Bucks County Community College. An exhibition of political cartoons, “Political Lines: Commentary and the Art of Editorial Cartooning” features more than 100 drawings by seven artists, each about the current 2012 presidential campaign.

Count on more critical cartoons

Curator Michael Kabbash, a graphic design professor at the college, said threats of angry mobs or violence are unlikely to deter cartoonists from drawing critical messages.

“If the cartoonists felt that if they couldn’t offend anybody, they wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing,” said Kabbash. “I think the editorial boards might be a little more cautious in what gets printed and what gets out there. I know some cartoonists say their editors are fully behind them 100 percent, but I’m guessing that’s because they are not doing anything ridiculous or stupid.”

While the exhibition of cartoons at the Free Library avoids directly engaging with current political topics, Kabbash’s show at the Hicks Center dives right in, featuring strongly opinionated work from both sides of the aisle.

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